Johnny Apollo: this was the title that started all the other Johnny-somethings, and for Tyrone Power, the film he needed to break away from the other pretty-boy roles he played. The film itself and its poster seemed to recapitulate the same path: pretty-boy college man ( this during the Depression); rich banker’s son; but now turning into a mobster? Was this a hit or a miss for Power? The contemporary reviews were mixed, but a fresh look is needed. Read my take as part of the Power Mad Blogathon, Monday, May 5th for the 100th anniversary of Tyrone Power’s birth, and organized by They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To and Lady Eve’s Reel Life.
Johnny Apollo was a Daryl Zanuck production at 20th Century-Fox, with Henry Hathaway directing. As a mobster-themed movie, the first actor Zanuck wanted for the role was George Raft, who he hoped to borrow from Warner Brothers. This didn’t pan out and Tyrone Power asked to make the movie, eager to take on something other than his usual playboy and swashbuckling roles. The main plot-point was based on that of a rich Wall Street banker; Robert “Pop” Cain played by Edward Arnold, being sent to prison for embezzlement (sound familiar?) and losing everything, leaving his college-kid stranded. Bob Cain Jr. , played by Tyrone Power, feels betrayed and goes looking for a job everywhere, but his name is mud, and no one will hire him.
On the same day that his father was sentenced a real mobster was also sent up; Mickey Dwyer, played by Lloyd Nolan. But when Dwyer gets out of prison after only a year, Bob figures he should visit the hood’s lawyer and try to get his father out as well. It’s there that he meets Lucky Dubarry, played by Dorothy Lamour. Lucky is Dwyer’s girlfriend. The lawyer, the former Judge Brennan and current alcoholic, is played by Charley Grapewin. Brennan tells Bob that only money can get his father a parole, implying that this would be a bribe. This sinks in fast. Bob Jr’s answer is to change his name to Johnny Apollo. He needs to turn bad and make some money, and he’ll use Lucky to get to Dwyer. He can use his brains and some of his moneyed connections to offer to Dwyer. They can partner up and the money can roll in fast. Johnny’s charms are not lost on Lucky, and he likes her too.
Lucky has fallen hard for Johnny and wants to help him out. But now with a new reformed prison administration, money isn’t enough to get Pop out, who has over time become a well-loved model prisoner. Lucky convinces “Judge” Brennan to make a deal with the D.A: Pop goes free if Dwyer gets convicted. But before this can happen Dwyer finds out and kills Brennan. Soon after, both Dwyer and Johnny Apollo go to prison.
Model prisoner Pop already knew about his wayward son Johnny Apollo and now wants nothing to do with him. Nobody else knew they were related. Johnny no longer has a way to get his father out of prison, so when Dwyer plans a prison break Johnny is in on it too. Only Lucky hears of it and tips off Pop, and Pop tries to stop his son as he and Dwyer are making their escape. In a struggle Dwyer shoots Pop and knocks out Johnny, then tries his escape before getting killed by the prison guards. After, Johnny gets the wrap for shooting Pop, and a possible trip to the electric chair faces him.
No one believes that Pop is his father, and only after a long wait for his recovery Does Pop verify the story and Johnny is exonerated. Soon both are free men, reconciled. He was Johnny, but now he’s Bob Cain once again, and reunited with Lucky.
Critics and commentators have not been kind to Tyrone Power in Johnny Apollo. Like other overly handsome and beautiful actors, he had problems being taken seriously in the full bloom of youth. For Tyrone to play the heavy in a gangster movie was more a suspension of disbelief than all but his fans were willing to provide. His performance is contrasted with that of the grantedly excellent performance of Edward Arnold as Pop and Lloyd Nolan as Mickey Dwyer, and even the top performance of Charley Grapewin (the somewhat wooden Uncle Henry in The Wizard of Oz), as Judge Emmett Brennan .
The plot of Johnny Apollo has also been criticized for its several improbable turns, especially to arrive at a such a happy ending. The problem with Johnny Apollo is it’s a film made out of its time. In 1940, before World War II and still in the Depression, the audience wanted a happy ending in their movies. If it had been made three years later it would have had the kind of bad ending and other elements that would have made it a true film-noir. At an hour and a half running time, it didn’t have the kind of slow character development that say, Breaking Bad does in showing a good man turn to crime. Tyrone Powers’ easy manner of portraying the criminal is, in my opinion, more natural to a young man of his on-screen biography than would be the case with say, Richard Widmark, or the performances by the later-day kings of noir cool Alan Ladd or Dana Andrews.
Dorothy Lamour was borrowed from Paramount Pictures, where she had become famous wearing sarongs and would star in an endless series of “Road” pictures with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. But she started out a singer, and here she gives two great performances singing: “This is the Beginning of the End,” and “Your Kiss.” She and Tyrone Power make a good screen couple, believable as the rich kid turned bad and the bad woman turned good. She could have had a future as a femme fatale.
Henry Hathaway did a fine job of directing, getting great performances from the actors and moving the plot at a clip. To use the Breaking Bad analogy further, had this been a much longer movie (or in sequels heaven forbid) the plot improbabilities may have been taken for granted, as surly they are in the TV serial. As it is, Johnny Apollo is a three-star movie and a definite film to see in the Tyrone Power repertoire. He was hoping this would launch him on a new cycle of heavier roles. Instead his good looks would typecast him for most of his career, with few exceptions, to playing swashbucklers and adventurers. This until his youthful good looks finally escaped him, near the end of his short life, which ended at age 44 in 1958. Yet even then he died just hours after having a sword in hand, from a heart attack filming a dueling scene during the production of Soloman and Sheba.
Acting was in Tyrone Power’s blood. Who but he could argue with the success he had in Hollywood? Had he lived today, the public would indulge him changing his looks in the service of his roles, a way around his beauty. As it was, he came too close to the myth of Adonis, fought over perhaps by Greek goddesses that had fallen in love with him, with one or the other casting their spells over his career, alternating their protection with their malice. He belongs to the acting pantheon now.