Movie Reviews - 1940s posts
Saturday September 16, 2023
Movie Review: Dillinger (1945)
The 1945 movie “Dillinger” may have more in common with the 1949 James Cagney movie “White Heat” than it does with John Dillinger.
In this way.
In the beginning of the third act, an attempted train robbery goes awry, gang leader John Dillinger (Lawrence Tiereney) is wounded, and the gang holes up in a mountain cabin, where the protagonist's blonde dame (Anne Jeffreys) gets too chummy with one of the gang members. Sound familiar? You could segue that right into the beginning of “White Heat,” where an attempted train robbery goes awry, a gang member is wounded, and the gang holes up in a mountain cabin where the protagonist's blonde dame (Virgina Mayo) gets too chummy with one of the gang members. Basically “White Heat” begins near where “Dillinger” ends.
Jeffreys and Mayo even look alike:
“White Heat” is the better movie, of course, and it has Cagney. The amazing thing about Cagney is that even when he played an awful person you still liked him. You felt for him. Not true for Tierney. He plays Dillinger as a flaming asshole and you get the feeling it’s not just Dillinger.
This is the movie debut of Tierney, who would become famous in my day as the gruff, bald bossman in “Reservoir Dogs.” Here, he’s young and slim with slicked-back hair. He’s got a B-grade Kirk Douglas thing going. In the opening credits, he’s “And introducing…”
This was Hollywood’s introduction to Dillinger, too. He was gunned down outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago in July 1934, but that was about the time the Production Code grew teeth. Since Catholic orgs were already up in arms (so to speak) about fictional gangsters like Tom Powers and Tony Camonte, one assumes the studios decided to steer clear of the real deal. Elements of Dillinger’s story may have been used in 1935’s “Public Hero No. 1” starring Chester Morris, but that character was named Jeff Crane. Here it’s finally John Dillinger.
Of course, how much of it is John Dillinger? Iffy.
The movie begins where Dillinger’s life ended: at a movie theater. After a quick “News of the World”-type documentary on the bank robber, Dillinger’s dad comes onstage, hat literally in hand, to talk about his son. He says young John was like the other boys until he wasn’t. “It was best to give him his head,” Dad says.
Then we cut to Dillinger as a grown man about to commit his first crime. This is part of the film that feels iffy. He’s at a bar/diner with a blonde, the waiter won’t take his check, so he goes into the night and knocks off a little grocer. Gets $7.20. Then he runs straight into a cop and straight into prison. There he talks big but is surrounded by guys who actually knocked off banks—primarily his cellmate Specs (Edmund Lowe), who leads a gang of three: Marco (Eduardo Ciannelli), Doc (Marc Lawerence), and Kirk (Elisha Cook Jr.). Kirk has a grape-eating habit that I assumed would come into play but doesn’t.
The other gang members don’t think much of the loudmouthed kid but Specs figures he’ll be useful. And he is: paroled first, he springs the others with a scheme involving firearms smuggled into cement-mix barrels. Afterwards, they’re knocking off bank after bank, with Specs leading the way and Dillinger marginalized and seething on the sidelines. Then he comes up with a great scheme and suddenly the gang is his. It’s a quick turnabout.
As they cut a swath west, the movie suggests Dillinger is captured at a dentist in Tucscon, Ariz., because Specs squeals to the cops. Then we get part of the legend I remember: Dillinger, in prison, carving a gun out of a piece of wood, painting it with shoe polish, and escaping. (I flashed on the Woody Allen twist in “Take the Money and Run” and laughed.) Back at the hideout, Dillinger kills Specs for squawking and takes over the gang for good. His next scheme is the aforementioned train robbery, which will sic the feds on them, and get Kirk killed and Dillinger wounded. Their mountain hideaway belongs to Kirk’s surrogate parents, so there’s tension, but I like how economical the movie is about it. Nobody says anything. The elders just seeing the gang tromping in without Kirk and get it. After an attempted late-night call to the cops, Dillinger kills them.
Again, this section is very “White Heat.” Dillinger’s dame, Helen Rogers, a movie theater cashier he robbed, winds up spending time with Tony (Ralph Lewis), the newest, youngest and cutest member of the outfit, and Dillinger doesn’t like it. It’s not just paranoia, either—they have something going. So Tony gets an off-screen axe in the back, the last of the gang surrenders to the feds, and Dillinger and Helen flee to Chicago, where Dillinger holes up in a two-bit hotel, while Helen keeps eyeing the $15K reward for his capture. It’s December, and, trapped, he listens to a street-corner Santa (in creepy mask) and kids singing Christmas carols. For a moment, I worried they were going to off him in December rather than July.
Nope. We cut ahead seven months, when Dillinger, now sporting a bad moustache and small sunglasses—like in life—takes Helen to the Biograph for “Manhattan Melodrama,” a gangster flick starring Clark Gable, as the feds close in. Helen dresses in red. She’s both Billie Frechette (his lover) and Anna Sage (the woman in red who betrayed him).
Is Dillinger most famous for how he left us? I still wonder why him. How did he become as big a story as he became. If you do a newspapers.com search on “John Dillinger,” he was nothing until 1934, when he was everything; then he was nothing again.
Number of mentions of “John Dillinger” in U.S. newspapers:
- 1932: 58
- 1933: 3,527
- 1934: 81,994
- 1940: 1,044
- 1944: 792
Yet the name lives on. We didn’t get another cinematic Dillinger until Leo Gordon played him in Don Siegel’s “Baby Face Nelson” in 1957, and not another attempted biopic until 1965’s “Young Dillinger,” starring Nick Adams. Post-“Bonnie and Clyde,” everyone tried: the Italians (“Dillinger is Dead,” 1969), John Milius (“Dillinger,” 1973, starring Warren Oates), Roger Corman (“The Lady in Red,” 1979, written by John Sayles, focusing on Frechette). Eventually we got around to Michael Mann and his mania for detail in 2009.
1945’s “Dilllinger” was directed by Max Nosseck, a German-Jewish director who fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and wound up directing nothing big. This one, at 6.5, is his fourth-ranked on IMDb. I’d be interested in seeing his top-ranked, “Singing in the Dark” at 7.4. It’s from 1956, about a Holocaust survivor. Tierney has a small part.
The shock for Hollywood in 1945 was less that “Dillinger” was made than it garnered an Academy Award nomination for Philip Yordan for best original screenplay—but that shouldn’t have been a shock. In the early days, gangster flicks often got screenplay and story noms. In one ceremony alone, three of the five story nominations were gangsters: “Doorway to Hell,” “Smart Money” and “The Public Enemy.” The previous go-round, Ben Hecht’s “Underworld” won, and a few years later, Arthur Caesar’s “Manhattan Melodrama”—the movie that killed Dillinger—won. It was a theme.
Virginia Kellogg got nom’ed for story for “White Heat,” too, but I am curious if she saw this. Her story was supposedly based on Ma Barker and his boys, then it evolved into Ma and one boy, while Cagney suggested getting psychopathic and psychological with it.
In the end, for all the problems regal Hollywood had with a two-bit outfit like Monogram Pictures glorifying an infamous bank robber like John Dillinger, “Dillinger” winds up being that rare biopic where you don’t care much for the main subject. He starts out a jerk, he ends a jerk. After he’s shot down outside the Biograph, the cops go through his pockets and find $7.20—the same as after his initial robbery. That’s what crime will get you, kids: nothing. Remember that.
Wednesday March 08, 2023
Movie Review: All My Sons (1948)
Let me give you the synopsis of an Arthur Miller play: A businessman with two sons and a doting wife has a terrible secret, and when one of his sons finds out their relationship is ruined. The family seems happy but is actually haunted—it’s dealing with ghosts—ghosts that went overseas. For a time, the father sustains himself with lies. But in the end, forced to confront his failures, he kills himself.
And the play isn’t “Death of a Salesman."
It was wild seeing “All My Sons” as the closing movie at SIFF’s 2023 “Noir City” Film Festival. One, it’s not close to being a noir, and two, it touches on many of the themes and plot points of “Salesman.” The ghost that haunts the family isn’t Ben, the older brother who walked out of the jungle a rich man at age 21, but Larry, the son who went overseas to fight the war and never returned. And the father’s secret isn’t an affair with a floozy; it’s shipping defective airplane parts that cause the death of 21 American pilots during World War II.
Directed by Elia Kazan, “All My Sons” debuted on Broadway in January 1947, ran for a year, and won Tonys for best author and best direction, as well as the New York Critics Circle prize for best play of the 1946-47 season.
Then it came to Hollywood.
The movie isn’t bad, but …
- Burt Lancaster as Edward G. Robinson’s son? I guess the wife did a lot of heavy DNA lifting there.
- Howard Duff as the moral authority? Enjoy it while you can, Howard.
- Louisa Horton as the girl you yearn for even though she reminds everyone of family tragedies? I guess?
Universal tapped Chester Erskine to adapt and Irving Reis to direct. Erskine was also producer so he had a say, but neither seems the A team.
The relationships here are interconnected enough to feel incestuous. Chris Keller (Lancaster) is courting Ann Deever (Horton), who used to be his brother Larry’s girl, and whose father is the business partner Chris’ father, Joe (Robinson), betrayed. Yeah, that’s some baggage with which to start a relationship. Worse, Chris’ mother, Kate (Mady Christians), keeps calling her “Larry’s girl” because she can’t abide any suggestion Larry won’t return—to the point where she seems a bit nuts. Meanwhile, Ann’s brother George (Duff) has just visited their father, Herbert (Frank Conroy), in prison, realizes how Chris’ father betrayed him, and arrives to take Ann away.
I like how even George has a secret—he has a thing for a married neighbor, Lydia Luby (Elisabeth Fraser), who’s on her third child. I also like how he shows up angry, ready to take Ann away, until he’s mothered into a good mood by Kate. (Kate, oddly, is at her best with George.) But he loses the good mood at dinner, when Joe begins bragging about how he’s never been sick a day in his life—even though a sick day was his excuse for why Herbert, and Herbert alone, was responsible for shipping the defective parts.
The second half of the movie is Chris realizing his father is in fact guilty. Eleventh hour, Ann brings out a letter Larry wrote the morning he left for his final mission. He says he was so distraught by his father’s actions that he planned to commit suicide by crashing his plane off the coast of China. All of which makes Joe kinda-sorta wake up and realize he shouldn’t have shipped the defective parts—that those boys overseas were all his sons. He says this as he goes upstairs. And then blam.
The movie ends with Kate shooing Chis and Ann out the door and desperately urging them to live … LIVE! I don’t know if that was an attempt at a happy ending but it comes across as the opposite.
Here’s what I don’t get. Why would Joe would ship defective airplane parts overseas when his son was a pilot overseas? He didn’t need to see every G.I. as his son, he just needed to connect the obvious dots. “Joe, what if your son winds up flying one of our defective planes?” “You’re right, Herb. Don’t know what I was thinking.”
Apparently all of this is based on a true incident. From 1941 to 1943, officials at an aeronautical plant in Ohio “conspired with civilian advisers and Army inspection officers to approve substandard or defective aircraft engines for military use.” Miller’s mother-in-law pointed out the story to him.
Interesting that the two big Warner Bros. gangsters, Robinson and James Cagney, both starred in film adaptations of award-winning plays in 1948. Cagney’s was the self-produced “The Time of Your Life” by William Saroyan, which won the Pulitzer in 1940, and in which Cagney plays “Joseph T. (who observes people).” Neither is great nor well-remembered. Cagney’s nearly sent him into bankruptcy.
This movie did make me think Robinson would’ve made a great Willy Loman. He’s what Miller envisioned the character to be: short, Jewish, charming, a perennial outsider.
Thursday December 15, 2022
Movie Review: Brother Orchid (1940)
There’s novelty in the premise of “Brother Orchid”—a gangster in a monastery—it just takes a while to get there. In the meantime, it’s same old same old. And then it’s not much.
Little John Sarto (Edward G. Robinson) decides to get out of the rackets and become a gentleman, only to find himself among bigger crooks than he ever was. If that sounds familiar, it’s the premise of the Robinson flick “The Little Giant” from 1933. There, he tried to join California high society. Here, he takes a trip to Europe, where he gets rooked in country after country. In London, he buys the world’s biggest diamond … that turns out to be a door knob. In Rome he buys “The Bed of the Borgias” … made in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Etc.
Sarto is a sucker here because he’s trying to be what he isn’t: someone with class. He loses the rest gambling in Monte Carlo. We’re not 10 minutes in.
