As a result of Kings Row and The Man Who Came to Dinner, one would conclude that Ann Sheridan would at last enjoy the respect so long denied her by the Warner Brothers front office. Not quite. Along with Ronald Reagan, Sheridan was cast in Juke Girl. The actress still did not have script approval, and had recently returned from eight months of unemployment after her studio suspension, so she had little option but to hold her nose and do her best in the derivative melodrama.
The screenplay was the work of A.I. Bezzerides, who had written the original novel on which Sheridan's earlier They Drive By Night was based. At work on Juke Girl, Bezzeride had terrified a secretary by dictating obscene and censorable dialogue. Bezzeride reasoned his first draft could later be watered down to please the censors. Even the title, Juke Girl, was a euphemism for prostitute.
At various times Raft and Bogart were considered for the leading male roles, and Ida Lupino was originally cast in the title role. Lupino hated the whole idea, and the picture began shooting in early October 1941 with no leading lady definitely cast. Sheridan was not tossed into the stew until nearly two weeks later. Leading man Ronald Reagan, expected to begin Army service on December 1, and T.C. Wright asked Hal Wallis to pull some strings to keep Reagan in civvies until the picture was completed. Warners was very excited about reteaming Sheridan and Reagan after their success in Kings Row.
Production reports indicate that the making of Juke Girl was much troubled. Its director was German Curtis Bernhardt, who had signed with Warners in 1940, having been a director at UFA, then escaping Nazi Germany and working briefly in France. At any rate, Hal Wallis bombarded the director with angry memos, complaining about Bernhardt’s tendency to shoot from too many complicated angles, and to write additional last-minute dialogue. Almost a month into the picture, Wallis threatened to replace Bernhardt with Raoul Walsh if Bernhardt continued to disobey Wallis’ orders. Juke Girl’s cameraman, Bert Glennon, seems to have disliked Bernhardt, too, refusing to do any shooting contrary to Wallis’ directives. Thus, the two fought over shots. Vincent Sherman would later be called in to shoot retakes because Warner didn’t want Bernhardt to come back in. “So it was a couple of days that I worked with Sheridan and with Reagan. I knew them both prior to that time, but that was the first time I’d ever actually worked with them,” said Sherman.
On top of that, the company went through brutal night shooting in Salinas, California. “Ann Sheridan was wonderful, a real trouper,” Bernhardt raved in 1977. “She kept the mood of the whole company - and that wasn’t easy under such grueling shooting conditions.”
Leading man Ronald Reagan remembered in his autobiography, “… I discovered how nervous fatigue can creep up on you. On the night shift, going to work at 6 P.M., we shot night exteriors until sunup for thirty-eight nights. With all the misconceptions about pampered stars, none is so far afield as the belief that physical discomfort isn’t tolerated.
“Juke Girl was a serious story about the migrant crop-pickers in Florida. Night after freezing California night, we tried to act like sufferers from the humidity and heat of Florida, with glycerin sprayed on our goose bumps to simulate sweat. In every scene the background people smoked cigarettes to hide the fact that our breaths showed.”
Bernhardt, himself, didn’t want to do the picture, “and not only because of Mr. Reagan,” calling it “a sort of semi-western laid among fruit pickers and incorporating orgies of fights; I don’t know why they gave it to me.”
Ann’s top-billed portrayal, of the jaded, been-around Juke Girl, makes the convoluted story (based on Theodore Pratt’s risqué Jook Girl) of farmers, labor problems and mob justice, easier to take. Her familiar stock-in-trade - a tough, sharp-tongued, but vulnerable gal - was on full, spicy display, at its best sparring with frisky Richard Whorf, whom she labels “Little Johnny Jump-Up”:
WHORF: Maybe we’ll run into each other some time.
SHERIDAN: If we do, I hope I’m in a truck.
Although Reagan is her leading man, it’s her frictional scenes with swarthy, obnoxious Whorf that add fun to the film. “Someone oughta pin a metal on you ... with a club,” she snaps at him. Whorf counters with his take on her so-called promiscuity: “I’ve seen your kind in every B-joint from L.A. to south Chicago. Get a guy to buy you a drink, and you clip him for two bits for a shot of tea. For another two bits, you let him call you honey.” Most of her dialogue, penned by Bezzerides and Kenneth Gamet, has a zesty edge: “Look, Bud, every time a freight train shakes itself, fleas like you come hopping out.”
She even scores with her languid singing of the ridiculous “I Hates Love,” penned by the team of M.K. Jerome and Jack Scholl. Sheridan’s immobile face is a study of exhausted resignation which befits both the actress and her role.
Fortunately, Juke Girl had its inspired moments and, as with all Warners movies of the period, it reeked with atmosphere. The joint where Sheridan and Faye Emerson work is a real joint, dirty, seedy, and absolutely real. And, in their last teaming together, Sheridan and Reagan strike a nice balance; she, disillusioned, and he earnest and a bit naïve. The brief scene in which the two walk down a country road and discuss their pasts is simple and real; at this moment we are provided with a hint of what Juke Girl might have been if more focus was placed on characters than all the assorted subplots. The whole cast (including Alan Hale, Gene Lockhart, George Tobias, Betty Brewer) does excellent work, under the circumstances, leading the Los Angeles Times to comment that the leading players are “good enough for the material … probably too good for it.”