Beyond the Classics is a recurring column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old movies and examines what makes them memorable. In this installment, she investigates the subtext of Johnny Eager.
Some of the most legendary old films have accompanying stories of production romances. Some of the most interesting old films mirrored stars’ real lives. Some of the most influential old films layer a queer perspective within the subtext. Rarely, a film has all three, but Mervyn LeRoy’s Johnny Eager does. With a fascinating history, fantastic performances, and a sad connection evident in retrospect, this film noir makes for a wildly entertaining watch today.
In Johnny Eager, the title character played by Robert Taylor is a smooth-talking ex-con. While he’s daylighting as a reformed taxi driver, Johnny is still up to his old racketeering tricks at night. At least that’s what he convinces his parole officer is the case. Two sociology students come to shadow Johnny’s parole officer during one of his visits, and skeptical Lisabeth (Lana Turner) is not convinced of Johnny’s reform.
Lisabeth’s intuition is proven right when she runs into Johnny and his crime partner Jeff (Van Heflin) having a business meeting at a club. No matter how dangerous she knows Johnny could be or how much her judge father tries to keep her away from Johnny, Lisbeth is drawn into a fiery romance with him, leaving her a witness to his violent nature. When Lisabeth thinks she’s murdered a man, she goes in a downward spiral that may just jeopardize Johnny’s cover and land him back in jail.
The plot of Johnny Eager plays out in the kind of exciting, quick-fire way that makes a gangster flick successful. However, the alluring performers take this film over the top and make it memorable even today. Director LeRoy helmed the leading couple “TnT,” Taylor and Turner, for their undeniable chemistry. This wasn’t just a clever marketing tagline to get audiences interested in the film. These two master the art of walking into a scene, commanding the frame, and giving off sexual desire with just a look. Several stars could pull this off at the time, but somehow Taylor and Turner made their chemistry unique, perhaps because their romance carried over into their real lives.
When MGM assigned Taylor to star in Johnny Eager, they were hoping to shift his persona. Since the 30s, Taylor had been the go-to supporting romantic interest for a much more captivating female lead, like Greta Garbo or Jean Harlow. His heartthrob status worked for a time, but studio execs recognized there could be more opportunities in “tougher” roles in this new decade. So, sporting a new Clark Gable-esque mustache, Taylor took on a starring role rather than just the love interest.
Opposite of Taylor on-screen was Turner, who was also going through an early change in her career. After appearing in several Mickey Rooney teen movies, MGM wanted to make a full-blown star of the 21-year-old. Her role in Johnny Eager was a part of a slew of more prominent roles for her in 1941, including in Ziegfeld Girl, Honky Tonk, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Although Hollywood still saw Turner as beautiful first and an actress second, her reputation as flirtatious preceded any interest in her talent.
Turner admits to flirting with Taylor on the set of Johnny Eager in her memoir Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth, but she does not call it an affair. Taylor became devoted entirely to Turner, apparently without ever involving sex. Flirting had always been fun to Turner, but there was a line she didn’t want to cross. In this case, it was becoming the other woman to mega-star Barbara Stanwyck.
Taylor and Stanwyck had been married only two years before filming began for Johnny Eager. Still, Taylor became so infatuated with Turner that he was willing to ask for a divorce so they could be together. After he confessed his plans to her, Turner let up on the flirting and convinced Taylor that divorcing Stanwyck for her was not worth it. It worked, and Taylor and Stanwyck remained married until 1952, all while Taylor and Turner’s chemistry was still palpable on screen.
Shadowed by these two stars in Johnny Eager is Van Heflin, who gives the best performance in the film. Heflin plays Johnny’s right-hand man Jeff, a wax poetic intellectual and the closest person to Johnny. Heflin’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in this film was well-deserved. He gives the most nuanced and moving performance of the movie, making it feel much more profound than most gangster films of its kind.
