Movie Reviews - 1930s postsWednesday October 02, 2019
Movie Review: Devil Dogs of the Air (1935)
Devil Dogs? Plural? More like hot dog, singular.
Thomas Jefferson “Tommy” O’Toole (James Cagney) considers himself the world’s greatest aviator but joins the Marines to (I guess) be with his childhood buddy, Lt. Brannigan (Pat O’Brien), and has to go through all the steps—training, flight instruction, solo flight—that he considers beneath him. He lets everyone know it’s beneath him. He’s got a superior attitude and a superior laugh. He doesn’t exactly endear himself to them. Or us.
It's kinda weird. I'm a Cagney fan but he's a real asshole in this one.
Not only does he disrespect Brannigan, he tries to steal his girl, Betty (Margaret Lindsay). Wait, he does steal her. First he tries to con the mother, Ma Roberts (Helen Lowell), by selling her his crashed airplane, which he says will attract customers to her diner; then he keeps making a play for Betty. He assumes, with that constant, superior giggle of his, that Betty is enamored of him, too. All the while, she fulminates—“Ooo!”—until she doesn’t. It’s like that transition in “Taxi” when Loretta Young goes from absolutely hating Cagney to cozying up to him on a date. Here, O’Toole basically blackmails Betty into going to the dance with him, and the next we see them they’re dancing cheek to cheek—and she’s not minding it a bit. All the “Ooo!” has gone out of her. If it wasn’t 1935, I would think Sam Peckinpah directed it, but it’s Warner Bros./Cagney mainstay Lloyd Bacon.
We keep waiting for comeuppance, but when it comes it’s muted and distracted; then rewarded.
South of La Jolla
O’Toole first shows up in his plane with WORLD’S GREATEST AVIATOR on the side and TOMMY O’TOOLE on the tops of the wings, and buzzes the San Diego Marine compound and does loop-de-loops. When instructions are given, he’s paring his fingernails. When he goes up with a flight instructor, he disables communications so he doesn’t have to listen to him. Brannigan then takes over as flight instructor but when the plane catches fire he bails out, while O’Toole, with a laugh and a “So long, sucker!” lands the plane safely to acclaim. The longtime commander—beloved, one would think—is suddenly tagged with the mocking nickname “Bail-Out Brannigan.” Maybe he is. He tries to bail out again by requesting a transfer to Quantico. It’s Betty, inside the newly dubbed “Happy Landing Café,” who convinces him to stay and fight. Given what happens, one wonders why she made the effort.
O’Toole finally gets an inkling he’s despised when the rookies, after their first solo flight, are hailed and paraded around the compound before a ceremonious toss into the ocean. Hoo-rah! None of this happens to him. He sticks a perfect three-point landing and gets the cold shoulder. “What gives?” he asks. “Figure it out for yourself,” says the mechanic dismissively.
But it’s just an inkling and it doesn’t stick as well as his landings. He makes more plays at Betty. Outside the dance, Brannigan and O’Toole almost fight, but a commanding officer arrives with his wife and two young beauties and asks the young men to escort them inside. All the while, ambulance driver Crash Kelly (Frank McHugh) follows them around hoping to be of use. It’s the movie’s not-particularly-funny running gag. Crash even tries to engineer injuries. Dude, wait seven years. You’ll see plenty.
It is interesting seeing a military movie from a time when there was no draft and no war. It reminds me of “Top Gun” this way. What do you make the climax about? You make it about war maneuvers, Blue vs. Brown, with “the enemy” trying to land “just south of La Jolla.” Some of these scenes, on the beaches amid smoke screens, seem an eerie prefiguring of future battles.
Of course, during maneuvers, O’Toole and Brannigan are in the same plane, and of course their plane is clipped and they lose part of a wing. O’Toole gets all panicky and is ready to bail but Brannigan insists they keep flying; then he wing-walks to repair the damage. One wonders if he’s doing all this to expunge his nickname or if it actually makes sense. The ground is certainly full of doubters: “A thousand to one they won’t make it,” says Ward Bond. They do, O’Toole is hailed again but for the first time he deflects credit.
