erik lundegaard

Friday September 18, 2020

Is This Why—Dare I Say It—Trump Will Lose?

“Demagogues become popular because they talk about things that matter to people. In 2016, Trump talked about immigration, the opioid crisis and political correctness — things that no one else was talking about. This year, he's talking about things that no one cares about: Confederate flags, Goodyear tires and his Twitter account. He's a demagogue increasingly disconnected from the demos.

”Unlike in 2016, Trump can't afford to talk about the country's biggest problems because he's primarily responsible for them. When he talks about problems, he denies they're problems. He tells sick people they're healthy and unemployed people that the economy is booming. To appeal to voters, he has to lie to them, and on Tuesday he lied to their masked faces. ...

“Campaigns are not about plans. They're about connecting with voters, which Trump so far has failed to do. He has no health care plan and no empathy. Rather than feeling your pain, Trump wants you to feel his.

-- Windsor Mann, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, and a senior adviser to the Lincoln Project, in the opinion piece “Donald Trump's supervillain ABC town hall made Joe Biden appear almost superhuman,” in USA TODAY

Posted at 11:59 AM on Friday September 18, 2020 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Thursday September 17, 2020

My Summer of Looking at Bar Graphs

If 2020 were a movie, what would you call it?

I was asked that recently, and, remembering a 1985 coming-of-age Yugoslav film, “When Father Was Away on Business,” which I saw at the U Film Society on the University of Minnesota campus, and whose title is a kind of bland missing of the point—the father was sent away to labor camp for anti-Stalinist rhetoric—I went with this: “The Year I Let My Hair Grow Long.”

I could also have gone with: “My Summer of Looking at Bar Graphs.” Since April, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Center ones. And since a week ago Tuesday, the Seattle Air Quality Index chart. 

Our windows have been closed since then. Open windows is normally my thing in the morning. Making coffee, and listening to George Harrison's “All Things Must Pass” album, which has become my pandemic staple, I open the kitchen window for the morning briskness and freshness. When I take the coffee into my office, and before settling down before the computer, I open the horizontal window there, and lean out to take in the day. Is traffic heavy? Are people walking dogs? Is a crazy person cursing passersby? I haven't been able to do that since Labor Day. I miss it.

The bar graphs have a similar kind of sad sameness. For Covid cases in the U.S., it's a quick rise and slow fall (March-early June), then a steeper quick rise and slower fall (June-present). For the Seattle AQI, it's a quick rise 10 days ago at 10 PM, and then a kind of stasis. Despite various predictions otherwise, our AQI only dropped below 150 for a few hours last Thursday. Sometimes it shoots up into the 200s (Hazardous), but mostly it fluctuates between 170 and 190 (Unhealthy). Yesterday was a little better: mostly in the 150s. This morning I was up early at 4 AM, wrote for a bit, then refreshed the page after 5 AM and knew hope: 137! Not that horrible red but a hopeful orange! Unhealthy only for people like me with respiratory issues! Yay! Then I did the coffee routine with George but without opening any windows, came back to my office with my coffee but without opening any windows, refreshed the page and ... 151 again. So it goes.

I could also title my 2020 movie “Mornings in the Plague with George.” I've relied on him a lot. From the title song:

Sunrise doesn't last all morning
A cloudburst doesn't last all day
Seems my love is up
And has left you with no warning
But it's not always going
To be this grey

“All things must pass,” yes, but the problem with the smoke is it keeps returning every late summer now. We got it bad two summers ago, mild last year, bad again this year. And it's all the west coast. That conversation needs to happen. The climate-change conversation needs to happen. Because it's happening. This time of year, it might always be this grey.

Posted at 07:27 AM on Thursday September 17, 2020 in category Personal Pieces   |   Permalink  

Tuesday September 15, 2020

Movie Review: Johnny Come Lately (1943)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I couldn’t help but think of “Bob Dylan’s Blues” with this one:

The Lone Ranger and Tonto
They are riding down the line
Fixing everybody’s troubles
Everybody’s except mine
Someone musta told them that I was doing fine

Cagney’s Tom Richards is the Lone Ranger here, but without the mask, horse, or Indian sidekick. He’s a journalist-poet-hobo who shows up in town, fixes troubles, leaves. I guess you could call him “a faraway fellow”—Pat O’Brien’s nickname for Cagney, who tended to avoid the Hollywood scrum. Like Danny Kenny in “City for Conquest,” he's another Cagney character who’s actually a bit like Cagney.

