Movie Review: Lady Killer (1933)
Whenever a new storytelling form comes around, it seems its early incarnations are often slap-dash and episodic: Here’s a guy, and things happen to him, and maybe it all means something in the end but probably not. It's more the province of hucksters than artists. Think TV, comic books, movies. The novel began as the picaresque, which Google describes thus:
... relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero.
That’s this. A lot of the early Cagney is this, to be honest. It’s astonishing how much that description fits Cagney: rough, dishonest, but oh-so appealing.
At the start, Dan Quigley (Cagney) is a wise-ass, gum-chewing movie usher in NYC who gets canned outside an Edward G. Robinson gangster pic, is targeted by grifters, then gets wise to the grift and offers his services. He says he’ll show them how they can make a thousand bucks a week. Cut to: They’re making $10k a week and own their own nightclub. What did he show them? Who knows? The movie never says. It just happens.
Then they decided to rob houses. An odd move, considering the nightclub. Someone gets clumsy, of course, and a maid dies, or maybe it’s a butler—in conversation, the victim changes gender—so they go on the lam. In a train station in Chicago, Dan and Myra Gale (Mae Clark), the original grifter, pick LA., but she abandons him for the gang’s other leader, Spade (Douglass Dumbrille), leading to that typical mid-movie Cagney moment: our strong hero suddenly falls apart. We next see him in a bar, a mid-day drunk with five o’clock shadow.
Then he’s picked for the picture business. National Pictures wants tough guys. He’s making do as an extra—a prisoner here, Native American there—but wants stardom. So he writes his own fan mail and sends it to the studio. (Apparently, this is based on a real-life scheme by Russian exile Ivan Lebdeff, who became a minor star in the ’20s and ’30s.) Then the gang returns and wants Quigley to use his connections to get inside movie-star mansions so they can rob them. Yeah, despite what happened in New York, they still think this is the way to go. But the cops—who are either nonexistent or right on top of everything—get wise, the gang tries to throw them Quigley, but there’s a chase and everything turns out all right. The gang gets prison, Quigley gets the movie star wife, we get to leave.
A few thoughts after the ride.
Whenever I see a face in a modern movie that I can’t quite place, and none of their better-known projects ring a bell, invariably they were in an episode of “Seinfeld.” Oh, right, he played Bizarro Jerry. And whenever that happens with a face in a ’30s or ‘40s flick? Invariably they were in a Marx Brothers movie. That’s Douglass Dumbrille here. I’m like: How do I know this guy? IMDb suggests Jannes in “Ten Commandments” (nah), John Cedar in “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (maybe?), and “Air Hawks” and “The World Changes” (never seen them). So I scan down. And there it is. Dumbrille played Morgan, the villain who beats Harpo in the beginning of “A Day at the Races,” and whose voice is the “Frau Blucher” for the ultimately winning race horse.
This is the first reteaming of Cagney and Mae Clark since they became a smash when he mashed a grapefruit in her face in “Public Enemy,” and the movie plays with it a bit. In that Chicago train station, they read a So Cal brochure, grapefruit is mentioned, and they both pause for just a second. Not bad. Later, he has to drag her across the floor by her hair. Cagney was defined now as a “woman slugger,” so this kind of thing was expected. It's the Hollywood credo: If a thing works, repeat it to death.
The title is a lie, by the way. “Lady Killer” isn’t true literally or metaphorically—and it’s particularly untrue metaphorically. Here’s how much Cagney isn’t a lady killer: He loses the first girl, Mae Clark, to Douglass Dumbrille. Wow. That’s like Brad Pitt losing a girl to James Cromwell or John C. Reilly. Then he tries to woo the second girl, movie star Lois Underwood (Margaret Lindsay), by sending two dozen monkeys to her birthday party. “You ask for monkeys, you get monkeys,” he says, giggling, even as her party is ruined. It’s part of that weird, sniggering, adolescent streak Cagney had in his early films. Glad it went away.
BTW: If anyone ever makes a documentary on all the versions of Minstrelsy and #YellowFace throughout Hollywood history, there’s a clip here worth using: white extra after white extra, as if on an assembly line, and including Cagney, getting spraypainted and fitted with Indian headdresses. It’s not just the appropriation. It’s the fact that the majority race is dressing up as a minority race, so that, in a heroic tale about a member of the majority, they can villainize the minority. And it was done without thought. It was repeated to death.
“Lady Killer” isn’t much of a movie, but it’s got Cagney front and center and that’s always good for a jolt. He's also using a lot of the disappeared vernacular that I love: “No squawk,” “Duck soup,” “I never rapped you.” Plus, when it comes down to it, I don’t mind a picaresque. I kind of like not knowing where I’m going even if at the end it’s not much of a journey.