Movie Reviews - 1940s posts
Friday December 18, 2020
Movie Review: The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
Raoul Walsh directed two of the great Cagney flicks—“The Roaring Twenties” in 1939 and “White Heat” in 1948—and this is the one he did in-between those.
It’s a romantic comedy set in the Belle Epoch, so a bit of a departure for both men. Cagney plays Biff Grimes, a dentist forever losing fights and playing patsy to fast-talking sharpie Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson). Biff not only loses the titular girl—Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth)—but also his freedom, when he takes the fall for Hugo’s corrupt business practices. Despite all that, the movie has a happy ending. Its lesson is basically Saint Therese’s: More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.
It's surprisingly good. Well, not so surprising when you look at the talent in the room. Walsh was just coming off “High Sierra,” screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein were about to write “Casablanca,” and film editor William Holmes would win an Oscar for “Sergeant York” the following year. The cinematographer was the legendary James Wong Howe, the costumes were by the legendary Orry-Kelly, and the music was by Heniz Roemheld, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on this film.
Casts don’t get much better. Along with Carson and Hayworth, we get Olivia de Havilland as Amy, the would-be suffragette, Alan Hale as Biff’s blarney-loving father, George Tobias going Greek as Nick the barber, and George Reeves, the once and future Superman, here as a next-door collegiate with a Y on his chest rather than an S. Plus it’s one of Cagney’s better comedic performances. I’ve ragged on his comedic chops in the past but he’s great here. The way he shrugs off a hug from his father, for example, on his first day as a saloon bouncer, saying, sotto voce, “Cut it out, will ya? I’m supposed to be a tough guy.” Love that. You could begin a Cagney documentary with that.
The grape of happiness
Overall, it’s a loving tweak at a more innocent time. Men puts up their dukes like John L. Sullivan and spout turn-of-the-century locutions like “Tell it to Sweeney” (get lost, basically), “23 skidoo” (I’m gone), and “She’s all the fudge” (she’s hot)—as well as Biff’s repeated phrase, “That’s the kind of a hairpin I am!” (Apparently Cagney inserted that one himself because it’s something his father used to say. According to Douglas Harper’s Etymology Dictionary, hairpin was simply slang for “a person.” So it’s said proudly, not disparagingly. It just sounds disparaging.)
The movie opens in 1906, as Biff and Nick play horseshoes in the backyard. It’s Sunday but Biff is hardly relaxed. He’s only had two dental customers in eight months, his wife wants to go for a stroll, and the college kids next door keep playing “And the Band Played On,” with its lyric, “Casey would waltz with a strawberry blonde,” which reminds him of Virginia, the strawberry blonde who got away.
Nick: You were stuck on her, ain’t you?
Biff: [Looking around] Me? No …
Nick: Well, I was.
Biff: Oh, I liked her—in a nice way.
Nick: Yeah, I liked her too, but I forget which way.
Great line. Plus the dialogue prefigures much of the movie, since almost every character pretends to be something they’re not: Biff tough, Amy rebellious, Hugo and Virginia respectable.
At this point we get a coincidence so large they call it out. There’s an emergency tooth that needs pulling, and the sufferer turns out to be Hugo Barnstead—the man responsible for so much of Biff's misery. “What a coincidence!’ Nick cries. “He’s gonna want gas,” Biff responds bitterly. “Alright, I’ll give him gas.” And on that macabre note, we flash back 10 years earlier to the gay ’90s.
The first thing we see is a man carrying beer-filled buckets on a long pole. That’s also one of the first images we see in “The Public Enemy,” too, Cagney’s breakthrough film, and I’m curious if it was homage or just an easy turn-of-the-century trope. (Anyone know?) Then we’re introduced to Biff’s father trying to sweet-talk a neighbor lady, Mrs. Mulcahey (Una O’Connor): “You and I are no longer young, so we must grasp the grape of happiness.” He’s distracted by a Bock Beer sign, goes into a saloon, where his son is working his first day as bouncer. Biff’s first assignment? Toss his father. Which he does with the old man’s help. But then he gets into it with the saloon owner, and they put up their John L. Sullivan dukes and we cut to Nick’s barbershop, where Biff is getting a leech applied to his black eye. It’ll be a running gag.
After a good ol’ fashioned racist barbershop quartet song (“In the evening by the moonlight/ You can hear those darkies singing…”), someone shouts that the strawberry blonde is heading their way, and all the men crowd by the door to tip their hats and politely stare. Only Hugo makes a move. He gets a date, but she insists on a second so he has to find one, too. And there’s Biff. We get a good set-piece at the gas-lit park, where Amy and Virginia argue over decorum, while, nearby in a car, Hugo and Biff argue over who gets which girl. In the end, Biff winds up sitting with Amy, miserably, while Virginia, his crush, necks and giggles with Hugo in nearby bushes. So it goes.
Biff finally gets his shot thanks to Hugo’s larceny. Hugo oversells tickets to a Sunday picnic, the boat only takes so many, and the cutoff is right after Hugo and Amy board—with Biff and Virginia still on the gangplank. So the latter two make a day of it: picnic at the Statue of Liberty, evening at an outdoor beer garden, where Biff bribes the bandleader to substitute his name into the “Strawberry Blonde” song. Virginia’s so taken with it she kisses him on the cheek—and again at the end of their date. Things are looking up! Except she breaks their next date to marry Hugo.
If the first part of the flashback is how Biff loses Virginia to Hugo’s machinations, the second part is how he loses his freedom to same. Biff gets a job, a sinecure really, with Hugo’s company, but I’m not sure why. It seems at Virginia’s insistence—does she really like Biff, or does she just like the power she has over him?—but his sole job is to sign papers that make him liable for shoddy building supplies. This is when the comedy turns a little dark. One of the deaths the equipment causes is Biff’s father, who, on his deathbed, with his dying breath, says: “Biffy. See that Mrs. Mulcahey and the others … don’t take it too hard.”
Great line, and the scene is sweet and sad, prefiguring the paternal deathbed scene in “Yankee Doodle Dandy”; but it also means that Hugo is responsible for Biff’s father’s death. Except the movie kind of ignores this. Instead, it goes right into Biff’s arrest and five-year incarceration, where he finishes his dentistry schooling and practices ineptly on the warden. The dentistry bits are the weakest part of the movie to me. They’re like mother-in-law jokes. Worse. It's laughing at other people's pain. Real pain, not banana-peel pain.
Anyway, when Biff released from prison, he's startled to see a motorized vehicle (nice bit) and reunites with Amy. Thus endeth the flashback.
Dies and diminutives
So the question we’ve been waiting on: Will Biff kill Hugo with the gas? Of course not. This is a comedy. Hugo arrives in pain, sees the man he wronged and tries to get out of it. But he’s henpecked into the chair by Virginia, who’s become a harridan, bossing and humiliating Hugo at every turn. This is the St. Therese part. Biff realizes the great disappointment of his life—losing Virginia—was actually a blessing: “I’m a happy man,” he tells Nick, “and he’s not.” He realizes that being stuck with Olivia de Havilland isn’t that bad. Yes. We should all have such fallback positions.
So after a final fight with the collegiate boys next door, in which Cagney decks the once and future Superman, Biff finally goes on that Sunday stroll with Amy—even shocking her by kissing her on the street. “When I want to kiss my wife, I’ll kiss her anytime, anywhere,” he tells her. “That’s the kind of hairpin I am.” The End.
It’s tough to pick a standout in the cast, but I’d probably go Alan Hale, who’s so funny he should’ve done this role a thousand times—and maybe did for all I know. Hayworth, too, is surprisingly adept at comedy. Her early coyness is perfectly calibrated. I’d love to see the movie on the big screen rather than via Amazon’s cheap-ass, blurry version that I watched. I think it would dazzle.
Historical footnote: This is the first movie Cagney made after he was accused of being a Communist and dragged before the Dies Committee in August 1940. It’s probably not a coincidence that the four movies he made for Warners after that moment contain not a shred of left-wing controversy. He went from Belle Epoch rom-com to contemporary rom-com (“The Bride Came C.O.D.”), to patriotic Canadian war drama (“Captains of the Clouds”), to playing the Yankee Doodle Dandy himself and singing about our Grand Old Flag. Take that, Dies.
