Oscar Movies: Johnny Eager (1942): Starring Robert Taylor and Van Heflin

In Johnny Eager, Mervyn Le Roy’s crime-gangster film, based on a screenplay by John Lee Mahin and James Edward Grant, a tougher than usual Robert Taylor plays the titular part, a paroled convict who drives a taxi to satisfy the parole board, while engaging in criminal activities such as a dog track.
Arrogant and unfeeling, Eager has only one real friend, Jeff Hartnett (Van Heflin) an alcoholic, sensitive, literate man who, when under the influence, makes witty and cynical philosophical observations about life. Refined and probably latently homosexual Hartnett is a loyal, compassionate friend.
Things get complicated when Lisbeth Bard (Lana Turner in a breakthrough performance), the stepdaughter of the district attorney (Edward Arnold) falls for Johnny Eager upon meeting him as a passenger. For his part, Eager decides to use the girl to gain permanent immunity from her father’s harassment, even if he has to frame her with fake murder and convince her that she had committed it.
From that point on, the scribe’s concoction fails to make any sense. Going into rapid decline, Lisbeth alienates her loyal beau (Robert Sterling), a rich society man. Realizing what he has done, Eager then orchestrates a plot whereby she goes back to her beau’s arms, while he goes into the bullets of his gangster enemies. Eager’s death was dictated by the strictures of the Production Code, which demanded punishment of villains as illustration that crime never pays off.
Stealing every scene he is in, Heflin won the Supporting Actor Oscar as the caustic but loyal henchman (of the trio, he has the best lines to deliver). The Oscar catapulted Heflin into the major league and in the 1950s he played both lead and secondary parts.
Unlike Warner, MGM was not good at making crime-gangster or noir films; its specialties were glossy musicals and soft melodramas. Nonetheless, MGM knew even then how to sell their pictures as star vehicles, and “Johnny Eager” was marketed in the ads as the new TNT (Turner and Taylor), a sexy, dynamite screen couple.

Lines to Remember:

Lana Turner about Eager: “I think he’d beat a woman if she made him angry.”
Oscar Alert
Oscar Nominations: 1
Supporting Actor: Van Heflin
Oscar Awards: 1
Oscar Context
The other nominees in the Supporting Actor Oscar category were: William Bendix in the war film “Wake Island,” Walter Huston in the musical biopic, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” Frank Morgan in “Tortilla Flat,” and Henry Travers in William Wyler’s “Mrs. Miniver,” which swept most of the Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Supporting Actress.
Johnny Eager (Robert Taylor)
Lisbeth Bard (Lana Turner)
John Benson Farrell (Edward Arnold)
Jeff Hartnett (Van Heflin)
Jimmy Courtney (Robert Sterling
Garnet (Patricia Dane)
Mae Blythe (Glenda Farrell)
Mr. Verne (Henry O’Neill)
Judy Janford (Diana Lewis)
Lew Rankin (Barry Nelson)
Mario (Charles Dingle)
Julio (Paul Stewart)
Halligan (Cy Kendall)
Billiken (Don Costello)
Benjy (Lon Lubin)
Ryan (Joseph Downing)
Peg (Connie Gilchrist)
Matilda (Robin Raymond)
Miss Mines (Leona Marticle)
Officer No. 711 (Byron Shares)
Produced by John W. Considine
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: John Lee Mahin and James Edward Grant
Camera: Harold Rosson
Editor: Albert Akst
Opened at the Capitol Theater, New York, February 18, 1942
Running time: 107 Minutes