The movie also made me think of “Don’t Let’s Start” by They Might Be Giants:

No one in the world ever gets what they want
And that is beautiful
Everybody dies frustrated and sad
And that is beautiful

Not for the characters; for the star. “Johnny Come Lately” was Cagney’s first film after the huge success of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (box-office smash, AA for best actor, etc.) and the first film he and his brother William produced independently (with United Artists distributing). For about the first time in his successful career, Cagney didn’t have to take what Jack Warner dished; he could play whoever he wanted. And he chose this gentle soul in this gentle period piece set in a small American town in 1906. And the response was a yawn. The box office was OK, but it’s a movie that was quickly forgotten and not at all treasured. And the critics were brutal:

  • “A backward shot for Cagney Productions, indicating if anything that Warner Brothers old studio knew lots better than William Cagney what was good for brother James.” — John T. McManus, PM
  • “[The film] is not dreadful—Cagney is still the unique Cagney—but it is far below his standard. To put it bluntly, it is an old-fashioned story told in a very old-fashioned way. Please, Mr. Cagney, for the benefit of the public, yourself and Warners, go back where you made pictures like Yankee Doodle Dandy.” — Archer Winsten, New York Post

Imagine you’re Cagney. You finally get away from the effin’ Warners, and you have to hear this shit over and over.

I do agree with the criticism—and don’t. I think Warners often knew what was better for Cagney than Cagney. At the same time, “Johnny Come Lately” isn’t a bad movie. It’s an atypical Cagney picture, sure, but mostly it suffered as a follow-up to “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” If it had been released after “Torrid Zone” or “The Bride Came C.O.D.,” I doubt the reviews would’ve been this scathing. 

“Johnny” has one thing in common with “Yankee Doodle Dandy”: It resurrects a storied name from earlier in the century. Not one of the characters; one of the stars.

Three women
Grace George was an early 20th-century stage actress “whose style of high comedy charmed Broadway audiences for fifty years,” according to her 1961 New York Times obit. But she never really made the jump to movies. She was in a 1915 silent film and that’s it. Until this. Her credit is charming:

Introducing to the screen
Miss Grace George

Initially, the movie is all about her. Two hobos show up in a small town and the knowledgeable one leads another to the basement of a big house, where they’ll be fed hotcakes. 

Hobo 2: I thought you said it was a tough town.
Hobo 1: Sure, it’s tough. The lady here is different. Got a good heart. About the only one in town that has. Runs a newspaper. See that. [Points to masthead: “Vinnie McLeod, Editor”] That’s her.

Except she’s on hard times. Keeps hocking silver candlesticks and the like to stay afloat. She’s got two problems. One is the town’s own Mr. Potter, W.M. Dougherty (Edward McNamara), who runs a rival newspaper and has got everyone, including judges, in his pocket. She also owes him money and might lose her house. Not good. The other problem, which the movie doesn't acknowledge, is that she’s too nice. Her only reporter for 35 years has been her drunk brother, her receptionist is literally the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton), and her society page editor, her niece, Jane (Marjorie Lord), is dating the enemy: Dougherty’s son. She’s might lose everything to keep afloat a newspaper that probably isn’t worth it.

Enter Cagney. She finds him unshaven and reading “The Pickwick Papers” beneath a statue in the town square, and talks to him about literature. “I met Charles Dickens when he was here in ’67,” she says. That one makes your head spin but the math adds up. Mostly she’s there to warn him that the town is tough on vagrants: “They rope them in and put them to work on the road gangs and treat them brutally.” He listens but doesn’t; he keeps reading.

Next time she sees him, he’s before the judge as a vagrant. Except while the other vagrants are docile, he’s bemused and keeps quietly arguing his points. Last night? He was wandering around. Isn't he destitute? Nah, he’s got two bucks. But the judge is still putting him on the chain gang until she intervenes and hires him as a reporter—his previous occupation.

Initially he urges her away from reform:

Richards: You haven’t got a chance. I tried it myself once on a newspaper and had the boss slip out from under me when the going got too hot for him. Left me holding the bag. I’m not a crusader anymore. You can’t win. So why do you try?”
McLeod: Because you’ve got to try.