Historical footnote II: This is also the first Cagney movie where the diminutives stop. When became a star in 1931, and was touted by Warner Bros. as “Jimmy”—he hated that; he was always Jim to his friends—most of his characters’ names are either diminutives or diminutive-sounding: Jimmy, Lefty, Danny, Patsy, Jerry, Chesty, Eddie, Tommy, Rocky, et al. That stops here with Biff. Did he request it? “Look guys, I’m 40. Give me a break.” Whatever reason, they stopped. For the rest of his career, the only diminutive-sounding name he had was Cody.
Over the next few years, we would get a spate of movies set in the Belle Epoch: from “The Magnificent Ambersons” to “Meet Me in St. Louis“; from “Hello Frisco, Hello” to the Cagney production ”Johnny Come Lately." Nostalgia will always be with us, of course, but I assume there’s another reason why that era appealed then. In the midst of World War II, who wouldn’t want to go back to a time before even World War I? Before it all went wrong.
Wednesday November 11, 2020
Movie Review: The Time of Your Life (1948)
If you like “White Heat,” thank “The Time of Your Life.” James Cagney wouldn’t have returned to the movie studio he despised (Warners), and the genre he didn’t care for (gangster), if the Cagney brothers’ adaptation of William Saroyan’s 1940 Pulitzer Prize-winning play hadn’t been so costly to produce and bombed so badly at the box office. The bombing was perhaps inevitable, the costliness not. It was basically a filmed played, so why cost overruns?
According to Cagney, director H.C. Potter and cinematographer James Wong Howe insisted on two weeks of rehearsals to block everything out, then they realized they had a problem with the mirror above the bar (or something), so it all amounted to wasted time. And money. Then the ending had to be reshot. Howe is a legendary cinematographer, who had previously photographed five Cagney flicks, including “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” but the two never worked together again. Not sure why the Cagneys went with Potter in the first place. I guess because he was a stage as well as a film director. Except his film output tends to be the lesser-known efforts of great stars: James Stewart in “You Gotta Stay Happy,” Fred Astaire in “Second Chorus,” Cary Grant in “Mr. Lucky.” In his favor, he did do “Mr. Blandings” and directed Loretta Young to an Oscar in “The Farmer’s Daughter” in 1947. But that’s a small favor.
As for why bombing was inevitable? Imagine Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” as a precious, one-set film. John at the bar is always yakking about how he could’ve been a movie star; Paul, the realtor, is forever working on his novel; and look, there’s ol’ Davey in his Navy whites. Everyone is this thing and nothing else.
'Sup, Officer Krupp
Cagney is the kind of conductor of it all. He plays Joe, “whose hobby is people,” and who hangs out all day at Nick’s Pacific Street Saloon Restaurant: & Entertainment Palace. He observes people, we’re told, but we also see him fix things with an amused, know-it-all demeanor. The way Cagney’s Tom Richards acts as Lone Ranger in “Johnny Come Lately”—showing up in town, fixing things, riding the rails out—so Joe does all that but from his seat near the bar.
William Bendix plays Nick “whose hobby is horses,” while Cagney’s sis Jeanne is Kitty Duval, “a young woman with memories.” Everyone has their bit. Everyone is defined by it. Dudley (Jimmy Lydon) is lovelorn, Willie (Richard Erdman) is forever playing pinball, while Harry (Paul Draper) thinks of himself as a tap-dancing comedian, except nothing he does is funny. It’s mostly annoying. The bar is supposed to be full of characters but it’s actually full of annoying, one-note people who tend to be solipsistic. It’s a big space but everyone can’t believe that guy got in the way of me doing my thing.
Joe has a right-hand man named Tom (Wayne Morris) whom he bosses around: get toys at such-and-such a place; play numbers 6 and 7 on the jukebox. Later, Tom eyes Kitty, who shows up, asks for a beer, and is disrespected by Nick. He calls her “a B girl at Manigi’s joint up the street” but she insists she was once in burlesque and had flowers sent to her by European royalty. I guess she’s supposed to be trashy and lost, like Claire Trevor in “Key Largo,” but she’s just Jeanne Cagney—cute and sturdy—and Joe works it so she and Tom wind up together. That’s one thing he does.
He also tells Nick to bet on Precious Time in a horse race, and, despite long odds, it wins. “How do you do it?” Nick asks. “Faith,” Joe responds. There's a vaguely magic realist element to him. Later, for example, he tells Nick to bet on a horse named McCarthy, who's supposedly no good, but Joe insists it'll come through. How does he know? “McCarthy's name is McCarthy, isn't it? The horse is going to win, that's all. Today.” And it does. Joe knows all.
I like a scene halfway through, where he talks up a new patron, Mary L., “a woman of quality” (Gale Page), and they play a little guessing game about each other’s names:
He: That’s my first name. Everybody calls me Joe. The last name’s the tough one. I’ll help you a little. I’m Irish. [pause] Just plain Mary?
She: Yes, it is. I’m Irish, too. At least on my father’s side. English on my mother’s side.
He: I’m Irish on both sides. Mary is one of my favorite names. I guess that’s why I didn’t think of it.
The whole Mary/favorite name thing is a nice echo of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” We get an ironic version of this when Joe insists (to Kitty) that he can’t dance.
Beefy character actors Broderick Crawford and Ward Bond play, respectively, a cop and a blatherskite, which means “a person who talks at great length without making much sense,” except Bond’s character doesn’t seem to do that much, and anyway the most fascinating thing about each is their name. A year before his Oscar turn in “All the King’s Men,” Crawford’s cop is called Krupp, which makes me think of Officer Krupke from “West Side Story,” as well as a corruption of “corrupt” (even though Krupp isn’t); while Bond, who is about to become the right-hand man to HUAC in fomenting the blacklist in Hollywood, plays McCarthy two years before “McCarthyism” was born. That one made me do a doubletake. Plus, yeah, the horse. McCarthys everywhere in the late '40s.
More fun with names: The bad guy, Freddy Blick, is played by character actor Tom Powers, which just happened to be Cagney’s character’s in his breakthrough role in “The Public Enemy” back in 1931. (Powers also played the cuckolded husband in “Double Indemnity.”) Blick is described as “a stool pigeon and frame-up artist” so it’s odd that everyone at the bar seems afraid of him. Why would you be afraid of a stool pigeon? Answer? In the play, he was a vice cop, so he had power. Basically they change him from dirty cop to dirty rat but pretend the dynamics are the same. They aren't.
Blick is also the reason for the other, costlier change. In the play, he bullies the bar’s patrons, particularly its women, until a new patron named Murphy (James Barton), a twinkly-eyed teller of tall tales who goes by “Kit Carson,” shoots him off-stage. Then he comes back onstage and talks about it as if it were a thing of the past, a thing he couldn’t quite remember, another tall tale. After that, Joe gets out of his seat, waves goodbye to everyone, and that’s that. The Cagneys filmed this version and took it through previews in Pasadena and Santa Barbara. “You could have heard a pin drop in the theater,” Jeanne Cagney has said. “I just don’t think audiences were ready for a philosophical play.”
So they refilmed the ending. Cagney’s Joe has to put up his dukes and the patrons merely oust Blick—they don’t kill him. In the aftermath, we get some quirky lines from Joe and Kit Carson, while Nick, listening to the blather, takes a sign reading “Come in and be yourself” from his window, says “Enough is enough,” and tears it in half. I’m not sure how the original end would’ve played—it would require a delicate touch to have impact—but this one amounts to a kind of hapless shrug. A Wuhr-wur. I would've rolled the dice on the other.
What the hell else
Anyway, it’s not good, and I guess the copyright has expired, as with many (all?) of the independent Cagney productions, so the version I saw was a cheapie on YouTube. It looked like a kinescope of an early TV play rather than a feature film. That didn’t help but that’s not the problem. Everything else is.
I go back to Hitchcock’s line about the true drama, the better drama, happening off camera among the actors (leading Truffaut to make “Day for Night”), and it’s true here but in terms of irony and poignancy. The film strives for poignancy and doesn’t get there. But for Cagney, the whole enterprise feels excruciatingly poignant. He became a star at Warners as a tough guy, bellyached for a decade about the money he made and the roles he got, finally left to make more hifalutin fare, and he couldn’t even get the stuff through previews. He had to add fisticuffs to Saroyan. “But what the hell else could we have done?” he told his biographer John McCabe in 1980. “The public just didn’t get it at the previews.”
