No, it’s not a lost George and Ira Gershwin musical set within the confines of a penitentiary, although the latter is true. Well, sort of. 1939’s “B” crime drama You Can’t Get Away with Murder reunites two of the leads from 1937’s smash hit Dead End: Humphrey Bogart, still making his way up the hill of stardom, and young Billy Halop, the leader of both the Dead End Kids and the Little Tough Guys. Bogie stars as a two-bit gangster named Frank Wilson, who takes a young, misguided lad named Johnny Stone (Halop) under his wing.
During the second of their combined efforts into the world of crime (or “business,” as they would perhaps call it), Frank kills a pawnbroker during a failed hold-up. Unfortunately for Johnny, the gun that Frank uses to murder his victim with is one that Johnny stole from his older sister’s fiancé — who happens to be a cop! Frank and Johnny both wind up in prison shortly thereafter, though for an entirely different crime (armed robbery), and Frank intends to “hide” from his execution-worthy offense within the walls of Sing Sing. In order to do so, he has to tighten up his grip on young Johnny.
Meanwhile, poor Fred Burke (Harvey Stephens), the cop whose gun Johnny stole, has been arrested and convicted of the murder in which his firearm was used (juries haven’t changed much over the years as far as intelligence, obviously) — and Madge (Gale Page), Johnny’s sister, tries to appeal his execution. Sure, Johnny could just spill the beans and set Fred free, but he’s too scared that Frank will kill him if he does. A fairly decent feature from Warner Brothers and director Lewis Seiler, You Can’t Get Away with Murder suffers from a number of story flaws (it’s not an “A” picture, after all), but still emerges as being rather enjoyable.
If it seems like You Can’t Get Away with Murder has way too much drama going on for it for one 79-minute B-Movie, it’s because it’s based on a stage play (Chalked Out) by Jonathan Finn and the then-current warden of Sing Sing, Lewis E. Lawes. Also starring in this decent-but-far-from-perfect moving picture are the great Henry Travers (Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life), Harold Huber, Joe Sawyer, George E. Stone, and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson as inmates. If Halop’s youthful friends towards the beginning of the feature look familiar, it’s because one is James Cagney’s brother, William, and Frankie Burke, who was part of the Dead End Kids and their later incarnation, the East Side Kids.
Had the general economy of the world not taken a dive a few years back, and the Manufactured-on-Demand DVD craze never taken off, you can bet your bottom dollar that You Can’t Get Away with Murder would have wound up included in a Warner Gangsters Collection set. Alas, such is not the case — and this forgotten crime drama has only recently seen the digital light of day via the Warner Archive Collection’s line-up of MOD DVD-Rs, and is available at WBShop.com.
One can’t help but wonder if the title actually was intended to be released in a Warner Gangster Collection set, as the print here has been remastered — an honor only a handful few of the Archive Collection titles released every month receive. Another rarity for these “WAC” discs — a special feature — is included here: the original Theatrical Trailer, which makes special mention of Warden Lawes (he was a bit of a big celebrity at the time, though his name has all but become a footnote in history today).
In short: You Can’t Get Away with Murder doesn’t get away with it, but it’s a bit of a fun effort either way you look at it.