The plot of Johnny Apollo seems pretty basic—“college man, banker’s son, now a mobster” said the posters—and mostly the audience in 1940 was motivated by curiosity to see what the “new Tyrone Power” would be like, for it was a different, darker and grittier role than they were used to seeing from him, but despite those flimsy-sounding attractions, Johnny Apollo actually has a lot going for it both thematically and visually that make it a fun, fast moving, and sometimes thought provoking movie. Power’s character is estranged out of shame over his embezzling stockbroker father, but he turns to the dark side when he decides it will help get Pa out of prison. But there’s so much more…
For one thing, there’s a fascinatingly twisted and thorny dynamic and almost constant reversal going on concerning father and son, their names, their identities, relationship, rejection and acknowledgment of one another’s love and legitimacy. It’s a good thing there is no mother in the story since the men have enough drama just between the two of them (incidentally, that’s a picture of Power‘s own mother hanging on the bedroom wall as the late Mrs. Cain in the scene where he and Arnold first argue). Power changes his name twice: first to “Thomas,” generic, solid, common, changed to try and get a real job, for anonymity and to protect himself from discrimination and undeserved hate for his father’s sins. And he gets a job, but then his decision backfires, when the boss discovers who he really is, chastises him for being a coward and fires him. The second time he changes his name he conveniently spots it on a neon sign, Johnny Apollo, obviously fake, cheap and flashy, and it marks the moment when he sees the benefits of criminal behavior and decides it’s time to “Dance with the Devil” which was the movie’s original title. He soon becomes right hand man to the gangster (Lloyd Nolan) he saw sentenced the same day as his father but whose lawyer managed to spring him from prison a lot earlier.
The name changes are Power’s alone, but the internal struggle between father and son involve ups and downs that might have you reaching for some Dramamine. At the beginning of the movie Power rejects his father as such –“I have no father”– when he discovers his crime. When son is finally ready to make amends with father, they reunite until Arnold discovers son is mingling with gangsters—then it’s “I have no son.” There’s a great scene where Arnold is assigning prison jobs, and Power, now in jail too, stands before his father, denying he has a real name, but fully, contemptuously owning the criminal side of his heritage. It’s all delightfully complicated, lifted to near-Shakespearean levels and placed in such cinematic and compelling settings, but at the same time, it’s not that far removed from the normal course of maturity, which goes through phases of awkward shame at your parents, the need to make your way independently and improve on their position wherever possible, and an eventual arrival at a deeper understanding of them. Power’s character goes through an accelerated version of this journey, and by the end, his life depends on being confirmed, as publically as possible, as his father’s son, and on proudly owning the name “Bob Cain.”
Another matter important to identity is the clear contrast between work as redemption versus work toward an evil cause. While in prison Arnold picks the most brutal job he knows how to do, as part of his punishment and penance; working the boiler shop in prison, working until his hands bleed, and not complaining one little bit. This honest labor is juxtaposed with Power’s approach to working. He’s completely broke because the Cain money has been spent paying creditors, so he tries to gain a real job and career, then rejects that pursuit, believing himself a victim, and believing the honest way holds no rewards. After a year of tough breaks and having his eyes opened to the fickleness of his father’s circle of friends, Power turns to crime, the very type of work (if not a worse version) for which he disowned his father. Both are working to start over, in different directions and toward different ends, and though Power may be forgiven in part because he’s working toward a noble cause of helping dad out of jail, do the ends justify the means? Speaking of crooked work, it bears repeating how Arnold’s “friends,” including his own lawyer Lionel Atwill all turn their backs on Arnold when he’s no longer profitable, in money or name. It sure is easy to hate the person who makes unrealistic promises about your money when he screws up, loses that money and gets caught, but if Arnold was successful, and provided them with those rewards on their investments, would they still consider him such a pariah, or would they all be eagerly, happily raking in (illegal) profits and earnings? It all makes for a sliding scale of criminality and honor, with one result being that even ruthless criminal Lloyd Nolan expresses respect for Arnold because of his work ethic and honesty.
For a movie with so much psychological stuff going on, it’s also just plain gorgeous to look at, thanks to director Henry Hathaway (this was the first of five movies he’d make with Power). Yes, Tyrone’s dark and handsome face is a chiaroscuro effect all on its own that you can stare at for hours, but the movie around him is just as impressive, with long prison walks, imposing vintage architecture, glitzy clubs, mansions, dingy stairwells and railings. There’s a nice scene where Power, having come to witness his father’s sentencing, stands in court as the crowd parts and clears out. The nightclub scenes are rich contrasts of slicked hair, tuxedoes and dark gowns; it’s like everything is made of highly polished piano black and patent leather. It’s no wonder this movie is frequently cited as an early example of noir, for it was a rich and beautiful style Hathaway would later bring to classics of that genre such as The Dark Corner, Kiss of Death, Fourteen Hours and Niagara. To be fair, though, the Fox musicals of this era were no less gorgeously lit, clothed and photographed, and Apollo still has more in common thematically with the gangster films of the 30s than with noir. And gangster glamor it has in spades, from the dapper tailoring to the hierarchy of colorful henchmen, down to the slick and disturbing way Nolan personally murders one of the characters with an icepick at the Turkish bath.
All these events are made extremely entertaining through good acting by Power, proving he was more than just a pretty face in his first big dramatic role, and Arnold, who was brusque and cuddly and talented enough to convince us completely of whatever the script called for. Other cast members add a lot of memorable scenes to the movie, such as Marc Lawrence as the henchman Power is sent to pick up from jail on his first gangster errand. Sultry Dorothy Lamour (in a part originally meant for Linda Darnell, then Nancy Kelly, then Alice Faye) plays a nightclub singer “Lucky”, who performs a couple songs and despite being sassy and streetwise, seeing through everything phony, is also warm, caring and genuine, the emotional anchor in Power’s circle of criminals. She and hopeless drunk (favoring scotch and milk with his Shakespeare) mob lawyer Brennan, played by Charley Grapewin, are the only people who see that Power is at heart a good man and doesn’t belong with Nolan and his mob. Once again identity is defined by character; the Power that Lamour wants to impress is the one she met in the stairwell. She fell in love with him and sensed the truth of his character before she knew any name or past or association by which to judge him. Lamour and Grapewin end up working to improve themselves so they can do the right thing and help Power, and Lamour urges Arnold to look at his son again, apart from assumptions and grudges. The advertising teased “only the girl guessed what was in his embittered heart,” but does she reunite father and son?
Catch JOHNNY APOLLO on TCM Saturday at 1.30pm
This post is part of the 2012 TCM SUMMER UNDER THE STARS Blogathon, presented by Jill at Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and Michael at ScribeHard on Film. I encourage you to go check out all the other great writing covering each day of TCM stars and their movies.