PUBLIC HERO #1 has an excellent cast, headed by the appealing team of Chester Morris and Jean Arthur. Any movie which costars Morris and Paul Kelly as G-men is A-OK with me!
The first half of the film seems to foreshadow the later, better-known Warner Bros. classic WHITE HEAT (1949), as FBI agent Jeff Crane (Morris) goes undercover in prison. He poses as a crook in order to ingratiate himself with imprisoned mafioso Sonny (Joseph Calleia) -- even spending three weeks in a miserable solitary confinement cell to make things really authentic.
The movie becomes more enjoyable once Jeff and Sonny break out of prison, with a wink and a nod from the feds. Sonny is shot in the escape, but Jeff enlists an alcoholic mob doctor (Lionel Barrymore) to help Sonny, as he needs him to stay alive long enough for the feds to locate the hideout of Sonny's "Purple Gang." Barrymore's character is such a complete lush he's pretty annoying, one of my only complaints about the film.
Jeff's life becomes considerably more complicated when Sonny's innocent sister Theresa (Arthur) turns up to visit her long-lost brother, having no idea of his criminal background. She falls head over heels for Jeff when they "meet cute" during a storm, and before too long he's eating up every word as she asks him whether he likes children and pretty much proposes to him.
Theresa thinks Jeff is a petty crook she's setting straight, but instead of being thrilled to eventually learn he's actually a law enforcement hero, she's dismayed to learn that he'd been hunting her brother and his gang, even if deep in her heart she knows he was right.
The climax at a movie theater is pure Dillinger; he'd been killed just the year before, after seeing MANHATTAN MELODRAMA (1934).
The first section of the film is appropriately gritty; Morris, incidentally, had previously starred in the prison classic THE BIG HOUSE (1930).
The early scenes are quite a contrast with the later romance of Morris and Arthur, who share a couple of particularly charming scenes in a farmhouse and on the back of a truck. There's a delightful moment when Arthur says, in her famously tremulous voice, that Morris needs to go straight because they'd have a challenging marriage if he's in jail half the time. The look on Morris's face is utterly charmed, as if he can't quite believe she's real.
George E. Stone, who years later would play Morris's sidekick in the BOSTON BLACKIE mystery series, here plays one of the gang members. The fine cast also includes Lewis Stone as the prison warden. Watch for Nell Craig, later Nurse "Nosy" Parker of the DR. KILDARE series, as Paul Kelly's secretary.
J. Walter Ruben and filmed in black and white by Gregg Toland. It runs 89 minutes.
PUBLIC HERO #1 is a good film, and Jean Arthur fans in particular should be glad to add this previously missing title to their DVD collections. The Warner Archive print looks fine, and 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 from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop.