Friday November 27, 2020
Movie Review: Never Steal Anything Small (1959)
“Never Steal Anything Small” is a musical that feels ashamed to be a musical. We’re meeting Linda Cabot (Shirley Jones) for the first time, about 25 minutes in, and suddenly she starts singing. And it throws us. Oh, right, this is a musical. It’s the first song we’ve heard since the opening chorus.
How many songs do we hear overall? Five maybe? Many are consumerist. Jones’ first song is all about clothes (“I Haven’t Got a Thing to Wear”), “I’m Sorry, I want a Ferrari” takes place in a car showroom, while “It Takes Love to Make a Home” is a TV commercial for a cleaning product called “Love.” “Thing to Wear” is the cutest, “Ferrari” the most memorable, “Love” the missed opportunity. It’s supposed to satirize commercial jingles but doesn’t dig deep enough. It’s not jingly, either.
Despite all this, “Never Steal Anything Small” almost has a chance. It’s about a Damon Runyonesque figure, Jake MacIllaney (James Cagney), who runs for president of his union local, wins, then keeps the machinations going to rise further. That could’ve worked. He’s a charming scoundrel. But he goes a machination too far. He not only tries to pin his own graft on his naïve lawyer, Dan Cabot (Roger Smith, whom Cagney discovered while on vacation in Hawaii), he breaks up Cabot and his wife, too. At first I thought it was because Linda wanted Dan to steer clear of Jake, so Jake needs her out of the picture—but that’s not it. He wants Linda for himself.
Keep in mind: At the time of filming, Jones was an unblemished 23 while Cagney was a craggy 58. It’s kinda creepy.
Addressed as sir
The movie opens with Cagney at a piano, talk-singing to the camera, about advice his father gave him to never steal anything … never steal anything … small. It’s not bad. Even better, we get these lines, which probably ring truer during the Trump years than they did in the Eisenhower era:
Steal 100 dollars and they put you in stir
Steal 100 million they address you as “sir”
I liked all of this. I liked that the opening title card alludes to Cagney’s breakthrough picture a quarter-century earlier: “This picture is sympathetically dedicated to labor and its problems in coping with a new and merry type of public enemy … the charming, well-dressed gentleman who cons his way to a union throne.” Then we get a speech by Cagney on the waterfront. And it really is the waterfront. A lot of the movie was shot on location in New York City—this scene was apparently at the Fulton Street pier in lower Manhattan—and it’s so great to be outdoors in a real place with Cagney it makes you wonder what we missed with all those ’30s Cagney flicks shot in the studio.
“Anything Small” is basically a series of problems Jake solves, only to have the solution lead to another problem. At Union Local 26, he’s running against longtime president O.K. Merritt (Horace McMahon) but needs money to win. That’s the problem. So he and his boys shake down “Sleep-Out” Charlie (Jack Albertson), a penny-pinching loan shark, to get the dough. That’s the solution. Except Sleep-Out rats on him and Jake is arrested. Problem. So he gets Sleep-Out’s girlfriend to slip him a mickey and Sleep-Out wakes up in a (fake) iron lung while a (fake) doctor tells him he should go to Yuma, Ariz. for his health. And there goes that problem. Amid some strongarming, Jake then wins the election and takes over the local.
Except he finds out his newbie lawyer, Dan, is dropping him as a client because his wife objects, which means the Sleep-Out case may be delayed, which means Sleep-Out might be back in time for it. Can’t have that. So he goes to see Dan but instead finds his charming wife singing “I Haven’t Got a Thing to Wear,” and he falls for her. Now his machinations are two-fold: wooing Dan back with a big office, which takes care of the Sleep-Out case; and equipping the big office with a hot, well-appointed secretary, Winnipeg Simmons (Cara Williams), who, on instructions from Jake, seduces Dan. Which takes care of the Cabot marriage, allowing Jake to move in.
The rest of the movie is this bifurcated plotline: How to rise in the ranks while winning over Linda. Early on, he tells Winnipeg: “I like to scheme. I get a boot out of a nice, sharp scheme.” I admit: The stuff with the union, where his opponents are other sharpies, grifters, and mob bosses, is fun. But the other storyline? Just awkward. Creepy. Plus, why is Linda amenable to him? She didn’t want Dan representing him but she’ll consider dating him? No logic there.
I might have swallowed some of this if Cagney weren’t so much older than Jones—and obviously older rather than, say, “Cary Grant older.” But this is how apparent their age difference is: The movie acknowledges it. Yes. Even though older men with younger women is generally treated as normal in the movie, in this one Jake raises the issue: “Maybe age doesn’t make as much difference as you think,” he tells Linda over coffee. “Elderly guys and young gals—getting to be quite the fashion.” Truer words were never said in Hollywood.
As for Dan? Too much of a patsy to be interesting. He not only loses his beautiful wife, he allows Jake to use his name on some local larceny. As a result, when Jake runs against mob boss Pinelli (an excellent Nehemiah Persoff) to take over United Stevedores, and Pinelli alerts the cops to Jake’s graft, Jake simply points the finger at Dan, whose name is on everything. Interestingly, it’s the same scam played on Cagney’s character, Biff, in “The Strawberry Blonde” 20 years earlier. Maybe that’s where Jake gets his schemes—watching old Cagney flicks.
Put in stir
For a movie about a corrupt union man, there’s a real knowledge and pride in union history. While trying to woo Linda, for example, Jake says the world isn’t a garden but a jungle, where the winner is always right, and without unions “the jungle could be a whole lot crueler.” He ticks off past union heroes—Samuel Gompers, John L. Lewis, Dubinsky, Meany and Reuther—and the assumption is the audience knows who most of them are. Love that. Different world.
I also like the twist at the end. Jake fingers Dan, who’s carted away by the cops, and Linda pleads for Dan’s sake. She asks Jake to take the rap for his own crimes. She says she’ll do anything Jake asks—even marry him. “You’d go that far just to keep that square out of the can?” he asks. He seems both incredulous and pissed off. Then he works himself into a lather talking up how Dan will have it made when he gets out. “He can go into union politics. When the story gets out, the member will think he stole all that money for them—for their clubhouse and their benefits. He’ll be a real vote-getter in the unions, all the unions. A very popular figure.” That’s when the light bulb goes on. “Yeah. Why should he be the popular figure?” And he does what Linda wants. Without the marriage. Or the anything.
It is a bit ridiculous that Dan is still Jake’s attorney during the final trial. One, why would Dan bother to help him? Two, can you actually represent someone whose confession to a crime got you off the hook? Either way, after the guilty verdict, Jake plants a big kiss on Linda’s lips and then happily goes to the stir—with the foreknowledge that when he gets out he’ll be running it all. It’s another ’50s movie that has to make Cagney the hero, or anti-hero, when he’s really the villain. Cf., “Love Me or Leave Me.”
“Never Steal Anything Small” was written and directed by Charles Lederer, who is mostly a writer (“His Girl Friday,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”) and rarely a director (this is his third, last and best-known). He adapted it from an unproduced play, “The Devil’s Hornpipe,” by Maxwell Anderson and Rouben Mamoulian—which apparently wasn’t a musical, although Anderson and Allie Wrubel (“Song of the South”) wound up writing 13 songs for it. Only a handful made it in. Then they kept tinkering. I guess previews were bad? The movie was filmed between October 1957 and January 1958 but not released until March 1959.
It was supposed to be a big deal. In July 1956, The New York Times wrote about it under the headline UNIVERSAL PLANS ‘BIG’ MUSICAL FILM, and in the first graph we get an unattributed insider quote saying it will be “one of the biggest pictures ever made.”
It wasn’t, but it almost had a chance.