It's always a good feeling when a movie delivers the goods when you weren't expecting it. The Dead End Kids/Bowery Boys found themselves in a lot of uneven films, and usually did better when in a support role, as in "Angels With Dirty Faces". Here, their presence as a backdrop to the story of a boxer framed for murder gives them a lot of screen time without distracting from the main action.
John Garfield is light heavyweight champion Johnny Bradfield, a southpaw hitter who's a lot different from the image he portrays to the sports world and the press. When a newspaper reporter inadvertently learns that Johnny's a party loving womanizer, his plans to spill that information in a column is interrupted by a whiskey bottle to the head from Johnny's manager Doc Ward (Robert Gleckler). In turn, Doc talks Johnny's girlfriend Goldie (Ann Sheridan) into running off with him to avoid the legal hassle of dealing with the reporter's death. As both flee, a police chase winds up in a fiery car wreck, and Doc's body is misidentified as Johnny from the gold watch he was wearing.
Claude Rains adopts an Edward G. Robinson sneer that doesn't quite work as a detective who's been reassigned to morgue detail after a bad arrest years ago. His character is Monty Phelan, and he has a pretty good hunch that the body in the car crash wasn't Johnny. He pesters his boss to hand over the closed case to him, and is given the assignment to get him out of town and out of the way.
Meanwhile, Johnny looks for advice from his lawyer, and winds up being screwed even worse when he gets conned for most of his ten thousand dollar savings. Making his way cross country, Johnny winds up at the Rancho Rafferty Date Farm in Arizona, run by a crusty Granny Rafferty (May Robson). The farm is the legacy of Granny's brother, a deceased priest from Brooklyn, and is now the home of a band of rag tag street boys (The Dead End Kids) who work the farm. Billy Halop is the nominal leader of the boys in this one, and his sister Peggy (Gloria Dickson) becomes the romantic interest for Johnny, now going by the name of Jack Dorney.
I get a kick out of the historical perspective offered in these pre-War era films. When Johnny and the boys take a joy ride in the farm's truck, they fill up at a gas station for a $1.28! Tommy (Halop) gets the idea that a gas station on the farm would be a good way to earn some extra money, and with that thought, Jack Dorney decides to take on a barnstorming boxer offering $500 a round to anyone who can stay in the ring with him. The clichéd premise is turned on it's ear somewhat when Jack gets knocked out in the fifth round, but by then he's earned enough to give the fruit farm a fighting chance of it's own. Maybe Grandma Rafferty should have been in the ring, she just about took out everyone sitting around her at ringside. As Johnny/Jack comes around in the locker room, Detective Phelan is on hand to take him into custody. Knowing that he can redeem his reputation with this collar, it's a toss up as to whether Phelan follows through on his arrest - you'll have to watch the film to find out.
I like the Dead End films where Leo Gorcey's in charge, but he doesn't have a lot to do in this one. However he does a great flim-flam on the ticket taker at the gate of the boxing match. Another thought - wouldn't it have been great if the ever present picture on the wall of the priest had been that of Pat O'Brien?
All in all, this is a pretty good entry in both the John Garfield and Dead End Kids filmography, and an entertaining way to spend an hour and a half. If there's one downside, it's not enough screen time for pretty Ann Sheridan. The film might have wound up even more satisfying if the roles of Sheridan and Gloria Dickson were reversed, as the on screen chemistry between Dickson's Peggy and Jack seemed more forced than natural.