Wednesday, June 15, 2016


In the Mexican quarter of Los Angeles, Johnny Ramirez (Paul Muni) graduates from the Pacific Night Law School and is singled out for praise for overcoming bad circumstances to become a success. But when he goes into business, he winds up essentially donating his time to his impoverished clients. When he represents a food vendor in court who is trying to get the wealthy socialite Dale Elwell (Margaret Lindsay) to pay for damage to his vehicle, Cortez's cockiness and inexperience get him into trouble; Elwell is found not liable—even though we know her recklessness caused the accident—and Johnny is disbarred. Disillusioned, he takes off, leaving his poor mother behind, and becomes a bouncer in a bordertown saloon. He gets in good with the boss and winds up becoming a business partner. Soon, the owner's young wife Marie (Bette Davis) takes a shine to Johnny, but he turns her away. Frustrated, Marie winds up leaving her drunken husband in his car and closes the garage door, ensuring his death.  She hopes this will snag her Johnny, but she's wrong, as Johnny, who is now business manager and is rebuilding the saloon into a fancy casino, has reconnected with the socialite Dale, who thinks of Johnny as her "savage." Marie makes trouble by claiming that Johnny was behind her husband's death, but on the witness stand, Marie has a breakdown.

This is a melodrama of jealousy, class (and race) conflict, and assimilation, which, with only a few tweaks, could probably be remade today and seem timely. Though Bette Davis is second billed, she's actually absent from much of the movie—though her courtroom scene is a standout moment, and this is Paul Muni's movie all the way. He does a good job as the Mexican-American who tries to assimilate the way he's taught he should, and when that doesn't work, takes a different path to the American Dream. In the end, he decides to return to his own "tribe," in the words of the socialite, which is not quite the ending I expected. Davis is quite good, as are Lindsay and Eugene Pallette as Davis' husband, in a role far from the comic parts he's probably more known for (the father in MY MAN GODFREY, Friar Tuck in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD). I'm not a Muni fan but I would recommend this one. [DVD]

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