Johnny Apollo (1940)

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A gangster by choice, a hero by chance!


Johnny Apollo sounds like exactly what it is, a name made up on the spur of the moment. It is a movie which, although pleasing in most cases, truly fails due to a flaw at its core. The casting simply doesn’t work. And, although some would characterize this as some odd type of film noir, on viewing you can clearly tell that it isn’t as almost all the elements of that genre are missing.

Likely this picture was the result of Tyrone Power’s leverage at the box office at the time; in 1940 he was at or near the top of the box office. Vocally espousing his fatigue with the costume dramas and other light fare the folks at 20th Century had been giving him, Johnny Apollo most assuredly was Darryl Zanuck’s idea of a heavier role for his leading star of the time.

Tyrone Power, much like his swashbuckling colleague Errol Flynn, has always been perhaps somewhat downgraded as an actor due to his feats of daring do. Here, as Robert Cain, (later to take the name of Johnny Apollo), Power is far too pretty- both physically and more importantly in demeanor, to handle the role of the privileged son turned gangster. Obviously his flaws become more apparent in the later.

The dichotomy is readily apparent even from Power’s first scene, where he parades into shot as part of his rowing team, all properly attired in bathing outfits of the time. Its truly nothing less than an excuse for the females of the day to see one of their leading heartthrobs sans shirt. From today’s perspective the swimming suits of the time are an absolute hoot.

The other flaw with Johnny Apollo is the plot, which at the top level is acceptable but on closer inspection leaves the viewer with too many unresolved questions as the numerous twists along the way become increasingly implausible.

Tyrone Power’s onscreen father here is Robert Cain Sr., played by Edward Arnold, and nicely so. Cain Sr. is imprisoned for embezzlement early on in the picture, leading his son to drop out of his presumably Ivy League college in disgrace. Having little luck finding work under his given name, Power assumes the name of Johnny Apollo and becomes a low level mobster of sorts- all in an effort to secure a parole for his father.

Here’s where things go a bit crazy. Cain Sr. learns in prison of his son’s unsavory activities and disowns him during a prison visitation session. Ultimately Apollo gets arrested as well on a minor charge along with other members of his gang. Although having a very short sentence, Apollo immediately decides to opt for a jailbreak, which most likely would end in his death or at least a severe addition to his sentence.

And at no time does it ever become clear what Johnny is doing that is so unsavory, must less criminal. My best guess is that he is something of a heavy handed money collector, but even that is unclear. More unclear is why his father would disown him- given his own embezzling activities.

Director Henry Hathaway does a fairly good job, but his hands are tied both with the poor cast and somewhat ludicrous script.

Probably not one you’d need in your collection, unless you are a die hard fan of Tyrone Power. Available as part of a box set of lesser (for the most part) Power films and also through Netflix – standard DVD though, not streaming. Worth a look if you are already a subscriber to that service.

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