So they do. They close down the newspaper for three days and come back revamped. Earlier, Dougherty demanded she print editorials he had written, and they do, but with his lies pointed out in italics. Richards, a caricaturist, puts his drawings of Dougherty on the front page next to demands for why Dougherty hired an ex-con for a campaign manager. It gets noticed, particularly by Dougherty, who offers to double Richards’ salary if he’ll work for him. “Negative.” The he demands the rest of his editorials back. “Oh, I’m sorry, we’ve accepted them.” When the ex-con, Dudley Hirsch (Norman Willis), makes threatening remarks about Mrs. McLeod, Richards throws a chair at him.

In his memoir, Cagney said the greatest accomplishment of “Johnny Come Lately” was hiring good supporting players, which is is true—to a point. McNamara as Dougherty, for example, is a bland villain, while Willis’ Dudley is stock. It’s the women who are memorable. Not just Grace George, but Hattie McDaniel as Aida, the maid, and Marjorie Main as “Gashouse” Mary, the Hays-Code madam, whom Richards tries to recruit to the cause. Richards’ most interesting conversations are with these women.

OK, so the McDaniel stuff can be problematic. She was three years removed from winning an Oscar for “Gone with the Wind,” and her Aida here is a bit like Mammy there: the tough maid who thinks she runs the house—and kind of does—but is also treated like comic relief. She’s a bad cook, thinks herself married even though her husband left her 15 years ago, etc. But the conversation she has with Richards in the kitchen isn’t bad. She’s the one who tells Tom about “Gas House” Mary running a straight place and warns him about “cutting up” in there. When he plays innocent, she responds. “You a man, ain’tcha? That bouncer of hers will cut your head wide open.”

The stuff with “Gas House” Mary is even better. Main plays her big, like a post-sexual Mae West. She hates Dougherty, too, but has to pay him protection to survive. We also get this conversation, which resonates in an America with the idiot brat Donald Trump in charge:

Tom: What are you going to do about it?
Mary: Suppose you tell me. I’d kinda like to hear some fresh ideas.
Tom: I had the idea that we might get the honest citizens together and give ‘em the facts.
Mary: Yeah? Well, I’ve found it’s no good depending on honest citizens for a fight.

Independent production or not, it's a movie in the Production Code era, so we need our happy ending. Dougherty overplays his hand by sending goons to attack Mrs. McLeod, “Gas House” Mary agrees to go on the record, Dougherty’s police toss her in jail. This upsets Bill Swain (Robert Barrat), a Democratic leader who’s had a thing for Mary since forever, so he gets involved. Now the town is up in arms, hanging Dougherty in effigy. So he brokers a deal to skip town if they'll let his son stay. That's pretty much it. Not much justice but sorta.

I like the ways it diverges from a traditional movie. It looks like the star will get the girl, as usual, and Dougherty’s son, Pete (William Henry), even challenges Richards to a fight. But he loses. Except Jane runs to help the fallen Pete rather than the victorious Tom, and in Cagney's eyes you see the realization, “Oh. I guess it won't be me.” All of which is necessary for our Lone Ranger ending. Everything fixed, Mrs. McLeod assumes he’ll be on the road again soon. She even does a variant of “Who was that masked man?”

Mrs. McLeod: It’s strange. How little I know about you. Where you come from, where you’re going. Anything. Have you no one belonging to you anywhere? Haven’t you even got a girl someplace?
Richards: Sure. Sure I have. You’re my girl. [kisses her cheek]

Then a train sounds in the distance, and soon he’s on one, riding the boxcars, returning to life on the open road. Free.

Open roads never stay open
That’s also Cagney, right? Free of Warners. On the open road at a time when most stars were still bound to their contracts. He never did much with it, though: a WWII actioner; an OSS actioner. Then he tried to get hifalutin with William Saroyan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Time of Your Life,” and it lost so much money he was forced to return to Warners and the gangster role he was always running from (“White Heat”). Open roads don’t stay open long. Not if you want to keep the farm.

The movie was helmed by a lot of Cagney one-timers: directed by William K. Howard (his third-to-last), and written by John Van Druten (who wrote the play “Cabaret” is based on), from a novel, “McLeod’s Folly,” by Louis Bromfield. Bromfield’s interesting. A novelist who hung out with Hemingway and Stein in the 1920s, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1927 for “Early Autumn.” He was hugely popular as well, selling millions of copies of his books, and in Hollywood did uncredited work in both “Dracula” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” He was best man at the wedding of Bogart and Bacall, and good friends with Cagney, with whom he shared an interest in farming. From John McCabe’s “Cagney”:

When Cagney Productions began to search out literary properties, it was inevitable that Jim would think of Bromfield. He selected one of the novelist’s gentlest stories, McLeod’s Folly, featuring a protagonist as unlike the standard Cagney screen persona as it was possible to be short of a hermit. The Cagneys obtained the services of the London and Broadway playwright John Van Druten to transmute a mild little novel into what unfortunately turned out to be a mild little movie, Johnny Come Lately

Mild, sure. But not bad.

Anyway, all of this seems so Cagney. He dismissed what he did while idolizing the Gladys Georges and Louis Bromfields of the world. Now they’re mostly remembered for work they did with him.

Posted at 07:24 AM on Tuesday September 15, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  

Monday September 14, 2020

Fire and Virus

I've been refreshing two website pages every hour on the hour today. The first is the Air Quality Index for Seattle; the second is Amazon's “track package” page for the air purifier I bought last week. It's scheduled to arrive “before 8 PM,” while Seattle's AQI was scheduled to get better by 11 AM, so for a time it seemed like a race. I was rooting for both. OK, mostly for the AQI. Sadly, it looks like the winds and rains were less than anticipated and now they're saying it'll be Friday before Seattle sees, or smells, some relief. Fuck.

We woke up to it last week, Tuesday morning, the day after Labor Day, with the apartment smelling like a campfire. It shot up the previous night: from good (below 50), to unhealthy for people with conditions (101-150) to unhealthy for everyone (151-200). It toyed with us for a few days, and managed to get below 100 for a few hours on Thursday, allowing me to open the windows during that time, but then it went back up again. At times, it's gotten over 200 but mostly it's just hovered in the 170-190 range. Current: 183. Current mood: shitty.

First Trump, then Covid, now this. A reprise of those horrible weeks back in 2018. It's like this every late summer now.

Glad I got my exercise in the weekend before it all went bad but wish I'd known to close the windows Monday night. Either way, in air-conditioner-less Seattle, the stuff seeps in. You feel it in your throat and eyes. My wife has been coughing a bit, has a bit of a sore throat. That's worrisome in the middle of a pandemic but oddly less so in the middle of a pandemic and wildfire season. “Well, it's probably just the smoke,” you say. It's the other thing. How many ways are they trying to kill us? We need an update of Frost: “Some say the world will end in fire/ Some say in virus.”

I joke, but it's no joke when the air feels like your enemy. It's one thing you can't get away from.

Current AQI: 177. Current mood: shitty.

I'll let you know who wins. 

UPDATE, 8:06 PM: Refreshed the Amazon page for about the 30th time today and it now says the purifier will be delivered Tuesday or Wednesday. “We're very sorry your delivery is late. Most late packages arrive in a day. If you have not received your package by September 16, you can come back here the next day for a refund or replacement.” Right. Or worse. This isn't like a shirt or a book, boys. It's to help breathe.

Current AQI: 185. Current mood: a little pissed off. 

Posted at 11:20 AM on Monday September 14, 2020 in category Seattle   |   Permalink  

Saturday September 12, 2020

Quote of the Day

Posted at 06:59 PM on Saturday September 12, 2020 in category Media   |   Permalink  

Friday September 11, 2020

Movie Review: Trapped By Television (1936)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In the 1920s and ‘30s, as inventors were trying to create a visual version of radio called “television,” the film industry was already exploiting the concept in low-budget movies. Has someone done a study on this? It’s a major plot point in “International House” (1933) starring W.C. Fields, in which various people bid on the invention in a Chinese hotel; “The Big Broadcast of 1936” (1935), where TV is called “the Radio Eye”; a 1935 Bela Lugosi horror film called “Murder by Television”; and this, whose working title was “Caught by Television.”

The future Lex Luthor and the future femme fatale
introduce the future.*

I was caught anyway. I watched because I was intrigued by the title. And? It’s not much, a low-budget quickie, but it has moments.

Sweeping the country
Rocky (Nat Pendleton, the future Goliath in “At the Circus”) is good-natured muscle for the Acme Collection Agency (“If they’ve got it, we’ll get it”), but in his spare time he likes reading “Popular Science,” which his boss, Greggs (Wade Boteler), calls “machinery magazines.” Berated for not pulling his weight, Rocky is given a new assignment: a guy named Fred Dennis (Lyle Talbot, the future Lex Luthor in “Atom Man vs. Superman”), who is working on a beta version of television.

Rather than strong-arm him, though, Rocky becomes intrigued. He thinks Dennis is onto something and wants to help make it happen. So not only does he not take his equipment, he gets Dennis a job as a debt collector for the agency so he can pay back his debt.

Dennis’ first assignment? Blake Enterprises, Inc., a down-on-its-luck sales/promotion firm run by Bobby Blake (Mary Astor, the future femme fatale in “Maltese Falcon”). That debt isn’t collected, either, of course. Instead, he tells her about his television and she promises to help sell it. Per “Maltese,” she doesn’t really believe in his invention; she believes in the money she might bilk for it.

Mae: [Joyce Compton, Bobby’s wise-crackin’ secretary] Say, you don’t think that machine is any good, do you?
Bobby: I don’t think it can squeeze orange juice. What difference does it make? It looks complicated enough to fool anybody. … Television is sweeping the country. Everybody is interested in it and practically nobody knows the first thing about it. That’s where the chumps come in. Curtis would fall for it like a ton of bricks.

Curtis is the president of the Paragon Broadcasting Company (Thurston Hall), and he doesn’t believe in it, either, but he basically gives her a $200 check to get rid of her. Two-hundred bucks! Bobby and Mae celebrate. Except after visiting Dennis, and seeing the commitment he has to the project, and maybe being a little stuck on him, Bobby, against her better, cynical instincts, gives him the dough. 

And he makes it work. Then they demo it for Paragon at a football game with Rocky filming and broadcasting, and … it doesn’t work. Paragon was working on its own version of television until its chief engineer Paul Turner (Wyrley Birch), and his assistant Frank Griffin (Marc Lawrence), went missing. Turns out Turner was kidnapped, and later murdered, by Griffin, who’s working with Paragon executive Standish (Robert Strange). I guess they think they can sell Curtis his own product? Main point is they sabotage Dennis’ demonstration by mucking with the cathode-ray tube. But Dennis figures it out, Bobby sells her prize fur coat to get him a new cathode-ray tube, and, even as the bad guys converge, the new Paragon demo works.

The first thing broadcast? A dull fight scene, blows continually exchanged, between mobster Griffin and scientist Dennis. Prescient.

Whatever happened to…?
“Television” is directed by Del Lord, who seems worthy of a movie himself. He started as a stuntman and a member of the Keystone Kops. Apparently he was adept at crazy, perilous driving. Eventually he became the director of stunt scenes and then Mack Sennett shorts. But when the Depression ruined Sennett, he was let go. A Columbia Pictures executive found him selling used cars. At this point, Columbia had just signed the Three Stooges and they figured the former Keystone Kop/director would be perfect for them. Apparently he was. Over the next 10+ years, he directed more than three dozen Stooges shorts, their best stuff, apparently, and was so revered a New York band named themselves the Del-Lords in his honor.

What he didn’t do much? Feature-length films. IMDb lists 220 directing credits for him, and all but 15 are shorts. He did three features in the ’20s: “Lost at the Front,” a WWI comedy; “Topsy and Eva,” a farce based on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (you can see a clip here, if you dare); and “Barnum was Right,” about a down-on-his-luck hotel owner who drums up business with rumors of hidden treasure. This is his first talkie feature. Don't know why they didn't give him a comedy, but that’s Hollywood.

So is there anything of value in it—other than an early look at the medium that usurped the movies as the preeminent storyteller of American lives? Yes, a few things.

Pendleton’s got good comic timing. He played a similar role in “Manhattan Melodrama”—the not-bright muscle with a heart of gold—and of course he made a great comic foil for the Marx Brothers. Born in 1895, the son of a lawyer, he took to wrestling, and was good enough to win a silver medal in the 1920 Olympics. He kept acting into the ’40s; he died of a heart attack in 1967, age 72.

There’s also a great scene after the Paragon engineer has been kidnapped. They’re in a cabin, the engineer is locked in a closet and banging on the door, while Griffin, the mobster, lays on the bed shooting darts at a dartboard with a blowgun. Splat! Splat! There’s something both indolent and menacing in Lawrence’s movements. He’s another story: Group Theater, good friend of John Garfield, gangster roles, blacklisted, European films, returning to the U.S. for TV and movie roles. He kept acting into the 21st century (take that, HUAC!) before dying in 2005 at the age of 95.

