The memorably titled DUST BE MY DESTINY (1939) is a very good John Garfield drama released this month by the Warner Archive. I enjoyed it a great deal.
Garfield plays Joe Bell, released from prison when he's finally cleared of a crime he didn't commit. Dead broke, Joe is soon arrested for vagrancy and sent to a work farm, where he falls in love with Mabel (Priscilla Lane), the pretty teenaged stepdaughter of the cruel yard boss (Stanley Ridges).
When Mabel's stepfather starts smacking her around, Joe brawls with him and then Joe and Mabel run away, marrying and then struggling to survive from town to town. Matters worsen when the couple learn that her stepfather, who had a bad heart, has died and Joe is wanted for questioning regarding the death. Will they be on the run for the rest of their lives?
I might have wished for the climactic trial to rely more on forensic evidence than pure emotion to sway the jury, but otherwise this is a well-done film with touching performances by Garfield and Lane. While the film's backdrop is crime and social issues, at its heart the movie is a love story about two lonely souls who find one another and struggle through adversity side by side.
Garfield does an excellent job conveying both Joe's rough edges and the tender, vulnerable side who is overjoyed to have someone so sweet trust and love him. He's a compelling actor, and I found him especially likeable in this role.
That said, the film would not be as good as it is without Priscilla Lane matching Garfield every step of the way, angelic yet tough enough to stick with Joe and ultimately make a hard choice. This was Garfield and Lane's third film together, following FOUR DAUGHTERS (1938) and DAUGHTERS COURAGEOUS (1939).
The excellent supporting cast is led by Alan Hale as a newspaper editor who gives Joe a job. The moment when Joe looks him in the eye and unburdens himself of the truth is cathartic; it's a relief to Joe and the audience for Joe to confide in someone at last, and for that person to cut him a break.
Henry Armetta also has a nice role as Nick, a cafe owner who helps Joe and Mabel. Other notable roles are Charley Grapewin as a kindly railroad company employee; Ward Bond, utterly creepy as a sleazy criminal; John Litel as an overzealous prosecutor; and Moroni Olsen as a defense attorney.
The screenplay by Robert Rossen, based on a novel by Jerome Odlum, is said by several sources to have originally been slated to have a different ending; Seton I. Miller did uncredited rewrites. The film runs 88 minutes.
DUST BE MY DESTINY was directed by Lewis Seiler, with black and white cinematography by James Wong Howe. The score was by Max Steiner.
The Warner Archive DVD is a good-looking print. The disc includes the trailer.
Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered at the Warner Archive website.