You Only Live Once (1937)

“There’s a lot more good in Eddie Taylor than most people think.”

Synopsis:
A recently released ex-con (Henry Fonda) marries his loyal sweetheart (Sylvia Sidney) and tries to go straight, but is foiled by a society that permanently rejects him. Soon he’s back in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, and begins to lose all hope — will his wife or a saintly priest (William Gargan) convince him to give a clean life one more chance?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that in “Fritz Lang’s second American film” — as in many of Lang’s movies — “the innocent are usually judged guilty”. He notes that while the film (inspired by Bonnie and Clyde) “is very bleak”, it’s “strongly acted (Fonda and Sidney play well together) and directed” — with “moody cinematography by Leon Shamroy” — and “it makes a powerful statement about American justice and the shabby treatment that people with no money or power must endure — they have no defense against the forces that take control of their lives.” He adds that “Lang makes it clear that his sympathies are with Fonda, and with Sidney, the only person to give an outcast a chance to prove good” — but this isn’t quite true, given the presence of both Gargan as a highly supportive priest, and Sidney’s surprisingly noble boss (Barton Maclane), who loves Sidney but is willing to help her out time and again on account of his sincere empathy for Fonda’s challenging past.

Personally, I find the film’s storyline a tad too overly simplistic. Would motel-owners (Charles ‘Chic’ Sale and Margaret Hamilton) really be so eager to kick out the doe-eyed newlyweds without cause? Why would Fonda’s post-release boss (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams) agree to hire him in the first place if he was so eager to fire him? I know the film is meant to represent archetypical injustice in black-and-white, but we desperately wish both of the main characters would make smarter — rather than fatalistic and/or pre-determined — decisions. It doesn’t help that the “ending is overly sentimental and is Hollywood-style religious”. However, the movie is gorgeously made, and Fonda and Sidney are a convincing pair of star-struck lovebirds; Lang fans won’t want to miss this one.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sylvia Sidney as Joan Taylor
  • Henry Fonda as Eddie Taylor
  • Leon Shamroy’s cinematography



Must See?
No, but it’s certainly recommended — and arguably could be considered must-see for its historical relevance as one of the earliest “couple on the run” noirs.

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One Response to “You Only Live Once (1937)”

  1. Not must-see.

    Though the theme is a worthy one, this is a flawed film. Not only for some reasons already pointed out in the assessment given, but for a few other particular reasons embedded in the script:

    1) It takes awhile for the film to really get going. It’s a short film (85 min.) yet a full 30-minutes is spent focused on the two main characters being in love. The dialogue here isn’t even particularly interesting so audiences can feel de-energized and not all that engaged. Things are a bit sluggish.

    2) Once Fonda genuinely feels discouraged about society’s wrath, things pick up a bit but, in general, the film still has difficulty gathering momentum due to the first section.

    (However… with Fonda’s escape from prison comes my favorite sequence, one that finally allows director Lang to really come up to the plate to show what he can do. Even the screenplay helps out here – for a change – and everything combines for a very tense and suspenseful turn of events. But…)

    3) The long, on-the-run conclusion soon becomes rather far-fetched.

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