The other Jack Buck
So he returns to what he is—being a gangster—which is when we get a less brutal version of what happened to Robinson in “The Last Gangster” from 1937. The remnants of his gang, led by Humphrey Bogart’s Jack Buck (yes, same as the great St. Louis Cardinals announcer), don’t want him back. They hot-wire a chair, berate him, toss him out on his ear. Two remain loyal: his dame, Flo (Ann Sothern, great), and Willie the Knife (Allen Jenkins), who checked himself into a New Jersey sanitarium to avoid Bogie. Flo, meanwhile, has gotten rich, thanks in part to a tall good-natured Texan, Clarence Fletcher (Ralph Bellamy), who follows her everywhere. Clarence is good with his fists, too. When Buck’s men try to make trouble outside the sanitarium, Clarence takes them out himself.
You kind of expect Clarence to be the muscle going forward, but nah, we get bland Warners guys; then it’s tit-for-tat stuff. Bogie makes a move here, Sarto counters there. It’s Flo who breaks the impasse. She brokers a meeting 20 miles outside the city. For a second she seems smart, but she isn’t, and Sarto is set up. In the woods he gets away, wounded, and winds up being revived at a monastery.
By this point, we’re halfway through the movie.
Some of it isn’t bad. When he first wakes up and see the brothers surrounding his bed, he says, “I made it ... I’m in heaven.” When he tries on sandals: “Say, this is the first time I’ve seen shoes that are air-conditioned.”
But overall it’s not that clever. Just as he was cheated in Europe, so he cheats in the monastery. The brothers are amazed at how much more milk he can get out of the cows, but he’s watering down his output. (To what end?) He also gets a local kid to do his planting while he reads under a hammock. Inside his book about plants there’s pulp fiction: “He Slew For Her Honor” by “Two-Trigger” Sears. It feels like there’s a better gag somewhere.
Eventually he’s found out, confesses, makes good. Eventually, too, he reads a newspaper report about the upcoming wedding of Flo and Clarence. Thinking she betrayed him, he goes back for revenge. When he learns she didn’t betray him, he goes after Bogie’s gang, and all the Texas good ol’ boys in town for the wedding come along for the fun. Cue prolonged fistfight. I was reminded of movie serials: How they drag out the knock-down-drag-outs. Sarto and Buck go after each other, too, with fisticuffs. From IMDb’s trivia section:
Of the five films that Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart made together, this is the only one in which neither is killed.
Bogie gets arrested, and Sarto is poised to fleece Flo again … but it’s the end of the movie and we need our lesson. So he gives her up to Clarence. And the $300 he finagles from Clarence he gives to a poor cleaning woman. Rejoining the monastery, he makes this announcement:
“All my life, I’m a guy that was looking for class. I once went halfway around the world trying to find it because I thought class came in dough, and nice clothes, and society. Well, I was wrong. I sure traveled a long way to find out one thing. This. This is the real class.”
Music wells and we’re out.
Bacon and yeggs
In his autobiography, after Robinson writes that he cherished Ralph Bellamy, he adds, “I could not say the same about Brother Orchid.” Sadly, yes.
Is the problem Lloyd Bacon? He directed 99 features, mostly at Warners, often with Cagney and Robinson, and they’re all just kinda OK. The most memorable ones, such as “Footlight Parade” and “42nd Street,” were co-directed by Busby Berkeley.
Sothern is great in this one; she’s got real comedy chops. And Robinson brings his usual flair. Allen Jenkins disappears halfway through.
Of those five Robinson-Bogart movies, this is the fourth. It was released in June 1940. It would be another eight years before they would act together again in “Key Largo.” By that point, Bogie was a star, Robinson wasn’t, and the world had changed.
Monday September 26, 2022
Movie Review: The Wagons Roll at Night (1941)
This is Humphrey Bogart’s last movie before “The Maltese Falcon” made him a star, and this is Sylvia Sidney’s last movie before a four-year hiatus from making movies. Bogart was about to break big at age 42 while Sidney was washed up at 31. So it goes.
This attitude is reflected in the film, too, in an exchange between Sidney’s world-weary Madame (Flo) Lorraine, the fortune teller, and Eddie Albert’s wide-eyed grocer-turned lion-tamer Matt Varney:
Flo: Please don’t call me Miss Loraine. It makes me feel kind of old.
Matt: Aw shucks, I bet you’re not much older than I am.
Not much, no. In real life, Eddie Albert was four years older than Sidney. Maybe that’s why Sidney gives him the doubletake.
“The Wagons Roll at Night” is a bad, boring movie. Nick Coster (Bogie) runs a traveling circus whose big attraction is Hoffman the Great (Sig Ruman), a lion tamer. Unfortunately, Hoffman is a rummy, and one day a lion gets loose. Local boy Matt Varney keeps it at bay so Bogie hires him for the week. Hoffman gets a little jealous, Flo gets a little sweet on the kid, Nick gets a little idea: Hire him full-time as Hoffman’s assistant, then maybe he can take over. Since Hoffman is such a rummy and all.
As a boss, Nick is cynical but generally OK. Except for this part: Don’t ever talk about his kid sister!
Flo makes that mistake and he tells her to shut up. “She’s not like us,” he says. “We’re a lot of mugs, grifters, and riff-raff.” (“Mugs, Grifters and Riff-Raff” would make a good title for a book on Warner Bros. films.
The conversation gets a little better when he calms down.
Nick: It’s just this sleazy game we’re in.
Flo: If that’s the way you feel about it why don’t you get out of it?
Nick: Yeah, wind up in a bread line. It’s the game I woke up in, the only one I know. But it ain’t for my sister. She’ll be a lady if I have to break her neck.
The way he says “woke up in … only one I know” … just has that classic Bogie cadence. You can imagine Rick or Sam saying it.
You know what would be great? If a movie introduced an aberration like Nick’s with his sister and then completely ignored it for the rest of the film. Alas, not here. If you don’t see where this thing is going, I’d recommend a visit to an ophthalmologist.
Matt wins Hoffman’s job, Hoffman shows up again and starts a fight but gets mauled by Caesar, the most dangerous of the lions, who reaches a big paw out of the cage. (I was rooting for the lions.) Since a local yokel (Garry Owen) blames Matt for all this, Matt has to go into hiding. And since Nick isn’t around, Flo drives him up to Nick’s parents farm, where Mary Coster (Joan Leslie, all of 16), is just back from the convent, and as perky as Folgers. Shock of shocks, she and Matt fall for each other.
That sets up the rest of the movie. Nick tries to keep them apart, they can’t be kept apart, so Nick decides to put Caesar in the cage with Matt. That’s right, he decides to kill Matt rather than let the relationship with his sister play out. Except when sis shows up, pleading, Nick joins him in the cage, gets mauled, Nick drags him out.
Does Bogie die? Of course. He’s still at that stage of his career. He made around 30 movies between “Petrified Forest” and “Maltese Falcon” and he died in probably 95% of them. The only one I know where he didn’t die was “They Drive By Night,” where he just loses an arm.
As his death scenes go, this one is pretty bad. “I was wrong, Mary, about the kid. Guess I was wrong about a lot of things.” And to Flo: “Do me a favor, will ya? See these kids get married … Throw ’em a swell party…”
Cast notices: Nick’s mom (and thus Bogie’s mom) is played by Clara Blandick, Auntie Em from “The Wizard of Oz, while Charley Foy, of the Seven Little Foys, is roustabout and comic relief. He has a couple of not-bad line readings.
The director is Ray Enright, who did 72 features between 1927 and 1953, none of them standouts. Only three of his movies have IMDb ratings above 7.0, and they aren’t exactly household names:
- “Skin Deep” (1929), 7.5
- “One Way to Love” (1946), 7.2
- “Dames (1934), 7.1, co-directed with Busby Berkeley.
It’s not like Enright worked in B pictures, either. He got big stars, he just directed them in their least-memorable adventures: Marlene Dietrich in “The Spoilers,” James Cagney in “The St. Louis Kid,” Errol Flynn in “Montana.” Bogart here.
Don’t worry, Humphrey. A better world is just around the corner.
Saturday September 17, 2022
Movie Review: Knock on Any Door (1949)
The main tension in “Knock on Any Door” is between its social-reform message—Nick “Pretty Boy” Romano (John Derek) got a series of bad breaks, and we as a society are as much to blame as him—and the fact that Nick is an unlikeable little shit.
Maybe it’s the character as written but I think it’s John Derek. Some actors (Cagney, Brando) can make bad men likeable. It probably has something to do with an honesty in their performance, which is exactly what we don’t get here. Nick feels false throughout. He pouts, he cries, he combs his hair. At least that last part was historically interesting. We have several scenes where Nick whips out his comb and spends 15, 20 seconds of screentime making it just so. In one, he’s wearing a kind of leather jacket, so even though the movie was released in 1949 it feels classically 1950s to me. It’s ur-Fonzie.
We almost did get Brando in the role, by the way. This the first film by Humphrey Bogart’s production company, Santana Pictures, so Bogie got to handpick his coworkers. To direct, he tapped relative newbie Nicholas Ray, whose debut production, “They Live By Night,” Bogart had seen and admired; and he also visited Marlon Brando during his “A Streetcar Named Desire” run on Broadway to pitch the role of Nick. Imagine that. Would’ve been a whole other movie if that happened. Instead, this.
What a loveable character
It begins well. There’s a robbery, a cop is killed, and in the aftermath we get a “Round up the usual suspects” moment as the cops nab anyone with a police record—including Nick. When Bogart, playing Andrew Morton, Nick’s lawyer, gets the phone call that Nick has been arrested, he initially begs off, because he’s sick of the kid. At home playing chess with his wife—we later find out she’s a social worker—she gives him a look. He defends himself, she gives him another look, and he keeps defending himself while admitting sure, maybe, OK. Finally, without a word from her, he gives in and agrees to talk to Nick: “Anything to keep you quiet.” Great bit.
For a time, he investigates. He visits the old neighborhood and sees a character named Junior, old, stooped, selling newspapers.
Bogie: How is it, Junior? Ah, you look just about the same.
Junior: A little older, a little more tired, a little more confused.
I could’ve spent another 20 minutes with just them talking.
Instead the trial begins. And during his opening statement, Morton decides to tell the jury Nick’s story—so the prosecution can’t use it against him, and because he hopes to engender sympathy for the kid. Immediately I had a bad feeling: “Oh shit, this isn’t the movie, is it? This flashback?” No, but half of it.
Why is Nick a shitty kid? Well, his dad was a hard-working grocer who was railroaded into jail for defending himself against a customer coming at him with a knife. Morton was the guy who was supposed to defend him, but, busy, he passed the case to an associate who didn’t do due diligence. Dad got a year, and him with a bum ticker. Morton finds out four months into the stretch, and just as he’s visiting the family in their home, promising to get the old man out, they find out he died of a heart attack. And Nick gives Morton a searing look. Well, “searing.” Searing and pouty.
The move to the “bad neighborhood” actually made me flash on Donald Trump, believe it or not. One day Nick’s bringing home groceries and two kids—one looking about 40—attack him. The blonde kid starts it. In the middle of a handshake, he yanks Nick toward him and they start pummeling. Trump used to do that yanking thing. Remember that? Even as president. Even greeting foreign dignitaries or SCOTUS justices. God, what an ass. I’d almost forgotten that part of what an ass he is. There are just so many parts.
For some reason, being attacked by juvenile delinquents turns Nick into a juvenile delinquent. While his family struggles, Nick combs his hair and hangs out with his jerkoff friends. They steal watches and hock them. (Cf., “The Public Enemy.”) But they’re soon nabbed and sent to reform school, where they’re forced to participate in something called a “burlap party.” I guess it was a thing back then? A basement is flooded and the boys are forced to dry it with burlap material that they constantly have to ring out. In the midst, the blonde kid starts coughing and you know he ain’t long for the world. Then Morton visits. It’s after the war, he lets Nick know his family is doing fine in Seattle, but Nick’s got a chip on his shoulder larger than the Pacific Northwest. Among the barbs he directs at a guy just trying to help him:
- Don’t sing me lullabies, mister!
- Oh sure, maybe you can get me a job. Winding an eight-day clock!
- You wanna do something for me? Remember me in your prayers!
To which Bogart has the line of the movie: “Boy oh boy, what a loveable character they made out of you.” Yep. Nick’s the kid gone wrong you don’t care about at all. The problem is he doesn’t seem deprived, he seems spoiled.
When he gets out, he has a bunch of hangers-on while he gets a haircut—as if he’s already a gangster. He’s not. He makes dough knocking over candy stores. And he can’t even do that right because he falls in love with the girl running the store, Emma (Allene Roberts), who’s innocent and talks in an annoying whisper. For her, he tries to go straight. But then he overhears one of Bogie’s law partners expressing doubts about him, and he gets pouty-angry again, throws a bottle against a wall, and steals cash from Bogie’s wallet. In an alleyway, Bogie takes it back, and the kid tries to go straight again. He doesn’t, and he’s going to leave Emma (because she’s too good for him), even after finding out she’s pregnant; so, per mid-century melodramas, she turns on the gas oven.