O’Toole: Brannigan did it all, give it to him.
[They cheer Brannigan]
Brannigan: Forget it. Took two of us to bring it down.
Aw shucks, guys. At which point, Betty arrives and plants a hot kiss on Brannigan, and it suddenly dawns on O’Toole that he’s not the guy for her.
It just doesn’t dawn on Warner Bros. I guess the star was the star, and he got the girl even if the story has to tie itself in knots to make it happen. Here, days after the kiss, Brannigan is walking with Betty and asks her to marry him. She doesn’t exactly jump. She gets quiet and sad and gives the 1930s version of all of those “I like you as a friend” lines I heard 50 years later: “If you were my brother,” she says, “I couldn’t love your or admire you more than I do.”
Ouch. Then this:
She: Oh Bill, I haven’t hurt your feelings, have I?
He: Oh no, honey. I understand everything. ... Good luck, kid.
One moment he’s ready to spend the rest of his life with her, the next he’s bowing out gracefully. So Pat O’Brien.
This is the second of seven movies real-life pals Cagney and O’Brien made together between 1934 and 1940, and most are similar. They’re often childhood friends, in the military, with Cagney the hotshot and O’Brien the temperate/spiritual one. There was often an issue with a girl. In the first, “Here Comes the Navy,” Cagney is after O’Brien’s sister, while here, as in “The Irish In Us,” he steals O’Brien’s girl. Eventually, Warner Bros. just threw up its hands and said, “Screw it, we’ll make O’Brien a priest from now on.” Problem solved.
This, by the way, is IMDb’s synopsis of the movie: “A talented but brash stunt pilot enters the Marine Corps and becomes more disciplined.” So when does the discipline come? At the very end—kinda sorta not really. After the turndown from Betty, Brannigan again requests a Quantico transfer, but as he’s leaving he goes out of his way to tell O’Toole that he’s the one Betty really likes. “If you think that kiss the other day was anything but friendship,” he says, “you’re crazier than a Chinese kite.” Then he leaves, hail and hearty, while O’Toole chastises a private for not saluting—repeating the lines Brannigan drilled into him:
“The Marine Corps only asks for three things: willingness to learn; respect for a superior officer and the uniform he wears; and the ability to take orders so he can give them later on.”
Trouble is, O’Toole never really leaned to take orders without a smirk; he just got good at giving them. He's one of those types.
Anyway, he gets the girl.
The man behind ‘Wings’
A few things I liked. At one point, during maneuvers, there’s a dirigible in the air, reminding us that all of this was filmed pre-Hindenburg when dirigibles supposedly had military value. I also liked the pilot training/tests, which is like a pre-tech, budget version of what we’d see in “The Right Stuff.” Instead of this equilibrium chair from the 1950s, for example, it’s a swivel desk chair. The instructors spin it five turns one way, five turns the next. Then the pilot wobbles out. That’s it.
I liked Lowell as Ma Roberts. She’s got great comic timing in scenes like this:
Ma: Betty’s father was a Marine. Died in the Nicaraguan campaign.
Ma: No. Mumps.
The flight footage is surprisingly good. The story comes from John Monk Saunders, who was born in Hibbing, Minn., in 1895, moved to Seattle in 1907, and served in the Air Service, the forerunner to the Air Force, during World War I. He never saw combat— he was a flight instructor in Florida—which apparently disappointed and/or haunted him. Is that why he began to write about it? Because he couldn’t do it? Either way, in the 1920s, he wrote novels and short stories about WWI pilots, which he sold to Hollywood, and which became, among other movies, “Wings,” “Dawn Patrol,” “Ace of Aces,” and this. For most of the ’30s, Saunders was married to Fay Wray, the girl in King Kong’s palm, and got into an infamous fight with actor and WWI vet Herbert Marshall at a 1934 Ernst Lubitsch dinner party. He also suffered from alcoholism, which is why he committed suicide in 1940.
The main thing I didn’t like in the movie, as you can tell, is Cagney/O’Toole. They really do make him an asshole here. He’s much more likeable as a murderous gangster. Those guys have a code.
