Monday August 10, 2020
Movie Review: A Lion Is in the Streets (1953)
A lot of lasts in this one.
It’s the last time Cagney made a movie with Irish Mafia pal Frank McHugh (they did 11 films together), the last time he was directed by Raoul Walsh (their fourth go-round) and the seventh and final film from William Cagney Productions (R.I.P.).
Here’s an obscure one: It’s the last movie Cagney made that’s under 90 minutes long. In the early days, that was all of them. The first Cagney movie that was actually longer was his fourteenth, “Footlight Parade,” and the 32 movies he made in the 1930s averaged only 83 minutes in length. (Warner Bros.: Make ’em quick, see ’em quick.) In the 1940s, in comparison, Cagney’s 12 pictures averaged 101 minutes, and his 15 movies in the ’50s averaged 105. As Hollywood made fewer movies, they padded them out. They made them epic. Brevity was for TV.
You’d think a movie in which a New York actor plays a Bayou peddler who marries a Pennsylvania Quaker and then runs for governor—all of it based on Huey Long—would be a bit of a mess, but “A Lion Is in the Streets” isn’t bad. Cagney’s drawl comes and goes but he’s got energy and charm and hornswoggle. I like some of the dialogue, too—like this from early in the courtship:
She (doubtful): You’re a … peddler?
He (after a pause): Ma’am, I’m Hank Martin. Also I peddle.
Is part of the problem the movie’s length? As in: too short? Or too unfocused? According to Cagney biographer John McCabe, Raoul Walsh cut out the final third of the script, which means this Huey Long never even makes the governor’s mansion, let alone the U.S. Senate, let alone running for president. He doesn’t even win an election, does he? That seems wrong. So it becomes the story of a swamp peddler who champions the people only to betray them and pay the ultimate price. It’s about a man who rose from the swamp all the way to … a few feet from the swamp.
Buzz, Chuck, Willie and Hank
Some background. Adria Locke Langley’s novel was published in 1945 and became a No. 1 bestseller, and the Cagney brothers bought 10-year rights for a then-record $250,000. (Anthony Lane mocks the novel mercilessly in a great 1995 piece on 1945 bestsellers.) Then they dithered while Robert Penn Warren published another Huey Long roman á clef, “All the King’s Men,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, was adapted into a Robert Rossen movie, and won the Oscar for best picture in 1949. The Cagneys were first to the story but sloppy seconds when it came to putting it on the screen.
For the curious, I count four Huey Long novels from the period: Buzz Windrip in Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here,” Chuck Crawford in John Dos Passos’ “Number One,” Warren’s Willie Stark and Langley’s Hank Martin. She’s running with heavy hitters here and comes up short. Start with the name. Willie Stark seems like a Southern pol. Hank Martin seems like a backup second baseman for the 1956 Baltimore Orioles.
Langley’s novel is supposedly steamy, her Hank Martin a man of prodigious sexual appetites, but of course 1950s Hollywood tempers this. Or obliterates it. Sure, he’s enamored of the Quaker schoolteacher, Verity Wade (future Perry Mason secretary Barbara Hale), but it feels like love more than lust. He calls her “Sweet Face” and pats her cheeks in the paternal Cagney manner. And sure, he sleeps with the spirited, sexy swamp girl, Flamingo (Anne Francis, 31 years younger than Cagney), but she’s the one who makes all the moves. She literally jumps into his arms upon first meeting, wrapping her legs around his waist. Later she shows up at his campsite and seduces him. Oddly, she’s now wearing a pink sweater and a black beret and looks more Greenwich Village beatnik than swamp girl. Why the change? No word. And where did that sexy swamp girl trope begin anyway? Was it just “Li’l Abner” or was Al Capp playing off it?
We expect the affair with Flamingo to be his downfall, as with politicians since forever, but it’s never even uncovered. He’s running for governor and riding around town with a hot blonde and no one says boo. No, his downfall is all about ambition. He starts out a true believer, has to fight dirty to win—and the higher up he goes the dirtier it gets. That’s not a bad trajectory for a story but Hank and the movie take some odd leaps. Doesn’t help that his true belief turns out to be false. Nor that he secretly has contempt for people. He says this to Verity right after he finagles the locals to help spruce up their honeymoon cabin:
All folks is wonderful. You just have to know the right place to kick 'em in. Sure. It's like learnin' to play a musical instrument by ear. All you gotta know is what place to push to get what note. Then pretty soon, everybody's dancin’ … to your tune.
Then they head for supper at the stately mansion of Jules Bolduc (Warner Anderson), who is renting them the cabin and loaning law books to Hank, and who is pipe-smoking, courtly, and useless until the final act. The other dinner guest that evening is Robert L. Castleberry IV (Larry Keating), who owns the local cotton gins and cheats the sharecroppers. Hank despises him and can’t hide it. That’s his true belief. He tears into Castleberry until the prim businessman cries libel. Eventually there’s a huge confrontation at the local weighing station, with Castleberry’s armed deputies on one side and Hank’s armed sharecroppers on the other. Except the gin managers knew they were coming and switched its crooked weights for real ones; but Hank uncovers the real ones under a floorboard and cries triumph. He also comes up with a great nickname for Castleberry:
You know the birds we got up the swamp? The black skimmer? Always wears black. He lives by skimming over the water and scooping up all the little bugs and fishes without even slowing down. Well, every time, every time I see that black skimmer, scoopin’ and swallowin’, scoopin’ and swallowing’, I just want to take him around the neck and squeeze and squeeze and squeeze until he spews up every little thing that he ate. Now we’ve only begun our squeezing.
And that’s what he calls Castleberry for the rest of the movie: the Black Skimmer. (This is one of the ways Hank reminded me of Trump: His gift for epithet.)
At the tail end of the confrontation, though, a deputy stalks one of Hank’s men and is shot by sharecropper Jeb Brown (John McIntire), who is sent to jail without trial. Why? Because if Castleberry’s chicanery is mentioned in a court of law, newspapers can write about it without risking libel charges. So Hank teams up with Guy Polli (Onslow Stevens), an all-powerful backroom man, to get the trial going. The day of, though, Jeb is shot by Castleberry’s right-hand man Samuel T. Beach (James Millican), but Hank pulls Jeb into the courtroom and enters the accusation into the record before he dies. And Hank rides this wave into a race for governor. But that’s when his true beliefs are upended.
Turns out the Black Skimmer wasn’t cheating the sharecroppers, Beach was. And in the interim, Castleberry sold the gin mills to … wait for it … Polli, for whom Beach now works. Or was he always working for him? I’m a little unclear on that. Anyway, Hank finds all this out the night before the election. It’s a close race but the forecast calls for torrential rains, which will make it tougher for Hank’s country folk to vote. So Polli agrees to get out the city vote for him. All Hank has to do is sign an affidavit saying Beach was with him at the time of Jeb’s murder. All he has to do is betray everything he’s stood for.
He does. Then he loses anyway. On the radio, initially downtrodden, increasingly angry, he calls fraud and encourages his followers to descend on Dodd City with their guns. (Another Trumpism: the cheater claiming fraud.) The mob is about to do just that when the pipe-smoking Bolduc shows up and suddenly knows everything: that Castleberry didn’t cheat them; that Beach killed Jeb; that Hank is covering for Beach. Nobody believes him until Verity confirms it all. Which is when Jeb’s widow (Jeanne Cagney) turns her shotgun from Bolduc to Hank and pulls the trigger.
Plus ca change
The death scene has good and bad in it. As Hank stumbles around, he confronts Verity: “You told on me, Sweet Face. You told on me.” There’s Cagney menace on either side of the endearment. And what is he saying but basically: You dirty rat.
That’s the good part. The bad part is his final words. The man with contempt for people suddenly offers up this backhand paean to democracy: “Never knew that folks could be so all-fired smart.” Except are they? They were ready to burn down city hall because their fiery populist claimed fraud. And they didn’t believe anything Bolduc said. They believed the lies and dismissed the truth. Bolduc is basically Robert Mueller or Anthony Fauci here, laying out the facts, and getting a shotgun leveled at him for his trouble.
In his mostly positive review in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther sees value in Hank’s quick fall:
[The movie] has avoided the more touchy task of throwing a demagogue on the national scene, which might have more forceful implications but might be resented in some quarters today.
But to me that's the whole problem. The Cagneys bought the rights at the end of World War II but didn’t film it until late 1952, by which time Huey Long was long gone and there was a new demagogue on the scene. But could they attack Joseph McCarthy and get away with it in the heyday of the blacklist? Anyway they didn't. They avoided it all. They mangled the story to accommodate the era. Hank never lusts (because Hays Code), the business owner never cheats the workers (because capitalism is good), and the fiery populist never rises to power (because the people are smart even when they're not). The movie starts in the mud and ends as a muddle. The Cagneys tried to make it clean but it’s a dirty story; and, in case you weren’t paying attention, new chapters are being written every day.