The anecdote goes that John Ford made a burlesque out of the prison yarn after The Big House had premiered, Spencer Tracy’s display of Wallace Beeryisms (wiping his palm across his face before a precocious girl, etc.) removes all doubt. The style is relaxed vaudeville, it opens in a flurry of blackout technique: Tracy and Warren Hymer break out of jail, Tracy ditches Hymer by having him check an imaginary flat tire, they meet again at the Salvation Army and resume their brawl mid-sermon ("Verily I say to you, the wages of sin is a punch in the jaw, ya louse"). Back in they go: it’s a laid-back institution, racially integrated and with female convicts on the other side of the gate. The warden’s young daughter (Joan Lawes) turns cartwheels amid the inmates, lullabies fill the air once lights are out, there’s even a baseball team run by an old timer (William Collier, Sr.) with a zebra mascot (a nice bit of surrealism, nicely uncommented upon). Humphrey Bogart is the skinny juvenile, he falls for Claire Luce but his parole parts them; her shady ex-lover blackmails him back home, Tracy and Hymer escape once more to straighten things out. Ford’s warm-hearted truculence contrasts with Hawks’ sang-froid in The Criminal Code, two examples of intuitive expressiveness shaking up early-talkie tableaux. Stagecoach’s schoolmarms are here social workers, Ward Bond has a line or two, much ground work is laid for Mister Roberts (and M*A*S*H*, come to think of it). It’s safe to assume Renoir had the revue sequence, with its drag act and "St. Louis Blues" improvised out of a plumbing pipe, in the back of his mind when making Grand Illusion. "Take ‘em to the cooler... after the game." The fugitives return in time for the pitch and are accepted back into the community, Tracy and Hymer beam into the camera at the vérité fade. With Robert Emmett O’Connor, Noel Francis, Sharon Lynne, and Morgan Wallace. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce