Movie Reviews - 1950s posts
Monday August 01, 2022
Movie Review: Illegal (1955)
Edward G. Robinson plays a district attorney who convicts “Star Trek”’s Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) of murder, then finds evidence he was innocent but is too late to stop the execution. He descends into booze, loses his job to “Get Smart”’s Chief (Edward Platt), loses his girl to “Another World”’s Jim Mathews (Hugh Marlowe), but with the help of his assistant, Grandma Walton (Ellen Corby), takes on the bad guys, including Roger Manning, Space Cadet (Jan Merlin), and saves the day.
You get the idea. “Illegal” was a cheap B picture made at the fulcrum of old movies and new television.
It doesn’t speak much of new television. Or it speaks to something odd in the culture—that the dynamic, ethnic heroes of Warner Bros.’s early talkies (Robinson, whose ethnicity kept shifting; Cagney, whose ethnicity didn’t), were replaced by dull WASPs—that mid-century, “FBI”ish thing. Do we blame Joseph Breen and the PCA for pushing us in this direction or is it what we wanted? Either way, it's Robinson, licking his wounds after HUAC and trying not to fall too far, and the others trying to hold onto their rung of the ladder and possibly ascend. This is where they meet.
“Illegal” is also the debut, or near-debut, of Jayne Mansfield. She’s the moll, but smart, and piano-playing, and the final surprise witness. She’s definitely doing Marilyn but she’s not full-on Jayne Mansfield yet. She seems like she might be a person.
Decking and drinking
Robinson plays Victor Scott, who crawled up from the gutter to become D.A. but then lost it all. It’s not just guilt over the death of “Bones”; it’s that, without prosecution he doesn’t know what to do. He’s not really interested in corporate law and/or the corporate types shun him. It’s not until he winds up in court on a drunk and disorderly and hears a man pleading his innocence that the light bulb goes on: Oh right, I could be a criminal defense attorney. The most obvious path from prosecution.
As such, we see him get clients off by: 1) literally decking a witness, and 2) literally drinking poison, which is Exhibit A in the case. He pretends it’s not poison, but it is, just slow-acting, so when the prosecution asks for a recess to regroup, he goes to get his stomach pumped. But … I don’t know. Destroying evidence? And doesn’t this mean his client was guilty?
The girl he loses early, his former assistant, is Ellen Miles, played by Nina Foch, who played the rich bitch in “An American in Paris.” You know she wasn’t even 30 when that movie came out? Here, she’s the daughter of a judge whom Scott helped raise, and she has a thing for him despite this and the difference in their ages. Scott feels she’s better off elsewhere and pushes her into the arms of his assistant, Ray Borden (Marlowe), who winds up a crum-bum mole for the mob in the D.A.’s office. Plus he's a jerk of a husband. Plus he’s a jerk to Jayne Mansfield.
The second half of the movie is basically: Scott rises as a defense attorney while trying to steer clear of mob boss Frank Garland (Albert Dekker). At the same time, the new D.A., Ralph Ford (Platt), tries to find the leak in his office. Both come to a head when Ellen overhears her husband plotting with Garland, he hears that she overhears, and she has to kill him in self-defense. Sadly, District Attorney Ford is such an idiot he assumes Ellen was the leak, not Ray, and he puts her on trial for murder. So Scott has to defend her without implicating Garland.
That last part is silly, too, and goes away when Garland uses creepy hit man Andy Garth (Merlin) to try to off Scott, who winds up gut-shot but insists on calling surprise witness Angel O’Hara (Mansfield), who can testify that Ray called Garland a lot, including the night of his murder. And he was a jerk besides.
So the prosecution drops its case just in time for Scott to die on the courtroom floor. Mother of mercy, is this the end of Victor Scott? It is.
Stuff dreams are made of
Why “Illegal” as a title? I guess for the pulpiness of it. Probably should’ve had an exclamation point. That’s what the movie feels like. Like it makes up for its lack with SENSATIONALISM!
It was produced on the cheap by Frank Rosenberg, whose upcoming film, “Miracle in the Rain,” can also be spotted here on a movie marquee. What else can be spotted? Believe it or not, the Maltese Falcon—or a Maltese Falcon. It’s on the top shelf in a bookcase in the D.A.’s office. I guess because Warner Bros. needed to fill background? “What do we got in the prop closet?” “Well, it’s this or the letters of transit from 'Casablanca.'” Meanwhile, those Degas and Gauguin originals that Scott admires in Garland’s office are in fact Degas and Gauguin originals. They belonged to Robinson, an art lover, and he lent them to the production. I like that his character says “I’ve always had to content myself with reproductions” when they’re actually his.
Despite the cheapness, there’s still talent in the room. Max Steiner does the music, and the screenplay was co-written by W.R. Burnett, who wrote the original “Little Caesar,” as well as “High Sierra,” “The Asphalt Jungle” and even “The Great Escape.” Robinson is his usual professional self, while Jan Merlin impresses as the porkpie-hat wearing hit man. Something about his character just feels off. Like he could’ve played perverse Richard Widmark-type roles. Maybe he did.
The rest is a lot of bland WASPy stuff that will wind up on television. And Mansfield, the shape of things to come.
Just a knick-knack on the shelf.
Tuesday May 11, 2021
Movie Review: What Price Glory (1952)
“I believe that every time you remake a picture, there must be a specific reason why you do that,” producer Darryl Zanuck once said.
Zanuck had a specific reason for remaking “What Price Glory.” The 1926 original, based on a popular 1924 play, was from a previous era of filmmaking—silent and black-and-white, chiefly—and the remake would not only add color and sound but Technicolor and music. It would be a World War I musical. That was Zanuck’s specific reason for remaking it, and it was James Cagney’s specific reason for signing on. While the world thought him a gangster, he thought of himself an old hoofer, a song-and-dance man, and was too often stymied in this regard. Here was another chance.
Zanuck then hired screenwriters Phoebe and Henry Ephron, Nora’s parents, who wrote light comedy and romance. Then he hired John Ford to direct.
And there went that.
Ford refused to make it a musical. And after his own experiences in World War II, he was more gung-ho about the military than the movie’s main characters. As for the original’s bawdiness? Right, Production Code. Out.
So what’s left? A broad comedy about two Marines in a French village who fight over a beautiful girl way above their pay grade—and neither realizes it—who then go to the front to fight pointlessly and allow a bit player to condemn them with a melodramatic speech that includes the title phrase.
A mess, in other words.
I have to go over the age thing again. Sorry.
In the original, the actors who play the main characters, Flagg and Quirt (Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe), have 18 and 14 years, respectively, on the actress who plays Charmaine (Dolores del Rio). They’re 40 and 36, she’s 22. Here, Dan Dailey and Corinne Calvet are comparable—he’s 37, she’s 27—but Cagney is 53. He’s a quarter-century older than Calvet, not to mention overweight. And he’s running from her? In what universe? I guess Hollywood’s.
The age difference also screws up the dynamic between Cagney’s Flagg and Dailey’s Quirt. They’re not contemporaries the way McLaglen and Lowe were. Put it this way: I bought the rivalry between McLaglen and Lowe. We get to see it develop. The original opens in Peking, China, where McLaglen’s Flagg has a girl, Shanghai Mary (Phyllis Haver), and Lowe’s Quirt steals her. Then we move on to the Philippines, where Flagg has a girl, Carmen (Elena Jurado), and Quirt steals her. And it’s only then, a quick 15 minutes in, that we wind up in a small French town with Capt. Flagg. Sgt. Quirt doesn’t show up for another half hour. So when he steals Flagg’s girl again, well, we get the joke. We know that Flagg is very strong and kind of sweet and not too smart, while Quirt is a bit of a grifter and a master of the sleight of hand—card tricks and coin tricks. He’s kinda handsome and good at stealing stuff. Particularly Flagg’s girl.
The remake gives us none of this past history. It begins in France, at about the 40-minute mark of the original, and Quirt has no card or coin tricks. He doesn’t seem particularly sharp, either; Flagg does. They’re just two guys who hate each other in cartoonish fashion. When Quirt shows up—reporting for duty and demanding a transfer in the same breath—they eye each other, smile, remove accoutrement, and mark an X on the floor with a piece of chalk. Then they spit on their hands and take up fighting positions. Flagg’s a foot shorter and 16 years older than Quirt but always manages to deck him. Because Cagney.
You know what they are? They’re just two nasty guys who think they’re cute. And Calvet’s Charmaine is way more innocent than del Rio’s. I love the way del Rio admires McLaglen’s shoulders and arms; I love her keyhole meeting with Lowe, and their behind-the-door romance. She’s got the female gaze, which was more prevalent pre-code. Calvet is a knockout, certainly, but mostly she just wants to get married. Because you know women. And Flagg and Quirt mostly don’t. Because you know men.
Has anyone done a deep dive into these characters? During war, they’re OK with each other but when things are OK they’re at war with each other. That’s the bit, and it’s a good one, but there’s something about their antagonism, and their competition over women without wanting the attachment of the woman, that feels ripe for modern study. Each so wants what the other has that one wonders if what they really want is each other. “Don’t fight,” Charmaine says at the end of the original. “You love each other, yes?” Yes.
The original was directed—extremely well—by Raoul Walsh, with John Ford shooting a few second-unit scenes that went uncredited. Twenty years later, in 1949, Ford decided to put on the original play to benefit the Purple Heart Association. Good cause. He cast Ward Bond as Flagg, Pat O’Brien as Quirt, and Maureen O’Hara as Charmaine. Good casting. He even managed to convince stars like John Wayne and Gregory Peck to appear as extras. But, per Pat O’Brien, “Ford was a lousy stage director,” and the play got middling reviews. Worse, it only raised a pittance for its cause. This was his third shot at the story and he blew it. Ford was a drunk and a bully, and that stuff often seeps into his movies. The drinking here is off the charts, and the comedy is awful. “[War] was my racket for a while,” Ford told Peter Bogdanovich in the early ’70s, “and there wasn’t anything funny about it.”
No shit. They do a prolonged bit with a bathing Flagg trying to explain “boots” to Charmaine’s father, Cognac Pete, who doesn’t get it until he realizes “Ah, les boots.” Not funny. When Flagg returns hungover from Paris, he has a subordinate slap him with a wet rag. “Harder!” he says. “Harder!” he says. Then: “Not that hard!” and repeatedly and angrily slaps the subordinate with it. Not funny. In the original, Flagg’s right-hand man is Pvt. Kiper (Ted McNamara), who is charged with finding out who keeps giving Flagg razzberries; in the end, Flagg realizes it’s Kiper. Ford loses all of this, casts the cantankerous William Demarest, age 60, as Corp. Kiper, whose bit is to keep asking if his discharge papers have come in yet. In the end, Flagg admits they arrived a year ago but he never told him. Does Kiper get mad? Having his commanding officer keep him at war for another year? No. When the men are called back to the front, he simply joins them. Because men. Because camaraderie.
Every change to the original feels wrong. The second-act wedding between Charmaine and Quirt—with Flagg laughing all the while—is called off by Charmaine in the ’26 version. “My heart is my own! I don’t sell it,” she says. In ’52, it’s called off by Quirt, who realizes they’re about to go to the front where Flagg will need his top sergeant, so there’s nothing Flagg can do. Charmaine? She just stands there, humiliated. In a broad sense, the story is about the switch from a pre-war professional army to a Great War citizen’s army, and in ’26 we see Flagg questioning men who were once painters and farmers and henpecked husbands. One of them, the painter, Pvt. Lewisohn (Barry Norton), is called a “mother’s boy,” but without the negative connotations we’d ascribe to it. He’s the one doomed to die, and near the end we get a poignant shot of Charmaine burying his mother’s letters with him. In the remake he’s played by a young Robert Wagner, whom Ford bullied on the set, calling him “Boob” rather than Bob, and apparently even decking him at one point. No Momma’s boy here. Instead, Lewisohn gets a starry-eyed, super-sappy romance with a French schoolgirl, Nicole (Marisa Pavan), that’s just painful to watch. In the original, they go to the front until they’re called back. The remake gives them a goal: If they can capture a German officer, they’ll get a month’s leave, and it’s Lewisohn who captures the officer. A second later, after a shell attack, he dies in Flagg’s arms. Back in the French town, Bar-Le-Duc, Flagg has to tell Nicole what happened. It’s more painful than the war scenes.
The original gave us trenches and gas warfare because it remembered what WWI was like. The remake has none of these. If generals fight the last war, directors often film the new one. Sometimes this works (Vietnam for Korea in “M*A*S*H”). Mostly it doesn’t. It doesn’t here.
A little history. I didn’t know any of this stuff when I first watched the Cagney version but I find it fascinating.
The ’26 version was so popular that it became one of the first films to foster sequels. In each, Flagg and Quirt travel the world to exotic places and fight over the latest sexy, exotic actress. For “The Cock-Eyed World” (1929), they go from Russia, to Brooklyn, to a South Seas island, where Lili Damita awaits. In “Women of All Nations” (1931), it’s Sweden, Nicaragua, Egypt, and Greta Nissen. By the time of “Hot Pepper” (1933), they’re ex-Marines, Quirt is a grifter, Flagg owns several nightclubs, and Lupe Velez is the object of their affection and argument. They even get their own catchphrase: “Sez you!” “Sez me!”
The authors of the original play, Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings, deserve a biography of their own. Both were New York World journalists looking to make bigger names for themselves. Stallings was a former U.S. Marine who was wounded at the Battle of Belleau Wood and would later have his leg amputated. (Both legs, eventually.) He had plenty of stories to tell, Anderson listened and wrote them down, Stallings worked over scenes for authenticity. That’s how “What Price Glory?” happened. (Hollywood removed the question mark.) After it became a huge success, both men became go-to authorities on WWI. King Vidor’s “The Big Parade,” a huge hit in 1925, was adapted from Stallings’ 1924 autobiographical novel “Plumes,” with Stallings helping with the scenario. He also adapted Hemingway’s “A Farwell to Arms” to the stage in 1930. That same year, Anderson adapted “All Quiet on the Western Front” for the screen.
Most of Anderson’s work seems to have been in the theater. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1933 for “Both Your Houses,” a political drama, did a series of plays based on the Tudors, including “Anne of a Thousand Days,” and wrote, in blank verse, the play that became the Bogart-Bacall movie “Key Largo.” In 1925, after the success of “What Price Glory?,” he was putting on another play, “Outside Looking In,” based on the autobiography of writer-hobo Jim Tully*, which debuted in a small theater in Greenwich Village. It got good notices and moved uptown to a bigger theater. There, after the first act of the first performance, Anderson hurried backstage, gathered everyone around, and told them they needed to speak twice as loud and twice as fast for the bigger room. Then he eyed the actor playing Little Red, one of the leads: “Everybody, that is, except you.” That actor was James Cagney, and the part was one of his first big breaks. Anderson was also around at the end of Cagney’s career, writing the unproduced play that became “Never Steal Anything Small,” Cagney’s fourth-to-last starring role, and another movie that began with big musical dreams only to see them dwindle to a couple of odd numbers.
(* More connections: Tully’s autobiography became the basis of a 1928 film, “Beggars of Life,” which was directed by William Wellman, who, three years later, with “The Public Enemy,” would make Cagney a star.)
If Anderson had Cagney connections, Stallings had Ford. His work in ’30s Hollywood ranged from Clark Gable newspaper romances to uncredited work on the Marx Bros.’ “At the Circus,” but he later became a Ford man, collaborating on “3 Godfathers,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” and “The Sun Shines Bright.” Not surprising. Ford liked to surround himself with ex-military. He also liked to take John Wayne down a peg for shirking duty during WWII.
Another Ford man? Victor McLaglen. I’d love to see a good copy of the original “What Price Glory”—the one I watched was a blurry thing on the Internet Archive—but even through the blur I could tell how good McLaglen was. He was ex-British Army and a former professional heavyweight boxer who got into the movie biz by happenstance. They were looking for someone to play the lead in a boxing movie, he auditioned and got the part. This was in Britain. In the mid-20s, he moved to Hollywood, worked with John Ford, was a co-lead in the silent version of “Beau Geste,” then did “What Price Glory” and became big. I love how in the first sequel, which was a talking picture, they had to explain away his British accent, which, of course, nobody heard in the first feature.
McLaglen won his only Oscar in “The Informer,” directed by Ford in 1935, and garnered his second nomination—for supporting this time—in “The Quiet Man,” directed by Ford in 1952. He was in most of the Ford/John Wayne westerns of the late ’40s, too: “Fort Apache,” “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon,” “Rio Grande.” So why didn’t Ford cut him a cameo here? Too self-referential? Maybe. Or maybe Ford figured he was doing him a favor.
Friday March 26, 2021
Movie Review: Shake Hands with the Devil (1959)
By my calculations, James Cagney died 14 times in the movies, and this is his final fall. He gets it in the hills of Ireland overlooking the ocean, at the hands of the young man he recruited to the cause. Fitting.
Follow-up question: How many of these deaths were by gun? In my memory, Cagney's always getting plugged and staggering along the streets before collapsing and expiring—like in “The Public Enemy.” Except … that happens there, sure, but it’s not what kills him. He winds up in the hospital, Schemer Burns’ gang kidnaps him, then delivers his mummified corpse to his family. I assume he’s plugged at the end of “He Was Her Man,” but that’s off-screen. “Angels with Dirty Faces”? Electric chair. “White Heat”? Explosion. I’ll cut to the chase. In his long, gangster-ridden career, Cagney is killed by guns only four times: “The Roaring Twenties” (by one of Bogie’s men), “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” (Barbara Payton, repeating the title line just before pulling the trigger), “A Lion Is In the Streets” (by his sister, Jeanne), and here, at the hands of Don Murray.
Cagney gets star billing but Murray is the leading man, Kerry O’Shea, an Irish-American who slowly gets swept up in the Irish fight for freedom in 1921. Cagney plays Dr. Sean Lenihan, a charming professor at the College of Surgeons, where O’Shea studies, who is secretly a revolutionary. He’s the last man standing in the IRA cause. Top of the world, pa.
Nah, nah, nah, nah … OK
It’s not a bad movie. The black-and-white photography and the framing are striking. Not sure who to credit. Michael Anderson directed, Erwin Hiller was cinematographer, and between them they have one Oscar nomination (Anderson), one BAFTA (Hiller), and not much else. The story, which tends toward melodrama, is from a 1934 novel by Rearden Conner, adapted by Marian Spitzer, while late-era Cagney writers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (“White Heat,” “Man of a Thousand Faces”) get writing credits.
It’s another late-era Cagney movie that begins with narration:
Dublin, 1921: a city at war. Often in its turbulent history, the men of Ireland had risen to fight for their freedom—only to be crushed. This was the year of total war. It was also the year of the Black and Tan, the army assembled to replace the English regulars, who had lost their taste for the suppression of men in search of freedom.
At this point, the camera settles onto a cemetery, where O’Shea is laying flowers at the grave of his mother. He nods as a contingent of mourners go by, but then the Black and Tans pull up, their casket is revealed to be full of weapons, and everyone scatters. O’Shea, questioned, has all the right answers—he’s innocent—then covers for a woman he knows is guilty. It was just an instinct, he tells his friend, Paddy Nolan (Ray McAnally).
Earlier I said O’Shea gets slowly swept up in the Irish cause, and boy does he ever. It takes half the movie.
Paddy starts the lobbying. They have expository dialogue about how O’Shea is a World War vet who’s seen enough violence, yadda yadda, but his heart is with Paddy’s cause. “Your heart’s not enough,” Paddy tells. That’s the main thing they talk about—recruiting O’Shea. At a pub, the Black and Tan come in and push people around. Does that turn him? Nah. On the way home, a revolutionary blows up a B&T transport and the street turns into a shooting gallery. That? Nope. O’Shea’s instinct is again to help, Paddy’s is to protect O’Shea, and Paddy is killed in the effort. Surely that? No, keeping going. By this point he’s already associated with the revolutionaries, so Lenihan brings him underground and make an offer: take a boat back to the states or fight. O’Shea, blank-faced: “I’ve done all the killing I intend to do.”
Now they’re off to a farm, where O’Shea is bullied by O’Brien (a young Richard Harris), charmed by Noonan (an excellent Cyril Cusack), and charmed again by Kitty (Glynis Johns), a bar maid and paramour of many of the revolutionaries, whom Lenihan doesn’t trust. The O’Brien scene isn’t bad. He questions O’Shea’s manhood, saying it won’t take more than a breath of wind to blow him over, then feints a blow. O’Shea stands firm, decks O’Brien and continues to declare his pacifism: “When that boat comes, I’ll be on it.” The Noonan scene isn’t bad, either. He’s a poet, whose calm appeals to O’Shea—and us. “Do you think I’m running out?” he wonders aloud. This fence-straddling continues until, because of a boob move by O’Brien, O’Shea is hauled away by the B&Ts, tortured by a Gestapo-looking Col. Smithson (Christopher Rhodes), and rescued by Lenihan. Then he finally joins the cause. To celebrate, he grabs Kitty and makes out with her. As one does.
By this point, the sympathetic Lady Fitzhugh (Sybil Thorndike) has been imprisoned and is on a hunger strike, so, as potential exchange, Lenihan kidnaps the daughter of the adviser to the military governor, Jennifer Curtis (Dana Wynter), who just happens to be young and beautiful, with a long, lovely neck. Of course she and O’Shea are attracted to each other. (Whither Kitty?) All the while, Lenihan is revealing himself to be more and more radical. A chance for peace but without a republic? Never! On the beach he actually chokes Kitty and throws her onto the sand—continuing Cagney’s onscreen violence against women that began with Mae Clarke and a grapefruit 30 years earlier. Then they all go to the dock to assassinate Col. Smithson.
Except Kitty’s there, too. She’s been fingered to the B&T, doesn’t think she’d stand up to torture, and has booked passage to Liverpool. Questioned by the cops, she spots O’Brien and panics; the B&Ts see that, give O’Brien chase, and Lenihan thinks she ratted them out. In the ensuing gun battle, O’Brien, shooting two-fisted and ham-fisted, is killed, Lenihan kills Kitty in cold blood, and O’Shea goes into the drink. Back at the lighthouse, we get one of the oddest transitions I’ve ever seen—like something out of an SNL skit. They’re counting their dead, everyone is somber, and the man standing behind O’Shea says, “Yes, it’s bad,” somberly. Then his face suddenly brightens. “But it’s all over now!” Because of the peace treaty. I burst out laughing.
Even as the General (Michael Redgrave), a Michael Collins figure, heads to London to negotiate, Lenihan fights on. Lady Fitzhugh has died? Well, then he’s doing to kill Jennifer! Rather than shoot her in her room, though, he takes her to a picturesque bluff overlooking the ocean, which of course allows O’Shea to follow, and challenge him and shoot him. Since this is a late ’50s indie movie, we get one more melodramatic flourish: After cradling the head of the man whose life he took, O’Shea, our antiviolent hero, looks at the gun with disgust and chucks it over the cliff. Cut to: a closeup of the gun in the sand as the surf comes in. Fin.
Again, parts aren’t bad. Not sure how you make O’Shea’s fence-sitting more interesting but they don’t manage it. Maybe Murray wasn’t actor enough. Cagney’s lilt tends to leave him when Lenihan is angry, which is most of the second half of the movie, and his sudden fury at all the pretty women is inexplicable. (I kept wondering if he was a closeted homosexual.) Harris is good, if a bit too 1950s Method, while his character is such a fuckup as to be comic: He challenges O’Shea and loses, brings a gun to a stakeout when told not to, and blurts out Lenihan’s identity in front of a hostage, forcing O’Shea to kill the man. He makes no right move. I loved Cyril Cusack. Don’t know how you act calm and wise but he did. I wanted to keep hanging with the guy.
The posters are abysmal. That odd sketch of Cagney with gun in hand and scarf flying? It’s both cheap and makes him look way older than his 60 years. Can’t imagine the marketing discussions. “Hmm, not quite right. What if we turn him blue and add a photo of Glynis Johns in a bathing suit at his feet? There, perfect.” The movie entered the public domain a while ago so it’s been abused in the usual fashion. The only DVD available is in the wrong aspect ratio and is part of a four-part Shout Factory “Action-Adventure Movie Marathon,” along with a 1970s Roger Corman exploitation flick, a cheap Indian Jones ripoff, and a forgettable early ’80s actioner. Deserves better company.
The title, by the way, is the first part of an old Irish saying: “Shake hands with the devil and you’ll never get it back.” Cagney was excited to do it, his first and only movie in Ireland, and was, by all accounts, his usual self: a charming, down-to-earth raconteur on the set, a faraway fella off it. Others went for pints, he went home. Not counting “Ragtime,” it’s his third-to-last movie. He was a movie-a-year guy by this time. He was sitting in the exit row.
Monday February 22, 2021
Movie Review: Run for Cover (1955)
This was James Cagney’s second western. His first, The Oklahoma Kid in 1939, caused laughter in some quarters for two reasons: Cagney was so obviously a city kid (except at heart) and he wasn’t exactly John Wayne in stature. Even co-star Humphrey Bogart took a potshot. Cagney in his 10-gallon hat, he said, looked like a mushroom.
Fifteen years later, no one said boo because now it worked: Cagney's face was craggy, his body beefy. He looked like someone who spent a great deal of time outdoors—which he had, as a gentleman farmer in Martha’s Vineyard. Maybe to a fault? His 18-month hiatus between A Lion Is In the Streets and this movie is his longest time away from the screen since becoming a star in 1931, and he’d developed a bit of a paunch.
Cagney was drawn to the project by the director (Nicholas Ray), the script (Winston Miller and the team of Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch), and the location shooting (Silverton, Colorado, amid the Rockies). He had high hopes. They were dashed.
We had tried to make as offbeat a Western as possible, but whoever cut the film was evidently revolted by anything but clichés. As a consequence, little things that the director, Nick Ray (a good man), and the actors put in to give the story extra dimension were excised very proficiently. The result was just another programmer.
Yet Run for Cover isn’t bad. It begins well, sags in the middle, then includes a kind of Mexican-standoff ending that surprises and delights.
Alright, so it begins cheesy. Over the opening credits announcing VistaVision! and Technicolor, we hear a happy, all-male chorus singing the movie’s title song:
Head for the hills hit the trail
When trouble’s on the run
(Run for cover)
Don’t find yourself locked in jail
For something you ain’t done
(Run for cover)
(Run for cover)
(Run for cover)
Yeah. Not good.
At this point, we see great Technicolor shots of Colorado and eventually a dusty Matt Dow (Cagney) riding his beautiful pinto horse to a mountain stream, where he’s set to wash his face and fill his canteen. Then he spins, gun drawn, eyes flashing, as Davey Bishop (John Derek) rides into the clearing. It leads to an odd standoff. With the gun drawn on him, Davey is calm and smiling; as soon as it’s holstered his face crumbles into a pout. Even after Matt apologizes, Davey keeps complaining, and they only get past the moment when Matt defuses the situation with a Billy the Kid reference. All that should’ve been a warning.
Going in the same direction, they ride together, and await a passing train by taking shots at a hawk circling overhead. Two men on the train misinterpret their actions and panic. They’d been robbed the month before—one man still wears a bandage around his head—and thinking the gunshots are signals, and wanting no part of a second robbery, they toss out the town’s payroll bag. Matt, who’d just spent six years in prison for a case of mistaken identity, immediately knows they’re screwed, but he and Davey ride toward town to give the money back. Halfway there, they’re ambushed by the sheriff and his posse, who are about to lynch Matt when a wounded Davey is recognized and tempers subside. They send Davey to a nearby farm while they bring Matt back to the sheriff’s office to face his accusers. I like how Cagney immediately reclaims moral authority here. “What did you tell these people?” he demands of the payroll men. “Let me hear what said to them!” These guys reveal themselves to be boobs, as does the sheriff, and Matt storms off to the Swenson farm to see if Davey is OK.
Let’s pause a moment to consider his actions here. Why go to the Swenson farm? He’s been with Davey a few hours at best. They got off on the wrong foot, then stumbled into disaster. Why not keep riding? Particularly since Matt was riding toward the town to see if it was a place worth settling in, and his near-lynching gave him the answer.
Bit by bit, though, we find out the following: 1) Matt feels guilty because he told Davey to ride first, maybe knowing he’d be shot first; and 2) Matt lost a son who would’ve been about Davey’s age. Is that reason enough? Meh. The bonus is Helga Swenson (Viveca Lindfors), your typical beautiful Swede working the farm with her taciturn father (Jean Hersholt, of the humanitarian award, in his final film role), and with nary a suitor nearby. Matt isn’t even one, initially. He’s more worried about Davey than interested in pursuing Helga, which might be why she’s attracted to him. Either way, she does most of the heavy lifting, while Matt frets and carps over Davey: “What kind of doctor are you? Can’t even fix a broken leg!” he says at one point. “What makes you so sure now? You were wrong once before!” he says later.