Finally,  in “Television,” there’s this early line from Bobby Blake about the titular subject: “Well, if it does what you say it will, the entire industry will be affected.” They had no idea. 

* The above photo is taken from the Bradford Evening Star and Daily Record, Bradford, Penn., July 11, 1936, Saturday evening edition. “Trapped” is a B-picture from a minor-major studio, Columbia, so hardly any posters were created for it. Even in the newspaper ads back then it was usually listed as an “Also” or “Plus”; it was the other feature you could see when you saw the one everyone was talking about. 

Posted at 07:38 AM on Friday September 11, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Tuesday September 08, 2020

The M-A-G-A Took My Country Away

Ramones version here.

Posted at 04:13 PM on Tuesday September 08, 2020 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Tuesday September 08, 2020

Movie Review: City for Conquest (1940)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Unlike most James Cagney characters, Danny Kenny actually reminded me of Cagney. Not because he’s a boxer and Cagney was a boxer early in his life; and certainly not because his girl Peggy (Ann Sheridan) is a dancer and he loses her to another dancer, Murray Burns (Anthony Quinn). Cagney could’ve danced rings around both actors.

No, for this reason: Danny Kenny, like Cagney, was really good at a thing but didn’t care about it that much. He even avoided it.

For Kenny, the thing was boxing. For Cagney, it was playing gangsters. Not many were better at it but he dismissed it; he fought it. You could say both men are gentle souls but good at a violent thing.

In the commentary track, Richard Schickel expands upon this thought: 

Unlike everyone else in “City for Conquest,” [Kenny] is not a particularly ambitious man. He will later say to Ann Sheridan, lines to the effect, “Well, I’m on the local train and you’re on the express train.” And he’s happy to be on the local train. He doesn’t particularly want to make money—except to the degree it’ll help his brother pursue his studies and become a major composer. In a funny way, that sort of fit Cagney. He was, despite his talent … not more than a reluctant movie star.

The ambition angle is interesting. There’s a character here called Old Timer who’s obviously a ripoff of the Stage Manager from “Our Town”—which had opened on Broadway two years earlier. He’s even played by the same actor, Frank Craven, who originated the Stage Manager role. He’s quirky, whimsical, interacts with secondary characters, and comments upon the proceedings. He has a repeated line I like: “Because I got clothes on my back.”

He’s particularly interested in Danny, of course, and follows him from a boy who fights for the honor of Peggy to a man who works construction and boxes on the side under the heavily symbolic nom de guerre “Young Samson.” At one point, Old Timer talks to a guy backstage at the boxing arena: 

Old Timer: Who won?
Worker: I never know till they come through.
Old Timer: I can tell you who won.
Worker: Who?
Old Timer: Young Samson. He’s got to win.
Worker: Why?
Old Timer: Because he doesn’t care whether he wins or not.

Is it a Zen thing? Hit the target by not aiming for it? Or is the author like an Old Testament God who punishes people for their ambition? Peggy wants her name in lights and gets raped. Danny reaches too high to get Peggy back and is blinded in a title bout. Googi (Elia Kazan) rises high in the gangster world but is shot down with these dying words: “Never figured on that at all.” (Great dying words.) The only ambitious people who aren’t struck down are the assholes like Murray. The story just punishes the good.

“City” is based upon a hugely successful 1936 novel by Aben Kandel that involved the rise and fall of a dozen characters over decades, and which has been compared to Dos Passos, but it was obviously truncated for the movies and probably became too reductive. Cagney was apparently a huge fan. According to his biographer, John McCabe, he reread parts regularly. And when he heard Warners bought the rights as a vehicle for him, he was all in.

Add a celebrated director like Anatole Litvak (“Sorry, Wrong Number,” “The Snake Pit”), a screenwriter like John Wexley (“Angels with Dirty Faces”), and one of the best cinematographers in Hollywood history, James Wong Howe, and it seems like a slam-dunk.

So why is it so awful?

