Johnny Eager

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It’s pure TNT, I tell you!

Noir has a lot of Johnnys (certainly enough for a top ten list, note to self for a future post, certainly enough for a recurring skit on In Living Color too), and here’s one of the first (predated by Johnny Apollo) and best. MGM was not generally known for gangster flicks or noirs, but what they had in spades, and lavished generously on this 1941 production, was glitz, gloss, glamour and star power, all of which made this a hit. Johnny Eager was a role Taylor picked and fought hard to get, and it was one of the first steps toward transforming his image from that of from a romantic pretty boy to a more rugged lead, in this case a racketeer who at first is only pretending to go straight.

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The D.A. on Taylor’s case (Edward Arnold) has an adopted daughter, Lana Turner, who’s studying to be a social worker and falls for the slick gangster. Initially Taylor gets involved with her because he sees a way to keep the D.A. off his back and prevent a future prison stay. Taylor frames the girl in a staged murder and uses the setup to blackmail Arnold. Inevitably Taylor falls for Turner and sets things right, necessarily destroying himself in the process. Instrumental in finding Taylor’s heart of gold beneath the cynical crust is his only friend, the intellectual, philosophical and poetic Van Heflin.

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Considering the caliber of his co-stars, it’s impressive that Heflin outshone them, and won an Oscar for his performance; it was the first awarded to any gangster movie. Mervyn LeRoy (Little Caesar) directed, and brought some degree of authenticity to the picture, but this was still more glam than grit, with one of the most gorgeous screen couples ever captured at their prime. They were indeed “Pure TNT!” as the ads described them–“Taylor ‘n Turner–Together they’re terrific!” Dressed to the nines, both give excellent performances. Robert Taylor proved he could be tough and hardboiled, a persona he would perfect after the war in noirs like Undercurrent, High Wall, the Bribe as well as in other genres. The movies Lana Turner made in this same year made her a star, and she was as innocently beautiful here as she would be dangerously so in 1946’s the Postman Always Rings Twice. Such a well matched couple, but sadly, despite plans for several more film pairings, they never made another movie together.

a version of this was previously published in THE DARK PAGES, newsletter for film noir fans. Click here to check out the latest issues

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11 thoughts on “Johnny Eager”

  1. A super little writeup, Kristina. I’d forgotten about Heflin’s Oscar breakthrough in this one.

    “Johnny” noirs? Yep, you’re right, there’s a stack of them!

    1. Thanks, that would be a fun list to make the more I think about it. Heflin steals the spotlight, such a great actor, kind of hard to believe this was his one Oscar, considering all the other fine performances he gave.

        1. 🙂 you made one? I am Interested! I don’t suppose you ever saw the Living Color skit, with the woman living in black and white forever waiting for “Johnny!”

          1. Er, what’s Living Color?

            I’ll try to put my list of “Johnny” movies here later tonight. I’ll have to do some cunning (at least for me) reformatting first. There may, of course, be others that I haven’t caught.

            1. No rush, but really looking forward to it! In Living color was a 90s U.S. Comedy skit show. Likely on YouTube if you’re ever curious.

            2. I didn’t come across here ’til ’99, so I missed that one. (I probably would have anyway, since I don’t watch much tv.)

              Hope this is helpful:

              Johnny Allegro (1949)
              Johnny Angel (1945)
              Johnny Apollo (1940)
              Johnny Belinda (1948)
              Johnny Cien Pesos (1993; vt Johnny 100 Pesos)
              Johnny Come Lately (1943)
              Johnny Dangerously (1984)
              Johnny Eager (1942)
              Johnny Got his Gun (1972)
              Johnny Handsome (1989)
              Johnny Nobody (1961)
              Johnny O’Clock (1947)
              Johnny One-Eye (1950)
              Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949)

            3. Bravo, proud to say that in my head I did get all the 40-50s noirish ones, but you have many more, I have to look up Johnny Nobody. Thanks!

  2. There are a lot of things to like about this movie, but I LOVE Van Heflin’s performance. He practically waltzes away with the whole movie! I didn’t realize his Oscar was the first given to a Gangster picture.

    1. I know, that’s interesting as well as (and I repeat myself, sorry) that Van got that only one so early in a career full of fine performances. Says a lot about just how much he did waltz away with that movie.

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