Traumafessions :: Reader GCG on They Made Me a Criminal (1939)

I owe my love for old film to the public domain. When I was a wee lad, our local PBS affiliate could easily afford to broadcast old movies once a week, as long as they had been overlooked decades earlier for copyright protection by the studios that produced them. The usual suspects would appear over the early years of my obsession: His Girl Friday, Scarlet Street, Sabotage, The Red House, Mr. Robinson Crusoe, and so forth. But one of the first old movies I saw on PBS was They Made Me a Criminal, a 1939 Busby Berkeley boxing picture starring John Garfield and the Dead End Kids.

There was one scene in particular that is the subject of today’s Traumafession. Garfield and four of the kids drive to a remote irrigation water tower in the middle of farmland and the wooden tower is full of cool, clean water, and they all decide to climb the exterior ladder and go for an illicit swim. A few minutes later, a farmer opens the valve to the tank, sending water gushing toward the crop furrows. Caught up in their fun, the swimmers don’t realize that the water level is dropping until it becomes impossible to reach the top edge of the tower. One of the kids is a weak swimmer who is already struggling to stay afloat. Garfield tells them not to worry -— the water will drop down far enough that they will be able to touch bottom. But then the same farmer shuts the valve. Now the top edge is too high and the bottom too deep to touch. They are becoming exhausted, particularly the one boy who can’t swim very well. It was all a horrible accident, but I can imagine a less imaginative Jigsaw devising this terrifyingly simple trap as a sort of dry run for his future mayhem.

I was riveted and aghast. Not least because I have never been a great swimmer and could easily sympathize with the boy who struggled in the water. From the very beginning, his friends mocked him for being reluctant to get in and then, once he was in, for thrashing around in a pathetic dog paddle. Well into their predicament, before the boy begins to sink from exhaustion, his friends even get mad at him briefly for being forced to support him while they try to figure a way out. They’re tired, too, and the last thing they need is a weight around their necks. The shame layered upon the terror of the situation was too much for me. Thanks to the public domain — again — there are a kajillion YouTube channels that have this film available to watch. The scene in particular is about 40 minutes into the movie, for those who would like to watch it…

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8 years ago

This whole “drowning in an enclosed space” thing reminds me peripherally of another trauma for which we can thank Dark Night of the Scarecrow and Witness: being trapped in a silo that’s rapidly filling with grain.

8 years ago

There’s the end of Dreyer’s Vampyr, too, Taylor, to add an early example of this terrifying scenario (in that case, it’s drowning in flour).