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Warner Home Video presents
Each Dawn I Die (1939)

"Let me out of here, you hear, you muddle-headed copper?"
- Ross (James Cagney)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: July 19, 2006

Stars: James Cagney, George Raft
Other Stars: Jane Bryan, George Bancroft
Director: William Keighley

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:31m:35s
Release Date: July 18, 2006
UPC: 012569679528
Genre: crime

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A B+BB- B+

DVD Review

If you know what’s what, you'll keep your nose clean and stay out of the big house, the stir, the clink, or, if you do get sent up, you'll do your pull like a man, like a good soldier. Don't you just love prison movies? Each Dawn I Die really is exemplary of the genre—it runs like the wind and features gangster patois, crazy shootouts, a stern morality, and a sweet old mother—pretty much everything you'd want short of a cake with a file baked into it.

James Cagney stars as Frank Ross, a crusading newspaperman intent on speaking truth to power, which doesn't endear him to the organized crime leaders who rule the town of Benton, nor to the crooked public servants on their payroll. Ross's reports on graft and on the crimes he witnesses makes him the principal target of the Mafiosi, who have a couple of henchmen knock him out, bathe him in liquor, put him behind the wheel of a car, and send him down Main Street, in an effort to soil his character with a drunk-driving rap. Their scheme works too well, actually, for Ross's car plows into a crowd, killing three passersby. Though he protests his innocence, Ross gets sent up the river by a stern law-and-order judge, condemning Ross for his crimes and for his hypocrisy—who is this reporter to preach morality to us when he's getting liquored up and mowing down pedestrians? And all this in the movie's first reel.

Ross is out to prove his innocence, but he knows also that as long as he's in the Rocky Point Penitentiary, he's got to figure out a way to get along. He earns the begrudging trust of Hood Stacy, who's doing a pull of 199 years—Ross even does his time in solitary rather than ratting out Stacy. Will Ross prove his innocence, and get back into the embrace of his mother and his girl? Will he be victimized by the sternly enforced code among the inmates? Or will he go native, and become just as hardened and embittered as any other justly convicted member of this particular country club?

There's a kind of lunacy to a movie like this, but it's worth embracing, and certainly this movie's legacy extends to just about every prison picture ever made, including movies as different in tone as Shock Corridor and The Shawshank Redemption. It's a look at the purported honor among thieves, and it's tricked out with all the necessary elements of the type, including the sadistic prison guard, the tough but fair warden, and the inevitable prison riot. As Frank Ross, James Cagney is at the center of the piece, and as is typical of his performances in movies of this period, he's a pistol. His machine-gun-like delivery keeps the street cred in this fiercely moral, wronged man, who doesn't wallow in self-pity, but will clear his good name and get even with the dirty no-good so and so's who did this to him, if it's the last thing he does. He's got a great partner in (ahem) crime in George Raft, who plays Stacy—he's the epitome of a movie hood, with his sharp suits and slicked-back hair, which stays perfectly in place even in his prison stripes.

There are a barrel of schemes here—to bust out of the joint, to get back at a stoolie, to stick it to that rat who happens to be wearing a guard's uniform—and the movie ends with a full-scale riot, for which the National Guard needs to be called in. It's a movie brimming with the language of the streets, too, and melodrama aside, that aspect of it may be what's most bracing to 21st-century audiences. It's as sharp as that shiv that the new guy in Cell Block H has been whittling.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: There are more than a couple of frames missing from the source print, which also looks pretty battered—you'll see scratches and debris throughout, though the black-and-white photography retains much of its luster. Considering the age of the film and its downscale pedigree, it's a pretty reasonable transfer.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The movie is light on musical scoring, which means Cagney, Raft, and company are accompanied principally by hiss on the mono track. It can get awfully loud, though, especially when the National Guard follows its orders to shoot first, ask questions later.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 27 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring Wings of the Navy
1 Documentaries
2 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Haden Guest
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Warner Night at the Movies (see below)
  2. Lux Radio Theater adaptation
Extras Review: Haden Guest, curator of the Warner Brothers archives at USC, provides an amiable, informative commentary track—he's very good on both the specifics of this film's production, and on its place in the history of the studio and the genre of prison pictures. He's obviously come well prepared, and often sounds as if he's reading verbatim from his notes, but he also gives himself the latitude to chime in with spur-of-the-moment observations—his thoughts on mothers in Cagney movies are especially winning.

Stool Pigeons and Pine Overcoats: The Language of Gangster Films (20m:56s) is a celebration of the streetwise lingo you'll find in this and similar pictures—celebrated as the holy trinity of actors here are Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Edward G. Robinson. (Myah.) There are contributions from film historians (including Guest and Drew Casper), actors (Michael Madsen, Talia Shire), and filmmakers, most notably the duo who brought us GoodFellas, Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi.

It's time for another Warner Night at the Movies, an effort to re-create the original theater-going experience—this one starts with a trailer for Wings of the Navy, which is in fact the prison fare watched by the inmates in Each Dawn I Die. Next is a newsreel, featuring a report from Mongolia; A Day at Santa Anita, an early Technicolor effort, featuring a girl jockey, the love of her pony, and a feedbag full of musical numbers. It's not much of a film, but is notable for a couple of cameos by Hollywood names, including Bette Davis and Robinson. (Once again: myah.) The cartoon short, Detouring America, comes with a warning about racial and ethnic stereotyping, and rightfully so, for it's filled with Native American snake oil salesmen and grotesque Sambo caricatures.

Much more palatable is another Warner cartoon, Each Dawn I Crow, included here principally for its title—it features poor Farmer Fudd being tormented by a rooster (or, as the farmer says, a woostah). Cecil B. De Mille is your host for the Lux Radio Theater Broadcast (57m:48s) from 1943—Raft is on hand to reprise his role, but Franchot Tone is in for Cagney. The broadcast came at the height of wartime, though trying to sell American values with a story about a man wrongly imprisoned may not be so well thought out—then again, we're asked, what's more all-American than a soldier bringing a girl a case of Lux toilet soap? Finally, Breakdowns of 1939 (14m:34s) looks like a samizdat studio gag reel, featuring Bogart, Davis, Cagney and others going up on their lines—"Oh, nuts" is the favorite epithet, though Porky Pig contributes something a bit more off color.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

Defiantly lowbrow and shot out of a cannon, Each Dawn I Die merits a quick 90-minute pull in the clink for its ferocious energy and two iconic lead performances.


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