Where have you gone, Rocky Sullivan?
Movie Review: Other Men's Women (1931)
Apparently they were down with OPP in the 1930s, too. At least at Warner Bros.
In the clunkily titled “Other Men’s Women,” Loretta Young-elopee Grant Withers plays Bill White, a raconteur for the railroad who has a girl in every station. We first see him stepping off a slow-moving train and ducking into a station diner for three eggs and double entendres with the waitress. He’s counting all the while. Counting what? Double entendres? No. Train cars, we soon realize. So he knows when to get back on board. Like a lot of early Warner Bros. leads, he also has a catchphrase. Offering a stick of gum, he says “Have a little chew on me.” He must say it 10 times in the first 10 minutes.
He also drinks too much, carouses, and is tossed out of his flat by a stuttering female landlord, whose stutter he makes fun of. Plus he’s trying to avoid Marie (Joan Blondell), one of his dames. Not sure why.
Good news: His colleague Jack (Regis Toomey) has offered to let him stay at his place, further out of town, with his wife, Lily (Mary Astor of “Maltese Falcon” fame), and a handyman, Peg-Leg (J. Farrell MacDonald), who, yes, has a literal peg leg. At one point Peg-Leg and Lily are arguing over who should use the shovel to turn the earth for her sweet-pea garden. Peg-Leg wants to help but can’t really use the shovel, which is about when Bill offers his services. Then we see the result: Bill turning the earth, Peg-Leg following behind and poking a hole in the ground, into which Lily plants her seeds. Everyone is useful. Nice scene.
Bad news: The longer he stays the more he and Lily flirt; and one day, when Jack is gone, she’s sewing a button onto his shirt, he feigns to dance with her, and we get this exchange.
Bill: Say, I think you‘re the swellest girl in the world.
Lily: Oh, you’re a dear. And just for that I'm gonna give you a little kiss.
At which point both suddenly realize the depths of their longing for each other. She moves off, he pesters, he grabs and demands to know how she feels, she admits, they kiss.
And to think, it all began with “Say, I think you’re the swellest girl in the world.” Sign of a true lothario: making that line work.
When Jack returns, he senses something wrong—his wife is pale and Bill isn’t around. In fact, he’s already fled. But they’re still colleagues, so Jack sees him. By the time Bill confesses to kissing Lily, Jack thinks it’s worse. They fight, Jack gets the worst of it, and his head hits a rail. Result?
“He’s blind,” Lily says. “Stone blind.”
Now we’re in melodrama territory. A character can’t go blind—let alone stone blind—at the end of the second act without it being a melodrama.
As for the final act? Bill is still working on the railroad, now partnering with his friend Ed (James Cagney, fourth-billed in his third film), when the rains come. A flood might wash away the bridge, so Bill decides to take a train, loaded with cement, and drive it onto the bridge to weigh it down. Or something. Ah, but Jack overhears and stumbles to do the job himself. Now they’re fighting over who gets to sacrifice himself. Jack, blinded, wins this one. He drives the train onto the bridge, a wave comes, the bridge collapses, there goes that.
To sum up, Jack lets Bill stay at his place, and Bill repays him by:
- cuckolding him
- blinding him
- floating the idea that kills him
You’d think this wouldn’t lead to a happy ending but you’d be underestimating Hollywood’s capacity for such things. At the end, we get a refrain of the opening. Train pulls up, Bill, counting cars, goes into EATS, and now Lily is there, too. They’re happy to see each other. They make small talk. She asks him to come see her sometime. He makes it back to the train, and, as he’s running along the top, jumps up and down in excitement.
“Other Men’s Women” was written by playwright/actress Maude Fulton and directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman. We get a few good shots—like when Jack feels his way toward the train that will lead to his sacrificial death—but no memorable lines. Withers isn’t bad but you get why he didn’t last as a leading man. He played big, and often goofy, and not exactly smoldering. Blondell is underused and Cagney criminally so, but we do get to see him dance lightly across the screen. He and Withers also have a nice bit talking atop the train cars, and, without looking, stooping for low bridges because they know the route so well.
