A prison picture that 86s the very things that make a prison picture fun? I wanna talk to the warden.... Warner Bros.' Archive Collection vault of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released Duffy of San Quentin, the 1954 prison drama (you noticed I didn't write "prison actioner"), based on the autobiography of San Quentin reformer warden Clinton T. Duffy, starring Louis Hayward, the gorgeous Joanne Dru, Paul Kelly (as Duffy), and Maureen O'Sullivan (for about four minutes). A criminally talky, pompously self-righteous little snooze (that Warners inexplicably has included under their Film Noir Archive Collection sub-label), Duffy of San Quentin is the genetic opposite of all those speedy, pulpy Warner Bros. prison pictures of the 30s it so piously wants to negate, brought down by two of the deadliest B-movie sins: wooden performances and good intentions. No extras for this so-so transfer.
According to Duffy of San Quentin, Clinton T. Duffy (Paul Kelly), born and raised at San Francisco's notorious San Quentin prison (outside the bars, of course), and having worked his way up to the position of secretary to the warden, is unexpectedly offered the top spot by the Prison Board after a corruption sweep exits his boss. Duffy's tenure, however, is only temporary: he is to be a "caretaker" warden for 30 days before the governor's hand-picked man is slotted into the politically-connected position. Consulting with his wife, Gladys (Maureen O'Sullivan), Duffy accepts the position...and sets about completely transforming the prison in one month. Out go the men's numbers on their uniforms, and the whips and the rubber hoses and the torture dungeons, as well as head guard/sadist, Pierson (Horace McMahon), and in come love and trust and better chow and movie shows. Duffy eliminates the stoolie system, busting songbird Nealy (Peter Brocco) even after he sings to Duffy about an upcoming break-out. Duffy is the kind of reformist who thinks a woman's touch is needed in the hospital infirmary, where his wife recommends hiring dishy nurse Anne Halsey (Joanne Dru), as well as being the kind of do-gooder who isn't opposed to giving a knife for hobby purposes to hardened-but-innocent (aren't they all?) con Edward "Romeo" Harper (Louis Hayward), who later joins Anne's hospital unit. Will Duffy get through to Romeo, teaching him that trust and basic human decency will win out over darkness? Will Romeo finally leave behind his blind hatred for prosecutor-turned-con John C. Winant (George Macready), and embrace Anne? Will the impossibly good-looking Anne blithely walk through the wards of psycho-sexual felons and find love with Cyrano De Bergerac-spouting Romeo? Who cares.
Take a look at that fantastic one-sheet ballyhooing Duffy of San Quentin (it's the disc case's cover art). "EVERY RAW, RAGING SCENE OF IT IS NEW! TRUE! SENSATIONAL!" "A dame got me inâ€"and a dame'll get me out!" "Rip this rat-hole apart!" "String up the stoolies!" "Grill â€˜em! Kill â€˜em!" "Hit â€˜em again!"--Jesus christ if only that was how Duffy of San Quentin really played. There isn't one moment in Duffy of San Quentin that even faintly resembles what's going on in that original poster (particularly the marketing department's entirely bogus suggestion that Hayward holds a gun to a partially-stripped Dru during a crash-out), so you can bet that Warners took one look at the producer/director Walter Doniger's final cut, and called down to Publicity in a panic. Growing up when I did, I was lucky to catch all those great old Warner Bros. prison pictures that were constantly rotating on the afternoon and late, late TV shows, so when I saw Duffy of San Quentin's sensationalized cover, I was primed to enjoy what appeared to be a boffo vehicle for all genre's well-worn (and welcome) conventions: the roiling, seething rage that runs like an electric current through the general population; the secret meetings between the tough-but-good-eggs cons planning their escape; the vicious bulls sadistically torturing the "on the square" prisoners; the squealing stoolie getting his for ratting out our innocent protagonist; the angel of mercy nurse in her starched whites, menaced by 3,000 horny felons; the searchlight sweeping the nighttime yard as the sirens wail and the tommy guns spit fire.
None of which, by the way, you get in Duffy of San Quentin (how or why a sequel, 1955's The Steel Cage, was made, I'll never know). I haven't read Duffy's book, nor am I historian of penal correction reformation, so I can't attest to Duffy of San Quentin's veracity...although I'll bet, as with 99% of Hollywood biopics, that a lot of the movie, outside the facts of Duffy's reforms, has been invented. And that's okay by me; I'm not looking for realism here. All those old prison flicks were complete fantasies, anyway, where the harsh realities of prison life were as absent as the underbelly realities of small town American life in the Andy Hardy pictures. However, what is presented here is remarkably stilted, with a stultifying, smug, self-righteous tone to its endless talky scenes that is the antithesis of the typical exciting B prison picture. "Prison reform" as a serious topic for discussion holds about as much interest for me as learning the living wage of cello players in Botswana (I care about innocent victims, not all those "poor, unfortunate" criminals), but it is a common thematic thread in B prison films. And if the producers go the DeMille route of showing all the sin before the sermon is read, its inclusion as a structural device is perfectly acceptable.
However, wooly-headed Duffy of San Quentin eliminates almost all references to the conventions of the genre, focusing instead on a seemingly unending string of static dialogue scenes between Romeo (hee hee!) and Duffy, and Duffy and Anne, and Anne and Romeo (hee hee!), and Duffy and Gladys, where everyone wrings their hands about what can be done to save the poor men of San Quentin while we sit and wait in vain for some con to get stuck with a shiv. In a successful B programmer, "good intentions" are the lip service paid to the potential prudes out there, excusing away the more sensationalized aspects of the movie. They are to be completely ignored, with the audience fully aware of their false-front necessity. Dirt and violence and smut are the B programmers' focusâ€"as Duffy of San Quentin's one-sheet poster so clearly understandsâ€"with "good intentions" better left at the Boy Scout meetings.
And yet Duffy of San Quentin's script (also by Doniger) goes about its story of prison reform with all the sour persimmons pucker of a Sunday School marm tetch-tetching all that whispering in the back row. Kelly (a real-life ex-jailbird who should have known better) plays Duffy as a humorless, holier-than-thou wonk who bleeds for his prisoners (would a warden really give a knife to prisoner who vowed to kill him?) and yet cruelly manipulates Anne when, quite sensibly, she wished to cut out when her presence has over-excited Romeo (can anyone explain what wasted O'Sullivan is doing here?). Unprepossessing Hayward, in a ridiculous, unintentionally hilarious performance as a ladykiller con with literary pretentions (yep...), has to be the single most unrealistic "hero con" at the center of a prison pic that I've ever seen (wait...he turns in five escaping cons to help save Duffy's job, and nobody else in the yard wants him dead for such an egregious transgression against the prisoner code?). Dru's idealistic, love-struck nurse Anne is even worse: a howler of inappropriate, flirtatious mannerisms and bargain-basement psycho-babble balms about prisoners and their "dignity" and their "self-worth"...all tied in somehow with clean sheets and regular sponge baths. Duffy of San Quentin is the worst kind of B programmer imaginable: a prim and proper look at a down-and-dirty subject.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.