Davey survives but with a lifelong limp, and Matt spends the rest of the movie propping him up. When Matt becomes sheriff, he makes Davey his deputy. When the townspeople ignore Davey to lynch a bank robber, and Davey pouts and turns in his badge, Matt gives it back. Then he lets Davey take the second bank robber, Morgan (Ernest Borgnine), to the next county seat, but Davey can’t do this, either. Morgan gets away. Chance after chance Davey gets, and he always blows it. It gets old. Derek’s pout really gets old.
Then on Easter Sunday the robbers return in force, led by Gentry (Grant Withers), who, it turns out, was Matt’s cellmate back in the day. This is how the townspeople find out about Matt’s past, so even as Matt gathers a posse to catch Gentry and his men, they remain suspicious. But at the last moment, Davey rides up, announcing, with bravado, “Looks like you could use a deputy.” We think: Hey, is this when Davey redeems himself? Once they reach Comanche territory, the townsfolk balk and return to safety, while Matt keeps going with Davey. We think: Hey, is this when Davey redeems himself?
Nope. Riding through a windstorm, Davey shoots Matt. In the process, Davey is spilled from his horse, and Matt, winged, kicks his gun away.
Matt: Why did you do that? Tell me why?
Davey: You wouldn’t quit. There was no other way of stopping you.
Matt: Stop me from what?
Davey: From catching Gentry … finding out I was in on it.
Matt: You … with THEM?
First, I love the reading Cagney gives that top line. There’s no anger, just bewilderment. But yes, the little shit’s a traitor. Morgan never overpowered him; that’s when Davey joinedthe gang. He even gave them the idea of Easter Sunday, when all the townsfolk would be in church. Matt adds: “All except Pa Swenson,” who was killed while the men were fleeing. But even here, even with blood on his hands, Davey’s a little shit about it. “What was I supposed to do: Hobble up and down a hardware counter for the rest of my life? For $8.00 a week?”
Throughout, Matt has tried to impart wisdom to Davey. When Davey learns he’ll never walk right again, Matt says this: “Lots of fellows live and die without ever having to find out how much of a man they are. You could be as good a man as anybody in town.” That's pretty good. And after they find Gentry and the other men killed by Comanches, grab the money, and get ready to return home, Matt tells him this:
There's a lot of people in this world who've had a tougher time than you or me. It comes with the ticket. Nobody guarantees you a free ride. The only difference is: Most people don’t run for cover. They keep right on going, picking up the pieces the best way they can.
There’s our title reference, oddly in the negative. Meaning everything the title song trumpets is the opposite of the way the hero actually thinks. We should really be watching a movie called Don’t Run for Cover.
Amazingly, after all this, Matt still gives Davey another chance. No one in town knows Davey betrayed them and caused the death of Pa Swenson, Matt says, so why not just keep that part quiet and Davey can resume his normal life? Davey just looks at him, stunned. It’s the one moment we identify with him; we’re stunned, too. But before anything else can happen, they hear Comanches nearby, hide until dark, and try to ford a river to safety. “I can’t make it,” Matt says, gasping in the deep water. “Help me back.”
We think: Hey, is this when Davey redeems himself?
Nope. He tries to drown Matt.
You gotta give the filmmakers credit for persistence. They keep playing the same off-key notes of the forgiveness cycle—screw-up, forgiveness, betrayal; screw-up, forgiveness, betrayal—and we keep hoping for a shift near the end, an upbeat note, a moment when the forgiveness actually works.
But here’s the great thing about this movie: Just when we’re not expecting it, the moment we don’t think, “Hey, is this when Davey redeems himself?,” Davey redeems himself.
After the near drowning, Matt clings to a log and floats downriver, then walks back to their camp for the stashed payroll. On his way to town, still wounded, he stumbles upon an old abandoned fort/mission, which turns out to be the gang’s hideout; Davey’s there with Morgan. Matt shoots Morgan, then he and Davey have it out. Davey accuses Matt of preaching and Matt says that a preacher’s “gotta they’re some good about everybody. But there’s no more good in you than in a rattlesnake.” He’s finally done with him. No more forgiveness. I assume he’s going to take him back to town for a trial and a hanging.
Except Morgan’s not dead. And as he crawls to his gun and aims it at Matt, Davey sees, draws and fires. Except Matt thinks Davey is drawing on him, so he shoots Davey. Only after the fact does he realize Davey was saving his life. He kills Davey for saving his life.
And like that, we go from being bored to being floored.
Is there a musical term for this? Playing the same notes forever until you veer off suddenly, unexpectedly? It’s so beautifully done. The one who always betrays proves loyal, while the one who always forgives punishes a moral act.
The movie then does two more things—one right, one sadly wrong. The right thing is they don’t give Davey any dying words. He just stares up, rolls his eyes back, dies. The wrong thing is the happy ending. In this era of the blacklist, no western, it seemed, had townspeople worth a damn. Here, too. They want law but take it into their own hands; they want Matt but never trust him. In the end, when Matt returns, wounded, exhausted, he’s met on the outskirts of town by these same chuckleheads still suspicious of him. Fed up, he tosses them the money, says “Compliments of Davey,” then dismounts and hugs Helga. Then the townspeople ride past and Matt gives them the finger.
Kidding. They ride past, waving, and, as the music wells, Matt waves back. All is well. The End.
Wait, what? Shouldn’t he be throwing his badge in the dirt or something? Or showing remorse? The pain he’ll feel the rest of his life—knowing he took the life of his prodigal son for saving his own?
In the 1950s Cagney worked with some great directors but never on any great movies. Indeed, he often starred in the one before their great one. Mister Roberts began with John Ford at the helm until Ford was kicked off; then Ford went and made The Searchers. Tribute to a Bad Man was directed by Robert Wise, who then directed Somebody Up There Likes Me. As for Nicholas Ray? His next pic was a little something called Rebel Without a Cause.
Hey, can you imagine James Dean as Davey? That might've worked. At the least, it would’ve saved us from John Derek. The rest of the cast is good anyway. Lindfors is a nice mix of Hollywood beauty and maybe, potentially—if you squint hard enough—a hardscrabble frontierwoman. The worst of the townspeople, Larsen, is played by longtime character actor Jack Lambert, who has the deepest of voices and thinnest of eyes. Fun fact: 10 years later, he wound up in an episode of The Andy Griffith Show in a jail cell with Billy Halop of the Dead End Kids, whom Cagney befriended in Angels with Dirty Faces. (I might have to watch that episode.) Grant Withers is another actor with Cagney history. A big name in the early 1930s—he scandalously eloped with a 17-year-old Loretta Young in 1930—he starred in two of the first movies Cagney appeared in: Sinners’ Holiday and Other Men’s Women. While Cagney rose, Withers fell into character acting and hard times. Drink, mostly. He killed himself in 1959, age 54. He’s good here. I like that he plays a man who knew Cagney way back when, since he did.
There's also Borgnine, seventh-billed, who this same year would star in Marty and win the Academy Award for best actor. Among the other nominees? Cagney for Love Me or Leave Me. It’s interesting seeing Cagney chasing and catching Borgnine since he won’t at Oscar time.
With a better producer, and a better actor in the Davey role, Run for Cover might be viewed as a classic today. It might’ve led to a string of ’50s westerns for Cagney. It didn't. But it ain’t bad.
The many moods of future svengali John Derek.
Sunday January 31, 2021
Movie Review: Tribute to a Bad Man (1956)
There’s a moment two-thirds of the way through “Tribute to a Bad Man,” when Steve Miller (Don Dubbins), the neophyte ranchhand from the east, from Penn-sai-vane-ai-ay, as ranch owner Jeremy Rodock (James Cagney) keeps saying, is trying to convince Rodock’s woman, Jocasta (Irene Papas), to run away with him. She pulls back and looks at him with sympathy. “You are so young,” she says finally.
Here are the ages of the three actors when the movie premiered in April 1956:
- Dubbins: 27
- Papas: 29
- Cagney: 56
So yes. A bit young in the Hollywood scheme of things.
“Bad Man” was supposed to star Spencer Tracy, but he got sick, or the high altitude in the Rockies got to him, or he probably just had second thoughts about the script; but after many delays MGM fired him and came hat-in-hat to Jimmy—who had just starred in the studio’s hit “Love Me or Leave Me,” with Doris Day. “There were some 80 people in Montrose, Colorado, waiting to get the job done,” Cagney wrote in his memoir, Cagney By Cagney. “I was about as interested in working as I was in flying, which means a considerable level below zero, but after much gab, I agreed.
As for what he thought of the film? “The result was all right, I guess.”
Emphasis on “I guess.”
It’s Cagney’s third and final western, and it’s not as good as the others. It’s Cinemascope—his second—and the shooting location in the Rockies is beautiful; but it feels like movie by committee. Hey, Shane worked, let’s adapt another story by that Jack Schaefer guy. Teens are popular, let’s get some kids in there and try to understand them. May/December worked in High Noon, let’s go for that.
Everyone here is a second choice: Cagney for Tracy, who got sick; Dobbins for Robert Francis, who died in a plane crash; Papas for Grace Kelly, who turned it down.
Even the title is sloppy seconds. It was a working title for Vincente Minnelli’s “The Bad and the Beautiful,” where it made more sense; here it’s a misnomer. Is he a bad man? Seems decent enough. And what’s the tribute? Steve’s voice-over? Schaefer’s original title, “Hanging’s for the Lucky,” gets at the conflict. Rodock is a rancher in the Wyoming Territory who dispenses frontier justice for horse thieves. He gets “hanging fever,” according to his men. “It’s fear that keeps men honest,” he tells Jocasta. “And with that hanging today, I laid fear like a fence 10 feet high around my property!”
Except he didn’t. He keeps making enemies, and they keep coming around to steal his horses. No one raises this point. If hanging’s a deterrent, Rodock, why do you have to keep hanging men? Instead, their message is a mushy moral one. Jocasta just thinks it’s wrong. Steve just thinks it’s wrong, too.
Rodock: He stole my horses, didn’t he? He shot at me, didn’t he? He killed Whitey, didn’t he?
Steve: How do you know he killed Whitey? … You don’t know. You’ll never know. [looks down] I’ll never know.
Along with men trying to steal his horses, Rodock is surrounded by men trying to steal his woman. Jo is the only woman for, what, hundreds of miles? I guess there’s Peterson’s wife (Jeanette Nolan) but she actually looks like a frontier woman. The first time we—and Steve—see Jocasta, she emerges from the shadows, her body wrapped in a white, hip-tugging and low-cut dress, and Steve’s eyes practically fall out of their sockets. That moment is directed and photographed well (by Robert Wise and Robert Surtees, respectively), but it’s not exactly cinema verité.
I assumed Rodock would have to fend off some of his men, particularly after one of them, Fat Jones (Lee Van Cleef), talks up the new mail-order catalogs that have pictures of women in corsets. “I ain’t seen a woman outside of Jocasta in eight months,” he declares with menace, then turns to another wrangler. “And you ain’t gettin’ no prettier.” It’s a good bit, but Cleef barely has a role. No, it’s the smooth head wrangler, McNulty (Stephen McNally), who’s a problem. He’s actually a bigger problem for the movie. He should be two-faced—subservient to Rodock while privately making moves on Jo—but he shows just the one: smarmy and insinuating with both. “You act like a man with a lot of ideas. But all of them second rate—and not one honorable,” Rodock says, but for some reason he keeps him on. It’s a disconnect. Eventually, though, McNulty makes one pass too many, there’s a fistfight, etc. Oddly, when he returns for revenge, he wants the horses rather than the woman.
The other rival for Jo’s attentions is Steve. He should have the better shot—blonde, handsome, age appropriate—but he’s not only “so young,” as she says, but so soft. Cringingly so. His voice narrates the film, about how both Jo and Rodock helped him become a man, but I don’t see him living long enough in the Wild West to reflect back on it all. I’m shocked he made it all the way to Rodock’s place to begin with.
But that’s the movie’s conceit. Soft Steve needs to toughen up while tough Rodock needs to soften.
Turnin' of the earth
For all this, the movie still has a shot. In the final act, McNulty teams with Peterson’s son, Lars (Vic Morrow), who bears a longstanding familial grudge, and a third man, Barjak (James Griffith), to steal Rodock’s mares and foals. Rodock and Steve find the horses and the thieves in a valley; but before he can get to hanging, he realizes the mares have had their hooves cut to the bone, making it painful for them to walk. These men crippled these horses for life, in order to make sure they didn’t stray. It’s the most horrific act in the movie. I wanted them hanged. But this is when Rodock doesn’t do it. Instead, in an eye-for-an-eye moment, he makes them take off their boots and march the 100 or 200 miles to the nearest town/jail. Steve and Rodock ride behind on their horses.
The pace is relentless—a slow, steady drumbeat. The thieves begin to stagger, stockinged feet torn and bloody, but he keeps them marching. It recalls an earlier, “Searchers”-esque line of Steve’s when Rodock was pursuing Whitey’s killer. “He kept going … He kept going…” There, though, Rodock’s relentlessness fed his anger; here, the opposite. Steve counsels restraint (“Mr. Rodock, you gotta stop”; “This ain’t punishment, Mr. Rodock, it’s revenge!”), and Rodock slowly relents. He gives the prisoners water and lets them rest in the shade. His reward? Lars tells him he’s greedy and cruel. He lets Barjak, who’s collapsed, ride the rest of the way; Lars tells him “My pa shoulda killed you 20 year ago.” Eventually Rodock just lets them go—these horse thieves and cripplers. He even returns Lars to his mother personally. His reward? Lars goes for a shotgun and tries to kill him.
So maybe Rodock was right all along about frontier justice? It just takes too much to get these guys before a judge. Sadly, Rodock doesn’t point this out; he becomes good for the sake of being good. His reward? When he returns to the ranch, Jo leaves him for Steve.
Except when she finds out Rodock didn’t hang the horse thieves, she returns to him with open arms. That’s our happy ending. Good comes to the good. Or so Hollywood wants us to believe. Probably because we want to believe it.
I still think there’s something in that final act if they’d just finetuned it. Maybe Steve is horrified by the horse crippling and wants blood, and maybe this is why Rodock holds back on the hanging—because he doesn’t want Steve to become like him. Or sure, continue with the long march, but prove Rodock right. Acknowledge the danger in it—the long absence. Maybe deliver the men to the judge, as Jo wanted, then return to find Jo killed or missing. Just gone, and he'll never find out why.
During the 1950s, movie studios kept pairing Cagney with young, dull male co-stars whom they hoped would become stars but never did: John Derek, Roger Smith twice, Don Dubbins twice. Cagney is either learned and teaches (“Run for Cover”), or corrupt and learns (“These Wilder Years,” “Man of a Thousand Faces”), or corrupt and teaches (“Never Steal Anything Small”). Here, I guess, he’s corrupt but teaches wrangling while learning a higher moral standard. The worst part is the sense that Rodock wants the approval of the kids: not just Steve but Lars, too. Somewhere, Tom Powers spits.
Because of the Spencer Tracy overruns, “Tribute to a Bad Man” didn’t make back half its cost, and Cagney, a true outdoorsman, increasingly attracted to the western genre, never got to make another western. His good deed (filling in for Tracy) went punished. A better lesson than the mushy one the movie gives us.
Minneapolis newspaper ad from 1956. Wonder where the free parking was.
Wednesday January 13, 2021
Movie Review: Mister Roberts (1955)
So were there any competent Navy captains in the Pacific during World War II? It’s a wonder we won.
At first blush, “Mister Roberts” seems like a lighter, breezier, Cinemascope and Technicolor (sorry: Warnercolor) version of “The Caine Mutiny,” with its incompetent captain obsessed with fruit (oranges rather than strawberries) and played by a 1930s Warner Bros. gangster (James Cagney instead of Humphrey Bogart). But that’s kind of backwards. “Mister Roberts” came first. It was a best-selling novel in 1946 and a smash Broadway play in 1948, while Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny” wasn’t published until 1951. Many of its reviews even invoked “Roberts”:
- “‘The Caine Mutiny’ is a sort of serious ‘Mister Roberts’… — Des Moines Register
- “His Captain Queeg [is] … somewhat reminiscent of the commanding officer in the play, ‘Mister Roberts’…” — Hutchinson News
“Caine,” however, did beat “Roberts” to the screen by a year, which is par for the course for later Cagney. He made his WWII movie (“Blood on the Sun”) at the tail end of WWII, his O.S.S. movie (“13 Rue Madeleine”) a year after the officially sanctioned “O.S.S.,” and his Huey Long movie, “A Lion Is In the Streets,” four years after “All the King’s Men” won best picture. “Come Fill the Cup,” his movie about alcoholism, showed up six years after “Lost Weekend.”
America to me
Cagney gets second billing here—he’s next to Henry Fonda on the title card—but it’s not a meaty role. It’s small and one-note. The Captain’s wartime goals seem to be: 1) prevent his men from going on leave; 2) prevent Lt. Roberts from being transferred; 3) don’t share fresh fruit. He’s a petty asshole who barely gets a name.
What’s his inner life? His backstory? Lt. Barney Greenwald salutes Queeg’s earlier career—“Who was standing guard over this fat, dumb, happy country of ours?”—but the only one defending the Captain is the Captain. During an argument with Roberts, he gives his raison d’etre: class resentment.
I’ve been seeing your kind around since I was 10 years old—working as a busboy. “Oh busboy, it seems my friend has thrown up on the table. Clean up that mess, boy, will ya?” And then when I went to sea as a steward—people poking at you with umbrellas. “Oh, boy! You, boy! Careful with that luggage, boy!” And I took it. I took it for years! But I don't have to take it any more. There’s a war on, and I’m captain of this vessel, and now you can take it for a change!
That’s only vaguely interesting, probably because it’s so vague. Not to mention incomplete. It may explain his pettiness toward Roberts but not to the mostly working-class boys on his ship. He’s awful to them, too.
On Broadway, the role of the Captain was actually darker. He was played by William Harrigan, a longtime character actor in Hollywood, whose roles included “Mac” McKay, Cagney’s gangster benefactor in “G-Men.” He was also the real-life son of Edward Harrigan, a 19th-century Irish playwright/actor for whom George M. Cohan wrote the song “Harrigan,” which, of course, Cagney sang with such gusto in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Amazing the connections when you dig a little.
Joshua Logan, who co-wrote both play and film, criticized the way John Ford directed the Captain character. “In Christ’s name, what has Ford made Cagney do [but] play the Captain like an old New England bumbler, without any hatred, without darkness, without threat? He’s all Down East accent—and comic at that.” Logan also complained how the atmosphere on the ship changed from “prison-like” in the play to “boys camp“ in the movie. But apparently that was necessary to get the cooperation of the U.S. Navy.
All of which created a mess behind the scenes. I’ll try to untangle it.
Because he was 49 years old and hadn’t starred in a movie in eight years, Warner Bros. didn’t even want Henry Fonda, one of the biggest movie stars in the world, to star in the movie version of a play for which he’d already won a Tony. They wanted Marlon Brando or William Holden. But Ford fought for him. Then he fought with him. Fonda hated the lighter, breezier tone and at one point the two men came to blows.
Ford also fought for Cagney and then with Cagney. Apparently on the first day of shooting, Cagney was slightly late, Ford went into a tirade, but Cagney cut it short: “When I started this picture, you said we would tangle asses before this was over. I’m ready now. Are you?” Ford wasn’t, and eventually his excessive drinking got him canned. The irony is he was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy, whom Cagney hated. Cagney did one movie with him, ”Hard to Handle" in 1933, and pegged him as a brown-noser who took too much credit on too little talent. LeRoy’s autobiography seems to bear this out. Among other things, he claims credit for directing Cagney in one of his first films, “Hot Stuff” in 1929. The problem? Cagney wasn’t in “Hot Stuff.” He wasn't even in Hollywood until 1930.
Another irony: That “boys camp” atmosphere Ford fought for is the part of the movie that’s actually aged the worst. The crew seems both gay dream team (young, fit, shirtless, sweaty) and #MeToo scandal waiting to happen (voyeurism; literally tearing the clothes off women during shore leave). They're also, per every Hollywood WWII movie, a melting-pot vision of America—except more melted than usual. Sure, we get a Rodrigues (Perry Lopez) and a Stefanowski (Harry Carey Jr.), but they hardly register. It’s mostly bland, randy white guys who come from nowhere specific. The one time anyone brings up a state back home, it’s the Shore Patrol Officer with the bad southern accent (Martin Milner), who tells Roberts that six of his men razed the home of a French colonial governor. An Army private brought them there as a joke:
Shore Patrol Officer: He told them it was, uh... well, what we call in Alabama … uh…
Mr. Roberts: Yeah, we call it the same thing in Nebraska.
I like that they use Fonda’s home state for Mister Roberts’ home state.
Fonda makes the movie. His goal is noble. The Reluctant is a cargo supply ship drifting in a chain of islands in the Pacific, far from the war, and Roberts wants to be where the war is—he recognizes the historical moment—but his transfer is continually denied by the Captain. Since Roberts can’t get what he wants, he at least tries to get the men what they need. Sure, men, you can take your shirts off in these hellish conditions. Sure, I’ll sacrifice any attempt at transfer and follow all the Captain’s orders forevermore so you guys can have this one shore leave. It’s another of Fonda’s noble men—from Abe Lincoln to Wyatt Earp; from Tom Joad to Juror 8. For the ways Ford screwed up the movie, he couldn’t have fought for a better actor.
He humanizes what is otherwise a fairly cartoonish group. Just that opening, looking out at the open water, the yearning and hurt on his face. He obsesses over his latest transfer letter like he’s an upbeat Joseph K., giving Doc (William Powell) a boyish grin at his new turn of the phrase—the thing that he hopes will finally get him transferred. And that Fonda voice: slow, measured, stretching out his words: “Carriers so big they blacked out half the sky. Battlewagons sliiiding along, dead quiet.” You know the song lyric, “What is America to me?” Henry Fonda isn’t a bad answer.
Even with this great open, though, you sense the movie’s behind-the-scenes schism. Roberts walks out on deck on a sunny day, surveys the horizon with the water bright blue, then sits down with a pencil in his mouth—like a dog with a bone—to go over the letter again. Then it’s a reverse angle for the intro of Doc and … Where did the sun go? We don’t really see anything but the metal of the ship. I assume it was shot on a sound stage in LA rather than off the coast of Hawaii. It’s a disconnect. It’s Ford vs. LeRoy.
A quick synopsis. In the first act, the men admire Roberts. In the second act, not knowing his sacrifice, they turn on him, think he’s bucking for promotion. Third act? After he tosses the Captain’s prize palm tree overboard, and the men learn about his sacrifice through a kind of loudspeaker ex machina, they work to get him the transfer he’s always wanted. And they do! And they shower him with gifts and send him on his way.
And on that battleship, he dies in the waning days of the war.
Oddly, there’s no mea culpa from the men, no thought of, “Gee, if we hadn’t have gotten him that transfer …” Instead, Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon, in an Oscar-winning role), who is now a lieutenant and in Roberts’ role, and who never had the guts to finish one thing, finally does. He does what Roberts might’ve done—but with Pulver’s bluster. Over the loudspeaker, they hear that the night’s movie has been canceled, and, in a sudden rage, Pulver a secondary palm tree overboard and busts into the Captain’s quarters:
Captain, it is I, Ensign Pulver, and I just threw your stinkin’ palm tree overboard! Now what’s all this crud about no movie tonight?
Roberts is dead; Roberts lives.
Sadly, Cagney’s reaction is a comic wuh-wuh. It’s “Not this again?” as he buries his face in his hands. It feels off, considering what we’ve just learned about Roberts.
I like all the loudspeaker announcements we hear in the movie—spoken in that bored military cadence of an amateur draftee. “Attention! Attention!” Then some stupid annoying thing. Then: “That is all.” Fifteen years later, the movie “M*A*S*H” would use these to great comic effect.
“Mister Roberts” was nominated for three Academy Awards—picture, sound, supporting—and won for Lemmon. Don’t quite see it. His character is only mildly amusing, with that classic Lemmon jitteriness that never appealed to me. I like the calm guys. The opening scene, in the morning on the deck, where Doc and Roberts talk? That could’ve been the movie for me. But Fonda didn’t even get nominated. He got nomed for “Grapes of Wrath” in 1940 and not again until “On Golden Pond” in 1981. It’s one of the great travesties of the Academy.
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.
Monday October 12, 2020
Movie Review: These Wilder Years (1956)
I couldn’t help but think of “Public Enemy.” And not because the movies are similar.
In an early scene, Steve Bradford (James Cagney), the CEO of a Detroit steel company, walks through his office and into a board meeting. The area is carpeted, bland, airless, sterile. There’s no life in it. There was always life and grit in the sets of early Warner Bros. movies, and this is the opposite of that. I actually thought of the offices of bosses in ’60s TV sitcoms. It was like Mr. Tate’s office on “Bewitched.” I think of the difference between Putty Nose’s backroom and Mr. Tate’s office and wonder how American went so wrong.
But that’s just the beginning. You really see the difference with the Cagney character.
Before he walks into the board meeting, Bradford asks his secretary who’s in there, and she tells him—to a man—and he compliments her on her great memory. The exchange is brief but irrelevant. You wonder why they kept it. It moves nothing forward.
Then he’s on an airplane, and an entire high school football team is on the same flight with him, which is odd in itself, and he’s seated next to the guy who, yes, lost the big game by dropping the ball in the end zone (Tom Laughlin, in his film debut). So he dispenses fatherly advice: “You ever hold onto any?” “Yeah. Plenty.” “Try to remember those.” And sure, you get why that’s in there. It’s a metaphor. It’s foreshadowing. Steve dropped a big one 20 years ago when he walked out on his pregnant girlfriend, and that’s why he’s traveling back to his hometown. He’s trying to rectify his mistake. But the airplane conversation is more than that. Because it keeps happening.
From the airport, he takes a cab and sits in the front seat like a regular joe, and he and the toothless cabbie talk, and Steve gives him a big tip so the guy can get himself some new chompers. At the orphanage, he throws a ball back to kids playing in the field, then dispenses advice to Suzie (Betty Lou Keim), the 16-year old pregnant girl: “Don’t cry about tomorrow, he says. “Wait til it’s yesterday.” She takes a shine to him, as does the head of the orphanage, Ann Dempster (Barbara Stanwyck), who should know better. I mean, she should really know better. It’s not just the boy he was, it’s the man he became. Because as determined as he was to leave his son back then, he’s now just as determined to find him. He all but threatens Ann.
Steve: I’ve got a lot of two things: time and money. And I’ll use either one or both. Whatever it takes. You know, I could’ve sent somebody to do this for me. And they’d have gone about it quite differently.
Steve: Bought it. Bought the records, the court, maybe even this place. Maybe even you.
Ann: What in the world would you do with me?
Steve: Take you to dinner. How about it?
That pivot is such bad writing. He mentions buying her, then segues into buying her dinner? Like it’s charming? But it works, of course. Because movies. At the least, she invites him to her place for dinner, but there’s an emergency so it’s just Steve and Suzie, and … Wait. So Ann Dempster, the head of this orphanage, leaves a 16-year-old pregnant girl alone with a strange man who abandoned his child 20 years ago? That doesn’t seem so smart. But I guess it’s OK because he’s a famous CEO? Suzie gives him a drink and the Evening Gazette but he’d rather hang with Suzie in the kitchen. They talk. He asks her about her, which leads to how she wound up 16 and pregnant, and she cries, and he dispenses more advice, and by the time Ann shows up he’s sent Suzie to the movies while he’s drying the dishes—“Paying for my supper,” he says. A regular joe. And that keeps happening. There’s all these little bits in there, nudging us, until it finally hits you: Ahhh. They want us to like him. And that’s where the real contrast with “Public Enemy” comes in.
In “Public Enemy,” Cagney plays a low-level gangster who shoves a grapefruit in a woman's face and chillingly kills his old mentor, Putty Nose, in cold blood, and yet Warner Bros. constantly has to remind us: You’re not supposed to like this guy. They put up disclaimers before and after. They called him a problem that “we, the public, must solve.” And all for naught. Because we still like him. Martin Scorsese calls Cagney in “Public Enemy” the birth of modern acting because he was so vibrant and real. He has an energy and an honesty. And yet here he is 25 years later, and now it’s MGM, not Warner Bros., but they’re doing everything they can to make us like this guy ... and it doesn’t work. It sets you back on your heels. They tried to get us to like Jimmy Cagney … and couldn’t do it.
What’s the difference?
Why did he make it? Cagney and his wife adopted two children so maybe that’s partly why this story appealed to him. His biographer, John McCabe, also mentions that Cagney liked his experience with MGM in “Tribute to a Bad Man” and quickly agreed to follow up with this one. He also gets to play white collar rather than blue, and rich rather than not, and contrite rather than sneering, so maybe all that appealed, too. But I doubt he thought much of it. It’s one of the few movies of his he doesn’t mention in his memoir. At all. Not a whisper.
It’s his only movie with Barbara Stanwyck. It’s kind of funny watching Public Enemy and Baby Face being the upstanding adults in postwar America. The ’50s were the era when Hollywood discovered teenagers—parents were staying home with the TV—and here they pair stars from the previous generation with the up-and-comers. The movie is the debut of not only Laughlin but Michael Landon, as well as the first credited role for Dean Jones. Most of these guys have bit parts, though. I didn’t even catch Landon, to be honest. The up-and-comers are Keim and Don Dubbins as Mark, Steve’s 20-yeaar-old son, who’d also been in “Tribute to a Bad Man,” and wound up with a good journeyman career: 123 credits until his death in 1991. Keim, though, didn’t make it out of the ’50s. She nabbed a few more roles, than nabbed a husband—Warren Berlinger, who also had a good journeyman career—and she called it quits. Her last role was in the TV series “The Deputy” in 1960.
So, dilemma: Cagney wants to see the son he abandoned, Stanwyck is polite but reminds him, “The adoption laws are very strict”; and that’s the battle for most of the movie. And for all the effort of director Roy Rowland and screenwriters Ralph Wheelwright and Frank Fenton to show us Cagney’s a regular guy, they never give him reason enough for abandoning the boy or seeking him out now. The opposite:
Ann: Why did it take you so long?
Steve: Because it took a long time to get what I wanted.
Ann: And now you’ve got what you wanted.
Steve: Yeah. I got it. And something else. I got older. And I got lonely.
That’s it? Good god, Tom Powers is a picture of responsibility in comparison. Steve is even worse when explaining to the high-powered SCOTUS lawyer he brings in. James Rayburn (Walter Pidgeon) asks the same question, “What took you so long?” and at first Steve simply replies “What’s the difference?” before adding, impatiently, “Shall we say, I was busy? That enough?” The lawyer then finds a loophole, they take Ann to court, and Steve plays the victim. For a scene or two. This forces Ann to produce the original 1936 adoption papers in which the younger Steve turns out to be a major asshole:
Mr. Bradford said he would not assume any responsibility toward Emily Haver or the baby. That he would not marry the girl. He said he would not pay anything toward the expense of her confinement and that it was none of his business how she got along. He said to the welfare representative and before the witnesses, “Why do you say I’m the father of the child? It could be any one of 16 other guys.”
Classy. Pidgeon in his last MGM role is even-toned and well-cast. I like what he says to Steve after the judge dismisses the case: “You gambled that there are people who wouldn’t do unto you what you would do unto them.” But it’s Stanwyck who gets the best lines: “We all make our beds and have to lie in them, whether we sleep or not. Isn't that all there is to it?” And when Steve seems to dismiss her as an idealist dreamer who has sacrificed her life, she responds, “No, I didn’t. This is my life.”
After Steve is foiled in court, the rest of the movie tumbles into place. Outside the courtroom, Ann tells him that Suzie had an accident and is in the hospital asking for him. Because he’s such a great guy, I guess. So he goes, helps out, she has the baby, and in the afterglow of all that he does what any man would do: He goes bowling. And that’s when Mark shows up; and in the bowling alley, then the adjacent café, then out on the street, the two have several long, pained conversations, in which Mark admits to hating him at times and admiring him at times, and Steve looks variously uncomfortable and tortured and apologizes without apologizing. He says: “Look, what does a man say? What do I say? I’m sorry? Forgive me?” Sure. But try it without the question mark, dick.
It’s not just that he’s not a good person; Cagney’s acting isn’t good, either. Or it’s not interesting. You used to never be able to say that about him. In the end, Steve asks if there’s anything Mark needs, and Mark, the calm, responsible one, says “I needed this tonight. Just this,” and sticks out his hand. I like that Steve looks pained here, as if thinking: “Goodbye? So soon?” Or that he wanted to hug him but has to settle for a handshake. And then Mark walks away, while Steve paces, head down, and finally looks up to see his biological boy walking away in the distance and says quietly, “So long, son.” And the camera pulls back so we see a lone man on a lonely street corner.
And we have six minutes left in this thing.
What happens? Why he adopts Suzie, of course. Or I think that’s what happens. Seems odd, since I don’t think her parents have cut her off or anything. But he goes home with her and the baby—a man who’s suddenly both father and grandfather all at once.
It’s definitely a movie of its time: a weepy ’50s melodrama—Douglas Serk without the artistry, and without a person in color in sight. Among its working titles were “Somewhere I’ll Find Him,” “All Our Yesterdays” and “All Our Tomorrows.” All bad. They went with “These Wilder Years,” says John McCabe, “for no discernible reason.”
Sunday September 06, 2020
Movie Review: The Seven Little Foys (1955)
James Cagney won the Academy Award for for playing George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and here he is a dozen years later playing him again in a nice tap-dance and soft-shoe cameo opposite Bob Hope’s Eddie Foy. My immediate thought: “Is this the first time an Academy Award winner for best actor reprised his role in another film?”
Turns out … not even close.
At only the second Academy Awards, Warner Baxter won best actor for playing the Cisco Kid in “Old Arizona.” Then he reprised the role in a 1931 short (“The Stolen Jools”) and a 1931 feature (“The Cisco Kid”). Then he played him again in a 1939 sequel (“The Return of the Cisco Kid”).
So if Cagney wasn’t the first, surely it was an anomaly?
Nope. Happened all the time. In 1930, George Arliss won the Oscar for playing Disraeli in “Disraeli,” a role he’d already played in a 1921 silent film, and to which he returned in a 1931 short. In 1933, it was Charles Laughton for “The Private Life of Henry VIII,” a role he reprised 20 years later in “Young Bess.” Spencer Tracy was Father Flanagan in “Boys Town” and three years later in “Men of Boys Town.” Bing Crosby was Father O’Malley in 1944’s “Going My Way” and a year later in “The Bells of St. Mary’s.”
OK, so not first and not an anomaly. But maybe the last?
I didn’t do a deep dive, but there’s already John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn, George C. Scott’s George S. Patton, Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, and—coming soon to a theater near you—Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. What I thought was a one-off was an industry.
You can see most of the Cagney-Hope dance number here. It’s cornball but fun. There’s a showbizzy, tongue-in-cheek one-upmanship between Cohan and Foy throughout:
Cohan: You know any of my soft-shoe routines?
Foy: I know all your routines—I did them first.
Cohan: And I did them right.
As apparently in life? Or at least as in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” where the Foy cameo was played by Eddie Foy, Jr., and where they also engage in the same kind of back-and-forth. In the video clips from “Foys,” you can see Hope giving the dances the old college try but he can’t compare to Cagney. Just look at their arms. Cagney’s are perfectly balanced while Hope’s are all over the place. Cagney lost 15 pounds for the role and looks great. He was also in agony. His knees had filled with fluid from practicing, and when he jumped onto the table he felt a stabbing pain in them. But he kept going. He did it all gratis, too. From John McCabe’s biography:
When Jack Rose, The Seven Little Foys producer, first approached Jim about his salary for the job, he refused payment, not only as a favor to Hope but as a contribution to the memory of Eddie Foy: “When I was a starving actor, I could always get a free meal and a friendly welcome at the Foys. You don’t forget things like that.”
I would’ve liked more on that story. Did he know them personally or was it a known thing that the Foys helped out? And was it just the Foys or other successful show-biz types? Cohan and Foy were legendary to the young Cagney and Hope, and still well-known in the 1940s and ’50s, but now we mostly know them through the portrayals of Cagney and Hope. Our storytelling moved on to movies and TV, which they didn’t do, and so they’re left behind. As we’ll all be left behind.
51 to 21
I watched “Foys” for Cagney, of course, but the movie is better than I thought. Hope is better than I thought. I grew up with annual Bob Hope Christmas Specials, which weren’t that special, but I laughed here. I’m beginning to see what Woody Allen saw.
It’s not really Foy’s story. It’s Hope schtick placed on Foy’s story. Foy was married three times, for example, and here he’s portrayed as marriage-averse. Almost women-averse. Early on, a buxom showgirl comes onto him but he passes. “I travel light—which is more than I can say for you.” An Italian sister act joins the troupe and he’s asked to switch his largeish dressing room for their tiny one. They don’t speak much English, the manager says. “Just enough to get top billing,” Foy responds. In her dressing room, the younger Italian sister, Madeleine Morando (Milly Vitale), who becomes Foy’s wife, his second in real life, wears a little frou-frou undergarment that makes the most of her tiny waist. In Milano, she says, we wear this all the time. Foy: “No wonder Italy’s overpopulated.”
Gotta ask: Were Italian actresses Hollywood’s greatest 1950s import? I’d never heard of Vitale before but good lord is she gorgeous. The oddity in the movie is that she has to land him. At the time of filming, she was 21 and gorgeous while Hope was 51 and not, but Hollywood was Hollywood. The age difference is also apparent in the sister act. Angela Clarke plays Clara, but she’s 23 years older than Vitale. Her role is basically to be nag Foy. Nothing he does is good enough. She’s older sister as mother-in-law. That gag.
Bert Williams, a Cagney favorite, is mentioned twice. Character-actor George Tobias, playing Jewish here—Barney Green, Foy’s manager—mentions in passing “I’m the fella who discovered Bert Williams.” Then, in the rain, trying to woo back Madeleine, Foy talks up Williams’ song “Nobody” and sings it. The conversation leading up to it is interesting for demonstrating Foy’s shallowness:
She: You are so empty
He: All I want is my name in lights
She: Nothing else?
He: What else is there?
She: The rest of the world.
He: What have they ever done for me? You ever hear that song that Bert Williams sings? When life seems full of clouds and rain, and I am filled with naught but pain, who soothes my thumpin’, bumpin’ brain? Nobody
At this point, he just wants her to sign a contract so they can be on Broadway together—so he can be on Broadway—but she wants him. As a man. As a lover. Sure. So she signs. Then, scared of the commitment, of maybe falling for her, he tears up the contract and goes to the west coast while she goes back to Italy. Problem solved. Except she writes him a letter, saying she’s marrying someone else, and he travels to Milan, kinda proposes, and…
Yeah, it’s a little scattered.
Beav to Bud
In the movie, Foy takes the kids on the road when his wife dies, but that’s another fabrication. The wife died in 1918; the Seven Foys act began in 1910. So why did it begin? Because it worked? And what exactly was Eddie Foy’s bit anyway? He was primarily a comedian, right? With a kind of slurring thing and an odd upturned smile? “Seven Foys” was supposed to be Hope’s turn toward more dramatic roles but we mostly get Hope being Hope. His persona here isn’t that different from the one I saw on Christmas specials in the 1970s. But the jokes are better. Or maybe, being so long out of style, they seem new again.
Another interesting pop-cultural note: The eldest Foy child, Bryan, is played by a teenaged Billy Gray, who had just started playing Bud Anderson in the hit 1950s TV series “Father Knows Best.” We also see him as a young boy, too. And who plays him as a young boy? Jerry Mathers, who, two years later, would play Beaver Cleaver in the hit 1950s TV series “Leave It to Beaver.” I like stuff like that.
Cagney in fighting form; Hope with the college try.
Monday August 17, 2020
Movie Review: Starlift (1951)
The working title was better: “Operation Starlift.” It was actually a thing, too. According to The San Francisco Examiner, Nov. 22, 1950, it began with gossip columnist Louella Parsons, who organized the transport of Hollywood stars on an Air Force C-47 to Travis Air Force Base north of San Francisco to entertain troops who were wounded in the Korean War or were heading there. It was basically a roving version of Hollywood Canteen.
Hollywood Canteen, for those who don’t know, was a club in LA offering food and entertainment to troops heading overseas during World War II. It was started by Bette Davis and John Garfield in October 1942, and literally hundreds of stars volunteered their services—from Bud Abbott to Vera Zorina. A 1943 New York Times article mentions the canteen as a place where soldiers might dance with Betty Grable, get a cup of coffee from Hedy Lamarr, or chat up Rita Hayworth. The MC might be Bing Crosby or Eddie Cantor, with a band led by Kay Kyser. It lasted throughout the war and closed up shop on Nov. 22, 1945.
And even before the Hollywood Canteen, there was Stage Door Canteen, the New York/Broadway version, which opened in March 1942, led by Nedda Harrigan. A CBS radio series broadcast from the place from 1942 to 1945.
Each of these good-will gestures became movies of their own. Hugely popular movies, it turns out. Per The Hollywood Reporter Book of Box-Office Hits, “Stage Door Canteen,” released by United Artists, was the fifth-biggest movie of 1943, while “Hollywood Canteen,” released by Warner Bros., was the fifth-biggest hit of 1944. Merely mingling with the stars of Hollywood, the purveyors of wish-fulfillment fantasy, had become one of our biggest wish-fulfillment fantasies.
“Starlift” didn't do as well. According to Wiki, via Variety, it grossed $1.9 million in 1951. That’s probably top 20. It was the Korean War, so no longer all hands on deck. The movie is awful, too.
The worst Cagney impression
Sgt. Mike Nolan (the pushy one, played by Dick Wesson) and Cpl. Rick Williams (the passive one, played by Ron Hagerthy) are soldiers hanging out a movie theater next to cardboard cutouts of the stars when Nolan figures out a way to get close to the real ones. Williams is from Youngstown, Ohio, same as Nell Wayne (Janice Rule, one of the few stars playing a character here), so, against Williams’ aw-shucks objections, he claims Williams and Wayne were good friends back in Youngstown (they didn’t know each other), and that the boy is about to head overseas (they just transport others from SF to Hawaii and back again). And it works! Soon the two are back in the hotel room of Doris Day and Ruth Roman shooting the shit. Well, Nolan is shooting. Williams looks like he ate some bad sushi.
Nolan says he saw Doris Day’s first picture 47 times. She’s flattered. Then we find out he was a movie projectionist. Then he does an unfunny re-enactment of a French love scene with Ruth Roman, which is less Jean Gabin than Pepe Le Pew. It’s the whole kissing-up-the-arm gag. (When did that trope begin? When did it end?) Finally, he talks about how one time the projector broke down in the middle of “White Heat,” so he went out on the stage and did the movie from memory. As he does here, imitating James Cagney:
Pardo, I’ve been watching you. So far, you ain’t done anything I can put my finger on. But maybe that’s what bothers me. I don’t know you; and what I don’t know, I don’t trust.
In the middle of this, the real James Cagney walks in carrying a load of … whatever. Gifts? Noshes? Once he hears the guy doing him, he finishes the dialogue for him. Then we get this exchange:
Cagney: Now look here, pal. I don’t like people going on imitating me, you understand? I don’t like it!
Nolan: I… [still imitating] I’m not imitating you. Since when is there against people talking like this?
Cagney: Well, you know, there ought to be? And between us, one of us is very bad.
Nolan: Oh, I don’t know. I think you do it better even than I do.
Cagney: I’ve had more practice.
Cagney is actually being kind: Wesson does a horrible Cagney impression—and both he and the movie seem oblivious to it. How do you miss doing Cagney? How do they not find someone who can do a better Cagney?
Before Cagney leaves, Nolan corrals him again, says he’s noticed that before he hits a guy he hitches up his pants. He shows him. “Why do you do that?” he asks. Cagney opens his jacket: “That’s simple: No belt. So long, son.”
Cagney is the reason I watched this thing, of course, and I knew it was just a cameo (90 seconds of screentime, it turns out), but at least it came early in the movie—not even 15 minutes in. So I didn’t have to watch the rest. But I did. Because you never know.
But we do. The rest of the movie is awful.
The girls take the two soldiers back to Travis Air Force base, visit the wounded, signs some casts, and put on an impromptu show. It’s mostly Doris. She’s got pipes but with a supercheery, asexual delivery that speaks of the sad age. She’s also doing it in front of a fake backdrop—or frontdrop—of soldiers, which means even here they’re not performing for the troops. Meanwhile, Nell goes from being annoyed by the boy from Youngstown to kissing him goodbye. And on the way out, a bland colonel (Richard Webb) blandly and (to me) impertinently suggests the girls get a bunch of their friends to come up for a show.
They do. They're game. And we get a lot of song and dance numbers, and an overlong comedy bit from the team of Noonan and Marshall, which is mostly Noonan. (Marshall was Peter Marshall, straight man, and future “Hollywood Squares” host.) Meanwhile Phil Harris, the voice of Baloo from “The Jungle Book,” and thus beloved by me, tries to teach the boys about gin rummy but gets fleeced instead. Or does he pretend to get fleeced? I’ve already forgotten.
The music numbers are either super straightlaced (Gordon MacRae singing “The Good Green Acres of Home” backed by a military band), leggy but oddly asexual (Patrice Wymore singing and dancing “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)”), or leggy, oddly asexual and culturally inappropriate (“Noche Caribe,” danced by Virginia Mayo, who’s dubbed by Bonnie Lou Williams). This last is introduced by Randolph Scott, who asks the men if they saw what they imagined in the tropics, such as “lovely maidens beneath swaying tropical palms.” The men shout NO!, Scott chuckles, and then introduces Mayo, who will “give you her idea of your idea of what you expected to see.” Unpack that. The reality didn’t live up to the sexualized myth, so here’s a white, somewhat asexual version of that. To keep the myth alive. But tamped down. I guess.
Watching all this, you understand why rock ‘n’ roll was invented. To cut through the bullshit.
The final number is a story-song, “Look Out Stranger, I’m a Texas Ranger,” starring an aged Gary Cooper, and playing off the western tropes Hollywood popularized.
Oh, and after being on and off, and on and off, the two Youngstownians make up and share a milkshake as in a Norman Rockwell painting. Then he gets on a plane—I think to war this time—while we hear strains of the Army Air Corps Song: “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder.” Finally this nod:
“Warner Bros. wishes to express their appreciation and grateful thanks to the Department of Defense, the United States Air Force and the officers and airmen of Travis Air Force Base for their whole-hearted cooperation which made this picture possible.”
Remember when Warners was gritty and left-wing? Jack Warner doesn't.
Huey Long --> MPA
The story and screenplay credit for “Starlift” go to John D. Klorer, who only has 14 such credits to his name, none of them memorable, but he certainly led a memorable life. In the 1920s, he was assistant city editor of the Times-Picayune in his native New Orleans during Huey Long’s rise to power. Then he became editor of the Louisiana Progress, a Huey Long ragsheet, and became part of that rise. He was Long’s secretary in D.C. when the Senator and presidential candidate was assassinated in 1936. After that, Klorer moved on to Hollywood, where he joined the right-wing Motion Picture Alliance, which helped bring the blacklist to Hollywood, ruining countless lives—including Hollywood Canteen co-founder John Garfield's. In July 1951, five months before “Starlift” was released, Klorer was returning home from a golf match at Lakeside Golf Club when he had a heart attack and died. He was 45.
The director was Roy Del Ruth, who directed some of the fun, slapdash, early Cagney pictures, such as “Blonde Crazy,” “Taxi!” and “Lady Killer.” The kind where you don’t know where the story is going; where it just veers suddenly and now it’s about this. I don’t know much about Del Ruth. His directing style has been called “easygoing,” while in the book Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s, screenwriter Dorothy Kingsley credits him as a director who taught her she didn’t have to overwrite for the screen. He’s hardly mentioned in John McCabe’s Cagney bio, other than an incident in which, to Cagney’s quiet consternation, he doesn’t correct Margaret Lindsay’s Britishisms. (It was the other “Roy” director, Mervyn LeRoy, whom Cagney loathed.)
Overall, “Starlift” is indicative of the period. It’s anodyne, asexual, bland. Even Wesson as Nolan is bland. His machinations unintentionally create all this and yet there’s never a mea culpa or epiphany or anything from him. There’s never really anything from him. Whatever type he is has had its most interesting elements leeched away.
By this point in movie history, it seems, all the tropes have been codified and everyone’s bought in. The women are pretty but there is no sex. The men wolf-whistle but make no passes. There’s a war on but there are no battles. Everyone’s ramrod straight and so, so dull. There's not a true moment in here. Well, one. Gene Nelson was a helluva dancer—did the “Everything's Up to Date in Kansas City” number in “Oklahoma”—who wound up directing television, including, believe it or not, the Wrongway Feldman episode of “Gilligan's Island” and the “Gamesters of Triskelion” episode of “Star Trek,” both staples of my childhood. Amazing arc. Anyway, we first see him here, playing himself, and dancing in a number being filmed in Hollywood with Nell/Janice Rule. After it's over, he walks over to the choreographer, LeRoy Prinz (yep, another “Roy”), who went by the nickname “Pappy,” and who staged dances in everything from “Yankee Doodle Dandy” to “South Pacific”; and after this great, athletic dance number, as everyone is drifting away, Nelson asks him, “Got a cigarette, Pappy?” I liked that.
Also Cagney saying he didn’t like people imitating him. He didn't.
Great good-will gesture, lousy movie.
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.
Wednesday August 05, 2020
Movie Review: Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)
There’s a better biopic to be made here. Lon Chaney’s parents were deaf and mute, and growing up he pantomimed for them, and as an adult he pantomimed for the world. It made him world famous. Deservedly so. I’ve only seen a few Chaney movies—“Phantom of the Opera,” “Where East is East”—but the pain and power he exuded hasn’t diminished after 100 years. Then in 1930, at the age of 47, he developed throat cancer. Just as the movies were beginning to speak, he went mute. In his last months, he resorted to signing—as he had with his parents as a child. It’s circle-of-life stuff.
This is what “Man of a Thousand Faces” does with that story.
The first half is about how horrible Chaney’s first wife is. The second half is about how unforgiving Chaney becomes. The movie wrings its hands over the treatment of Chaney's parents but is as horrified by their state of existence as anyone. It’s mainstream melodrama, ’50s pablum but set earlier in our history. That may be what bugged me most: It reeks of postwar prosperity rather than turn-of-the-century struggle. There’s a sense of safety and cleanliness that feels like a ’50s sitcom rather than an era in which child labor laws hadn’t yet been established. You almost expect the Beav to enter stage left.
James Cagney is also the wrong physical type to play Chaney: that round, pudgy face rather than Chaney’s long, hollow one. He’s also too old. Sorry. Cagney begins the movie in clown makeup—not a bad idea to hide the years—but once he takes it off, well, we’ve got a 50/60-year-old playing twentysomething. And with Dorothy Malone as his wife? In your dreams, gramps.
Chaney’s makeup was better than Cagney’s. That’s sad. It’s in black-and-white but Cinemascope. That’s odd. And the aspect of Chaney’s life that the movie is least interested in? The movies. That’s ... ironic?
Even the movie's transitions are facile.
Mother to a dumb thing
We first see Chaney as a kid—with blonde, floppy hair like me in the 1960s—coming home bruised and bloodied because he’s been defending his parents against the taunts of bullies. His mother (Celia Lovsky, a standout), signs that he should feel sorry for those who don’t understand, then tells him to go wash up. He smiles, hugs her, goes to wash up. The camera focuses on running tap water then cuts to a rainstorm 15-20 years later. Sure.
Lon, dressed like a clown, is being called to see the boss because his wife, Cleva (Dorothy Malone), a not-very talented diva, is late for her curtain. The path from her dressing room to the stage feels like the watery pathway beneath the stage in “Phantom of the Opera,” for no real reason, and on the way she slips, falls in, can’t make the curtain. She’s fired, of course, so he goes on in her place. Performs a pantomime clown number that kills. The boss is excited but Chaney isn’t having it. “You fired her,” he says, “you fired me.” That’s the kind of loyal guy he is, see? So why go on in the first place?
We quickly discover that Cleva: 1) is pregnant, 2) has never met his parents, and 3) thinks it’s because he’s ashamed of her. But we know it’s because he’s ashamed of them. He never told her that his parents are deaf-mutes. So that’s the tension when they return home for a holiday gathering: How is she going to take it?
Not well, it turns out. His siblings are there, joyful and friendly, and then the parents come in and begin signing She stares, horrified, then runs up to the bedroom and throws herself on the bed.
He: Was it that hard to look at them, Cleva?
She: I couldn’t stand it.
Ouch. Yes, some of this is his fault for not mentioning it before, but she’s about the furthest thing from a picnic. “Ask them about my baby,” she cries. “Will it be like them? It’s in your blood, Lon, it can happen again! … I don’t want to have it! I don’t want to have it! I DON’T WANT TO BE MOTHER TO A DUMB THING!”
You’d think that would end it—how can their relationship recover?—but his mother convinces him to do right, so he sticks by her. At this point, the drama becomes: Will the baby be born a deaf-mute? Nope. It cries at birth (so not mute) and cries after Lon claps loudly by its crib (so not deaf). As the parents celebrate, Lon tells the boy, Creighton, who will become horror movie icon Lon Chaney Jr., “That’s the last time anyone will ever scare you.” Ha. Heh. Cough.
Cut to four or five years later and Cleva still doesn’t want the boy. Or she wants a career. Or something. At the Kolb and Dill vaudeville show, where Lon works, she drops off Creighton backstage and the showgirls dote on him like in a G-rated scene from “All That Jazz.” One in particular, Hazel (Dorothy Malone), shows maternal instincts. She’s forever babysitting while Cleva goes off to sing at a cocktail lounge. Cleva has an admirer there, but when he finds out she’s married he abandons her. So Cleva shows up at Lon’s work, walks onstage, and tries to kill herself by drinking mercuric chloride.
That’s actually true, by the way. She did that. It’s also true that they finally divorced—good riddance—but he couldn’t get custody and Creighton became a ward of the state. I don’t know if this is why Lon went into the movies, but that what the movie implies. He needed to make a lot of money quickly to show the judge he could raise Creighton by himself; but no matter how much money he makes in Hollywood, how nice and 1950s-ranch-style his home becomes, the judge won’t budge. Until he marries Hazel. One night, she confesses her love for him and basically proposes. (“Oh, so that’s why you’ve been hanging around for the past 10 years …”) And the two of them get Creighton back. And they get a cabin in the mountains. And the boy signs a greeting to his visiting grandparents. And all is well with the world.
We only get three extended sequences from his Hollywood career—the making of “The Miracle Man” from 1919, “Hunchback” from 1923 and “Phantom” from 1925—and each involves some backstage drama. While filming the whipping scene in “Hunchback,” for example, Hazel, along with Lon’s press agent pal Clarence (Jim Backus), show up, and guess who they merrily bring along? Cleva! Why not, right? She’s contrite but he’s unforgiving. She wants to see her son again but he wants nothing to do with her—in part, because to spare Creighton’s feelings, he told his son she was dead. And that’s the tension for the rest of the movie. Will Creighton find out? How will he take it?
Not well, it turns out. He leaves his father—who is also against him becoming an actor—and goes to live with his mother, who welcomes him with open arms. But she’s a good person now, and convinces him to forgive his father. Which happens just in time for Lon to die.
You know what would’ve made a better story? The truth. Example. In his memoir, Cagney relays what really happened when Creighton went searching for his mother. He got a lead, wound up at a desert ranch, knocked. A woman answered.
“Hello. My name is Creighton Chaney, and I’m looking for Mrs. Cleva Fletcher.”
“What’s the name?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “No one here by that name.”
Then a voice came from inside the house. “Who is it, Cleva?”
Why didn’t they use that? “The story,” Cagney wrote, “seemed both crueler and larger than life itself.” Instead we got saccharine and smaller.
Thee may leave now
Cagney came to the Chaney story not because he worked with Lon Jr. in “A Lion Is in the Streets” (my assumption), but via Ralph Wheelwright, who wrote Cagney’s previous film, “These Wilder Years.” On that set, he pitched this. He was apparently a good pitcher. A journalist in the 1910s and ’20s, Wheelwright became a PR man for the likes of William Randolph Hearst and Louis B. Mayer before getting some story credits late in his career. All of his credits are just that—stories, not screenplays. The screenwriters for this are latter-day Cagney staples Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (“White Heat,” creators of “Charlie’s Angels”) as well as a guy named R. Wright Campbell (“Teenage Caveman”).
Anyway, it doesn’t amount to much. Backus is wasted as nice guy/press agent, Greer is wasted as nice chorus girl/wife, and the four actors playing Creighton become duller versions of the gee-whiz All-American kid. Future producer/studio chief Bob Evans plays past producer/studio chief Irving Thalberg, but not well. Malone, on the other hand, is a knockout. Shame her character’s arc doesn’t ring true. (Because it isn’t true.)