The sharpie from 65th Street
Let’s start with overwrought. Here’s the Old Timer at the beginning talking to a cop (Ward Bond):

Look at it: seven million people, fighting, biting, clawing their way to get one foot on a ladder that’ll take them to a penthouse. Yes, siree, they come by the thousands, every which way: by water, by wheel, by foot, by ferry, by tunnel, by tube; over, across and under the river. They come like locusts from all over the nation. …

That’s not awful in itself but then they double down on it. Danny has a younger brother named Eddie (Arthur Kennedy in his screen debut), a composer, and one evening he tells Danny about his idea for a new symphony. About New York. And as he’s pounding on the piano keys, he repeats a lot of what the Old Timer said—but worse:

A full symphony of it—with all its proud, passionate beauty and all of its sordid ugliness and of its great wealth and power and its everlasting hunger. And of its teeming seven millions and its barren loneliness … with all of its mounting, shrieking jungle-cries for life and sun. And then carrying on, up to the towering skyscrapers, and the story of all those who tried to scale their dizzy heights … but CRASHED [hands crash over the piano keys], frustrated and broken to the concrete pavements.

It’s a testament to Cagney’s talent that he can look on admiringly while listening to this crap.

So that’s a problem. Even so, put these actors together on a Lower East Side set on the Warner Bros. lot, with Howe photographing, and I’m happy. And for a time I was happy.

And then the rape.

No, even before that. Our hero, Danny, will do anything for Peggy, but we quickly realize she’s not worth it. After Danny knocks out an up-and-comer to get money for Eddie, they all go out to celebrate. Except she’s late in congratulating him and constantly looking around. Eventually she notices Quinn’s character—shoes first, like Peggy Noonan with Reagan—and the two dance together and wind up winning a silver loving cup. Danny’s cool with it until Murray opens his trap and Danny decks him. Later, he apologizes: “I don’t mind you dancing with the guy but he tried to make you look like two cents.” Murray actually insulted all of them but it’s the insult to Peggy that bugs him. But Peggy doesn’t hear it or see it. She wants to see her name in lights and figures Murray Burns is the way to go; so she immediately phones him, then spends several scenes standing Danny up. Then she shows up for a Sunday afternoon on Coney Island with Danny like everything’s fine. This is when we get that express/local exchange, and she criticizes him for not having any ambition, so he decides to get some. He decides to take boxing more seriously. He even gets a manager, Scotty MacPherson (Donald Crisp), and goes out on the circuit.

I love all the things Danny calls Murray Burns:

  • That speiler
  • That sharpshooter
  • That creepy cake-eater
  • That sharpie from 65th street

This last comes after Peggy’s mom blames Danny for Peggy’s late nights: “Peggy chasing around every night with that sharpie from 65th Street,” Danny says to Eddie, “and I gotta take the schlack.” Such a great line. (Is it schleck? Shleck? Shrek? Does anyone know? I get the feeling it’s Yiddish but can’t find anything.)

Then we get an even greater line—the most Warner Bros. line that Warner Bros. ever produced. Again, to Eddie, Danny says: “And everything was going along good until that sharpie came along and gave her a fancy line of gab.”

But then the rape. 

Another sharpie, Al (Charles Lane, who always played this type), sees Peggy and Murray dance and signs them to a contract. They’re going to go on the road! Billed, believe it or not, as “Burns and Company.” Peggy’s the company. And she’s fine with it; she leaves everything to Murray, she says. And after Al leaves, they’re joyous, celebrating, and Peggy kicks up her leg and one of her shoes winds up in the corner. And that’s when Murray makes his move:

Peggy: Please let me go, Murray, my shoe.
Burns: Don’t worry about that, baby.
[Closeup of shoe in the corner]

Peggy: Please let me go, Murray. Murray, please let me go. Please let me go. Let me go!
[Fade to black]

The horror is that even after that she’s still with him—dancing every night. Because of the contract? Because of the times? Because she’s been broken? And she and Danny keep criss-crossing paths on their various circuits—she dance, he boxing—until they hook up again back in NYC. And they walk around the city, or against a backdrop of the city, and reconnect. He asks if she’s still his girl, and she says yes, and it looks like things might be good again. She only has two weeks left on the contract and she’s done. But back in the dressing room, there’s Al, talking about how he books them on a world tour: $850 a week, 40 weeks. And she seems torn until Al mentions how her name will be spelled out in lights. And her eyes light up. And instead of returning to New York to Danny, she sends Danny a letter. And he’s crushed all over again.

Here’s the thing: They could have made this work. They could have made it dramatic without us losing respect for Peggy—who is, after all, a victim of a violent crime. I kept flashing to that great “Sopranos” episode where Dr. Melfi is raped, and her rapist gets off on a technicality, and the drama is in this: Does she tell Tony? “I could have him squashed like a bug,” she says of the rapist, and she could, but then she would be beholden to Tony; then she would be in his universe. That’s the drama—what does she do?—and that could be the drama here. If she tells Danny, he’d squash Murray like a bug; he’d beat him to death. But then Danny would wind up in prison, maybe, and so that’s why she doesn’t do it. She’s looking out for Danny. Instead, she gets raped and nothing happens because she wants to see her name in lights.