Anyway, that's why he is the way he is.
In the present, in court, Bogie makes mincemeat out of the prosecution’s case. The DA with the scar down his cheek (George Macready), like he's central-casting Getapo, can’t get Nick’s friends to shake their story that he was with them at the time of the killing, but Morton gets a government eyewitness to admit he only IDed Nick because the cops told him to. Bogie’s got the case won … until Nick agrees to testify in his own defense. And because the DA badgers him, histrionically, and because Nick remembers Emma and all her goodness, Nick breaks down on the stand and confesses—yes, yes, he did kill the cop! During the sentencing phase, Bogie lets us all know the movie’s theme (“Yes, Nick Romano is guilty, but so are we!!”) before filling us in on the meaning of the movie’s title: “Knock on any door, and you may find … Nick Romano.” At which point, in the gallery, we cut to a greasy kid in a T-shirt combing his hair. I had to laugh out loud at that one.
Despite Bogie's shared-blame strategy, the judge still sentences Nick to death. And when Nick’s doing the dead man’s walk away from the camera, with THE END prominently placed, we can see that he’s still combing his hair. Now that’s commitment to the bit. Even Fonzie didn’t go that far.
“Knock on any door and you may find ... Nick Romano.”
Fast, young, good-looking
They must’ve known, right? That Derek wasn’t working? So why did Ray use him five years later in almost the exact same role (whiny little shit), and opposite another classic Warner Bros. gangster (James Cagney)? Derek helped ruin that one, too. Oddly, it was in Ray’s very next picture that he found the right actor for all these roles: James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.” He made the screwed-up kid sympathetic.
Dean is also much more associated with a line that Derek repeats several times in this movie: “Live fast, die young, have a good-looking corpse.” I’ve heard that all my life, but apparently it originated here—or in Willard Motley’s 1947 novel, on which this is based.
Another historical tidbit. There’s a scene with Bogart in a nightclub, and there’s a piano player in the background. It’s Dooley Wilson, Sam from “Casablanca.” Nice to see Bogie the producer getting Dooley Wilson work. Nice to see Rick and Sam reunited in postwar America.
Rick, Sam, play it again.
Wednesday August 18, 2021
Movie Review: White Heat (1949)
In 2008, “White Heat” was voted the fourth-greatest gangster flick in Hollywood history by the American Film Institute, trailing only the first two “Godfather” movies and “Goodfellas,” and ahead of such classics as “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Pulp Fiction,” “The Public Enemy,” and both versions of “Scarface.” It’s the highest-ranked Cagney flick on IMDb, with an 8.1 rating, nudging out “Angels with Dirty Faces,” “One, Two, Three,” and “The Roaring Twenties,” all at 7.9. “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” has been quoted, or misquoted, everywhere and forever. Ed “Kookie” Burns imitated Cagney saying it in a 1960 episode of “77 Sunset Strip,” Bart Simpson says it several times throughout the “Simpsons” run, while the MST3K group repeated it so often they began to parody it: “Top of the pantry, Ma!”; “Top of the Wrigley Building, Ma!” When AFI ranked its top 100 movie quotes, “Top of the world” landed at No. 18.
So guess who didn’t like “White Heat” much? James Cagney.
In his 1974 memoir he calls it “another cheapjack job,” with a formulaic script “without a touch of imagination or originality,” and not much shooting time. He wanted his Irish Mafia pal Frank McHugh to play the role of Tommy Ryley, Warners said sure, then they said they couldn’t get him. “I found out later Frank had never been asked,” Cagney says.
The film also represented a defeat for him: his return to Warner Bros. and the despised Jack Warner—whom Cagney derided as the Shvontz, Yiddish for “prick”—after seven years of independent productions. During that time, Cagney and his brother Bill made four films. Two were gentle movies with literary pedigrees (“Johnny Come Lately” from the novel by Louis Brumfield, and “The Time of Your Life” from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by William Saroyan); and two were johnny-come-lately actioners (“Blood on the Sun,” a WWII movie released as the war was ending, and “13 Rue Madeleine,” an O.S.S. homage released a year after “O.S.S.”). “Time of Your Life” turned out to be the real problem. It went overbudget and bombed at the box office, and, as Cagney biographer John McCabe writes, “the Cagneys badly needed, badly wanted a success. They both recognized White Heat as it.” Thus Warners. And thus the gangster role Cagney had forever been trying to put behind him.
If you read between the lines, Cagney mostly dismisses “White Heat” for the experience of making “White Heat” rather than for the movie itself. But that doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t have problems.
The original Waingro
Previous Cagney gangster flicks had been social-message movies about why men turn to crime: Tom Powers is corrupted by Putty Nose, Rocky Sullivan can’t run as fast as Jerry Connolly, Eddie Bartlett is a WWI “forgotten man.” None of that here. Here, it gets Freudian. The movie is based on a story by Virginia Kellogg, who based it on Ma Barker and her boys, with the four sons reduced to one. Apparently it was Cagney who suggested making Cody Jarrett psychotic; and it was Cagney who came up with the idea of sitting in Ma’s lap after she helps him through one of his debilitating headaches. The true shock of that scene is that it almost feels natural it’s acted so well.
They certainly don’t waste time getting to the Freudian: The opening shot is a train coming through a tunnel. They also don’t waste time giving us a classic Cagney line. During the train robbery, in front of the conductor, one of Cody’s men comments that the train’s burners are fancier than the ones he used on the C&O. That’s information—too much of it. Cody looks at the guy and says, “Shaddap!”
Four minutes in. I smiled.
A lot of the open is like the Waingro thing from Michael Mann’s “Heat.” Some guys just aren’t professional. The sloppy one here, Zuckie (Ford Rainey), not only says the above but calls Cody by name in front of the others. “Why don’t you give ’em my address, too?” Cody barks. Later, when the conductor says “You won’t get away with this, Cody,” Cody, after a glance at Zuckie, says, “You’ve got a good memory for names. Too good,” and shoots both him and his assistant in cold blood. Has a Cagney gangster ever shot a civilian before? An unarmed civilian? It’s the movie letting us know early on that this isn’t your father’s Cagney gangster.
Zuckie winds up paying heavily for his loose lips—but from karma rather than Cody. When the assistant is killed, he falls on a lever that releases boiling steam right into Zuckie’s face. The man then has to hole up with the rest of the gang in a mountain cabin, in pain, face and hands bandaged, mummified. When they make a break for it, they have to leave him behind—he’s too conspicuous—but then Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) warns Cody about how talkative he is, so Cody sends back his pal Cotton (Wally Cassell) to put him out of his misery. Cotton can’t do it; he shoots in the air. He thinks he’s doing a good deed, but instead of dying quickly, Zuckie, already mummified, dies slowly and painfully of exposure. That’s a helluva lot of karma for one “Cody.”
It’s at the mountain cabin that we see the movie’s early conflicts. Cody’s main rival for gang leadership is Big Ed (Steve Cochran), who is making eyes with Cody’s wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo), a lazy, complaining thing. If Cody knows there’s something between them he doesn’t care much. Maybe because he doesn’t care much for Verna? And maybe Verna senses this? She’s an opportunist, and while she’s with the No. 1 guy, she knows she’ll never be No. 1 in his heart. That spot is for Ma. So she takes his rival, too.
Big Ed has a slight Robert Mitchum thing going, but in a nice monologue Cody cuts him down to size:
You know something, Verna? If I turn my back long enough for Big Ed to put a hole in it, there’d be a hole in it. Big Ed. Great Big Ed. You know why they call him that? Because his ideas are big. Someday he's gonna get a really big one—about me. And it’ll be his last.
No one ever made “Big” sound so small.
It’s right after this speech that he gets a debilitating headache. That’s when Ma takes control. She pushes him into the bedroom, shuts the door, massages his head, talks him through it, then makes him wait before reappearing before the gang. He sits in her lap and they talk; then she gives him a shot of bourbon and tells him “Top of the world, son.” The later explanation for these headaches, which we get through Treasury Dept. officials, is that as a child he faked headaches to get Ma’s attention and now he gets them for real. To me, why he gets them is less important than what they mean for the story. They’re our pathway into knowing more about Cody and his mom; and they’re the pathway for undercover T-Man Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) to get into his good graces.
Let’s talk about that second headache. By this time Cody is in prison in Springfield, Illinois, having pled guilty to a lesser crime that happened concurrently with the train robbery. Fallon is undercover as “Vic Pardo,” with an eye on Cody. He tries to break the ice in the courtroom, then in the prison yard, then in the prison machine shop where he saves Cody’s life. Nothing works. Cody doesn’t trust nobody he doesn’t know. It’s only after Ma visits Cody and warns him about Big Ed that he puts two and two together about the machine-shop “accident”; and it’s only after Cody gets the second headache, and Pardo talks him through it like Ma did, and massages his head like Ma did, that Cody decides to trust him. He even gives him the old Cagney cheek pat.
We don’t know it yet but a kind of transference has taken place. The visiting-room scene is the last time Cody (and we) will see of Ma—she’s shot in the back by Verna, off-screen—and who’s there to take her place? This smart kid, Pardo. For the rest of the movie, he’s the guy Cody trusts. At one point, Cody salutes him with Ma’s catchphrase, “Here’s to us: Top of the world,” and splits his share with him, 50-50, which he’d only done with Ma before. He’s the son he never had. Part of me wonders if the movie would’ve been more interesting if Ma hadn’t died, for then she would’ve had a true rival in Pardo, rather than the shallow rival Verna always represented.
That said, Ma’s death is when the movie roars to life.
The original Joker
Before then, Cody was always back on his heels. After the train robbery, he: 1) holes up in the cabin; 2) holes up in a motel; 3) holes up in prison. He’s forever biding his time. It gets a little dull. Then he hears about Ma. Now he’s relentless, gunning for Big Ed and Verna and forever on the move, eating a chicken drumstick with one hand while killing a guy in his car trunk with the other. Whoever came up with the drumstick, the nonchalance of it, is a genius. It’s one of the best scenes in a movie filled with great scenes. It’s “Goodfellas” 40 years before “Goodfellas.”
And then just as suddenly the air goes out of the movie again. Once he’s killed Big Ed (after Verna lies about who killed Ma), all the old conflicts are resolved: Ma’s dead, Big Ed’s dead, and Verna is muted. With a half hour left, it’s like the movie needs to regroup. The transition is almost comic. We go from Cody pushing Big Ed’s body down the stairs—“Catch,” he says to his men with that Cagney sneer, as the soundtrack music wells up—to a close-up of a ceramic tchotchke, a woman carrying a bowl, into which Cody is quietly tossing coffee beans. Tink. Tink. Tink. His men are gathered around a dining table with a new caper but they can’t get him interested. He’s like a kid, a motherless child, but it leaves the movie slightly adrift. What now?
Well, three things. We get the new caper—a payroll heist of a chemical plant. The movie also introduces us to an operator above Cody, Winston, AKA “the Trader” (Fred Clark), whom Cody calls “my manager.” It’s an 11th-hour inclusion that feels a little lame, to be honest. Finally, and most important, we begin to get a sense of Cody not as some malicious unstoppable force, or a crazy mama’s boy, but as a regular guy. He takes Pardo into his confidence. He admits he walks around at night talking to his mother. “That sound funny to you?” he asks. “Some might think so.” He opens up about his dad in the nuthouse and how his mom always propped him up. The two men drink together with Verna, who gets excited about traveling to Paris. They feel like regular people here. You almost begin to feel sorry for Cody. The two closest people in his life are an undercover Fed and the woman who killed his beloved mother.
All of which raises the question: Just how nuts is Cody? Sure, he loses it in the prison mess hell, climbing over everything and blindly fighting everybody to get away from the mere knowledge of his mother’s death. Cagney, as a kid, once visited a friend’s uncle at a hospital for the insane on Ward’s Island. “My God, what an education that was!” he says in his memoir. “The shrieks, the screams of those people under restraint.” Those are the noises he’s making as he’s fighting the guards. And yet, in the next scene, Cody is totally lucid, plotting with Tommy Ryley (Robert Osterloh), and for the rest of the movie his mental state seems to improve. No headaches, for example. He loosens up. Pardo is good for him. He’s someone to take over, as Cody took over from Ma.
No, what really sends Cody over the edge is the great betrayal, when he finds out that Pardo is a copper, a lousy copper, and that he’s truly alone in the world. Cagney’s reaction shot to this is underrated—smiling through the pain and tears in his eyes. That’s when the giggle enters his voice. That’s when, giggling and fighting amid the industrial landscape, he seems like the first-onscreen version of the Joker. He even begins talking about himself in the third person, as if he’s narrating his own story:
They think they got Cody Jarrett. They haven’t got Cody Jarrett, you hear? They haven’t got him. And I’m going to show you how they haven’t got him.
