Friday, March 6, 2009

Juke Girl (1942): Where Have You Been?

Take one jigger of Blues in the Night, another shot of They Drive By Night, a soupçon of anticipation of Thieves Highway, a dash of The Grapes of Wrath, shake vigorously, blend in a bit of The New Deal and The Masses for seasoning, et voilà, you have Juke Girl (1942), a flurry of Warner Brothers vigorous images of labor vs. capitol, country vs. city and supplier vs. distributor drama that is grounded by Ann Sheridan, who is rather splendid in this movie. Her complex relationship with Ronald Reagan, (who was quite good as an idealistic migrant farmhand), was both romantic and more realistic than many of the films from this period. Throughout the film, as the attraction grows between the pair, Sheridan clearly is the adult in this relationship, She sees both their lives clearly enough to understand that 1+ 1 does not always equal a happy couple, (despite a tacked on ending). In another scene, when a crop lies ready to be picked in the fields, Sheridan as a La Passionata-type figure expresses her love for the Reagan character and all the dispossessed by rallying a group of unemployed to take back control over their own communal lives.

Set in rural Florida, Ann Sheridan plays a woman who is a "hostess" in a roadhouse frequented by the hundreds of sad, unemployed and beaten souls who long to forget their hopeless condition as former farmers forced into lives of unquiet desperation as day laborers. The social problems explored here go on to this day, but the vigor and grit with which all this action-packed 90 minutes directed by Curtis Bernhardt never lagged. Though the film never refers to the ongoing war (I suspect that the script may have been written in the '30s and was shot in '41), the turmoil and discontentment of the anonymous and homeless people is vividly conveyed throughout the movie. One element that aids this was the beauty of cinematographer Bert Glennon's b & w compositions and the number of wonderful character actors--led by George Tobias as the exploited farmer who's not going to take it anymore and Gene Lockhart as the mealy-mouthed vendor. There were really so many good actors packed into one little movie, it was hard to note them all. These elements made this story jump. I particularly liked Faye Emerson's plucky fellow barfly and young, pig-tailed Betty Brewer as a migrant kid with a large, dreamy soul. Ann Sheridan exuded a warm sensuality, humor and a spark that was uniquely her own.

I loved this movie. There is something about that scamp A.I. Bezzerides, who contributed the story idea for this movie, that adds so much to each of his blue collar tales from the shady side of the street. I don't think has been broadcast very much at all, and suspect that it may have proved a latter day embarrassment to Ronald Reagan, who is actually surprisingly effective in his role as the idealistic half of a pair of rolling stones as he and the more realistic Richard Whorf bounce down life's highway looking for migrant farm work. I've read that Ann Sheridan did not want to make this, regarding it as a comedown from her hard-won efforts to move into "A" movies. You were wrong, Ann. You were great in this natural showcase for your gifts. Here's the opening sequence with the last, inevitably happy moment tacked was a much darker movie than it appears in this brief clip:

Mick LaSalle on Juke Girl (1942)

TCM Article on Juke Girl(1942)


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