As stated, it’s Cagney third movie role. In his fifth, also for Wellman, they made movie history.
Movie Review: Fifty Million Frenchmen (1931)
Does anything make less sense than a Cole Porter musical without the Cole Porter music? Maybe a Pearl Jam concert without Eddie Vedder? It’s like you’ve got LeBron on your team and you leave him on the bench. Because “box office receipts for LeBron are down at this time.”
My roundabout rationale for checking this out:
- A few months back, I was watching the Cagney flick, “The Crowd Roars,” in which Cagney players a race-car driver, and at one point Joan Blondell says sardonically, “Well, 50 million race-car drivers can’t be wrong.”
- My ears perked up. I’d long known that Elvis Presley had a greatest hits album called, “50 Million Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong,” which I’d always thought a weird, catchy title. So much so that I’d played off it before. Example: “5,000 Elvis Cards Can’t Be Wrong,” about a Memphis attorney who sends cards to his clients on Elvis’ birthday rather than Christmas. But I had no idea the Elvis album title was playing off of something else. But what? What was Blondell referencing?
- Turns out, the 1927 hit Sophie Tucker record, “50 Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong.”
- Hey, Cole Porter turned that into a musical in 1929!
- Hey, Warners turned that into a movie in 1931!
- Hey, Scarecrow Video has it!
And here we are.
So was it worth the journey? Eh.
The song is mostly about sex (“They shorten them here, They shorten them there/ And if her name is Teddy they make Teddy bare”) but the movie is mostly about love. So Hollywood. Apparently even pre-code.
Jack Forbes (William Gaxton) is a rich American playboy who arrives in Paris on a luxury liner with a French girl on his arm (Carmelia Teraghty of Rushville, Indiana), but spots an American girl, LuLu Carroll (Claudia Dell, Octavia in the ’34 “Cleopatra”), and falls hard and fast. He searches all over Paris and finally finds her dining with relatives at the Hotel Ritz. It’s his friend Michael Cummins (John Halliday) who IDs her. Trouble? Cummins likes her, too, so he suckers Forbes into a bet. Part of their dialogue here almost feels like song lyrics:
Cummins: May the best man win? What’s that got to do with it—with all his jack.
Forbes: That sounds like a dirty crack
Cummins: That may be. But everyone woman you’ve ever got, you’ve got with your money.
Cummins winds up betting Forbes $50k that in two weeks, with no money he didn’t earn during that time, he can’t get the girl. Then Cummins badmouths Forbes to her. Says he’s crazy. And he is—for her—while she’s surprisingly open. I mean that negatively. She’s just kind of a big blank.
So was such a bet a common conceit in 1930s movies? Or high society? I was reminded of “Trading Places.”
I did like the moment when Forbes realizes how much of his day-to-day he’s lost by losing money. He calls the bellboy over to page Lulu and is going to tip him, then pats his pockets. Right, no dough. He still makes the request, but the bellboy, knowing the score, stands there, waiting. Forbes pats his pockets again and gives him ... is it a pen? Anyway, not a bad bit. Later, when he hops aboard Lulu’s cab and sweet talks her all the way back to her hotel, but is left holding the cab fare, he hands over his coat in exchange. Good thing he gets a job or he might’ve been naked before long.
The job he gets? Tour guide. Leads to a long scene in which various characters (in both senses of the word) try to engage him. There’s a slim woman “who wants to be insulted” in Paris. She’s played by Helen Broderick, who like Gaxton, was in the Broadway musical. There’s a Jewish couple and their bratty kid.
Wife: Mister, will you kindly tell us where is the house of Victor Hugo?
Forbes: Victor Hugo? The guy who wrote the movie ‘The Man Who Laughs’?
Forbes: Never heard of him.
It’s like the absurdist comedy of the Marx Brothers without the Marx Brothers. Or the comedy.
All the while, Forbes is being tailed by two inept detectives, Simon Johanssen and Peter Swanson, played by the vaudeville comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. They’re supposed to make sure Forbes doesn’t get the girl. But of course they wind up sympathizing with his plight.
Olsen and Johnson are actually the stars of the film—the leads—but for the most part I didn’t find them funny. L’opposite. Olsen is the stern, severe one while Johnson has an insane, sloppy giggle that wears fast. He laughs at an effete bar patron and a fat one. He laughs more during the movie than we do.
I do like a scene where they become unwilling assistants to a magician (Bela Lugosi, I believe), and a nice slow-mo chase by the cops over a recently tarred street. And of course how could I not love this self-intro to the high-society types: “And my name is Peter Swanson. Of the Minnesota Swansons.”
In the end, of course, Forbes gets the girl and wins the bet, Cummins is foiled, and Olsen and Johnson wind up at a place called “Café of All Nations” with a bevy of beauties. Initially it’s just Johnson (we hear his giggle inside) while Olsen stands on the sidewalk with their ticket home: From HAVRE to NEW YORK. But he tears this up with a shrug and says the movie’s closing line. “Well, fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.” So we get the line if not the song.
Apparently director Lloyd Bacon filmed the entire musical, which was released in Europe, just not the U.S., where audiences had supposedly soured on musicals. Only the music-less American version remains. Evalyn Knapp gets a credit, and a photo, on IMDb, but I don’t remember seeing her, so maybe she wound up on the cutting room floor? Meanwhile, an actress playing a hotel-room hottie named Suzette gets no credit at all. Anyone know who she is?
Movie Review: The Doorway to Hell (1930)
There’s a good bit about halfway through this.
Our lead, Louie Ricarno (Lew Ayres), who organized the Chicago gangs only to walk away from it all, is down in Florida, golfing and writing a book about his life. He proudly reads the last line aloud to his wife, Doris (Dorothy Mathews):
“Now, this concludes the life of a gangster, and begins the life of a man.”
A minute later, he finds out his kid brother has been in an auto accident—inadvertently caused by one of the gangs in a clumsy attempt to get him to return—and he gets quiet, and looks up, and the killer is in his eyes again. Then the phone rings.
Doris: I hate to bother you, but the man from the Atlas Publishing Company wants to know when he can read your book.
Louie (slowly): Tell him it’s not done yet.
That’s damn good.
I like another scene shortly after this one. Louie is back in Chicago, visiting a plastic surgeon. To disguise himself? To get revenge? But then who will play the part? Which actor? That’s what I’m thinking. But the visit isn’t about him. He shows the surgeon a photo of his kid brother. He asks him to make him look like this again. The surgeon asks where he is. “He’s down at Morse Brothers Undertaking Parlors,” Louie says. Then turns and we see the black mourning band on his sleeve.
That’s a bit like the “Look how they massacred my boy” scene from “The Godfather,” isn’t it? One wonders.
To be honest, I thought “The Doorway to Hell” (original title: “A Handful of Clouds”) would be another of those early Cagney movies where the casting choices got screwed up—where Cagney should’ve been lead rather than second banana—and you can certainly make that argument. I buy Ayres as a gangster, why not, but not as someone who organizes the Chicago mobs—who stares down fat, brutal men and gets them to fall in line. That’s actually not even on Ayres, is it? It’s the script. Those scenes are absurd. They require a suspension of disbelief longer than the Golden Gate Bridge.
Even so, Ayres, born in Minneapolis and raised in San Diego, who had recently received raves playing Paul in “All Quiet on the Western Front,” is good. He doesn’t look tough but can convey an inner toughness. He reminds me a bit of Edward Norton in this way. He even looks like him. See above poster.
This is Cagney’s second movie role. After playing what he called “a sniveling murderer” in “Sinners’ Holiday” (original title: “Penny Arcade”), he plays fifth-billed Steve Mileaway, right-hand man to Louie Ricarno, who’s also cuckolding him. Yep. He’s fooling around with Doris. She’s a pill, too; a real jerk. Oh, and when Louie leaves for Florida, Mileaway is supposed to make sure the organization sticks together; it doesn’t.
Basically he’s a hapless two-timer, a real crumb bum.
Well, he has some measure of loyalty:
Cop: Me afraid of Louie? Why, I’d spit in his eye.
Mileaway: Yeah? And he’d spit in your grave.
(BTW: in your grave? Not on? That’s interesting. Implying a time when we actually watched people being buried.)
Doris is another weak link—or the fact that Louie can’t see she’s not worth anything is a weak part of the film. It’s obvious. Louie also identifies with Napoleon, which is odd, since Napoleon walked away from nothing—and certainly not from power. It's Warner Bros.' attempt to create a “Little Emperor” a few months before they would release “Little Caesar.” Yeah, this predates that. This is the ur-Warners gangster film.
The movie’s title comes from the closing title card. After Louie returns to Chicago to kill the men who caused the death of his kid brother, and he’s jailed by the tough-love paternalistic police chief, Pat O’Grady (Robert Elliott), then escapes and makes a final stand before buying it off-screen in a hail of bullets, after all that we’re informed of the following:
The “Doorway to Hell” is a one-way door. There is no retribution—no plea for further clemency. The little boy walked through it with his head up and a smile on his lips. They gave him a funeral—a swell funeral that stopped traffic—and then they forgot him before the roses had a chance to wilt.
Classic Warners. “Don’t be like this exciting guy who’s exciting tale we’ve just told you. Be like the boring stick-in-the-muds that survived.” I was a bit surprised that Mileaway, nor Doris, ever get comeuppance for their affair. I can’t even remember if Louie ever figures it out. But everybody else, including the cops, knows.
The New York Times, in a spoilers-and-all review on Nov. 1, 1930, called “The Doorway to Hell” intelligent and exciting, adding, “With excellent directing by Archie Mayo and an excellent cast, among whom only Lewis Ayres may properly be called a star...”
Turns out there was another.
Movie Review: Sinners' Holiday (1930)
See the sinners? See the holiday?
The reason we still care about this 60-minute “All-Talking Picture” from 1930, and why a print has been preserved at the Library of Congress, isn’t because of its director (John G. Adolfi), nor its lead (Grant Withers), and certainly not because it’s considered a classic (it’s a bit meh). No, it’s the fourth-billed talent: a Vaudevillian hoofer from New York making his film debut named James Cagney. He won’t be fourth-billed for long.
Do you know the story of how it and he came to be? The Broadway version, “Penny Arcade” by Marie Baumer, which included Cagney and Joan Blondell, premiered earlier in the year and closed after only three weeks. During that time, though, Al Jolson saw it, bought the rights, and recommended both Cagney and Blondell to Warners. (Jolson should’ve been a talent scout.) “I came out on a three-week guarantee,” Cagney remembers in his 1974 autobiography, “and I stayed, to my absolute amazement, for 31 years.”
Since the play/movie concerns Ma Delano (Lucille LaVerne) who runs the Coney Island penny arcade with her kids—the non-descript Joe (Ray Gallagher), the pretty Jenny (Evelyn Knapp), and the ne’er-do-well Harry (Cagney)—“Penny Arcade” isn’t a bad title. Why did they change it? Cagney again:
There was a great vogue then for pictures with “holiday” in the title, and “Sinners’ Holiday” was part of that trend. That title had as much to do with the picture as Winnie-the-Pooh.
It opens well. Over the credits, we hear the sounds and squeals of Coney Island; then we see several barkers working the crowds. I love the enthusiasm of the pitch versus the tawdry reality of the enterprise. They’re selling thrills and sex, but the sex in particular is already bored with it.
One guy says you can get your picture taken with a pretty girl, Myrtle (Blondell), but she’s off to the side, cracking gum, reading a movie magazine, and could care less. Joe Delano, at mom’s behest, extols the penny arcade, while Buck Rogers (Noel Madison), of all names, encourages men to take turns hitting a target, which will “tip the girls back in their chairs,” and you win a cigar. He’s also directing Prohibition-era traffic to bootlegger Mitch McKane (Warren Hymer). “Tell ’im Buck Rogers sent ya,” he says. It’s booze, cigars and upskirts: Doucheville 1930.