Is this a first for a Cagney movie? This third-person talking? Either way, Ryley, the last man standing in his gang, sees where Cody is going (taking the stairs up and up to disaster, the mirror image of John Garfield taking the stairs down and down in “Force of Evil”), and he tries to surrender to the cops; but Cody, giggling, shoots him in the back. This is where Cagney’s wished-for casting really would’ve had an impact. That was supposed to be Frank McHugh. Imagine Cagney shooting his old Irish Mafia pal in the back. Wow.
And then another wow: the famous ending. Rather than surrender, Cody goes out in a blaze of glory, shouting the words Ma drummed into him. Did he get the irony of it? I think he did. Were the explosions supposed to remind 1949 audiences of the A-bomb? I think they were. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t end there. The original story was just as much police procedural as gangster tale until writers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts scaled the police part back—just not enough. The cops keep showing up: flat, institutional men talking oscillators and transmitter wavelengths and cross-plotting at a bearing of 210 degrees. It’s Dick Tracy decoder-ring stuff without the gee whiz. And the movie gives them the last word. It doesn’t go out on top, with No. 18 on the AFI list, but pans back to the T-Men watching it all in the flickering light of the fires Cody created:
Evans [dismissive]: Cody Jarrett.
Fallon: He finally got to the top of the world. And it blew right up in his face.
They’re the guys explaining the joke that everyone gets.
Anyway, those are some of my problems with the film: our lead is back on his heels too much, the movie needs to regroup 30 minutes before the end, and the police procedural stuff is flat. Director Raoul Walsh films it flat, too, documentary style. Warners’ chinciness didn’t help.
It’s still a great movie. Howard Hawks once said that a good movie is three good scenes and no bad scenes, and while the police procedural is dull there are more than enough great scenes to make up for it. When Cagney’s on the screen, the movie is on. He’s also got a nice supporting cast. Virginia Mayo just pops; there’s not a false note there. I love her spitting out her gum before kissing Cody, or the way she attempts to ingratiate herself with the T-Men—an opportunist to the end. She also gets the Mae Clarke treatment: knocked off a chair rather than the grapefruit to the face. Cagney liked her so much he requested her for his next Warners movie, the musical “The West Point Story,” even though she had to learn to dance. Then there’s Margaret Wycherly, a British stage actress, who played Ma with a matter-of-fact maliciousness. She’s all business and task No. 1 is her boy. You get why Cody loves her.
“White Heat” is a good end to Cagney’s Warner Bros. gangster cycle, recalling the first, “Public Enemy,” more than the middle two, “Angels” and “Roaring Twenties,” where Cagney is essentially an orphan and nice guy. Here, as in “Enemy,” he’s got Ma and that sneer. “Ruthless is back!” the ads proclaimed, and it was, even if, at times, on quiet nights when it couldn’t sleep, it still wandered around talking to its mother.
The happy couple.
Sunday July 04, 2021
Movie Review: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Do we have Martin Dies and the aptly named John L. Leech to thank for “Yankee Doodle Dandy”?
Dies (pronounced “Dees”) was a U.S. congressman from Texas, who, from 1937 to 1944, chaired the Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities, also known as the Dies Committee, which was the predecessor to HUAC. Leech was a government witness for Dies who accused James Cagney and more than 40 Hollywood artists and artisans of being communists. His accusations made the front page of The New York Times in mid-August 1940. A week later, the stars were cleared … on pg. 21 of the Times.
So who exactly was John L. Leech and why did he say these terrible things about Jimmy Cagney? I spent a recent weekend doing a deep dive on newspapers.com trying to figure it out. It’s quite the journey.
In the early ’30s, Leech twice ran for political office in Los Angeles on the communist ticket, got swamped both times, then showed up a few years later in Portland, Ore., working as a house painter while acting as a government witness in the deportation hearing of west coast labor leader Harry Bridges, whom Leech accused of being a communist. It was a huge story in the summer of 1939. In the end, Bridges won the case, while the dean who adjudicated, James M. Landis, had strong words about Leech:
“It is impossible accurately even to summarize this day and a half of testimony by Leech. In evasion, qualification, and contradiction it is almost unique. Its flavor cannot be conveyed by a few scattered abstracts from the record, for the evasions are truly labyrinthine in nature.”
Apparently to Martin Dies, this meant someone he could work with. Just a year later came the headlines accusing Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Frederic March, Franchot Tone, Jean Muir, Fritz Lang, Clifford Odets, and many others of being communists. In his testimony, Leech said that Cagney was both a Communist Party member and contributor, who, since 1934, was so important he dealt directly with the central committee. Leech also said Bogie attended communist study groups and contributed $150 a month. The reaction from the stars was swift. “I have never contributed money to a political organization of any form,” Bogart said. “That includes Republican, Democratic, Hollywood Anti-Nazi League or the Communist party.” He then asked for the chance to face his accuser. Frederic March said the same. “Mr. Leech is an unmitigated liar. … I will welcome the opportunity to meet Mr. Leech face to face and call him a liar.”
William Cagney spoke for Jimmy:
“As his brother and manager I say that Jimmy is not a Communist, never was a Communist, and never will be a Communist. Neither is he in sympathy with the Communist cause in any way whatsoever. … He did give a donation six years ago for food and clothing to the starving women and children who were the innocent victims of the San Joaquin Valley cotton strike. This was purely a humanitarian gesture, as are his contributions to the Community Chest, the Red Cross, the Motion-Picture Relief Fund and other deserving groups.”
Bogie was the first to get his name cleared, followed by March. A few days later, despite a lifelong fear of flying, Cagney made a cross-country planetrip to meet Dies in San Francisco and get the all-clear sign. In all, everyone Leech accused but one (Lionel Stander) was cleared. Think of that. There were communists in Hollywood, particularly among screenwriters, but Leech’s scattershot accusations only managed to net one. Leech was not just a rat, he was a dirty rat. He accusations were filled with lies.
And he kept doing it! That’s the amazing thing. In a 1944 congressional race, some of Leech’s previous testimony—accusing U.S. Rep. Franck R. Havenner of communist ties—surfaced. Havenner still won his election but it smarted, and in office he denounced Leech’s testimony as “malicious perjury,” called the now-defunct Dies Committee a “star chamber,” and demanded Leech be subpoenaed for questioning. Didn’t happen. Instead, HUAC was formed, and in a few years it would make the Dies committee look like pikers.
Meanwhile, Leech kept going. In May 1949, his name surfaced as a government witness in deportation hearings in LA. Two months later, he’s the government witness in deportation hearings in Seattle. A year after that, it’s back to LA for more scare headlines and deportation hearings. Almost no newspaper mentioned his previous discredited testimony.
But someone finally called him on his shit. On May 9, 1951, the Spokesman-Review printed a small AP story about Jacob Kaufmann of Spokane, Wash., who had been ousted from the Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers of America for alleged communist ties. He was now suing his union for libel, and one member, John L. Leech, for slander. The following year, Kaufmann was publicly cleared of all allegations, and Leech was forced to sign an affidavit stating that Kaufmann was not a communist “and statements made linking him to Moscow were due to mistaken identity.” Then this:
Kaufman, whose slander suit against John L. Leech as the outgrowth of the charges was settled out of court after the plaintiff’s testimony was completed in a Superior Court trial last month, also is to receive a nominal sum for damages.
John L. Leech spent more than a decade accusing powerful labor leaders, politicians and Hollywood stars of having communist ties, and he kept getting away with it and getting away with it. And then a house painter brought him down.
Anyway, back to “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
In 1940, Bill Cagney was rattled enough by the bad publicity surrounding Leech’s accusations that he went looking for vehicles to wash away the taint from his brother. And along came this biopic about the flag-wavingest song-and-dance man to ever hit the Great White Way. And he was Irish to boot.
For a time, the biopic property was with Samuel Goldwyn Co., with Fred Astaire—Cohan’s choice—considered for the lead. After Astaire passed, and the project went to Warner Bros., Cagney was suggested. “Cagney? The gangster guy?” Cohan supposedly said. “Can he dance?” Told he could, he asked if he could sing. “Not much, but neither could you.”
Believe it or not, Cagney had his problems with the project, too. He was a strong union man—a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild, its president in 1942—while Cohan had refused to join Actors Equity, and as a producer opposed a 1919 strike by the group. When Cagney got past that, he had a problem with the original screenplay by Robert Buckner—not funny enough, he said—and demanded that the Epstein brothers, Julius and Philip, who had done such good work on “The Strawberry Blonde,” punch it up.
Eventually, with Warners pushing, and brother Bill pulling, Cagney agreed to star in what he’d always wanted to star in: a big-budget musical. It was one of the highest-grossing movies of the year, won him his only Oscar, and in 2007 was voted by the American Film Institute as the 98th greatest Hollywood film of all time.
And all because of a dirty rat.
Such, such are the joys
I’m curious how the original script ended. In the final version, FDR gives George M. Cohan the Congressional Medal of Honor—“the first person of your profession to receive this honor”—Cohan does a jaunty wing-step down the White House stairs, then walks out into the D.C. night, where a parade is going by: new recruits for World War II singing Cohan’s WWI hit “Over There.” He joins the marching but not the singing. One soldier, calling him “Old Timer,” asks if he doesn’t remember the song. “Seems to me I do,” Cohan replies. “Well, I don’t hear anything,” the guy responds. So Cohan starts singing, tears in his eyes. And ours.
But this couldn’t have been the ending in the original script. Production began Dec. 3, 1941, four days before Pearl Harbor, and five days before we declared war on Japan. Warner Bros. was the first studio to pull out of Germany and the first to make real anti-Nazi movies, but even with that pedigree I can’t imagine they’d end a movie with contemporary U.S. soldiers singing “Over There!” if we weren’t already at war.
I admit I have trouble being impartial about “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” I saw it as a kid on TV some weekend afternoon in the ’70s and fell in love. I wasn’t the only one. When he was 5, John Travolta watched it on “The Million-Dollar Movie” on local New York TV, and became so enamored of the film and its star that his mother used to get him to do his chores by telling him Jimmy Cagney was on the phone telling him to do them.
That said, the movie is a little cornball. I have less trouble with the flag-waving than with all the talk about “the people” and their wisdom: “I’m an ordinary guy who knows what ordinary guys like” kind of stuff. The female lead, Joan Leslie, all of 16 when production began, is so sweet it makes your cheeks hurt, while the FDR portrayal is overdone and stentorian. Then there’s the racial matters: the Cohans doing a number in blackface; the quiet black servants constantly waiting on the white stars; and the Negro spiritual during the superpatriotic “George Washington Jr.” None of it has aged well.
But it’s got Cagney in Cohan numbers, and that makes it worth it. The centerpiece of the film, the “Little Johnny Jones” production on Broadway in 1904, which made a huge star out of Cohan, kills me every time. I get such joy watching it. Watching him. Cagney lights up and lights us up. Most people assume the way Cagney dances here is the way he normally danced, but it’s not. He’s imitating Cohan. He’s acting the dance.
It is amusing to think about the story told in “Little Johnny Jones.” An American jockey goes to London to win the English Derby Cup but loses so badly everyone assumes he threw the race. Eventually he’s cleared, which is another light-up moment, and the play’s happy ending. But doesn’t that mean he was just … bad? Our happy ending is that Little Johnny Jones isn’t a cheat, he’s just overrated.
(The real Cohan musical was more complicated and melodramatic, involving a girlfriend, a San Francisco gambler, and kidnapping. Cohan based it on Tod Sloan, a flashy, well-dressed—thus: “dandy”—American jockey who popularized the modern forward-riding style, became an international celebrity, and was invited to England to race for the stable of the Prince of Wales—eventually Edward VII. A year later, Sloan was accused of betting on his own races, there was no flare exonerating him, and despite scant evidence he was banned from the sport in both Britain and the U.S. for life. Secondary careers, including in Hollywood, never took off. He went broke in the 1910s and died in 1933, age 59.)
I’m also amused by the framing device for the film. Cohan, long retired to the family farm, has returned to the stage as FDR in the triumphant Rodgers, Hart and Kaufman musical “I’d Rather Be Right,” which debuted in 1937 though the movie makes it contemporary. Amid post-show banter he gets a telegram from the big man himself, asking him to the White House, and he assumes he’s in trouble. Of course not. It’s the Congressional Medal of Honor. But he doesn’t get that until the end of the movie. First, he tells the president—who, remember, is presiding over a country that’s just entered a world war—his entire life story. One can’t help but wonder if FDR ever snuck a glance at his watch.
We see Cohan’s birth on the Fourth of July (in reality, a day earlier), then his early, bratty days. He performs the song his father, Jerry (Walter Huston) has sung, an Irish ditty called “Keep Your Eyes Upon Me,“ at age 7, played by Henry Blair. Better is when he progresses to pre-teen world and is played by curly-haired Douglas Croft. Neither boy tries to do a Cagney the way Frankie Burke did in “Angels with Dirty Faces” (and, to a lesser extent, the way Frankie Darro managed in “The Public Enemy” before the roles were switched), but Croft is excellent both on stage in “Peck’s Bad Boy” and backstage as the little diva who gets a licking from the Brooklyn kids, then from his father after his vanity ruins a high-paying vaudeville gig.
(Croft is his own sad story. In 1942 alone, he played boyhood versions of Gary Cooper (“Pride of the Yankees”), Ronald Reagan (“Kings Row”), Glenn Ford (“Flight Lieutenant”) and Cagney. A year later, he became the first cinematic Robin, the Boy Wonder, in the Columbia movie serial “Batman.” Then he served in WWII, technician 5th grade, suffered a motorcycle accident in 1947, and doesn’t have a credit after that. He died in 1963, from acute alcohol intoxication and liver disease, age 37.)
That spanking from his dad is supposed to set Georgie right but it never does. Cohan remains cocky—but now with the Cagney twinkle—and his ego keeps losing the family gigs. He’s basically Dustin Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey from “Tootsie” but suffering from vanity rather than perfectionism. At their boarding house, overhearing he’s a liability, he pretends he’s just sold a musical and urges mom, dad and sis (Jeanne Cagney) to go on the road themselves. It all works out because he keeps meeting cute: his future wife, Mary, who thinks he’s the old man he’s been playing onstage; and his future partner, Sam Harris (Richard Whorf), when the two scam Schwab (S.Z. Sakall) into backing “Little Johnny Jones.” It’s an odd scam. Harris is pitching a play Schwab isn’t interested in, Cohan interrupts, pretends to be Harris’ partner, and pretends they have a meeting with another money-man about his play—which is exactly the kind of thing Schwab is looking for. So wouldn’t it make more sense for Cohan to pitch “Little Johnny Jones” himself? Without the subterfuge? As a kid, I always enjoyed their friendship but as an adult I keep thinking, “What does Sam Harris do exactly?”
For the record
Should we talk about the songs? As a kid, I always loved the “Harrigan” number he and Mary perform, to no avail, before Dietz and Gotz. It’s an Irish song, about an Irish man, with Cagney turning the Irish up to 11. I just remember being thrilled. I loved “Mary,” too, and often helplessly sing it in my head when I meet a Mary. I like the rhythms and rhymes in the opening stanza of “Yankee Doodle,” and I like how Cagney comes in a beat behind for the first chorus. “Over There” is rousing but “Grand Old Flag” was never my bag—although “emblem of/land I love” scans well. And the song has obviously lasted.
The brunt of the movie contains three big musicals from Cohan’s heyday: “Little Johnny Jones” (which includes “The Yankee Doodle Boy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway”); “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway” (the title song, “Mary Is a Grand Old Name”); and “George Washington Jr.” (“Grand Old Flag”). Between the first and second musical we get Cohan’s marriage to Mary and the wooing of actress Fay Templeton (Irene Manning), and between the second and third we get the comic back-and-forth between Cohan and theatrical rival Eddie Foy (Eddie Foy Jr.). Warners was grooming Manning to be a star, so she gets a lot of screen time, but I’m not sure “Yankee Doodle” served her well. We wind up not liking her much. Cohan, the biggest thing on Broadway, has to come hat-in-hand to her? And she turns him down and insults him? Then she insists on singing “Mary,” which he’d written for his wife? Plus the ”Forty-Five Minutes" musical flags a bit without Cagney on stage. Manning just doesn’t have that Warners vibe. She’s more MGM.
Cohan is considered the father of the American musical so it would’ve been nice to see more of what he was displacing, and why he was considered so fresh. And shouldn’t he also be considered the father of American sampling? Many of his songs contain snatches of earlier songs. In the “Grand Old Flag” sequence alone, we hear snippets of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Auld Lang Syne,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Was he the first to do this or was it a common practice back then?
The movie gives us a sense of why he ended, though. After WWI, there’s a nice montage—by Warners’ montage master Don Siegel—with the camera wandering around the Broadway lights in the late teens and ’20s, and landing on different Cohan musicals, from which we hear a few lines. It’s supposed to demonstrate his ubiquity but it also demonstrates his lack of range: “Nellie Kelly” sounds a bit like “Molly Malone,” which sounds a bit like “Billie,” which sounds a lot like “Mary Is a Grand Old Name.” Cohan is becoming derivative. Of himself.
If the first third of the movie is his struggle and rise, and the second third is his ascendance, the movie falters a bit with the final third, when things fall away. Sister Josie gets married and decides to leave the act, and mom and dad do the same. We get a sappy bit where Georgie makes Dad his equal partner. We get another bit where Cohan tries to write a drama and fails. Mom and Josie die off camera, the father famously on camera. (The scene brought director Michael Curtiz to tears.) Cohan and Harris part company, Cohan and Mary travel the globe, then there’s a restless retirement on the farm. Those damn kids in their jalopy stop by, like a Paleolithic version of Archie’s gang, and don’t know who he is. That’s about when Sam Harris needs help, so Cohan returns in “I’d Rather Be Right.”
As a kid I was confused by a dancing FDR—“Didn’t they know he had polio?” I asked my father—but the number we see, Rodgers and Hart’s “Off the Record,” totally works. I particularly like the verse they added for WWII:
And for my friends in Washington who complain about the taxes
Who cares as long as we can knock the axe out of the Axis?
Don't print it—strictly off the record
I can’t forget how Lafayette helped give us our first chance
To win our fight for liberty, and now they’ve taken France
We’ll take it back from Hitler and put ants in his Japants
And that’s for the record!
On the last two lines, Cagney breaks the fourth wall, talking directly to the camera as if he’s calling out Hitler and Tojo. I get chills watching it now. Can’t imagine how thrilling it must’ve been when the movie was released in the early, dark days of the war, when we were still slightly staggered from the sucker punch. There he was, our favorite movie tough guy, dressed as our longtime president, laying down the law. It’s moments like these that help me forgive the movie its shortcomings, and urge me to return to it again and again.
A pretty good part
“Yankee Doodle Dandy” premiered on May 29, 1942, about a week before the Battle of Midway, and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Picture, Director and Supporting Actor for Huston. It won three: Sound Recording, Musical Score, and Actor. Cagney’s acceptance speech was, like him, short and modest.
I’ve always had the feeling ever since coming into it, that you can only be as good as the other fellow thinks you are—or, I might add, as bad. And it seems that quite a number of people have thought a good job has been done, and that makes me very happy. And just one added thought: I might say it was a pretty good part. Thank you.
Some irony. Cagney had finally gotten the type of role he’d longed for at the Warners factory: not another gangster or hot-shot pilot but what he was: a song and dance man. Ever since 1938, though, he’d had an out clause in his contract. At the conclusion of any film, if he felt his relationship with the studio had become toxic, he could walk. This is what he and brother Bill did after “Yankee Doodle,” just when he and Warners had begun making beautiful music together. Shame. For five years, and four undistinguished pictures, the Cagneys were on their own. They only returned when they ran into financial trouble. His first movie back? “White Heat.” One can’t help but wonder what else they might’ve made if he’d stuck around.
“Yankee Doodle” presages Cagney’s own retirement to his farm on Martha’s Vineyard in 1961—though I doubt, like Cohan, he was reading Variety there. Eventually Cagney was persuaded to return to work, too, for a small part in Milos Foreman’s “Ragtime.” Like Cohan’s, this return took place exactly five years before his death. “Ragtime” was 1981, Cagney died in ’86. “I’d Rather Be Right” was 1937, Cohan died on Nov. 5, 1942, age 64.
Cohan did get to see the picture before he passed. He’d long fought with Warners over what parts of his life to portray—Mary, for example, is an attempt to gloss over the fact that he had two wives, neither named Mary—but after watching the film in in his home in Monroe, New York, he cabled Cagney this simple message: “How’s my double? Thanks for a wonderful job. Sincerely, George M. Cohan.”
Friday December 18, 2020
Movie Review: The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
Raoul Walsh directed two of the great Cagney flicks—“The Roaring Twenties” in 1939 and “White Heat” in 1948—and this is the one he did in-between those.
It’s a romantic comedy set in the Belle Epoch, so a bit of a departure for both men. Cagney plays Biff Grimes, a dentist forever losing fights and playing patsy to fast-talking sharpie Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson). Biff not only loses the titular girl—Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth)—but also his freedom, when he takes the fall for Hugo’s corrupt business practices. Despite all that, the movie has a happy ending. Its lesson is basically Saint Therese’s: More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.
It's surprisingly good. Well, not so surprising when you look at the talent in the room. Walsh was just coming off “High Sierra,” screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein were about to write “Casablanca,” and film editor William Holmes would win an Oscar for “Sergeant York” the following year. The cinematographer was the legendary James Wong Howe, the costumes were by the legendary Orry-Kelly, and the music was by Heniz Roemheld, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on this film.
Casts don’t get much better. Along with Carson and Hayworth, we get Olivia de Havilland as Amy, the would-be suffragette, Alan Hale as Biff’s blarney-loving father, George Tobias going Greek as Nick the barber, and George Reeves, the once and future Superman, here as a next-door collegiate with a Y on his chest rather than an S. Plus it’s one of Cagney’s better comedic performances. I’ve ragged on his comedic chops in the past but he’s great here. The way he shrugs off a hug from his father, for example, on his first day as a saloon bouncer, saying, sotto voce, “Cut it out, will ya? I’m supposed to be a tough guy.” Love that. You could begin a Cagney documentary with that.
The grape of happiness
Overall, it’s a loving tweak at a more innocent time. Men puts up their dukes like John L. Sullivan and spout turn-of-the-century locutions like “Tell it to Sweeney” (get lost, basically), “23 skidoo” (I’m gone), and “She’s all the fudge” (she’s hot)—as well as Biff’s repeated phrase, “That’s the kind of a hairpin I am!” (Apparently Cagney inserted that one himself because it’s something his father used to say. According to Douglas Harper’s Etymology Dictionary, hairpin was simply slang for “a person.” So it’s said proudly, not disparagingly. It just sounds disparaging.)
The movie opens in 1906, as Biff and Nick play horseshoes in the backyard. It’s Sunday but Biff is hardly relaxed. He’s only had two dental customers in eight months, his wife wants to go for a stroll, and the college kids next door keep playing “And the Band Played On,” with its lyric, “Casey would waltz with a strawberry blonde,” which reminds him of Virginia, the strawberry blonde who got away.
Nick: You were stuck on her, ain’t you?
Biff: [Looking around] Me? No …
Nick: Well, I was.
Biff: Oh, I liked her—in a nice way.
Nick: Yeah, I liked her too, but I forget which way.
Great line. Plus the dialogue prefigures much of the movie, since almost every character pretends to be something they’re not: Biff tough, Amy rebellious, Hugo and Virginia respectable.
At this point we get a coincidence so large they call it out. There’s an emergency tooth that needs pulling, and the sufferer turns out to be Hugo Barnstead—the man responsible for so much of Biff's misery. “What a coincidence!’ Nick cries. “He’s gonna want gas,” Biff responds bitterly. “Alright, I’ll give him gas.” And on that macabre note, we flash back 10 years earlier to the gay ’90s.
The first thing we see is a man carrying beer-filled buckets on a long pole. That’s also one of the first images we see in “The Public Enemy,” too, Cagney’s breakthrough film, and I’m curious if it was homage or just an easy turn-of-the-century trope. (Anyone know?) Then we’re introduced to Biff’s father trying to sweet-talk a neighbor lady, Mrs. Mulcahey (Una O’Connor): “You and I are no longer young, so we must grasp the grape of happiness.” He’s distracted by a Bock Beer sign, goes into a saloon, where his son is working his first day as bouncer. Biff’s first assignment? Toss his father. Which he does with the old man’s help. But then he gets into it with the saloon owner, and they put up their John L. Sullivan dukes and we cut to Nick’s barbershop, where Biff is getting a leech applied to his black eye. It’ll be a running gag.
After a good ol’ fashioned racist barbershop quartet song (“In the evening by the moonlight/ You can hear those darkies singing…”), someone shouts that the strawberry blonde is heading their way, and all the men crowd by the door to tip their hats and politely stare. Only Hugo makes a move. He gets a date, but she insists on a second so he has to find one, too. And there’s Biff. We get a good set-piece at the gas-lit park, where Amy and Virginia argue over decorum, while, nearby in a car, Hugo and Biff argue over who gets which girl. In the end, Biff winds up sitting with Amy, miserably, while Virginia, his crush, necks and giggles with Hugo in nearby bushes. So it goes.
Biff finally gets his shot thanks to Hugo’s larceny. Hugo oversells tickets to a Sunday picnic, the boat only takes so many, and the cutoff is right after Hugo and Amy board—with Biff and Virginia still on the gangplank. So the latter two make a day of it: picnic at the Statue of Liberty, evening at an outdoor beer garden, where Biff bribes the bandleader to substitute his name into the “Strawberry Blonde” song. Virginia’s so taken with it she kisses him on the cheek—and again at the end of their date. Things are looking up! Except she breaks their next date to marry Hugo.
If the first part of the flashback is how Biff loses Virginia to Hugo’s machinations, the second part is how he loses his freedom to same. Biff gets a job, a sinecure really, with Hugo’s company, but I’m not sure why. It seems at Virginia’s insistence—does she really like Biff, or does she just like the power she has over him?—but his sole job is to sign papers that make him liable for shoddy building supplies. This is when the comedy turns a little dark. One of the deaths the equipment causes is Biff’s father, who, on his deathbed, with his dying breath, says: “Biffy. See that Mrs. Mulcahey and the others … don’t take it too hard.”
Great line, and the scene is sweet and sad, prefiguring the paternal deathbed scene in “Yankee Doodle Dandy”; but it also means that Hugo is responsible for Biff’s father’s death. Except the movie kind of ignores this. Instead, it goes right into Biff’s arrest and five-year incarceration, where he finishes his dentistry schooling and practices ineptly on the warden. The dentistry bits are the weakest part of the movie to me. They’re like mother-in-law jokes. Worse. It's laughing at other people's pain. Real pain, not banana-peel pain.
Anyway, when Biff released from prison, he's startled to see a motorized vehicle (nice bit) and reunites with Amy. Thus endeth the flashback.
Dies and diminutives
So the question we’ve been waiting on: Will Biff kill Hugo with the gas? Of course not. This is a comedy. Hugo arrives in pain, sees the man he wronged and tries to get out of it. But he’s henpecked into the chair by Virginia, who’s become a harridan, bossing and humiliating Hugo at every turn. This is the St. Therese part. Biff realizes the great disappointment of his life—losing Virginia—was actually a blessing: “I’m a happy man,” he tells Nick, “and he’s not.” He realizes that being stuck with Olivia de Havilland isn’t that bad. Yes. We should all have such fallback positions.
So after a final fight with the collegiate boys next door, in which Cagney decks the once and future Superman, Biff finally goes on that Sunday stroll with Amy—even shocking her by kissing her on the street. “When I want to kiss my wife, I’ll kiss her anytime, anywhere,” he tells her. “That’s the kind of hairpin I am.” The End.
It’s tough to pick a standout in the cast, but I’d probably go Alan Hale, who’s so funny he should’ve done this role a thousand times—and maybe did for all I know. Hayworth, too, is surprisingly adept at comedy. Her early coyness is perfectly calibrated. I’d love to see the movie on the big screen rather than via Amazon’s cheap-ass, blurry version that I watched. I think it would dazzle.
Historical footnote: This is the first movie Cagney made after he was accused of being a Communist and dragged before the Dies Committee in August 1940. It’s probably not a coincidence that the four movies he made for Warners after that moment contain not a shred of left-wing controversy. He went from Belle Epoch rom-com to contemporary rom-com (“The Bride Came C.O.D.”), to patriotic Canadian war drama (“Captains of the Clouds”), to playing the Yankee Doodle Dandy himself and singing about our Grand Old Flag. Take that, Dies.
Historical footnote II: This is also the first Cagney movie where the diminutives stop. When became a star in 1931, and was touted by Warner Bros. as “Jimmy”—he hated that; he was always Jim to his friends—most of his characters’ names are either diminutives or diminutive-sounding: Jimmy, Lefty, Danny, Patsy, Jerry, Chesty, Eddie, Tommy, Rocky, et al. That stops here with Biff. Did he request it? “Look guys, I’m 40. Give me a break.” Whatever reason, they stopped. For the rest of his career, the only diminutive-sounding name he had was Cody.
Over the next few years, we would get a spate of movies set in the Belle Epoch: from “The Magnificent Ambersons” to “Meet Me in St. Louis“; from “Hello Frisco, Hello” to the Cagney production ”Johnny Come Lately." Nostalgia will always be with us, of course, but I assume there’s another reason why that era appealed then. In the midst of World War II, who wouldn’t want to go back to a time before even World War I? Before it all went wrong.
Wednesday November 11, 2020
Movie Review: The Time of Your Life (1948)
If you like “White Heat,” thank “The Time of Your Life.” James Cagney wouldn’t have returned to the movie studio he despised (Warners), and the genre he didn’t care for (gangster), if the Cagney brothers’ adaptation of William Saroyan’s 1940 Pulitzer Prize-winning play hadn’t been so costly to produce and bombed so badly at the box office. The bombing was perhaps inevitable, the costliness not. It was basically a filmed played, so why cost overruns?
According to Cagney, director H.C. Potter and cinematographer James Wong Howe insisted on two weeks of rehearsals to block everything out, then they realized they had a problem with the mirror above the bar (or something), so it all amounted to wasted time. And money. Then the ending had to be reshot. Howe is a legendary cinematographer, who had previously photographed five Cagney flicks, including “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” but the two never worked together again. Not sure why the Cagneys went with Potter in the first place. I guess because he was a stage as well as a film director. Except his film output tends to be the lesser-known efforts of great stars: James Stewart in “You Gotta Stay Happy,” Fred Astaire in “Second Chorus,” Cary Grant in “Mr. Lucky.” In his favor, he did do “Mr. Blandings” and directed Loretta Young to an Oscar in “The Farmer’s Daughter” in 1947. But that’s a small favor.
As for why bombing was inevitable? Imagine Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” as a precious, one-set film. John at the bar is always yakking about how he could’ve been a movie star; Paul, the realtor, is forever working on his novel; and look, there’s ol’ Davey in his Navy whites. Everyone is this thing and nothing else.
'Sup, Officer Krupp
Cagney is the kind of conductor of it all. He plays Joe, “whose hobby is people,” and who hangs out all day at Nick’s Pacific Street Saloon Restaurant: & Entertainment Palace. He observes people, we’re told, but we also see him fix things with an amused, know-it-all demeanor. The way Cagney’s Tom Richards acts as Lone Ranger in “Johnny Come Lately”—showing up in town, fixing things, riding the rails out—so Joe does all that but from his seat near the bar.
William Bendix plays Nick “whose hobby is horses,” while Cagney’s sis Jeanne is Kitty Duval, “a young woman with memories.” Everyone has their bit. Everyone is defined by it. Dudley (Jimmy Lydon) is lovelorn, Willie (Richard Erdman) is forever playing pinball, while Harry (Paul Draper) thinks of himself as a tap-dancing comedian, except nothing he does is funny. It’s mostly annoying. The bar is supposed to be full of characters but it’s actually full of annoying, one-note people who tend to be solipsistic. It’s a big space but everyone can’t believe that guy got in the way of me doing my thing.
Joe has a right-hand man named Tom (Wayne Morris) whom he bosses around: get toys at such-and-such a place; play numbers 6 and 7 on the jukebox. Later, Tom eyes Kitty, who shows up, asks for a beer, and is disrespected by Nick. He calls her “a B girl at Manigi’s joint up the street” but she insists she was once in burlesque and had flowers sent to her by European royalty. I guess she’s supposed to be trashy and lost, like Claire Trevor in “Key Largo,” but she’s just Jeanne Cagney—cute and sturdy—and Joe works it so she and Tom wind up together. That’s one thing he does.
He also tells Nick to bet on Precious Time in a horse race, and, despite long odds, it wins. “How do you do it?” Nick asks. “Faith,” Joe responds. There's a vaguely magic realist element to him. Later, for example, he tells Nick to bet on a horse named McCarthy, who's supposedly no good, but Joe insists it'll come through. How does he know? “McCarthy's name is McCarthy, isn't it? The horse is going to win, that's all. Today.” And it does. Joe knows all.
I like a scene halfway through, where he talks up a new patron, Mary L., “a woman of quality” (Gale Page), and they play a little guessing game about each other’s names:
He: That’s my first name. Everybody calls me Joe. The last name’s the tough one. I’ll help you a little. I’m Irish. [pause] Just plain Mary?
She: Yes, it is. I’m Irish, too. At least on my father’s side. English on my mother’s side.
He: I’m Irish on both sides. Mary is one of my favorite names. I guess that’s why I didn’t think of it.
The whole Mary/favorite name thing is a nice echo of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” We get an ironic version of this when Joe insists (to Kitty) that he can’t dance.
Beefy character actors Broderick Crawford and Ward Bond play, respectively, a cop and a blatherskite, which means “a person who talks at great length without making much sense,” except Bond’s character doesn’t seem to do that much, and anyway the most fascinating thing about each is their name. A year before his Oscar turn in “All the King’s Men,” Crawford’s cop is called Krupp, which makes me think of Officer Krupke from “West Side Story,” as well as a corruption of “corrupt” (even though Krupp isn’t); while Bond, who is about to become the right-hand man to HUAC in fomenting the blacklist in Hollywood, plays McCarthy two years before “McCarthyism” was born. That one made me do a doubletake. Plus, yeah, the horse. McCarthys everywhere in the late '40s.
More fun with names: The bad guy, Freddy Blick, is played by character actor Tom Powers, which just happened to be Cagney’s character’s in his breakthrough role in “The Public Enemy” back in 1931. (Powers also played the cuckolded husband in “Double Indemnity.”) Blick is described as “a stool pigeon and frame-up artist” so it’s odd that everyone at the bar seems afraid of him. Why would you be afraid of a stool pigeon? Answer? In the play, he was a vice cop, so he had power. Basically they change him from dirty cop to dirty rat but pretend the dynamics are the same. They aren't.
Blick is also the reason for the other, costlier change. In the play, he bullies the bar’s patrons, particularly its women, until a new patron named Murphy (James Barton), a twinkly-eyed teller of tall tales who goes by “Kit Carson,” shoots him off-stage. Then he comes back onstage and talks about it as if it were a thing of the past, a thing he couldn’t quite remember, another tall tale. After that, Joe gets out of his seat, waves goodbye to everyone, and that’s that. The Cagneys filmed this version and took it through previews in Pasadena and Santa Barbara. “You could have heard a pin drop in the theater,” Jeanne Cagney has said. “I just don’t think audiences were ready for a philosophical play.”
So they refilmed the ending. Cagney’s Joe has to put up his dukes and the patrons merely oust Blick—they don’t kill him. In the aftermath, we get some quirky lines from Joe and Kit Carson, while Nick, listening to the blather, takes a sign reading “Come in and be yourself” from his window, says “Enough is enough,” and tears it in half. I’m not sure how the original end would’ve played—it would require a delicate touch to have impact—but this one amounts to a kind of hapless shrug. A Wuhr-wur. I would've rolled the dice on the other.
What the hell else
Anyway, it’s not good, and I guess the copyright has expired, as with many (all?) of the independent Cagney productions, so the version I saw was a cheapie on YouTube. It looked like a kinescope of an early TV play rather than a feature film. That didn’t help but that’s not the problem. Everything else is.
I go back to Hitchcock’s line about the true drama, the better drama, happening off camera among the actors (leading Truffaut to make “Day for Night”), and it’s true here but in terms of irony and poignancy. The film strives for poignancy and doesn’t get there. But for Cagney, the whole enterprise feels excruciatingly poignant. He became a star at Warners as a tough guy, bellyached for a decade about the money he made and the roles he got, finally left to make more hifalutin fare, and he couldn’t even get the stuff through previews. He had to add fisticuffs to Saroyan. “But what the hell else could we have done?” he told his biographer John McCabe in 1980. “The public just didn’t get it at the previews.”
What could he have done? Held the line. Rolled the dice. Instead he corrupted the final product and audiences still didn’t come. So he returned to Warners. His reward for desertion was a lot more money and the role of a lifetime in “White Heat,” but I think he only truly appreciated the former. I don’t think he ever appreciated how great he was in those gangster roles. Maybe none of us appreciate what we do well. We keep striving for the other thing.
Tuesday September 15, 2020
Movie Review: Johnny Come Lately (1943)
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.
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.
Tuesday September 08, 2020
Movie Review: City for Conquest (1940)
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.
Old Timer: Young Samson. He’s got to win.
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.
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.
Monday August 31, 2020
Movie Review: 13 Rue Madeleine (1947)
“Tattaglia is a pimp. He never could have outfought Santino. But I didn't know until this day that it was Barzini all along.” – Don Vito Corleone.
James Cagney is a little smarter than Don Corleone. He figured out fast that it was Barzini—or actor Richard Conte, who plays Barzini in “The Godfather” and Bill O’Connell here: a Nazi spy amid the U.S. Secret Intelligence service during World War II. One wonders if this wasn’t inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s casting or if Conte was commonly cast as the turncoat in ’40s and ’50s movie. Or if it was just a coincidence.
It’s supposed to be O.S.S., and Cagney’s character, Bob Sharkey, is supposed to be “Wild” Bill Donovan, but apparently neither Donovan nor the O.S.S. liked the storyline. I don’t blame them. The U.S. Secret Intelligence service doesn’t come off very intelligent. That’s why the filmmakers chose the lookalike “O77,” which stands for Operation 77, since this is the 77th operation the service has engaged in since the war began. I know that’s the letter “o” not the number zero, but I couldn’t help notice the James Bond connotation: oh double-seven instead of double-oh seven. The first Bond novel was published five years later, so one wonders if this wasn’t some kind of inspiration for Ian Fleming. Or if it was just a coincidence.
Anyway, to firmer ground.
Where have you gone, Lefty Merrill?
“13 Rue Madeleine” is the second Henry Hathaway-directed movie in as many years with a street address for a title (“The House on 92 Street”), a plot revolving around a Nazi double agent, and what the AFI site calls a “documentary-like” feel (the stentorian voice of wartime narrator Reed Hadley is used for exposition). The movie begins on the rainy streets of Washington D.C., and then we get a shot of the National Archives. Beneath a statue of “the future” is a phrase from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” And our stentorian narration begins:
“What is past is prologue. Yes, here in the National Archives in Washington D.C., past is prologue. For this is the final resting place of the histories and records of tens of thousands of illustrious Americans. World War II has come to a victorious conclusion, and now new names and new records are being added to the list. For the nation and the world are for the first time learning of silent and significant deeds performed in foreign lands by a legion of anonymous men and women—the Army of Secret Intelligence.”
He keeps going. How long? We’re six and a half minutes in before we get the first snippet of dialogue. Then imore narration. I guess it's one way to go. Probably beats dialogue like: “Hi, I’m Bob--” “No need to introduce yourself, Mr. Sharkey, your reputation proceeds you. Master of five languages. Expert in judo. You grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, right?” “Yeah, that’s right. [smiles] Should’ve known Secret Intelligence would have some intelligence on me.”
As Cagney’s previous film, “Blood on the Sun,” was sloppy seconds to “Casablanca” (pre-war romance with exotic beauty in exotic land), so this is sloppy seconds to Alan Ladd’s “O.S.S.,” which was released almost a year earlier (May 1946 to January 1947) and obviously received Donovan’s imprimatur. And just as “Blood” contained its echo of Bogart’s “hill of beans” speech, so this contains an echo of “O.S.S.”’s speech about how the spy biz is antithetical to the American character.
“Americans aren’t brought up to fight the way the enemy fights. We can learn to become intelligence agents and saboteurs if we have to. But we’re too sentimental, too trusting, too easy-going...”
“Now the average American is a good sport—plays by the rules. But this war is no game, and no secret agent is a hero or a good sport. That is—no living agent. You’re going to be taught to kill, to cheat, to rob, to lie. And everything you learn is moving you toward one objective—just one, that’s all: the success of your mission. Fair play? That’s out. Years of decency and honest living? Forget all about them or turn in your suits.”
It’s funny hearing Cagney talk about how Americans play by the rules when his spent his entire career cast as gangsters like Tom Powers and grifters like Lefty Merrill. There’s some truth to his speech, I suppose, but there’s more truth in Lefty’s line: “I'm telling you, Mac, the public is like a cow, bellowing, bellowing to be milked.” Or maybe the above speeches were how a postwar America was bellowing? After all that, it wanted to be told it was still innocent.
At the training grounds in England, Sharkey's superior, Charles Gibson (Walter Abel), tells him that one of the recruits is a spy and it’s up to Sharkey to figure it out. The narrator has already helpfully introduced us to three possibilities:
- Suzanne de Beaumont (Annabella): a French citizen whose husband is MIA
- Jeff Lassiter (Frank Latimore), educated in Geneva, Oxford and UCLA and All-American-looking
- Bill O’Connell (Conte), Rutgers
Since O’Connell graduates at the top of his class—passing tests that were designed for failure—Sharkey knows it’s him.
Then the first mistake. Rather than arrest him, the service decides to feed him false intel. The big question at this point in the war is where the U.S. is going to open a second front, so they send O’Connell, Lassister and de Beaumont on a mission to Holland, where, they imply, the second front will be opened. Then they make a bigger mistake: They let Lassiter in on it. They tell him his pal, with whom he trained, joked and played backgammon, is a Nazi spy, and the kid can’t deal. On the flight over, O’Connell makes small talk but Lassiter can barely look at him. Immediately O’Connell figures his cover his blown and Holland is a lie, and he takes swift action. Before the jump, he cuts Lassiter’s parachute cord and Lassiter plunges to his death, while “O’Connell” (real name: Kuncel) slips back to Gestapo headquarters in Le Havre: the 13 Rue Madeleine of the title.
Up to this point, our main characters have been Lassiter, O’Connell and the narration, and we’ve basically just lost all of them. So who fills the gap? Cagney, of course. Sharkey decides he’s the one who should continue the mission—capturing a man named Duclois (Marcel Rousseau), who built a factory in Le Havre at which the Germans are manufacturing V-2 rockets. Some of the intrigue isn’t bad. He parachutes in, is met silently by a French farm family who bury his parachute and whose little girl points him to the safe house. It’s run by a severe, older French woman (Blanche Yurka), who’s great. She talks to Sharkey sternly, tells him he needs to move on at first light, betrays nothing of her allegiances. Lassiter should’ve had such a game face.
Sharkey goes by the undercover name Chavat and runs into a lot of luck. He asks the town’s mayor (Sam Jaffe) about Duclois, and the mayor turns out to be Free French. They work together to pull German guards from Duclois so they can snatch him; but Sharkey is captured by O’Connell/Kuncel and brought to the titular house, where, we’re told, he’ll suffer “the cruelest tortures the Germans can devise.” Cut to Germans sipping coffee while we hear whipping noises from the other room. Painful, sure, but hardly devised by the Germans.
The ending is interesting for two reasons. One, it prefigures Cagney's famous end in “White Heat.“ Cagney's in the torture room, sweating, bloodied, eyeing Kuncel, when the Allied planes go overhead. He knows the Allies will blow up the V-2 factory and 13 Rue Madeleine, thus ending his pain and Kuncel’s chance to find out about the second front. Which is what happens, and he laughs. And that's how he dies: Laughing in a fiery explosion, laughing. Top of the world.
All at once
But this isn’t the end-end. We actually return to Washington, D.C., the National Archives buidling, and the quote: “What is past is prologue.” The camera lingers on it to remind us of ... what? If this is the past, then the prologue is … the Soviets? I got a real Cold War vibe from that. Concurrently, but oddly, IMDb lists Julie and Ethel Rosenberg among the cast:
It's odd because the Rosenbergs weren't arrested for espionage until the summer of 1950. So was the footagae from an earlier arrest? Was Roseneberg footage adde to the film upon a re-release in the 1950s? Or is IMDb mistaken?
“Rue” is the only movie Cagney made between 1943 and 1948 (his second Warner-less period) that was a true studio film (20th Century Fox). It’s also the movie where he really begins to show his age. Just three years earlier, in “Johnny Come Lately,” he looked youthful. Here, he’s put on weight, his face is blockier, his lips have turned inward. Was it the war? The time off? The farm work? I guess this is how it happens: Bit by bit, then all at once.
But he’s still Cagney. I like this exchange before Sharkey parachutes into occupied France.
Gibson: You won’t come back.
Sharkey: I’ve just discovered something about you.
Sharkey: You’re a worrier.
It’s a nice bit—particularly Cagney’s eyes darting over Gibson’s face. It’s the eyes of an actor listening as well as talking.
Newspaper ad, 1947. ”Wanna go see the new Cagney picture?“ ”Well, as long as Little Lulu is playing."
Wednesday July 08, 2020
Movie Review: The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)
James Cagney and Bette Davis were the stars that made the most trouble for Warner Bros. during the studio era. Cagney wanted more money, Davis wanted better roles, and both felt Jack Warner didn’t know jack. In his book “Warner Bros.: The Making of an American Movie Studio,” film historian David Thomson attempts to thread the contretemps:
Bette was looking for a battle, whether she could know that, or admit it. At any other studio, she would have become a problem, because her angry eyes needed to feel she was embattled and scorned. There are artistic spirits that can be crushed by kindness and understanding.
As for Cagney, his own track record wasn't stellar. After the classic Warner Bros. film “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (best picture, best actor), he was finally free of his contract, and he and his brother William promptly produced two war movies at the end of the war (when everyone was tired of the war), and “The Time of Your Life,” based on the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play by William Saroyan. Prestige! Importance! Cagney plays “Joseph T. (who observes people).” Yes, that’s his character name. The movie bombed so badly that Cagney was forced to return to Warners, which promptly put him into another classic, “White Heat,” and the gangster role he was always running from.
So maybe Warners knew a little something.
Was “The Bride Came C.O.D.” a kind of punishment for both of its unruly stars? Cagney was afraid of flying yet Warners kept casting him as a pilot. This is his third of four goes in the cockpit between 1935 and 1942. Meanwhile, Davis spends half the picture landing ass-first on cacti. “We both reached bottom with this one,” Davis writes, probably punnily, in her autobiography.
But it’s not that bad. Davis in particular is good, and surprisingly sexy, as the frivolous, combative daughter of a wealthy oil man who runs off to marry a bandleader/singer after knowing him only four days. The supporting cast—led by Jack Carson as Allen Brice, and Harry Davenport as Pop Tolliver—is about perfect.
Cagney’s the problem. He’s not as trim as he used to be and he lands too hard on jokes that need a soft touch. Was he not made for comedy? Or love stories? Here’s Thomson again on Cagney’s appeal:
He was Irish—he was a gentle, quiet guy in life and a family man—but he photographed like a featherweight devil, full of violent urges and sniping back talk. He was dangerous on screen; it was what he had instead of sex. He might kill anyone, devour an actress, or turn into a dancing machine. No one had ever moved like Cagney, or seemed such a feral, animated figure.
What do you call a feral figure in a screwball comedy? Misplaced, maybe.
Back and forthy
The movie opens with a nationally known gossip columnist, Tommy Keenan (Stuart Erwin), literally ambulance-chasing for a story for his upcoming broadcast. Even the scoop by blithely vain bandleader Allen Brice (Carson, brilliant) that he plans to marry oil heiress Joan Winfield (Davis) won’t help. That’s three days away, and Brice has been married before, so who cares? But wait! If they elope to Vegas? Now that’s entertainment.
But Winfield’s dad, the recent oil millionaire Lucius K. (Eugene Pallette), strenuously objects, which is probably one reason why it’s so appealing to Joan. It’s classic Bette: I’m going to do what you don’t want me to. The plan is to charter a plane to Vegas, Keenan will be aboard, he’ll get his scoop. Except the plane belongs to Steve Collins (Cagney), he owes $1,000, so he makes a deal with the dad to deliver his daughter without the fiancé. $10 per pound, cash on delivery.
Yeah, it’s a little “It Happened One Night”: engaged heiress battles her rich father, who’s against the wedding, but on the road she falls in love with rascally working man.
I love Davis’ reaction when he tells her she’s been kidnapped. Kidnapped, she says, intrigued. One can see her imagining the headlines and just the scandal of it all. We get the following Q&A:
- “Have you got a mob?” “No, they call me The Solo Kid.”
- “I suppose you’re taking me to your hideout.” [Almost Bogart-esque]: “You said it, babe.”
- “Have you always been a criminal?” “Oh no, ma’am. I used to be a boy scout.”
- “How much are you asking for me?” “I’m just a beginner. I’m only asking for carrying charges.”
Could his lines have been better here? The screenwriters are the Epstein brothers, Jules and Philip, who would pen “Casablanca” a year later, so it’s not like they suck at this. The director is William Keighley, who directed his share of so-so Cagneys: from “Picture Snatcher” to “The Fighting 69th.” This is his last with Jimmy. He made a few more before supervising the First Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Air Force during the war.
Once Joan realizes it’s not a scandalous kidnapping but her father’s powerful arm trying to rein her in, she grabs a parachute to jump from the plane. Except Steve knows it’s not a parachute so he keeps tilting the plane to keep her in. One too many times and the plane sputters and crash-lands in the desert. Luckily it’s near the former gold mining town of Bonanza. Unluckily, it’s deserted. Luckily, there’s one man remaining, Pop Tolliver (Davenport, charming), who lives in the deserted hotel.
