Dust Be My Destiny (1939)

“Ain’t I got an honest face?”

Dust Be My Destiny is a long-neglected title starring the enigmatic John Garfield. When the film begins, Joe Bell (Garfield) is called to the prison warden’s office and informed in a semi-jocular tone, that he’s about to be set free since it’s been discovered that he is, after all, innocent. Joe, who’s served over 13 months of a sentence for a crime he didn’t commit, is embittered by his experience. Although he vows to stay out of trouble, he’s soon serving 90 days on an Honor Farm for vagrancy. Here he meets the warden’s daughter, Mabel (Priscilla Lane).

Through a series of adverse circumstances, Joe and Mabel go on the lam–running from authorities, trying to earn enough money to eat. Adversity sorely tests the limits of their relationship.

Dust Be My Destiny from director Lewis Seiler has its corny moments, but Garfield’s screen presence raises this drama from the tearjerker level. Joe is just an average man who’s been dealt a bad hand by society, and he never quite manages to recover from that first stint in jail. He’s justifiably bitter and hardened by the experience, and while he swears he’ll never trust anyone again, it’s these moments of trust that break through his shell and humanize him. The occasional acts of kindness that Joe and Mabel encounter prove to be their salvation–both physically and morally. And these instances restore Joe’s faith in human nature–a faith he’d rather just abandon so he can head into the only option he thinks he has left–a life of crime. Interestingly, the two characters who treat Joe with the greatest kindness are both foreigners–Henry Armetta plays cafe owner Nick Spelucci, and Ferike Boros plays a delicatessen owner. The film treats the acts of kindness of these two characters marvelously well while simultaneously recording Joe’s astonishment and chagrin as he discovers decent people who don’t place labels on him.

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