The whole thing is more disgusting than anything I ever saw in any precode movie. Thanks for nothing, Joe Breen.

Page 21
It doesn’t get any better, either. Danny figures he really needs to get on the express to win Peggy; so, against the counsel of his manager, he goes for the welterweight championship. He gets ambition. Would’ve won, too, but the other side cheats. They rub the champ’s gloves in rosin, it gets in Danny’s eyes; then they spend seven more rounds pounding it in. By the end, Danny’s blind. Cf., Samson. “ 

He winds up running a newsstand in Times Square. It’s from there that he listens to Eddie’s great symphony about New York, which he finally gets to conduct, and which is such a hit that a speech from the composer/conducted is demanded. And boy does Eddie give a speech. It that overwrought shit again—all about his brother: 

In his heart and soul there was such wealth of music. Music of the city. The music that led him on to glory, to conquest, to tragedy and defeat. But in that very defeat, he conquered. For all of the men that I have come to know, who have loved and lost, this boy retained a great nobility that far surpassed any possible conquest. Yes, my brother made music with his fists so that I might make a gentler music—the symphony that you have heard tonight. It is his as much as mine. And so with deep pride and gratitude, I dedicate this music to my brother: known to most of you … as Young Samson!

Of course Peggy’s there. And of course she runs into Danny’s friend, Mutt (Frank McHugh), and he tells her about the newsstand, and that’s where she goes. They’re reunited. Then he says a version of the line repeated throughout the movie: 

Danny: You were always my girl. Ain’t that right, Peg?
Peggy: Always, Danny, always!

Cagney is excellent as a blind man—he really is such an underrated actor; O’Connell is perfectly cast as Danny’s younger brother; and Quinn makes a nasty villain. We also get Sidney Miller as a young bandleader, as well as Craven’s good turn as the Old Timer. But it’s not a good movie. Interesting note: Craven, for all his progressive trappings here, was actually a rock-ribbed Republican, and election night 1940 Cagney and his wife were invited to Bob Montgomery’s party, where they were about the only Democrats. From Cagney’s autobiography:

It was black-tie, all very fancy. My wife wore a huge Roosevelt button, and when we walked into this group of rabid Republicans, we were received in some quarters with coolness. Old Frank Craven, with whom I’d just finished a picture, wouldn’t even shake hands with me.

“City for Conquest” is a turning point in a couple of ways in the Cagney oeuvre. Throughout the ’30s, his characters were almost always referred to by the diminutive or diminutive-sounding: Jimmy, Lefty, Danny, Patsy, Danny (II), Jimmy (II), Chesty, Eddie, Tommy, Danny (III), Dizzy, Johnny, Terry, Rocky, Eddie (II) and Jerry. And here they double-down on it: His fourth go as Danny, followed by Kenny. But guess what? It’s the last diminutive he’ll have in his career. After this, he becomes Biff, Steve, Brian, George, Nick, Bob, etc. I guess if you’re in your 40s or 50s, the diminutives just don’t fit.

It’s also the last movie Cagney made before he was accused of being a communist. “City” wrapped in June/July, and in August, before a Grand Jury, John L. Leech, a former Communist official in LA, named Cagney, Bogart, Frederic March and a dozen or so Hollywood bigwigs as Communist party members, sympathizers or contributors. It made the front page of The New York Times on August 15: 

Cagney had to fly to the west coast—he hated flying—and make his case before Martin Dies of the Dies Committee. A week later, he was cleared. The Times printed that, too. On page 21.

Not sure if it's a coincidence, but after his personal red scare you don’t see Cagney making many of these Warner Bros. “social message” movies. His next is a turn-of-the-century romance steeped in nostalgia; then he tries a screwball comedy with Bette Davis. Before the U.S.’s entry into the war, he makes a movie about the heroism of Canadian bush pilots who go to war; and during and after Pearl Harbor, he makes “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” with all those grand old flags. After that, no committee, Dies or HUAC, can touch him. But I can't help but wonder what we missed.

Posted at 07:50 AM on Tuesday September 08, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  
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