erik lundegaard

Movie Review: The St. Louis Kid (1934)

Patricia Ellis and James Cagney in "The St. Louis Kid"

Ellis and Cagney looking comfortable, despite the awkward math.

WARNING: SPOILERS

The movie is 67 minutes long and feels like it took 67 minutes to make.

It still has its charms. I like looking at the old gas stations and drug stores. The small-town magistrate is named Jeremiah Jones (Arthur Aylesworth), and for some reason his name is hyphenated on his office door: Jeremiah-Jones. Was that a thing? Meanwhile, with his cut-off shirt sleeves and old-time truckers/postman cap, Cagney looks like an early template for a rejected member of the Village People.

But at least he’s Cagney. He's got verve, energy, and a lightness in his step. Just don't expect “Angels with Dirty Faces.” Or even “Picture Snatcher.” 

Tit for tat
He plays Eddie Kennedy, a truck driver forever getting tossed into jail with or without his buddy, Buck (frequent Cagney foil Allen Jenkins). Generally: Buck starts a fight he can’t finish, Eddie can, Eddie winds up in jail for a night or so.

Question the movie never raises: Why does this always happen to them?

Answer: They’re sort of assholes. 

As the movie opens, Buck is bailing Eddie out again; then they drive their truck back to company HQ, but box in a guy in his car. He complains, they taunt him. Seems unnecessary but that’s what they do. Turns out the guy is their new boss, who now has it in for them, and gives them the route between St. Louis and Chicago. I guess it’s a bad route? Cubs fans on one side, Cards on the other.

And we‘re off and running. Outside the small town of Ostopolis, Eddie is forced to brake abruptly and they’re rammed by the car behind them, driven by feisty Ann Reid (Patricia Ellis, “Picture Snatcher). She gets mad, insults them, they do the same (Cagney with a leering grin). Then a would-be shining knight, Brown (Addison Richards), shows up, and it’s like with the boss all over again. He decks Buck, Eddie headbutts him, prison.

It turns out Brown works for a company that’s shortchanging dairy farmers, so Cagney concocts a story before the magistrate—also a dairy farmer—that that’s what the fight was about. Why, if he were a dairy farmer, Eddie says, he wouldn’t take any of that crap. Several things happen as a result of this story: 1) Eddie gets released; and 2) he inspires the dairy farmers to go on strike and set up blockades to prevent the trucking company from bringing in out-of-state milk. And one of those truckers is Eddie.

At the same time, Eddie is involved in a tit-for-tat battle with feisty Ann, who runs a diner in Ostopolis. Eddie insults her, she douses his ham and eggs with Tabasco sauce. He rams her delivery truck, she makes him pay for the wasted eggs. It's meet felonious.

Then it gets a little creepy. After he gets 10 days for a fight with a striking dairy farmer, Eddie slips out of his cell—it’s like Mayberry if Otis ran the jail—and confronts Ann at the diner as she’s closing up. She’s obviously afraid but he sticks around with his leering grin. It’s way creepier than the movie seems to realize. But they wind up a couple. Because Hollywood.

This is where the plot finally kicks in. To protect its trucks and profits, the company hires goons who threaten the striking farmers with guns. Then late one night, Farmer Benson (Robert Barrat) stands up to them. He’s shot and killed. Which is just when Ann drives by in her car after her first “date” with Eddie. The next morning, Ann is missing, her car is next to Benson’s body, and everyone knows she was out with Eddie—who had it in for the farmers. So the cops charge Eddie.

If this were a Paul Muni Warner Bros. movie, he’d get railroaded and it would end on a downtrodden downbeat note. But it’s Cagney, so he and his trucker pals find the real killer, free Ann, and suddenly he and Ann are signing a hotel register as Mr. and Mrs. Eddie Kennedy. But when the hotel clerk doubts their nuptials, both take offense, and both wind up behind bars. Buck says Eddie might get 10 years. Eddie wraps his arms around Ann and says, “Can you make it 20?” Fade.

Not a bad end to an otherwise lame movie. 

16 going on 17?
You know who impressed? Barrat as Farmer Benson. He has a slow dignity to him—like something out of a Dorthea Lange photograph. He was in everything from “The Life of Emile Zola” with Paul Muni to “Mr. Ed” on television. Plus seven Cagney pictures. He died in 1970 and is buried in Martinsburg, West Virginia, near where my mom lived.

And as good as Patricia Ellis is, as with “Picture Snatcher” there’s some awkward math there. According to IMDb, she was born in 1916, which means she was 18 at best during the making of this picture. (She was 17 at best, more likely 16, romancing Cagney in “Picture Snatcher.”) And while her contemporaries continued acting until the ’70s or ‘80s, her acting career was over by 1939 when she was 23. “I was just getting into a rut in Hollywood,” she’s been quoted as saying. “I want to start a new career—singing.” She did, for two years, then according to her obit in The New York Times, “gave up her career in 1941 when she was married to George T. O’Maley, now president of Protection Securities Systems, Inc., a subsidiary of Interstate Securities.” The obit is from 1970. She was 53. Cancer.

Or was she 51? Wikipedia says she was born in 1918, which makes the above math even more awkward.

Anyway, not much to “The St. Louis Kid.” Just history.

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Posted at 09:39 AM on Thu. Nov 15, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s  
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