Meanwhile, Lovsky, playing Chaney’s mom, so impressed me I had to look her up. She was born in Vienna, the daughter of a composer, and was a respected actress of the surrealist German stage in the 1930s when she became involved with Peter Lorre. She brought him to the attention of Fritz Lang (for “M”), fled Germany with him (he was Jewish), married him, divorced him, remained friends with him for life. In America, she continued acting, mostly in small character roles. One of those? Vulcan elder T’Pau in the classic “Star Trek” episode “Amok Time.” Yes, she’s the second person ever to do the Vulcan salute. The director of that episode happens to be the director of this movie: Joseph Pevney. “Amok Time” worked anyway.
Tuesday July 21, 2020
Movie Review: Love Me or Leave Me (1955)
One, two, three for Cagney: First Cinemascope, second-billed, third Oscar nom.
There’s a line near the end of this that made me laugh out loud. At the grand opening of a nightclub, “M.S.,” its proprietor and namesake, Marty Snyder (James Cagney), steps out of a car and is arguing with a friend when a young autograph hound spies him and shouts: “Hey, that’s the guy that shot the guy!”
That is so good. Is it based on anything? A famous Hollywood story? Or did it come from the imaginations of screenwriters Daniel Fuschs and Isobel Lennart? Or director Charles “not King” Vidor? I’m finding nothing online. Anyway, it was the best line in the movie.
A lot of firsts and lasts with this one. Released in June 1955, “Love Me or Leave Me” was Cagney’s first Cinemascope picture; it was the first time he was second-billed since the 1930s (apparently at his insistence), and it garnered him his third and final Oscar nomination for lead actor. (He lost to another Marty: Ernest Borgnine.) It was a huge hit—the eighth-biggest of the year—while its soundtrack was the No. 1 album in the country for six months: from early August to late January 1956. (It was replaced by “Oklahoma!,” which was replaced by “Belafonte,” which was replaced by … wait for it … “Elvis Presley.” And now you know the rest of the story.)
“Love Me or Leave Me” was also the second-to-last time Cagney played a gangster, and he may never have been scarier. Imagine Cody Jarrett hopelessly in love. The movie is based on a true, tempestuous love story that Hays-Code Hollywood probably couldn’t tell properly, so, in between socko Doris Day numbers, they made it about an abusive relationship. It doesn’t mesh. It’s kind of exhausting, actually.
Mean to me
Background: Singer Ruth Etting said she married gangster Moe “The Gimp” Snyder “9/10 out of fear and 1/10 out of pity.” She feared that if she left him, he would kill her.
Cagney’s Marty has elements of the real Moe, but Ruth has been cleaned up. From IMDb:
Ruth Etting was a kept woman who clawed her way up from seamy Chicago nightclubs to the Ziegfeld Follies. It would require her to drink, wear scant, sexy costumes and to string along a man she didn't love in order to further her career. There was also a certain vulgarity about Etting that she didn't want to play. Producer Joe Pasternak convinced Day to accept the role because she would give the part some dignity that would play away from the vulgarity.
Except Ruth’s lack of vulgarity makes the abuse seem worse. Day’s dignified Ruth is a declawed cat being messed with by a junkyard dog. One yearns to see the claws come out.
In 1920s Chicago, Etting is a dime-a-dance girl who doesn’t like men who paw at her, which is all of them, so she’s fired. Snyder, shaking down the proprietor, takes a shine and uses his connections to get her singing gigs, expecting some quid for his quo, but she keeps putting him off. Until he’s tired of being put off. But even then nothing comes of it. In her dressing room, he says he’s stuck on her, she says she’s not on him, not yet anyway (that’s the lie), and the higher she rises the more jealous he becomes: of potential rival agents and potential rival lovers—like that piano player Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell), with cheekbones like diamonds.
Up the ladder she goes: from singing, to headlining, to radio, all the way to New York City and the Ziegfeld Follies. For the real Etting, that was 1927 and she’d been married to Snyder for five years; here, they haven’t even kissed. Opening night at Ziegfeld, Marty rushes backstage during the middle of her performance, has his way blocked, decks a tall guy (as Cagney is contractually obligated to do), and is hustled out, huffing and puffing, between two other guys. Back at her hotel room, we find out he’s particularly mad at her for not sticking up for him. “You walked away!” he shouts. He talks about the debt she owes him but she says there’s no way she can pay it off. “Ain’t there?” he cries, then throws her down on an ottoman and kisses her. She stumbles away, in tears.
This was supposed to be a rape scene, believe it or not. According to IMDb, “As originally filmed, Cagney slammed her against a wall, savagely tore off her dress, and after a tempestuous struggle, he threw her onto a bed and raped her.” Can’t quite see that happening in a 1955 movie, but its removal means after one kiss she’s suddenly undone—lifeless. She marries Marty, quits Ziegfeld, tours with Marty. He tells her he’ll take care of her, and, dead-eyed and dead-voiced, she responds: “You don’t have to sell me. I’m sold.” Great, sad line.
Eventually he lands her a gig in Hollywood. Guess who’s there? Johnny Alderman of the cheekbones. He’s musical director for the movie she’s working on, Marty doesn’t like it a bit, and for some reason she chooses this moment to fight back.
Snyder: That’s the way with those phonies: You gotta let ’em know who ya are.
Etting: Who are you, Marty?
Snyder: What do you mean?
Etting: What have you accomplished? Can you produce a picture? Have you done one successful thing on your own? Just who do you think you are?
Ouch. In front of her he makes a joke but behind the scenes he’s seething. His good-natured right-hand man, Georgie (Harry Bellaver), tries to make him feel better by saying he was a big man in Chicago but here they think Ruth’s his meal ticket. Doesn’t go well. Marty decks him. Then he gets an idea. He’ll open his own nightclub! That’ll make him a big man. Everyone else thinks it’s a lousy idea but now he’s too busy to hover around Ruth, so her romance with Johnny blossoms.
That sets up the rest. He tries to get Johnny fired from the movie, she objects, he slaps her, she leaves him for good. He assumes the worst: cheekbone dude. And he finds them in a doorway clinch. So he shoots him.
Shaking the blues away
One assumes some kind of comeuppance for all of Marty’s crimes but it doesn’t quite arrive. Because it’s based on a true story and MGM wanted everyone to sign on? Because Cagney’s fans needed to be placated? Marty is a monster, truly—by the end we’re as twitchy around him as Ruth—but after he’s bailed out on attempted murder charges he discovers that Ruth is actually headlining the opening of his nightclub. All his friends arranged it! And Ruth agreed to it! (She feels she still owes him.) All of which just pisses him off—it’s the meal-ticket thing—but eventually he calms down. And leaning against the bar at his brand-new nightclub, he takes it all in, while the girl he abused belts out the closing number for him.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Again, Day is fine if miscast; and while she’s got great pipes, the musical numbers have that hammy, Eisenhower-era cheerfulness at odds with everything else going on. Mainstream 1950s movies—selling Technicolor and Cinemascope and uplift—really were the worst.
Cagney, though, is great. I don’t know if he got the Oscar nom for the limp—you know how Academy voters are—but in those early confrontations there’s such a look of betrayal and contempt and anger in his eyes. He’s never not in this guy’s fucked-up worldview. It’s as if he got the limp from the massive chip on his shoulder.
This is third time Cagney played a ’20s gangster—“The Public Enemy” in 1931 and “Roaring Twenties” in 1939—and we get other echoes from Cagney pictures, too. Setting up his club, isn’t it a bit like Bat setting up his bar in “Frisco Kid”? Marty doesn’t speak Yiddish but he does get off a “Mazel tov” before Ruth headlines her first show. And I don’t know if this was intentional or not—if the phrase was already in the cinematic lexicon—but before her first show, Ruth asks the piano player, Johnny of the cheekbones, how she looks. His reply? “Top of the world.”
Thursday May 21, 2020
Movie Review: Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950)
The most famous cinematic gangster of the 1930s hardly played one in the 1940s. In that decade, James Cagney played a pilot twice, a reporter twice, a spy chief, a dentist, a “barroom observer,” and of course George M. Cohan, but never the kind of lawless SOB that made him famous. It wasn’t until William Cagney Productions lost a bundle on its adaptation of William Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life” that Cagney returned to Warner Bros. and the type of role people associated him with: gangster Cody Jarrett in “White Heat” in 1949. That went well. A year later, Cagney Productions came out with its own Cagney gangster flick, “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.” That went less well.
It’s still a fascinating movie. In fact, is it more fascinating?
“White Heat,” directed by Raoul Walsh, is the better film, and it’s modern in its T-Men crime methodology and Freudian mother-complex psychology. At the same time, it’s not exactly modern. What are our set pieces? A train, a cabin, a motel, a prison, another cabin, an oil refinery. We could’ve gotten variations of all of these 30 years earlier. Maybe even 50 years earlier? It’s a mid-20th-century movie that begins with a 19th-century crime: a train robbery.
Though “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” starts in a chain-gang work farm, we get up-to-date quick. Some of it is startling to see—like James Cagney wandering the aisles of a modern, midsized supermarket in Glendale, Calif. But the most startling moment is when he visits a southern California “church.” It’s New Age before the term was coined. It’s “The Master” at the time of “The Master.” It may be the first instance of such a thing showing up in the movies. Cagney immediately mocks it, of course. He knew a grift when he saw one.
Peckinpah before Peckinpah
For a movie that was banned in Ohio for its “sordid, sadistic presentation of brutality,” “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” begins like a bland 1960s TV courtroom procedural: crescendoing soundtrack music, close-up of a gavel being pounded, “Directed by Gordon Douglas.” This is Douglas’ only Cagney feature. He would go on to direct B-movies in the ’50s (“Them!,” “I Was a Communist for the F.B.I.”), and Rat Pack and faux-Bond movies in the’60s (“Robin and the 7 Hoods,” “In Like Flint”), before ending his career with “Viva Knievel!” in 1977. His work here isn’t bad. At least we get some nice shots. Or do we credit cinematographer Peverell Marley for those?
It didn’t take me long to dislike the district attorney (Dan Riss). Something pinched and bitter about him. His opening accusations are of a piece with the McCarthy era:
“Look at [the seven defendants] carefully, because they are your enemies and the enemies of every decent citizen. They’re at war with you—and always have been and always will be! Should they escape this time, the next victim may be you! Or you! Or you!”
One of the seven defendants is an attorney, “Cherokee” Mandon (Luther Adler), “now the shame of his profession,” the prosecutor proclaims, but Mandon seems oddly unconcerned. And in case you’re wondering, yes, Luther is Stella’s brother. He’s great—one of the best things in the movie: both corrupt and calm. Halfway through, as he’s cross-examined, we get this exchange:
Prosecutor: You formerly practiced law in this state.
Mandon: I have not yet been disbarred.
Prosecutor: Quite so. But I’m sure that such will be the case in the near future!
Mandon [turns to Judge, calmly]: Objection?
Judge: Sustained. The prosecutor will please remember that the prisoner is innocent until proven guilty. Such insinuations are singularly out of place.
Prosecutor: Yes, your honor.
Good god, I laughed. That’s brilliant. I even began to wonder if we were supposed to dislike the DA; if the movie wasn’t a bit subversive—attacking what it pretended to be upholding. The DA wasn’t the only one making insinuations during this period, after all. Production began in April 1950, just two months after Joseph McCarthy came to power with his charge that 205 known communists had infiltrated the State Department. Then there was the Hollywood blacklist, which began with HUAC in 1947—or even earlier, really, before the war, with the Dies Committee. Cagney himself was accused of having communist ties on the front page of The New York Times in August 1940. He was cleared six days later … on pg. 21. Sadly, no judge remonstrated his high-powered accusers. I have to wonder, too, about the casting of Ward Bond, the self-appointed right-wing cop for HUAC and the Motion Picture Alliance, as a corrupt cop. Inspector Weber claims to be doing good but he’s doing the opposite. As was Bond.
The trial is our framing device. Seven people—two cops, a prison guard, a garage mechanic, a lawyer, a driver and a blonde—are charged with murder or accessory to murder, and we’re made to understand that the eighth orchestrated it all but sadly isn’t there to face the music. Several take the stand and everything is in flashback. The guard begins, “Well, sir, I guess this all began about four months ago…” and we’re back at a chain gang/work farm, where Ralph Cotter (Cagney) and Carleton (Neville Brand) are planning an escape with a planted gun. But when the bullets start flying Carleton loses his nerve, and Cotter, with that Cagney sneer, kills him point blank.
Their accomplices include Carleton’s sister, Holiday (Barbara Payton), a tall blonde who is distraught when Cotter says her brother was killed “by the guards”; and “Jinx” Raynor, the driver, who quickly becomes Cotter’s right-hand man. Holiday becomes Cotter’s girl. That part is actually brutal to watch—even today. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the reason for the Ohio ban.
It’s also a deviation from the novel. “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” by Horace McCoy was published in 1948 to much acclaim. Apparently Bogart wanted to make it into a movie but someone else bought they rights, and the Cagneys bought them from him. They changed a few things. There’s no framing device in the novel; it’s first-person and begins on the work farm. But the biggest change is to Holiday. In the book, she’s blonde and statuesque like Payton, but not exactly innocent. She’s bad, sexual and aggressive. It’s that Mickey Spillane fantasy. This is what happens in the novel on the day of the jailbreak—the day her brother is killed:
Holiday opened the door and I went inside. Before I had time to say anything, to look around, to even put down the newspaper I was carrying, she grabbed me around the neck, kicking the door shut with her foot, putting her face up to mine, baring her teeth. I kissed her, but not as hard as she kissed me, and then I saw that she was wearing only a light flannel wrapper, unbuttoned all the way down.
The movie makes her an innocent, and in doing so makes it all much, much worse. In the movie, Cotter insinuates himself into her apartment, refuses to leave, forces her to fix him a meal, then badmouths her brother. She throws a knife at him, which hits him handle side by the ear. (Her one bad-girl moment.) He shoots her a look, calmly walks over to the bathroom, dabs his ear with a wet towel, then whips her with it until she breaks down. Crying, she admits she’s lonely, so lonely, and succumbs to his power. It’s a Peckinpah moment before Peckinpah. For most of the rest of the movie, she’s basically his housewife without the ring.
A grapefruit in the face seems like a lovetap compared to all this.
The Master before “The Master”
One thing that is in the novel? That New Age church. Screenwriter Harry Brown basically used McCoy’s stuff almost verbatim.
