Blackwell’s Island (1939, USA)

Blackwell's Island - Stanley Fields as 'Bull' Bransom takes in his new prison surroundings

The opening credits of Blackwell’s Island contain the standard disclaimer about no resemblance to any person living or dead being intended, but without the resemblance to actual persons and events this film would be decidedly more silly than it already is.

As I have noted previously in relation to The Daring Young Man (1935), the prison on New York’s Blackwell’s Island (known as Welfare Island at the time) was embroiled in huge scandals in the 1930s. Corruption was rife and the prison was controlled by two rival gangs. In 1932 the warden sought to mediate a truce between the gangs, but the outcome was not that which he had hoped for – the boss of one of the gangs was stabbed to death, sparking major skirmishes between the warring parties. The prison was however seen to be a ‘country club for the chosen few gangsters’ and when Mayor LaGuardia’s corrections commissioner, Austin H MacCormick, raided it in January 1934, his officers found one mob leader, Joie Rao, occupying an entire floor in the hospital with his own staff, including a personal barber and chef. Any resemblance in this movie to Rao and his gang would not seem to be coincidental.

Like The Daring Young Man, Blackwell’s Island places an intrepid newspaperman at the centre of its story. In this case, it is reporter Tim Haydon (John Garfield) – who upsets major crime boss ‘Bull’ Bransom (Stanley Fields) by writing a series of articles exposing his racketeering on the waterfront.

Bransom runs a lucrative protection racket on the docks (with more than a little help from complicit government officials), but he encounters a bit of resistance from the captain of one boat, Capt. Pederson, who throws his henchmen into the water. Bransom retaliates by bombing the boat and then having his men pay the injured captain a visit in his hospital bed to ensure he doesn’t squeal. Police officer Terry Walsh (Dick Purcell), who is standing guard over Capt. Pederson, chases after the men but is overpowered by them and beaten up. When the attack on officer Walsh gets to court, Bransom is supremely confident of having fixed the result and escaping with a fine, but the magistrate has a surprise for him – he sentences him (and three of his thugs) to 6 months to 3 years inside after the battered cop tells the court that he was given a bribe of $500 to give false evidence.

Bransom is a curious character – a despot made more benign by his puerile enjoyment in novelty joke items (with a special fondness for exploding cigars). He arrives in prison and immediately takes over, telling ineffectual Warden Stuart Granger (Granville Bates) where he is going to live and how he is going to live. The warden, under a bit of pressure from a ubiquitous government official who suggests that if he doesn’t look after Bransom his pension might be at risk, clears out the hospital and allows Bransom and his boys to move in. They refuse to wear the prison uniform and soon have phones, a betting ring, a train set – which Bransom finds particularly diverting, his two big dogs… and yes, his own personal barber and chef.

The whole prison is soon run by Bransom. Visits can be purchased for $10 each, from which the guards get a small cut, and ‘privileges’ (including edible food and blankets, clean clothes) are all supplied by Bransom’s men at a cost. Most of the prisoners live in appalling conditions while Bransom and his thugs live very comfortably. Bransom’s influence extends to him being able to sneak out of the prison to kill Terry Walsh, who was continuing to be a thorn in the gang’s side and to whose home the gang had earlier delivered a trussed (and very dead) Capt. Pederson with a bomb tucked inside his jacket.

By this time the other prisoners living in the atrocious conditions include young Tim Haydon, who has engineered his placement inside Blackwell’s Island by punching a prosecutor on the jaw. He is a fearless, cocky young man, keen to find more incriminating evidence on Bransom. Oh, and just to make things a little more personal, he is courting Terry Walsh’s sister ‘Sunny’ (Rosemary Lane), to whom Terry, in his last words, had named Bransom as his killer. It was the prosecutor’s disinclination to use this as evidence (Bransom was, of course, supposed to have been locked up in prison at the time of Terry’s death – a fair alibi), that prompted the punch to the jaw.

Haydon and Bransom are reacquainted on a number of occasions in the jail. Bransom’s men become more worried when they see Sunny visiting him, but Bransom is also indebted to Haydon after the reporter prevents him from being stabbed in a mess room riot – led by prisoners aggrieved at the slop they were eating while Bransom’s dogs fed on sirloin steaks next door.

Ultimately, the racketeers determine to rid themselves of Haydon by dressing him in a guard’s uniform and forcing him to escape – after tipping off the Warden that an armed prisoner in a guard’s uniform would be attempting just that. Haydon however manages to swim to safety and goes straight to the office of the newly appointed Commissioner of Correction, Thomas MacNair (Victor Jory), to alert him to all the horrible goings-on at the prison. MacNair immediately raids it, during which Bransom escapes on a small launch, pursued by Haydon in a bigger vessel. Shots are exchanged, but Haydon sinks Bransom’s boat, and then is needed to save the gangster from drowning.

The film’s final minute perhaps sums it up. Bransom is being loaded on a train to go to (another) prison. He is approached by Haydon, asking him for a statement. “Oh, I hadn’t even ought to talk to you,” he says, at his  ingenuous best. “Ah, don’t be that way,” replies Haydon. “Didn’t I save your life?” “Yeah, so a judge and jury could give me 99 years… and I ain’t gonna do it, neither.” “Well, you do as much as you can,” Haydon says with a mock consoling pat on the arm, and gives him a cigar… which of course explodes. Much laughter from Haydon and Sunny, whose particularly sunny disposition clearly allows a good practical joke to trump any memory that the man in the handcuffs killed her brother.

It’s odd that both The Daring Young Man and this film treat the corruption and maladministration of the prison so comedically. If the intent were simply satirical that might be understandable, but the portrayal of tough guy Bransom as a childlike dullard undermines the seriousness of the harm caused to his victims and the affront he caused to the integrity of the justice system. Strange.

Blackwell's Island #2 - Stanley Fields as 'Bull' Bransom, playing with his train set in prison Blackwell's Island #3 - John Garfield as Tim Haydon, Norman Willis as henchman Mike Garth, and Stanley Fields as 'Bull' Bransom

Posted on November 10th, 2014 at 7:57 pm. Updated on November 10th, 2014 at 7:57 pm.

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