June 24, 2014
Though it was made in 1939, Dust Be My Destiny has the feel of a Warner Brothers production at the turn of the decade, with its story of a railroad tramp framed for murder. The recession of 1937-’38 had renewed fears of economic collapse, which made the old anxieties new again. John Garfield was getting increasingly frustrated at the roles he was being provided in his WB contract, as he was continually typecast as an ex-con or criminal type who is inevitably redeemed. The character of Joe Bell in Dust Be My Destiny varies little from the template, which led Garfield to begin refusing roles, and he was punished with suspensions by the studio. The part of Bell was originally intended for James Cagney, and Garfield had become slotted as a kind of shadow Cagney, a pugnacious battler for the working class. Garfield’s politics certainly lined up with the political sentiments, but the material, he felt, was weak. Fellow lefty Robert Rossen adapted the screenplay for Dust Be My Destiny, but studio interference shifted a story intended as an anti-authoritarian Bonnie & Clyde-type tale into a conventional melodramatic romance. The failure of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) gave WB executives pause, causing the material from Jerome Odlum’s novel to be massaged into an unrecognizable shape. Dust Be My Destiny is a curious artifact in John Garfield’s brief, brilliant career, and is now available to view on DVD from the Warner Archive.
Warner Brothers head-of-production Hal Wallis was plugged into the development of the story even as Odlum was still completing his novel. Having written Each Dawn I Die, which was already in production at the studio (with Cagney in the lead), made Odlum a briefly in-demand presence at WB. In an interoffice memo sent to Wallis, the matter of the ending was apparently under negotiation even before the book was published:
As Odlum sees the story at the present time, he is aiming towards killing off Joe, the principal character, at the end. He feels he can do this in a tear-jerking manner. On the other hand, if you do not want the principal character killed off, and want to end the story with everybody happy, he feels he can do something about it at this stage.
While I don’t know how Odlum’s novel ended, happiness wins the day in the feature version. Seton I. Miller was brought in to rewrite the ending, which is a mash-up of seeming every popular genre of the day outside of Westerns. It starts out as a prison drama, as Joe Bell is incarcerated for a murder he did not commit. It shifts to a hobo train-hopping picture after Bell is cleared of the crime and he has to bum around for money. Then it becomes a prison farm movie after he’s busted for vagrancy, where he falls for the warden’s daughter Mabel (Priscilla Lane). And it even finds time to become a jailbreak flick, a muckraking newspaper drama, and a courtroom thriller. The result is a film-by-committee that never settles on a particular tone, and one in which any social relevance is drowned in plot twists.
The remarkable thing is that it remains watchable, thanks to the ace production team working on the feature. Max Steiner provides his usual rousing score, James Wong Howe pulls off some modest tracking shots as well as angelic close-ups of the brooding Garfield. The hobo sections are the most effective, the majority taking place on a storm-swept evening when Howe can play with low lighting. It is also where Ward Bond pops up as a short-fused stickup man who fingers Joe to the cops as a member of his gang, a lie out of spite. The spitefulness comes from a train car brawl, and one wonders how eager the two political opposites (Bond was a rabid conservative) were ready to beg off stuntmen and go after each other for real. For what it’s worth, the punches look stiff.
It is also the only time when the film captures the early ’30s WB spirit, of a certain authenticity in how working people walked and talked. There is so much static speechifying in the film it becomes a series of monologues that grind the film to a halt. Things only pick up with a succession of energetic turns by supporting players, including a Frank McHugh as a hustling theater impresario and Alan Hale as an avuncular newspaper editor. Their sheer warmth invigorates the film when the script is flagging, but they are not on-screen enough to sustain this unusual enterprise. Even film critics, those rather closed-minded fuddy duddys, were seeing how Garfield was being misused. In the New York Times, Frank S. Nugent opened his review of Dust Be My Destiny by describing John Garfield as the “official gall-and-wormwood taster for the Warners”. His lack of quality material was becoming a story, and Garfield would battle WB until his contract ran out in 1946, when he joined up with the independent Enterprise Productions, which released an inflammatory group of nine films (including Force of Evil ) before folding under the accusatory eye of HUAC. And Dust Be My Destiny led him there.