THE BOOTLEG FILES: BEHIND PRISON GATES

BOOTLEG FILES 570: “Behind Prison Gates” (1939 B-movie starring Brian Donlevy).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this film.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A little movie that fell through the cracks.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Maybe, but right now it is no one’s priority.

The year 1939 was an extremely busy one for character actor Brian Donlevy. The Northern Irish-born performer used his gruff demeanor and sardonic expression to a full advantage, with significant supporting roles in five high-profile productions: “Jesse James,” “Union Pacific,” “Allegheny Uprising,” “Destry Rides Again” and “Beau Geste” – and he earned an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for “Beau Geste,” stealing the film as the villainous Sergeant Markoff.

But while his career started to pick up, Donlevy was growing antsy. Although he was suddenly very much in demand, he did not want his career permanently stuck in the supporting player ranks. He wanted to be a star in his own right, but it appeared that there were few starring roles available for him in A-grade films.

So when Columbia Pictures came along with an offer for Donlevy to enjoy his first starring role, he grabbed it. Never mind that the film was a B-level programmer made on a significantly lower budget than his other 1939 films, and never mind that the quality of the film was significantly inferior to his other work. To Donlevy, the idea of being the proverbial bigger fish in the smaller pond was irresistible.

The production in question was called “Behind Prison Gates,” a connect-the-dots crime drama set in a penitentiary. Donlevy appears as Red Murray, a tough-as-nails convict that seems to be at the core of a jail break that goes awry. But, in reality, he is not Red Murray – he is really Norman Craig, a state agent who is posing undercover as notorious crook Red Murray (who is conveniently dead).

Craig is forced to reveal his true identity to the prison’s warden after another undercover agent posing as a convict is killed in his cell. It seems that the state planted these agents in the prison to solve a robbery case that left two cops dead and a large sum of cash missing. The state believes the crooks are somewhere in the prison population serving time for unrelated petty offenses, but they can’t prove anything.

The reluctant warden overcomes his frustration at not being told this scheme was under way and agrees to place Craig in a cell with one of the robbery suspects, Petey Ryan. Craig also gets a prison job of working in the print shop with another robbery suspect, Marty Conroy. At first, it seems that Craig is on his way to cracking the case by working the two suspects against each other.

But then, problems arise. The sister of the real Red Murray – naturally, very blonde and very sexy – shows up for a visit at the prison. She may not have seen her brother in a long time, but she knows that a few years in the slammer does not turn him into Brian Donlevy. Her shock forces Craig to slap her in the visiting room before she can loudly denounce him as an imposter. The warden then explains to Murray sister’s what is going on, and she immediately agrees to help in this endeavor. Then, another convict recognizes Craig and makes an effort to alert his fellow prisoners that there is an undercover agent in their midst. This blabbermouth is thrown into solitary, but he communicates his message through Morse Code taps on the prison pipes.

Can Craig wear down Ryan and Conroy in order to determine where the stolen money is? Will Craig be able to elude detection among the prison population once word is spread that there is cop among the cons? And will the sexy sister of the dead ex-con wind up in our hero’s arms before the closing credits roll?

Or, to be more realistic, will the audience be able to stay focused on “Behind Prison Gates” before it completes its measly 63 minutes of running time?

“Behind Prison Gates” was never intended to be a great film – and I doubt it was ever planned as being a good film. Instead, it was merely a B-movie that served no purpose except to occupy the lower berth of the double features that dominated the movie theaters of the 1930s. The studios churned these little films out with great speed and but not such great care – they had a dingy feel to them, and the poverty of their production was always present.

Still, “Behind Prison Gates” was a bit different than most B-flicks of the era. Although his performance was just this side of adequate, Donlevy brought star value to the film, and he was surrounded by actors that were recognizable, if not exactly household names back in the day. For example, the dead convict’s sister was played by Jacqueline Wells, who was best known as the comely leading lady in a few Laurel and Hardy comedies of the 1930s. Wells later became better known as Julie Bishop – she changed her name as part of a contract to secure better roles at Warner Bros., although she never truly found significant stardom under either name.

Also in the mix was Shemp Howard, who turned up in a bit part as the prison kitchen worker serving the convicts their meals. At this point in his career, Howard was bouncing around in tiny parts, where his insouciant delivery of snappy dialogue enlivened many films.

Behind the camera was Charles Barton, who appeared with Donlevy on camera in “Beau Geste.” Barton served as an assistant director for two of the Marx Brothers’ Paramount comedies, “Monkey Business” and “Horse Feathers,” and he would later take the helm in directing Abbott and Costello’s features, most notably their 1948 classic “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” For “Behind Prison Gates,” Barton’s direction was efficient without being effective – the film moved at a crisp pace and the performances were kept in check, but there was nothing here to suggest any spectacular talent was lurking out of camera range.

“Behind Prison Gates” made no impact on audiences. For Donlevy, however, this rinky-dink film gave him the first opportunity to prove himself as a leading man. The following year, he got a second opportunity via Preston Sturges’ “The Great McGinty.” But while Donlevy would occasionally snag intriguing leading roles in such diverse films as “The Glass Key,” “Wake Island” and “The Quatermass Experiment,” his most memorable film work would consist of supporting roles.

As with the vast majority of the B-fare of the bygone Hollywood era, “Behind Prison Gates” never found its way into any commercial home entertainment format. A bootleg copy of a so-so visual quality can be found for sale at a popular collector-to-collector site. But unless you are a rabid Brian Donlevy fan or you have a fetish for old-school prison flicks, there is little reason to look into this offering.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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