The twofer that Warner Archive provides regarding the September 18, 2018 DVD release of the 1938 prison drama morality tale "Over the Wall" begins with this movie being a textbook example of the lost gems Golden Age B-movies that comprise a significant portion of the Archive catalog. The "two" begins with this release continuing the tradition of Archive leitmotifs. The theme this time is prison dramas, and the set includes the reviewed Warner Bu-ray release of the 1973 classic film "Papillon" about the obsessive efforts of the boy with the butterfly tattoo to escape from Devils Island.
The first of the numerous elements that make "Wall" Archive worthy begins with the unusual source material. This tale of hot-tempered brawling Irishman Jerry Davis is based on a book by real-life Sing Sing warden Lewis E. Lawes. The clear message that that well-known prison strives to rehabilitate, rather than punish, establishes both that it is the polar opposite of Devil's Island and that Davis either is going to be a better man for a dead one at the end of film.
"Wall" further reflects the studio system. The liner notes on the DVD back cover share that "Warner Bros.' celebrated 'Singing Cowboy' Dick Foran trades in his leathers for a prison jumper" to play Jerry. It is highly likely that most (if not all) the supporting characters and all the extras are largely selected based on who is available during the time allotted for making "Wall."
"Wall" not being shy about depicting the stereotypes of the era is another source of entertainment. Jerry is a perfect depiction of a 20-something New York punk who needs very little provocation to bust a window or a head; his much-younger brother Jimmy seems destined to head down the same road. Jimmy additionally represents the humorous stereotype of a prepubescent boy of the '30s who looks and sounds like a grown-ass man. This makes a scene in which the lad must relinquish the death seat and move to the bitch seat in the car of Jerry funny.
The Irish stereotype continues with the father of Jerry and Jimmy having a brogue that makes him sound as if he is fresh of the boat even though his wife lacks any Irish accent, The man who is at least in his 60s picking a fight with Jerry helps complete the picture.
Other period-specific glee relates to the spinning headlines that provide substantive exposition and a swinging pendulum of a clock accompanying months flying by to indicate the passage of time.
True to form with this type of film, Jerry barely avoids becoming a guest of the state the first time that he gets his Irish up. Of course, he ignores the advice to temper his temper.
The impetus for the events that lead to the unfortunate incarceration of Jerry is his sleazy fight manager setting him up for a literal fall in a fight that is the venture of a legitimate businessman. Emotional and physical pain prompts our raging bull to track down his manager. That altercation leads to the manager pushing up daises.
The judicial proceeding that concludes with convicting Jerry of manslaughter occurs in what aptly can be described as a boxing kangaroo court. This leads to his getting locked up in the aforementioned correctional institution.
The arrogance and related defiance of Jerry on going inside figuratively (and hilariously) places him in the bitch seat in a manner that provides numerous highlights, Modern audiences know that the real-life wake-up call would have involved a badly bruised body and Jerry becoming the wife of one or more inmates.
Prison chaplain Father Neil Connor is the primary force behind the effort to provide Jerry a form of deliverance other than the type described above. Of course, that initial effort fails.
The first turning point occurs when Jerry passes a test of character. His showing his true nature reaps immediate benefits, We next get a '30s version of a jailhouse rock that lets Foran showoff his singing voice. A positive aspect of this is that his songs provide the same type of pleasant surprise as when Jim Nabors demonstrates that his singing style is nothing like the high-pitched Southern accent of Gomer Pyle. A less-nice aspect of this scene in "Wall" is that a stereotype involving two black inmates is not laughable but is excusable in the context of the era.
The climax commences with Jerry getting a chance to prove his innocence; this results in a fast-paced final 10-minutes as Connor and other supporters try to prevent Jerry both from reverting to his old ways and from being his own worst enemy, Seeing these men team up in the name of truth, justice, and the American way strongly suggests that they would go on to star in a television series about street-wise detectives if "Wall" was made in the '70s.
Additional appeal of this highly dated fable is that it reminds us of a much happier time in which prisons had some success at rehabilitating inmates and did not just release them on the streets stronger and more crime savvy than when they entered. On the "order" side of things, this period also is known for having a judicial system with proper due process, participants who favored justice over wins and/or expediency, and in which one went wrong was more easily put right,
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