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Thursday, April 18, 2019

Lana Turner--femme fatale (?) in JOHNNY EAGER (1942)

In this noir, beautiful blond Lana Turner completely bewitches her handsome co-star and sets in motion a series of decisions that ultimately lead to his demise. No, it's not The Postman Always Rings Twice. In that film, she takes her place among the most recognized femmes fatale, including Jane Greer in Out of the Past, Ava Gardner in The Killers, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. Here, we're discussing what was perhaps for Turner a warm-up for that one--Johnny Eager (1942), in which it's Robert Taylor who falls prey to her charms. 

This post is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's Spring Blogathon about femmes and hommes fatale in film noir. Click the image to see all the terrific posts over the past few days.

"The town's full of women and I have to pick the most dangerous one in town." 
-- Robert Taylor as Johnny Eager.

So I'll be clear up front: in Johnny Eager, Lana Turner's character is not a true femme fatale. Yet, with the seductive way she goes about her business for the first half of the film we really not sure of her motives; that and the deadly plot spiral in the final act, make her part a juicy one to dissect. (Warning: spoilers below.)

Lana Turner and director Mervyn LeRoy
on the set of Johnny Eager
According to Robert Osborne, the beloved late host of Turner Classic Movies, this film, from a short story and screenplay by James Edward Grant, was a departure for MGM, the 'cadillac studio' that rarely made movies about the criminal element. They had a star in Robert Taylor, but decided that in order for his films to attract male fans, they needed to rough up his image and cast him as a gangster! (Just a year earlier 20th Century Fox successfully employed that strategy with Tyrone Power in the similarly named Johnny Apollo.) Twenty-year-old rising star Turner was cast opposite Taylor and was seen by MGM as their female sex symbol since Jean Harlow. While this minor noir is not as well known today, Johnny Eager made over $1 million in profit when it was released.

Robert Taylor in a publicity
photo from the 1930s
Turner was only four years removed from her first significant role, in They Won't Forget (1937), where her discovery by director Mervyn LeRoy was rewarded when he showcased her enticing blend of sexiness and innocence, and she was dubbed 'the sweater girl'. The film was aptly named, as audiences did not forget Turner, who was in a steep rise to stardom. Versatile LeRoy had a hit with the gangster classic Little Caesar (1931), and success with Turner in the earlier film--her comfort level with him made him a good fit for Johnny Eager. To promote the film MGM created an evocative shorthand for their star pairing of Taylor and Turner -- TNT--and indeed sparks flew between them both on and off the set. (For a detailed description of their pairing in this film, see my fellow CMBA blogger Aurora's post here.)

While Turner heats up the screen in her scenes, the film spends more time with the title character. Taylor is serviceable in his role as the titular big city boss and racketeer, as ruthless and hard-hearted as he is handsome. He's recently out of jail on parole and while appearing to go straight, finds ways to keep his crime organization active and has even greater ambitions to profit from a dog racing track operation. Getting in his way is the district attorney John Benson Farrell (Edward Arnold), who is one of a few not taken in by Taylor's cover as a suave mustachioed cab driver(!) Also serving as minor nuisances are his girlfriend Garnet (Patricia Dane) and his alcoholic right-hand man, Jeff Hartnett (Van Heflin in his first and only Oscar-winning role).

Things get significantly more complicated when Lisbeth Bard (Turner) turns up. We first see her early in the film when she's at court at the same time that Taylor is meeting his parole officer Verne (Henry O'Neill), and she takes note of the handsome stranger. Though the aforementioned officer refers to her and her friend (Diana Lewis) as 'sociology students', Turner projects a more mature and glamorous persona. And her look after seeing Taylor signals to us she has more than studies on her mind. She questions Verne about Johnny, and her comment "he looks to have more ambition than just driving a cab" makes us wonder if the criminal in him is enticing to her. In fact, the more she hears about his past, the more interested she looks. In this first scene, she seems like a good candidate for femme fatale, the concept that is neatly summed up by Foster Hirsch in Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen: these women are "malevolent temptresses, their power confined almost entirely to a sexual realm, their strength achieved only at the expense of men."
Lisbeth Bard contemplating Johnny's criminal record
Lisbeth's pursuit of Johnny begins in earnest when she shows up to his 'home' along with his parole officer with 'field work' as her rationale. Their mutual attraction is evident...and the camera is also smitten.

Lisbeth and Johnny check each other out
Once Lisbeth Bard's young beau turns up at a party, we think she may be an innocent student after all, infatuated with Johnny's good looks and potentially dangerous persona. But then she mysteriously appears in the office of a restaurant manager whom Johnny starts to shake down before noticing her presence. She's unfazed, and begins to come on strong, dropping any pretense of naivete: "You don't want me talking about this (incident) to Mr. Verne--he might think you've been lying to him." She then moves in on him, strokes his suit jacket lapels, and with a hardened jaw says "Don't lie to me Mr. Eager--I have no intention of reporting you." When she gets in his car, she suggestively says to him, "No, I don't want you to take me home", and their first clinch follows. When eventually they do arrive at her home, Johnny is unpleasantly surprised to meet her stepfather - the D.A. John Benson Farrell (Arnold).

Lisbeth, the 'killer'
A short time later, Eager is attempting to make room in his life for Lisbeth--he promptly dismisses his girlfriend while openly defying the two-faced Farrell's threats and bribes to stay away from his daughter. But, lest we think that Lisbeth, in femme fatale fashion, will break Johnny's heart to her own ends, almost the exact opposite happens. Johnny sees an opportunity to use Lisbeth for profit. He sets up a staged scene (which isn't revealed as being staged until after it's complete) where he goads Lisbeth into shooting his underling Julio (Paul Stewart) after he appears to threaten Johnny's life. We later learn his goal is to blackmail Farrell into agreeing to permit his dog racing track. Horrified by believing she killed Julio, Lisbeth promptly retreats into a catatonic, pitiful state for several days. We understand now that she is a victim like most other humans Johnny's life touches.

For the time being, Johnny goes back to his usual mob boss shenanigans, getting what he wants from Farrell and outsmarting most everyone else he meets. After a few days he's convinced to visit the distraught Lisbeth, only after prompting by her ex-beau, and shows some compassion at her condition. When she proves herself willing to sacrifice her freedom for him, he professes his love for her and admits he framed her. His subsequent unselfish and risky decisions then lead to his demise, and the picture ends with him dying in the street in the arms of his friend Hartnett.
Johnny's final confrontation looks as noir as they come

Lisbeth breaks down as Johnny confesses his love
So, if Lisbeth is not a femme fatale, what is she, really? Lana Turner is too glamorous to convince us she is a naive student. (Ironically, when this film was released, the 'femme fatale' wasn't yet a thing, at least in the noir genre, since it was so new. Audiences would not have come into the film with the same expectations as modern audiences looking back.) We wonder what her history with other men has been, despite the desire of her father. It may be her father is over-protective, influencing her to follow danger, take great risks even and get herself in over her head. Turner is perfect at letting slip that vulnerability that just might be part of her irresistibility to Johnny. Her breakdown near the end is truly heartbreaking.

When Lisbeth proves to be as self-sacrificing as Johnny is selfish, promising to turn herself into the police only after Johnny's no longer in danger as an accessory, she breaks the wall of ice around Johnny's heart. When she redeems him, his doing the right thing causes his death - so, literally, she is as dangerous to him had she been a nefarious character. If Lisbeth's not a true femme fatale, for Johnny, the end result is the same.

Sources consulted:
Lana: the Lady, the Legend, the Truth, by Lana Turner, E.P. Dutton, Inc, 1982.
Mervyn LeRoy: Take One, by Mervyn LeRoy and Dick Kleiner, Hawthorn Books, Inc, 1974
Lana: The Memories, the Myths, the Movies, by Cheryl Crane (Turner's daughter) with Cindy De La Hoz, Running Press, 2008.
The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, by Foster Hirsch, A.S. Barnes & Company, Inc., 1981.