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Romance, Crime, and Queer-coding in ‘Johnny Eager’

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22.09.2021

The queer storyline and fascinating lives of the lead actors set this film apart from other crime romances before and since.

MGM

By Emily Kubincanek · Published on September 22nd, 2021

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........

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