You Only Live Once (1937): Fritz Lang’s Grim Tale of Lovers on the Run, starring Fonda and Sylvia Sidney

Acclaimed German director Fritz Lang made an artistic splash with his first two American movies, Fury in 1936 and then the gloomy depression-era tale, You Only Live Once, starring Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney (who gets top billing).

Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

You Only Live Once
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Fonda plays Eddie Taylor, an ex-convict who can’t seems unable to get a break while outside prison. He marries the young, beautiful and impressionable Joan “Jo” Graham (Sidney), who, like her husband, is one of society’s losers and dropouts.

Framed on a murder rap, Taylor is forced to take it on the lam, with his wife and baby in tow. In trying to avoid capture, Eddie becomes a murderer for real, condemning himself and Jo to an early demise.

A quintessential road movie revolving around two lovers on the run, You Only Live Once is partly based on the legend of Bonnie and Clyde, which will be made under this title exactly three decades later, by Arthur Penn with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.

The screenplay by Gene Towne-Graham Baker is manipulative in the sense of being sympathetic toward its protagonists and harsh on their various antagonists, including the police and prison guards.

The acting of the two leads is superb, especially Fonda as the foredoomed “ordinary” anti-hero.  Sylvia Sidney, in one of her last meaty roles before becoming typecast as a character actress, is excellent too, sadly touching and occasionally poignantly lyrical in the mode that she delivers her lines.

He and the now-pregnant Joan go on the lam, hoping to make it across the border to Mexico. They become infamous and are blamed for every crime in the areas they pass through. After the baby is born, Joan manages to meet up with her former employer, Stephen, the public defender, and her sister.

The two have arranged for Joan to hop a boat to Havana with the baby and wait there while Stephen works to clear her name. However, she refuses to leave Eddie, and as they continue their run, they are ambushed by the police.

Despite critical acclaim, the movie was a commercial failure upon initial release.

In later years, the movie was reevaluated by auteurist critics and directors, such as François Truffaut, who emphasized the elements of destiny and fate, which recur in most of Lang’s work, here manifest in the work of interlocking forces, as Truffaut observed, “everything seems to be going well, but the truth is everything is going badly.”

Recycling:

“You Only Live Once” was presented on radio on on Philip Morris Playhouse November 28, 1941, with Burgess Meredith in Fonda’s role.

Cast
Sylvia Sidney as Joan “Jo” Graham
Henry Fonda as Eddie Taylor
Barton MacLane as Stephen Whitney
Jean Dixon as Bonnie Graham
William Gargan as Father Dolan
Jerome Cowan as Dr. Hill
Chic Sale as Ethan
Margaret Hamilton as Hester
Warren Hymer as Buggsy
Guinn “Big Boy” Williams as Rogers
John Wray as Warden Wheeler
Walter De Palma as Monk Mendall
Gonzalo Meroño as Richard Steward

Credits:

Directed by Fritz Lang
Screenplay by Gene Towne and Charles Graham Baker

Music by Alfred Newman
Cinematography Leon Shamroy[1]
Edited by Daniel Mandell

Company: Walter Wanger Productions, Inc.

Distributed by United Artists Corp.

Release date: January 29, 1937