Blu-ray Review: Each Dawn I Die | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Thursday, June 17th, 2021  

Each Dawn I Die

Studio: Warner Archive

May 06, 2021 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Thanks to an industry built on type-casting and a relentless rate of production under the Hollywood studio system, James Cagney spent much of the 1930s playing a variety of tough guys and gangsters. After rocketing to fame in the 1931 crime classic The Public Enemy, Cagney had difficulty shaking his hard-bitten criminal image. As the decade went on and the Motion Picture Production Code became more strictly enforced, Cagney and other leading men like him transitioned from playing crooks to playing tough guys on the right side of the law. This formula only went so far though, and Cagney frequently found himself playing criminals again by the late 30s in classics like Angels with Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties. One of the more successful examples of Cagney being a tough guy for law and order was the 1939 Warner Bros. prison flick, Each Dawn I Die.

As the years went on, prison films became explicit vehicles for social reform, with movies like Brute Force (1947) and Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) calling for radical and much needed changes to the system. Each Dawn I Die is clearly sympathetic to the plights of incarcerated men suffering being ground down by an uncaring institution, but is generally more concerned with personal drama than social justice. Cagney plays Frank Ross, a two-fisted investigative reporter who is framed for manslaughter by a corrupt district attorney after writing an expose about him. Sentenced to a twenty year stretch, Ross is taken under the wing of Hood Stacy (George Raft), a hotshot gangster serving a life sentence. As his belief in the American justice system slowly crumbles, Ross finds himself plotting a daring escape attempt alongside Stacy and several other cons.

Each Dawn I Die is successful enough as a late-30s Warner programmer. Cagney’s performance in the second act as a man slowly losing his humanity plays as an interesting pre-cursor to his explosive jail cell scenes in 1949’s White Heat. The supporting cast is enjoyable and the action plentiful. The film is probably most notable as being one of the final hurrahs for co-star George Raft. Like Cagney, Raft grew up in the slums of turn-of-the-century New York and parlayed his lived experience - as well as friendships with actual gangsters- into a credible persona as a cinematic tough guy. One of the bigger stars of the 1930s, Raft would famously sink his own career by turning down starring roles in multiple films that went on to be big hits. In 1940 and 1941 alone, he turned down Mad Dog Earle in High Sierra and detective Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon; both characters would be played by Humphrey Bogart in the pair of films that launched him to the A-list. Raft’s business acumen may have been questionable but his screen presence was not; Stacy is a fairly stock gangster on the page, but Raft lends him an air of down-to-earth decency and cutting wit that works as an excellent balance to Cagney in one of his more muted roles.

The Warner Archive edition of Each Dawn I Die is notable for porting over all of the special features that compromised the “Warner Night at the Movies” feature of their series of 2000s box sets. A crown jewel of an era where DVD manufacturers and audiences actually cared about special features, the Warner Night at the Movies DVDs would recreate the experience an audience member might have had if they saw the film during its initial run. Included were a news reel, a cartoon short, a live action short and a film trailer, all from the same year as the feature. In this 1939 edition, we get a reel about the burgeoning war in Europe, the Academy Award nominated cartoon “Detouring America” and the corny, but cameo-heavy live action short “A Day at Santa Anita”, along with a trailer for the film Wings of the Navy. Warner Night at the Movies is a delightful and occasionally edifying feature for fans of both classic film and history. The only notable absence in the transfer from DVD to Blu-ray - other than the Leonard Maltin introductions - is the Play All option which would allow you to experience all the features followed by the movie itself with the click of a single button.

(The Warner Archive Store)


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