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The running time of Alcatraz Island (1937) comes in at barely over an hour which, along with its cast of non-headlining actors, indicates its status as a second feature. B-movie or not, Alcatraz Island works well as a prison drama that effectively highlights the notorious facility of the title no surprise since it comes from Warner Bros., the studio that made the prison drama a sub-genre of its series of gangster films in the 1930s. It also comes from the pen of Crane Wilbur, perhaps the industry's most prolific writer of prison-themed B-movies.
Although Alcatraz Island lacks the big name stars of such films as Each Dawn I Die (1939), it makes up for its lack of budget with strong characterizations and a refreshingly straightforward narrative. Gat Brady (John Litel) is a racketeer living a posh lifestyle, thanks to his crafty lawyer and a string of "paid off" juries. Gat makes an enemy of small-time hood Red Carroll (Ben Welden) when he refuses to help Red's brother escape a murder rap. Gat is also informed that his 16-year old daughter Annabel (Mary Maguire) is being kicked out of her expensive boarding school due to the bad press her father has been getting. Gat had hoped to protect Annabel from any knowledge of his business, but she is already aware of his notoriety. Gat plans a European trip with his daughter, but before he can leave he is picked up on charges that his lawyer cannot get him out of: income tax evasion. Gat is sent to Leavenworth Prison, and he leaves Annabel in the care of her governess Flo Allen (Ann Sheridan). Holding a terrible grudge against Gat, Red Carroll attempts to kidnap Annabel to exact his revenge. When that fails, he follows Gat through the prison system, hoping to kill him - or worse. After fighting in Leavenworth, Red follows Gat to the notorious maximum security prison, Alcatraz.
Alcatraz Island paints a vivid picture of the forbidding facility, both in some expansive sets (the outdoor scenes take place in a mock-up built in the San Fernando Valley), and in evocative dialogue; here fresh fish Gat talks to a long-time inmate:
Gat: I've heard about some tough cans, but I guess this joint beats 'em all.
Tony: Ain't none worse.
Gat: I wouldn't know I ain't been around much.
Tony: Wait'll you get in your bunk tonight. The fog settles down over the bay, and the siren in the lighthouse begins to moan just the same in here as bein' in your grave. Only you miss the fun of bein' dead.
Screenwriter Crane Wilbur had a long and varied career as an actor, writer, and director - both on the stage and in films. Born in 1886, he debuted as a Broadway actor in 1903 and began appearing in films in 1910. As an actor, Wilbur reached a peak as the male lead opposite Pearl White in perhaps the most famous silent serial, The Perils of Pauline (1914). Shifting to a writing career, Wilbur penned several plays for Broadway, including The Monster in 1922, which was adapted for a 1925 film with Lon Chaney. Among the dozens of films he wrote, several dealt with the penal system. In addition to Alcatraz Island, Wilbur wrote Blackwell's Island (1939), about the prison off New York's shore. Over the Wall (1938) starred Dick Foran in a story set in Sing-Sing; John Litel appeared in this film as well, this time in a good-guy role specifically, the prison chaplain! Wilbur wrote two films featuring the Dead End Kids doing time in reform school, Crime School (1938) with Humphrey Bogart and Hell's Kitchen (1939) with Ronald Reagan. Another notorious facility was highlighted in Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951), which Wilbur both wrote and directed. Toward the end of his career, there was seemingly only one type of prison that Wilbur had not written about, and this topic was duly covered in Women's Prison (1955) and in House of Women (1962), his last screenplay. In his long career, Wilbur also penned screenplays for the notable Vincent Price horror vehicles House of Wax (1953), The Mad Magician (1954), and 1959's The Bat, which he also directed.
Ann Sheridan was a workhorse for Warner Bros. in the 1930s; she appeared in six other pictures in 1937 in addition to Alcatraz Island, including Black Legion, The Great O'Malley, and another prison drama, San Quentin. After dozens of such supporting roles, she came into her own with lead parts in such films as Torrid Zone and They Drive by Night (both 1940).
The producer of Alcatraz Island, Bryan Foy, was the son of vaudeville legend Eddie Foy, and as a child, part of his "Seven Little Foys" act. In the 1920s he became a writer and gagman for silent comedies at Universal, and worked with Buster Keaton on the feature film College (1927). At Warner Bros. Foy produced and directed Lights of New York (1928), the first all-talking dramatic picture. For the next thirty years Foy specialized in producing B-movies for Warner Bros. and smaller studios like Eagle-Lion, earning the nickname "The Keeper of the Bs."
Producer: Bryan Foy
Director: William McGann
Screenplay: Crane Wilbur
Cinematography: Lu O'Connell
Film Editing: Frank DeWar
Music: Heinz Roemheld
Art Direction: Esdras Hartley
Costume Design: Howard Shoup
Cast: John Litel ('Gat' Brady), Ann Sheridan (Flo Allen), Mary Maguire (Annabel 'Ann' Brady), Gordon Oliver (George Drake), Dick Purcell (David 'Harp' Santell), Ben Welden (Richard 'Red' Carroll), Addison Richards (Fred MacLane), Vladimir Sokoloff ('The Flying Dutchman').
by John M. Miller