But my absolute favorite is a place called Palace of Joy, whose barker, Angel Harrigan (Withers), extols as a place where you can, drink and be merry all for a dime. “Just one thin dime, folks! And you get to see these gorgeous, beautiful women.” He motions to five not-very attractive women standing in coats next to him. “Give ’em a quick flash, girls,” he says. They do so, bored to death. I love that. Right away we know this is a movie about the con. Which makes it a perfect movie for Warners, con artists themselves, who had a tendency to celebrate the grifters of the world. Cf., “Blonde Crazy,” “Hard to Handle,” “Picture Snatcher.”
The first time we see Cagney—in movie history—he’s playing cards, his back to us. Then he stands up:
Card player: Not going already, are you?
Harry: Already? I’ve been here since yesterday afternoon. There’s going to be an awful beef out of the old lady when she sees me.
His voice is higher-pitched than we’re used to, but still slippery and fast, and there’s already something alive about his face. In the biography, “Cagney,” by John McCabe, fellow actors often talked up how much Cagney listened to them during their scenes together. Shirley Jones:
He always gave to you. Totally unselfish. You never had any sense of your being alone in a scene, as you do with actors who are mainly concerned with themselves. Jim was always with you, listening to you carefully, truthfully...
You can see this quality right away when he’s talking to Mitch, who’s about to hijack some booze. You can see it when he’s talking to his mom, who berates him for “tom-catting” all night. But we quickly come to realize this isn’t the classic Cagney character. Yes, mama’s boy. Yes, hanging with hoods. But he’s not tough, and he’s not straightforward. He’s two-faced. In his autobiography, Cagney calls the character a “sniveling murderer.”
Storyline, such as it is: While Angel tries to romance Harry’s sister, Jenny, and while Myrtle tries to romance Harry, Mitch gets busted and asks Harry to look after things while he’s in jail. Harry does so but skims the dough for himself. When Mitch returns, he comes gunning for Harry; but Harry, panicky, shoots first, and hides the body in the closed “Hit the Bulls Eye, Up She Goes” booth. The next day the cops arrive, the body is found, and everyone’s questioned in a kind of working-class “the butler did it” tableau—even though we know who did it.
So does Jenny. She saw her brother kill Mitch from her upstairs window. Initially I’m like, “So what? She’s not going to turn in her brother for a lout like Mitch.” But then Angel becomes the prime suspect, and you go, “Ah, that’s the dilemma: beau or brother.” She eventually goes with her beau and the truth, Harry confesses and is taken into custody, and the world, and Coney Island, keep spinning.
You know what I wanted? More of a tour of the penny arcade. What amused people for a penny in the 1930? At one point, Angel—fired by Mitch, hired by Ma to fix the machines—is standing next to something called “The IT Girl,” with the tagline “She’s got IT.” 1¢. Next to that is “The Midnight Girl.” But I can’t tell what these machines are. Ur-pinball? Bagatelle? Slot machine? Amberolas? I want to walk around the joint and try things out. All of that background stuff is way more interesting to me than the foreground melodrama.
I could’ve used more Blondell, too. She’s great—forever eating hot dogs. Withers is broad, goofy and cynical; you get why he didn’t last as a leading man—though he had a nice career as a secondary player for John Ford, among others, before committing suicide in 1959. Evalyn Knapp would become so highly touted she was tapped for the lead in the feature-film remake of the 1914 serial “The Perils of Pauline”; but her career, like a lot of the early Warner Bros. blondes, didn’t last much past the 1930s. Director Adolfi would die three years later, age 52, but not before he directed eight more movies, including the prestige picture “Alexander Hamilton,” starring George Arliss, and based on his Broadway play of the 1910s.
As for that sniveling murderer? He’d get a few more secondary roles, usually as the pal to the lead, before being cast again as the pal to the lead in “The Public Enemy.” Then director William Wellman saw something in him and decided maybe he shouldn’t be secondary after all.