Long ago the rumor was passed around that the William Tell Overture was an accident. Supposedly Gioachino Rossini wrote a different piece for the overture, but the score got misplaced, and he substituted a previously-written work. That’s likely not true, but I was reminded of the story while watching this movie. This is Born For Trouble, and that wasn’t the original title. This came out in 1942 from Warner Brothers, and it features Van Johnson in his first credited film role. I recorded the video from Turner Classic Movies on cable TV. Details are from Wikipedia.
This is a crime-prison-deathrow-newspaper-reporter caper, and it opens with The Morning News headline:
That’s Dapper Dan (Michael Ames) on the right. On the left, sporting a sinister mustache is his shyster lawyer, Bill Burgen (Douglas Wood). Ace reporter “Scoop” Conner (George Meeker) visits Dan on death row in the state prison, where Dan assures him the governor will issue a last-minute commutation of his sentence and eventually a pardon.
We’ve seen this ploy before. Dan and his buddy, “Mile-Away” Gordon (Roland Drew), have murdered the district attorney at the behest of crooked politicians. Did they blow the whistle on their bosses? No way. They have been promised they would be sprung, but only if they keep their mouths shut.
Dan’s not talking, and neither is Mile-Away, who is scheduled for the chair the day after Dan.
Comes the day of Dan’s execution, and Scoop is supposed to cover the farewell for The Morning News. In the meantime journalism school-fresh Bert Bell (Johnson) is at the paper applying for a job. Sharp-looking Gladys Wayne (Faye Emerson) introduces Bert to Managing Editor Jim “Pop” Ainslee (Joseph Crehan). No job. He has all the reporters he needs.
But Pop does need for Scoop to scoot out to the state slam and cover Dan’s party. No-go. Scoop is drunk again. Gladys and Bert take the assignment on their own, and they hit on the story of the year. It’s a dark and stormy night, and Warden John Bevins (William Gould) brings the sad news that Dan has been electrocuted by lightning in his cell. He brings the reporters pool down to see the corpus delicti. Case closed. Dan didn’t make it to the chair. Importantly, Dan didn’t talk.
Bert suspects foul play, and he and Scoop swing by the big house again to explore with the warden their theory of sabotage. They get their evidence and head back to town, but on the way mobsters pull alongside their car and open up with a shotgun.
The reporters survive, and Bert hikes it over to the residence of the soon-to-be widow Gordon (Ruth Ford). Lawyer Bill Burgen has just been by to advise Mrs. Gordon to high-tail it out of town. Bert attempts to convince her the promised commutation/pardon is a sham. That argument is not working until which time one of the mobster gunmen slips back to her house and attempts to earn silence with a window shot.
That fails, and Bert and Scoop have all they need to take down the crooks. Bert has Mile-Away feign death by the same means that silenced Dan. Then Bert demonstrates the headphone jack connected to the electric chair circuit—so rigged that when the chair voltage is tested prior to the execution, whoever is wearing the headphones will be fried, just as Dan was.
This doesn’t go over well with the warden, and back in his office he pulls a piston on Bert. But Bert is ahead of the game. The warden’s secretary, under Bert’s guidance, has removed the bullets. The warden and Bert go mano-a-mano, but Bert was college boxing champ, and it’s all over for the crooked warden and the rest of the gang.
Scoop celebrates by taking some days off to give his liver a vacation. Bert is hired, and he and Gladys celebrate by getting married and heading off on their honeymoon in a car lent them by their boss, said boss having other ideas and sending a cop to arrest Bert for stealing the car. Bert is going to like working for Pop.
Yes, this plot is wrong all over.
- The crooks want to silence Dan and Mile-Away by electrocuting them in turn with hyper-charged headphones. Sure, that’s going to work if you can guarantee they will be wearing the headphones at the right time.
- Dan is found electrocuted in his cell, supposedly by lightning. The storm is outside the prison. Dan is inside a building and inside a metal cage inside that building. That would ordinarily be ironclad protection from lightning.
- The entire scheme hangs on Dan and Mile-Away keeping quiet under the promise of salvation from the governor. The idea is to string each along until they can be rubbed out. And nobody has made arrangements for spilling the beans postmortem as a means of preservation? Some junior league mentality at work here, and I think it’s in the writing department (Raymond L. Schrock).
- The jig is up with the revelation of the murder mechanism, and the warden invites Bert up to his office to settle matters with a gun. What is his plan B?
- Take a look at the shotgun ambush on the country road. We see two cars driving along in daylight. Close-ups and wreck details appear to be night shots. Some continuity is lacking.
Some decent performances got toasted by this rattletrap script. The original title was Murder in the Big House. The working title became Born for Trouble on re-release in 1945. Quality of the sets reflects a low-budget production. This was released about the time Jimmy Doolittle was flying his one mission over Tokyo, and it’s likely resources were drying up.
Two years later Van Johnson made an even bigger splash playing bomber pilot Ted Lawson in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. Also two years later Faye Emerson married Elliot Roosevelt, son of the President. It was a good start for both of them.