In this performance, Heflin also hints at a romantic connection between Jeff and Johnny that may not have been spelled out for the average heterosexual viewer in 1942. As we watch today, we see the clear signs that Jeff was not just a friend to Johnny. To evade parole violation, Johnny lives a double life, one where he is a family-oriented working man and another where he continues his criminal ways. In his hidden life, Johnny shares a secret apartment with Jeff. There’s an assumption that the two are just roommates, but that had been a common assumption when it came to real gay couples at the time.
Jeff’s drinking is a central part of his character, and at first, it seems to be a way to cope with his racketeering. However, as the movie progresses and he worries he may lose Johnny to Lisabeth, we see it is more likely a way to cope with a world unwillingly to accept his sexuality. When asked why he continues to drink so much, Jeff says that “every now and then, I have to look in the mirror.” This shame is what gay characters were so often limited to when they were represented in older films. Yet, Jeff gets more of an ending with Johnny than Lisabeth, creating a focus on their bond and brings Jeff’s sexuality out of the subtextual shadows.
In an attempt to get Lisabeth out of his life of crime, Johnny plays a trick on her. One of his men pretends to attack him one night, and to protect Johnny, Lisabeth shoots the man. She believes he’s dead and that she’s done what she never thought she was capable of — murder. In reality, she only shot blanks and Johnny set the whole thing up. However, she goes through a complete mental breakdown after the incident. Johnny sends her away with her ex-boyfriend in the end, to keep her safe and to keep himself from the romantic vulnerability that would make him scared to die.
When he is shot in the streets, it’s Jeff who holds him as he dies, a scene far too similar to the final moments of Wings not to be intentional. The way the camera shows Jeff also gives away how we are supposed to see his relationship with Johnny. As Gaylyn Studlar points out in “A Gunsel Being Beaten: Gangster Masculinity and the Homoerotics of the Crime Film, 1941-1942,” this gives more meaning to how Jeff sees Johnny: “Such close-ups suggest a sexual transgression of Hollywood visual conventions and smack of the same transgression present in the classic cinematic trope of the sexual liaison between an upper-class socialite and a gangster.”
In this film, Jeff receives the same kind of sultry close-ups, teary-eyed gazes, and reaction shots as Johnny’s upper-class socialite love interest, Lisabeth. In the end, Jeff gets Johnny’s last moments alive and gets to comfort him in death, Hollywood’s ultimate tragic ending for true lovers. Watching this relationship today not only gives us a vastly different kind of gangster relationship but also shows us how Hollywood represented homoerotic films, even in what was considered the most masculine of genres. For once, this kind of character was also associated with an award-winning performance, which feels uncharacteristic of the Academy for the 1940s.
As we watch this film today, we also see the connections between Lana Turner’s character Lisabeth and her own personal relationships that occurred after this film was released. Turner married seven men throughout her life and many of her relationships involved dangerous men. Turner kicked one of her husbands out after finding out he molested her daughter, Cheryl. Her most well-known relationship was with mobster Johnny Stompanato, who physically abused her and on the night she won her Oscar in 1958, he threatened to kill her. To keep him from killing Turner, Cheryl shot and killed Stompanato. This scandal plagued her reputation in the media, following years of Turner being judged for her poor judgment of the men she fell in love with.
Turner often recognized that the men she fell for were dangerous in some way, but chose to overlook that to receive the love she wanted. Lisabeth does the same with Johnny, leading her to be a witness to tragedy and trauma. In many ways, Turner resembles Lisabeth as she does with characters in her other films like Marriage is a Private Affair and Imitation of Life. Hollywood capitalized on the scandals Turner became involved with during her career, often using the press of her relationships to coincide with the press for her films. It’s a sad connection to make between Turner and Lisabeth because neither gets the love they long for in the end.
Today, Johnny Eager tells an exciting, yet tragic story with incredible performances. It sets itself apart from other classic crime movies thanks to the lives of its stars and the inclusion of a queer main character. It proves that returning to older films can uncover more than just the surface-level plot and even help us remember the complicated lives of the people on the screen.