They got there this way. First, Cotter robs a supermarket, kills the owner, then gets into it with Vic Mason (an excellent Rhys Williams), the gimpy mechanic who provided the original getaway car. Mason is angry they chose a joint just a block from his garage and sics the crooked cops on Cotter. But when Cotter realizes Weber is an inspector, he hatches a plan to record him in the midst of the shakedown—Jinx in the closet with an actual recording disc, like an old-fashioned LP. For some reason, he figures he needs a mob lawyer for the actual blackmail attempt, which is why they go to Darius “Doc” Green (Frank Reicher), a former accomplice of Jinx’s, who can point them in the right direction.
Except by this point Doc is onto a bigger scam. Here’s the sign outside his house:
Inside, in a small, cramped room with signs proclaiming LOVE, TRUTH and an ALL-SEEING EYE, a few dozen people in folding chairs listen attentively to an older man, Doc Green, droning on from Plotinus’ letters to Flaccus. There’s also a pretty brunette there, Margaret Dobson (Helena Carter), who turns out to be the spoiled, slightly crazy daughter of the most powerful man in the state, and who later gives the men a lift in her British sportscar. She’s trying to convert them—especially Cotter. “It’s a philosophy,” she says of Doc Green’s sermons. “It goes into the fourth dimension.” Cotter, amused, says the following when she asks him to the next meeting:
“Oh, I’d be a very bad influence. My vibrations would be positively pointless. You see, I don’t hold with the theory that the fourth dimension is either philosophical or mathematical. I think it’s purely intuitional. I don’t mean to start an argument or sound pretentious, but that’s the way I feel about it.”
Again, this is in 1950. In the movie, she calls Green “The Doctor” but in the book it's “The Master.” Seriously, anyone know of earlier portrayals of New Age-type religions in the movies? I was so happy when I came across this. I love culling such gems in generally forgotten films.
The scene at Doc Green’s also includes another subtle anti-HUAC dig. Cotter and Jinx just want the name of a lawyer from Green but he’s recalcitrant; he feels he’s put all that behind him. They’re persistent. This is the novel:
Cotter: You don’t want to be bothered with us anymore, do you?
Cotter: Then think of somebody.
And in the movie during the blacklist:
Cotter: You don’t want to be bothered with us anymore, do you?
Cotter: Then give us a name.
Naming names. So in tune with the times.
My feelings about “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” kept changing. It starts out ponderous and self-important—or, again, is it mocking such ponderous self-importance?—and the towel-whipping scene is way creepy. Then the machinations to blackmail Weber are involved and interesting. But does it lose itself? Cotter keeps pushing the envelope with everybody but there’s a lot of pots to stir: a secret marriage to Margaret against Mandon’s counsel; blackmailing Weber to take on a rival racketeer. At least it makes you wonder who’s going to finally get him. Crazy Margaret? Her powerful father? Inspector Weber? The rival racketeer? The cops catching up to him? Turns out it’s the all-but-forgotten Holiday—for his original crime of killing her brother. Watching, it felt like a let-down. In retrospect I kind of like it. Original sins catch up to us when we’re busy making other plans.
For his part, Cagney hated the film. From John McCabe’s 1991 biography:
“Guess what noble character I was called on to play? Another shtunk. I didn’t want to do it, but it was from a well-known novel by a hell of a good writer, Horace McCoy. In the novel the Cagney character is complex, interesting. He has a Phi Beta Kappa key, of all things, on top of which he was an ex-dancer. Not that you saw any of this in the picture. All the complex stuff was ironed out by the writer with the plea that there was no time for subtleties. He was probably right. Anyway, Bill said, ‘Jim, we need the dough, and it’s the last gangster I’ll ever ask you to play.’ He kept his word. I did play a few more rats after that, but no gangsters.”
The writer who had no time for subtleties was Harry Brown, who won an Oscar a year later for co-writing “A Place in the Sun” with Michael Wilson. Wilson was infamously blacklisted (and went uncredited on “Bridge Over the River Kwai”) but Brown kept working through the 1950s. Genre stuff, mostly: westerns, war. In the early ’60s he wrote “Ocean’s 11.” His life trajectory was basically: Maine, Harvard, Robert Lowell, poetry, 158-page epic poem called “The Poem of Bunker Hill,” Time, The New Yorker, WWII with Yank magazine (but unmentioned in Walter Bernstein’s memoir), then Hollywood. Not a bad run. But did he smuggle anti-HUAC messages into this gangster flick? The romantic in me likes to think so.
The two female leads are both good-looking actresses with truncated careers. Helena Carter was a Columbia University fashion model discovered by Universal Pictures who never liked the roles she got. She only made 13 movies between 1947 to 1953, including “Invaders from Mars,” her last. She lived a long life. Payton was a Minnesota/Texas, who made 12 features between 1949 and 1955, including “Bride of the Gorilla,” with Raymond Burr; but she had a temptuous off-screen life. She had a string of lovers (Howard Hughes, Bob Hope, George Raft), became engaged to Franchot Tone, a leading man 20 years her senior, then began cheating on him with Tom Neal, a former boxer and B-movie star (“Detour”). One night, on her front lawn, Neal beat up Tone, breaking his nose and jaw. She wound up marrying Tone but kept seeing Neal until the inevitable divorce. That scandal basically ruined her career. Alcoholism and drug addiction didn't help; she died in 1967 at age 39. A biography of her life, with this movie's title in it, “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story,” was published in 2007.
She’s the only one who says that line in the movie, by the way. Right before she shoot Cotter, she tells him, “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.” The line isn’t in the book; it’s just the title.
Cagney a year after Cody: “It's the last gangster I‘ll ever ask you to play.”
Our ’30s gangster in a ‘50s supermarket in Glendale, Calif.
“And now, would one fugitive from justice care to fix another fugitive from justice... a sandwich?”
The Peckinpah moment before Peckinpah.
Mason thinks he has the upper hand...
... he doesn’t.
“Objection?” Great moment. Great actor.
The New Age faithful ... when they were actually new.
The New Age faithful II: “It goes into the fourth dimenson.”
The corrupt cop, trapped. Would that it happened to Ward Bond, too.
“Kiss tomorrow goodbye!” *FIN*
Sunday April 05, 2020
Movie Review: The West Point Story (1950)
James Cagney starred in only four musicals during his career, and it’s instructive comparing the first, “Footlight Parade” (1933), with the last, this one, “The West Point Story” (1950), 17 years later.
In both, Cagney is an impresario of musical numbers. He thinks them up and nurses them along. In both, the love interest is his straight-shooting blonde assistant (Joan Blondell, Virginia Mayo). Both are vehicles for up-and-coming Warner Bros. singing stars (Dick Powell/Ruby Keeler; Doris Day/Gordon MacRae). And in both, at the end, one of the leads can’t go on, so Cagney has to sing and dance the finale.
Those are the parallels. More interesting are the differences.
In “Footlight,” Cagney’s character is surrounded by scantily-clad chorus girls as the movie sells sex in the midst of the Depression. In “West Point,” Cagney’s character is surrounded by buttoned-up military men as the movie sells patriotism in the midst of the Cold War. The first movie is rat-a-tat-tat and scrambling; it’s gritty Warner Bros. The last is self-satisfied and cartoonish; it’s absurdly cheery and totally phony. You watch both and can’t help but wonder what happened to Warner Bros., the film industry, and us.
Elwin “Bix” Bixby (Cagney) is an exacting dancer/choreographer/director who’s making a go in a small club in New York. We see him hopping up and down angrily when his performers don’t do the routine just so. Then he shows them how. Then he leaves to place a bet on the horses. He’s got a gambling addiction. That’s the first dilemma.
His girl, the leggy Eve Dillon (Virginia Mayo), is going to leave him because of it; she says she got an offer to perform in Vegas. But then Bix gets a call from Harry Eberthart (Roland Winters), his corrupt ex-partner, who wants Bix to direct West Point’s annual musical, “100 Days Till June.” Why? It seems his nephew, Tom Fletcher (Gordon MacRae, five years before playing Curly in “Oklahoma”), is the star of the show. He’s a cadet who wants a military career but his uncle thinks he’s got a voice and wants him for Broadway. At first, Bix stands his ground. “I will not steal your nephew out of West Point,” he says in the Cagney manner. But then Eberhart mentions the Vegas offer for Eve—which he orchestrated—and Bix knows he’s trapped. He seals the deal not with a handshake but a sock to Eberhart’s jaw. It’s accompanied by comic sound effects. Eberhart rises, dazed, from behind his desk. All that’s missing are the animated birds circling his head.
That’s the second dilemma: Going to West Point to convince Tom to make a career out of singing.
Good news? Tom’s got a voice. Bad news? There are no women in the show, so the princess is played by the biggest of the bunch, Bull Gilbert (Alan Hale, Jr., 14 years before becoming the Skipper on “Gilligan’s Island”). Bix tries to show him how to do his dance number, Bull gives him a wolf’s whistle as a joke, and Bix cold-cocks him. Cue more comic sound effects.
For that, Bix is about to get booted from the Point before the job even begins. I guess that’s the third dilemma. The boys stick up for him but the commandant is wary. Bix’s own military record includes both absurd insubordination and absurd bravery. But a deal is struck. Bix can stay if he becomes a cadet himself.
That’s actually the germ of the idea that led to this movie being made in the first place. From John McCabe’s biography of Cagney:
[Cagney] recalled that his idol George M. Cohan, in preparing for a scene in one of his musicals, had inveigled West Point’s superintendent into allowing him to live as a cadet on the premises for a week.
So Bix gets a high-and-tight but remains the same short-tempered curmudgeon. Except now he wants to steal Tom for himself. In that regard, he gets in touch with his friend, movie star Jan Wilson (Doris Day, third-billed), whom he plucked from the chorus back in the day. She agrees to go to a military hop as Tom’s date. And it works! They fall for each other.
Except Eve finds out about Bix’s machinations and is ready to leave him again. Is this the fourth dilemma? Or is it when Bix loses the respect of the men because he lies about having a pass? This latter problem is solved when he admits to the lie and is forced to walk a punishment tour in the quad—filmed against a blue screen; the principles were never at West Point—but oddly it also solves the former problem. Tom explains to Eve what’s going on and Eve blows Bix a kiss and all is forgiven even though Bix is still trying to become Tom’s agent.
In fact, Tom and Jan get engaged! But instead of Tom agreeing to follow Eve to Hollywood, Eve follows Tom to West Point. So Bix finagles a way to get the studio to drop the hammer on her. That works, and Tom resigns his commission, but by now Bix doesn’t want to be Tom's agent, so … Blah blah blah. It’s like this, one dilemma after another, many of Bix’s own making, and it culminates with Bix convincing the French premier to pardon Tom by showing him the Medaille Militaire Bix was awarded in World War II. “This is our highest decoration!” the premier says, in case we haven’t figured it out.
So the West Point show goes on—with movie star Jan now playing the princess, and Bix replacing Hal (Gene Nelson, “Oklahoma”), whom he inadvertently coldcocks backstage. Tom and Jan wind up together (but pursuing separate careers?), Bix and Eve wind up together, and the boys present Bix with the book and libretto of the show so he can stage it on Broadway. The end. Mercifully.
Great guardians of human liberty
“West Point” was directed by Roy Del Ruth, who directed Cagney in four movies between 1931 and 1934: “Blonde Crazy,” “Taxi,” “Winner Take All” and “Lady Killer.” The first two aren’t bad, and even the bad ones are worth watching for Cagney. Not here. Cagney actually hurts more than helps. He overacts, particularly with the on-stage temper tantrums, and seems in danger of becoming a parody of himself: more Frank Gorshin than Rocky Sullivan.
MacRae is good, if a bit blank, while Day is saccharine enough to make your teeth hurt. Hale is fine. (Did Cagney act with other father-son combos? Hale Sr. appeared in several early ’40s Cagney flicks.) Mayo is fine, too, but she’s way too young for Cagney, who’s an old 51. He’s 17 years older than in “Footlight Parade,” and looks it, while she’s basically the same age as Blondell: 30 instead of 27.
The pre-code titillation of “Footlight” is sadly absent. Eve shows up at West Point in short shorts with legs up to here and not one cadet gives a second glance? Or a first? The camera in “Footlight” knows what it’s offering us as chorus girls change into their Busby Berkeley outfits, but this camera is as dumb as the cadets. It’s Sgt. Schultz: It knows nothing. Nothing.
But it knows everything about chest-beating patriotism. MacRae is forced to do a number called “The Corps,” which he mostly intones, as a military chorus hums and thrums behind him:
Duty. Honor. Country. This is why the dream materialized into the stone and steel and spirit that is West Point. A dream that can be measured by the names of its giants striding through the pages of American history. Giants whose voices rang so loud that the entire world trembled, yet who were once cadets, marching nervously across the plain. Cadets like Lee, Grant, Pershing; MacArthur, Wainwright, Arnold; Patton, Bradley, Eisenhower. And thousands of others, who left this point on the Hudson to end their earthly lives in the dirt and mud of foreign lands.
That’s laying it on a bit thick. But whatever. Depression, World War II, communist rise: Americans had been through a lot. So I guess … Oh, he’s not done?
Men who didn’t want wars and didn’t make wars but simply fought them because they had the understanding and the courage to want a free America.
“A free America”: That should be enough for HUAC, right? To show that Hollywood is patriotic and … What? More?
Because like Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, they believed in a dream that is West Point. A legend, a tradition, one of the great guardians of human liberty.
“Guardians of human liberty”! There we go. That’s the trump card. And … nope:
Please, God, may we always keep faith with them, as they have with us. For duty, for honor, for country.
Can you imagine a culture so scared and cloistered that this passes for entertainment?
Cagney liked it anyway. Via McCabe:
“It’s one of my favorite pictures,” said Jim. “Cornball as all hell, but don’t let anyone tell me those songs by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn aren’t worth listening to. They were sure worth dancing to.”
A year later, Del Ruth would direct a musical, “Starlift,” with a similar theme—military dude + Hollywood star—and with almost all the same actors: Day, MacRae, Mayo and Nelson. Just not Cagney. Or he was relegated to a cameo. As himself.
Watch “Footlight Parade” instead.
Cold War America: cheery, buttoned-up, sexless.
All previous entries
What Trump Said When About COVID
Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
Blonde Crazy (1931)
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)
Something to Sing About (1937)
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
Come Fill the Cup (1951)
A Lion Is In the Streets (1953)
Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)
Never Steal Anything Small (1959)
Shake Hands With the Devil (1959)