The movie’s basically this kind of back-and-forth, and it might get a little too back-and-forthy. Steve claims they’re a honeymooning couple and Pop won’t believe Joan’s pleadings that she’s been kidnapped until the news comes over his radio. (The media frenzy montage is great.) Now Pop won’t believe Steve’s declaration that he was simply returning daughter to father. Instead, Pop nearly shoots his head off and locks him in the local jail. Joan attempts to signal search planes with a mirror (“They’re looking for me! Isn’t it wonderful? I feel so terribly important!”), and Steve’s attempts to foil her by shooting a pebble via a rubber band from the jail cell. It's that kind of silly. But they’re spied, and it’s a race between fiancé and father to get to Bonanza first. In the meantime, on the radio, the truth of Steve’s declarations are revealed, so Steve is sprung and Joan is jailed. She gets out, he chases her into a mine, which she collapses. Etc.
The first to arrive is neither father nor fiancé but LA’s Sheriff McGee (William Frawley, in his second Cagney feature). By this point, Pop is part of Steve’s scheme to delay the wedding so he can collect the money, and Pop puts off the sheriff with Maine-like stoicism:
McGee: How’s business?
Tolliver: About the same.
McGee: Same as what?
Tolliver: About the same as usual.
The mine scene isn’t bad. She suspects they’ll die; he finds a way out via Pop’s food-laden storage cellar, eats his fill, returns but doesn’t tell her. By this point, they’re canoodling and eventually they kiss. Five seconds in, her eyes widen, she leaps to her feet and shouts “Mustard!” Great moment.
We get more screwball antics for the wedding. Is Bonanza in California or Nevada? (Pronounced Ne-VAY-de by Pops.) Which minister will work? Steve challenges the groom to a fight and gets clobbered by the good-natured Brice. (It’s fun seeing Cagney lose a fight for a change.) Steve’s schemes are all about getting the C.O.D. money but all the while Joan is falling for him. The final scene is their honeymoon, back in Bonanza. Hold the mustard.
Again, a lot of the elements are there for a classic. The miscast, sadly, is Cagney. Put Gable in the role and you see things maybe falling into place.
Tuesday June 16, 2020
Movie Review: The Letter (1940)
“So what do you think happens?” I asked my wife as both of us were watching “The Letter” for the first time. “Does she get away with it?” I assumed I knew the answer: 1940, Production Code, murder. Nope.
Confession: Bette Davis movies are one of the big gaps in my film studies. If she’s with Cagney or Bogart, sure, and I own “All About Eve,” but the women-centered pictures she made in the late ’30s and early ’40s, and which Carol Burnett parodied so often and seemingly so well on her variety show, I’ve never gotten around to. Trying to rectify that.
Another confession: I can’t even look at the title of this movie without think of Carol saying “Give me the lettah!” I couldn’t find that skit online but the search did make me realize the bit didn’t originate with Carol. “Petah, give me the lettah” was such a common Davis impersonation that Davis herself sent it up with Jack Paar in 1962. Like many of the classic imitations—“You dirty rat,” “Play it again, Sam,” “Judy Judy Judy”—it's a line the actor never said.
Third confession? I was a bit disappointed in “The Letter.” It’s directed by a great, William Wyler, from a play by a great, W. Somerset Maugham, and garnered seven Oscar nominations—including picture, director, actress, supporting actor, editing, cinematography. It’s got a good opening scene, too. The rest is a slog. It’s pure melodrama. Not to mention tinged with the racism of the day.
Apparently it’s based on a true story, the 1911 Ethel Proudlock case, which caused a scandal in British-run Malaysia, and which Maugham turned into a short story and then a play in the 1920s. The highlighted portion of this Wikipedia description of the crime is almost the beginning of “The Letter” exactly:
On the evening of 23 April 1911, she was alone in the VI headmaster's bungalow while her husband dined with a fellow teacher. In the course of that evening, she shot dead William Steward, a mine manager. Steward had visited her by rickshaw and had told the rickshaw boy to wait outside. Shortly afterwards, the boy heard two shots and saw Steward stumble out of the house across the veranda followed by Proudlock carrying a revolver, who then emptied the remaining four bullets into him.
In the movie, it’s Leslie Crosbie (Davis), who empties the gun into Geoff Hammond (David Newell), in the middle of a hot, steamy night, while Chinese and Malay servants silently gather. Leslie stares with a kind of dread at the moon, and a servant stares with a kind of dread at her lacemaking; and then her husband, Robert (Herbert Marshall), a police inspector (Bruce Lester) and a lawyer, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson), all arrive to hear her story.
We know she did it so there’s no tension there. After she tells her side of it—admirably without flashbacks—we seemingly know why she did it: Hammond got drunk and tried to take advantage. Joyce, her lawyer, thinks she’ll be acquitted soon enough.
Ah, but then the lettah.
It’s brought to the attention of Joyce by his assistant, Ong (Victor Sen Yung, Hop Sing on “Bonanza”), who, throughout, is both ingratiating and vaguely threatening. The letter Joyce sees is a copy—meaning hand-copied—and it’s from Leslie to Geoff on the night of the murder asking him to come by the estate. When Joyce asks Leslie about it, she says, yes, in the horror she forgot about that, but she only wanted to ask him about birthday-present ideas for her husband. Joyce says the letter implies more. It does. It implies they were lovers. Ong tells Joyce the original is in the hands of Hammond’s Chinese widow (Gale Sondergaard, playing ethnic again), a Dragon Lady type who lives in the Chinese district, and can be had for a price: $10,000. Joyce balks. It’s unethical! It could get him disbarred! But Ong keeps insinuating himself, the letter, and the money, into the conversation.
I never really bought Joyce’s turnaround on the ethics of it all: from “No way!” to jumping through all those hoops to make it happen. Once they agree to the $10k, Mrs. Hammond makes an extra demand: Leslie has to deliver the money herself. She does, with Joyce, riding a big car through narrow Chinatown streets. The two wind up in the Opium Den of the perpetually smiling and vaguely threatening Chung Hi (Willie Fung), where Leslie examines an ornate knife before Mrs. Hammond makes her arrival through beaded curtains. I assumed Leslie would try to use the knife. Otherwise why show it? Right, because of the Chekhovian adage; it shows up in the third act.
I think I would’ve liked this face-to-face more if Warners had cast a Chinese woman in the role. Here, it’s pretty one-note: the widow stares down imperiously from a top step, bristling with anger, while Ong translates slowly and Chung Hi laughs inappropriately. The widow keeps upping her demands. Mrs. Crosbie has to remove her veil. Mrs. Crosbie has to walk over. Mrs. Crosbie has to pick up the letter off the floor when the widow drops it on the ground. It’s a long elaborate ritual that delivers not much.
The widow and the servant
So the letter is bought, the trial occurs, Joyce is conflicted but performs his duties, and the jury exonerates Leslie after less than an hour. But she can’t exonerate herself. (Plus Production Code.) On another moonlit night, she confesses to her husband that she loved Hammond and still loves him; that she killed him because he was leaving her. Afterwards, led by sounds, and by the appearance/disappearance of the ornate knife, she wanders outside the gates, where Mrs. Hammond is standing, bristling with anger. Wait, it’s not just Mrs. Hammond but Leslie’s own servant? Who muffles her screams while the widow takes the dagger and stabs her? Why did he get involved? Was it the lacemaking. Is it part of the movie’s overt/covert racism? You can’t trust any of them.
I don’t know about the play, but in the 1929 movie version, made before the Production Code had teeth, Leslie doesn't die; her husband simply keeps her on the plantation “as punishment”—I guess because he’s broke so there are no servants. By 1940 this wasn’t enough. The widow and servant can’t get away with it, either, so after they do the deed they turn and, whoops, there’s a cop. A little too neatly tied up, Warners. I like the camerawork anyway: panning from Leslie’s body outside the gate to the party still happening in the house. But then we have to have the moon again. “The Letter” is too much that: moon and melodrama.
I’m curious if Mrs. Hammond got a trial? Or if Joyce was ever disbarred? So many loose ends. I’m mostly interested in the marginal figures. Did Ong buy a bigger car? (His teeny car is a sight gag in the movie.) Did he fight the Japanese, who occupied Malaysia for three years during the war? Did he fight the British afterwards? Independence was finally declared on August 31, 1957. I know so little of it all.
Tuesday June 09, 2020
Movie Review: They Drive By Night (1940)
This is an historic movie. Most people don’t know that.
No, it wasn’t acclaimed at the time, garnering no film awards or even nominations. I doubt it did any kind of boffo box office. And the storyline is muddled. The first half is about two brothers, Joe and Paul Fabrini (George Raft and Humphrey Bogart), wildcat truckers struggling to survive in a tough, bottom-line world. The second half is about the screwy dame (Ida Lupino) who has such a thing for Joe that she kills her husband (Alan Hale) to give him an opening. Which Joe doesn’t take. So she pins the murder on him.
So why should we consider it historic? Because Bogart's next movie was “High Sierra,” and one after that he did “The Maltese Falcon,” and three after that he was cast in “Casablanca.” He’s fourth-billed here but afterwards he’ll always be the lead. He'll become the biggest Hollywood star of the 1940s and at the end of the century the American Film Institute will vote him the greatest male movie star of all time.
And he owes it all to his co-star on this one.
That’s well-known, right? That George Raft kept turning down the roles that made Bogie Bogie? Raft was offered “High Sierra” but didn’t want to die in the end. He turned down “Maltese Falcon” because he didn’t think it was an important picture. He even turned down “Casablanca.” By the end of that one, Raft was no longer the star; he was the asterisk.
In this one, he’s the star. The Fabrini brothers begin this thing on the road, exhausted, in hock, and one step ahead of the creditors. After a mishap, Joe winds up at a roadside café where one guy, Irish (Roscoe Karns), is stuck at a pinball machine because he keeps winning, and where the rest of the guys are making eyes at the waitress, Cassie (Ann Sheridan, the “oomph” girl), who takes no crap.
Paul, perpetually sleepy, wouldn’t mind getting off the road for good. It’s not just the long hours; he’s got a wife who wants kids, who wants a family, and who wants him home. But Joe’s got a dream of turning this haul into that profit, and that haul into another, until they own a whole fleet of trucks, see? So he keeps pushing. And suddenly they’re doing kinda OK. They buy a load of lemons and sell them for several times their value. They pay off the truck and are on their way. But at gas station, the same gas station they always seem to wind up at, the attendant wonders why Joe is always driving while Paul is always asleep. That doesn’t seem right to him. Joe suddenly cares what somebody else thinks—this gas station attendant, of all people—so he and Paul switch places. Ah, but Paul, sad Paul, forever sleepy Paul, falls asleep at the wheel and goes into a ravine. Joe is thrown clear. The brothers lose the rig and Paul loses his right arm.
That sets up our second half. Without Paul, Joe finally agrees to get off the road and take a job with his friend Ed Carlsen (Hale), a former trucker who now owns the proverbial fleet. He also has a slim, perpetually scowling wife, Lana (Lupino), whose every cutting remark Ed laughs off. He doesn’t see that she has eyes for Joe, nor how uncomfortable it makes Joe—who is with Cassie now. Ed doesn’t see the danger.
We do. At a party, Ed gets drunk, a disgusted Lana drives him home, and in the garage, staring at him asleep in the passenger seat, she gets an idea: a wonderful, horrible, awful idea. With the motor still running, she slowly eases herself out of the car and onto the driveway and past the censor that automatically closes the garage door—new tech which Ed proudly showed off earlier in the movie. And as the music wells, those doors close onto Ed like a tomb. Next scene, she’s tearfully explaining to the police how Ed must’ve driven himself home and… Sob!
I assumed the censor would be the clue that nails her—since how could the garage doors close unless someone walked past it—and it is, but not that way. It’s the blood stain for her Lady Macbeth. Anytime she sees a censor, she panics, and relives her crime. At Joe’s murder trial, she breaks down on the stand. There’s not even any suspense to it. She’s a state’s witness but she cracks without effort.
Stuff dreams are made of
After all that, Joe wants to leave Ed’s company but none of the rest of the guys are having it. So he stays on as president, with Paul by his side. They finally have their fleet of trucks, and good women at their sides. Yay.
None of it really works. Sometimes that happens no matter the talent involve. So you regroup and try again. Director Raoul Walsh regrouped and made “High Sierra” with Bogart. Then he regrouped again and made “Manpower” with George Raft and Edward G. Robinson as friends on an LA power-company road crew who compete for Marlene Dietrich. You get why Raft went that route. Him and Robinson and Dietrich? Seems like a winner. Makes way more sense than working with that rookie director who’s trying yet another version—the third version in 10 years!—of Dashiell Hammett’s silly novel about a black bird.
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