What could he have done? Held the line. Rolled the dice. Instead he corrupted the final product and audiences still didn’t come. So he returned to Warners. His reward for desertion was a lot more money and the role of a lifetime in “White Heat,” but I think he only truly appreciated the former. I don’t think he ever appreciated how great he was in those gangster roles. Maybe none of us appreciate what we do well. We keep striving for the other thing.
Tuesday September 15, 2020
Movie Review: Johnny Come Lately (1943)
I couldn’t help but think of “Bob Dylan’s Blues” with this one:
The Lone Ranger and Tonto
They are riding down the line
Fixing everybody’s troubles
Everybody’s except mine
Someone musta told them that I was doing fine
Cagney’s Tom Richards is the Lone Ranger here, but without the mask, horse, or Indian sidekick. He’s a journalist-poet-hobo who shows up in town, fixes troubles, leaves. I guess you could call him “a faraway fellow”—Pat O’Brien’s nickname for Cagney, who tended to avoid the Hollywood scrum. Like Danny Kenny in “City for Conquest,” he's another Cagney character who’s actually a bit like Cagney.
The movie also made me think of “Don’t Let’s Start” by They Might Be Giants:
No one in the world ever gets what they want
And that is beautiful
Everybody dies frustrated and sad
And that is beautiful
Not for the characters; for the star. “Johnny Come Lately” was Cagney’s first film after the huge success of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (box-office smash, AA for best actor, etc.) and the first film he and his brother William produced independently (with United Artists distributing). For about the first time in his successful career, Cagney didn’t have to take what Jack Warner dished; he could play whoever he wanted. And he chose this gentle soul in this gentle period piece set in a small American town in 1906. And the response was a yawn. The box office was OK, but it’s a movie that was quickly forgotten and not at all treasured. And the critics were brutal:
- “A backward shot for Cagney Productions, indicating if anything that Warner Brothers old studio knew lots better than William Cagney what was good for brother James.” — John T. McManus, PM
- “[The film] is not dreadful—Cagney is still the unique Cagney—but it is far below his standard. To put it bluntly, it is an old-fashioned story told in a very old-fashioned way. Please, Mr. Cagney, for the benefit of the public, yourself and Warners, go back where you made pictures like Yankee Doodle Dandy.” — Archer Winsten, New York Post
Imagine you’re Cagney. You finally get away from the effin’ Warners, and you have to hear this shit over and over.
I do agree with the criticism—and don’t. I think Warners often knew what was better for Cagney than Cagney. At the same time, “Johnny Come Lately” isn’t a bad movie. It’s an atypical Cagney picture, sure, but mostly it suffered as a follow-up to “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” If it had been released after “Torrid Zone” or “The Bride Came C.O.D.,” I doubt the reviews would’ve been this scathing.
“Johnny” has one thing in common with “Yankee Doodle Dandy”: It resurrects a storied name from earlier in the century. Not one of the characters; one of the stars.
Grace George was an early 20th-century stage actress “whose style of high comedy charmed Broadway audiences for fifty years,” according to her 1961 New York Times obit. But she never really made the jump to movies. She was in a 1915 silent film and that’s it. Until this. Her credit is charming:
Introducing to the screen
Miss Grace George
Initially, the movie is all about her. Two hobos show up in a small town and the knowledgeable one leads another to the basement of a big house, where they’ll be fed hotcakes.
Hobo 2: I thought you said it was a tough town.
Hobo 1: Sure, it’s tough. The lady here is different. Got a good heart. About the only one in town that has. Runs a newspaper. See that. [Points to masthead: “Vinnie McLeod, Editor”] That’s her.
Except she’s on hard times. Keeps hocking silver candlesticks and the like to stay afloat. She’s got two problems. One is the town’s own Mr. Potter, W.M. Dougherty (Edward McNamara), who runs a rival newspaper and has got everyone, including judges, in his pocket. She also owes him money and might lose her house. Not good. The other problem, which the movie doesn't acknowledge, is that she’s too nice. Her only reporter for 35 years has been her drunk brother, her receptionist is literally the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton), and her society page editor, her niece, Jane (Marjorie Lord), is dating the enemy: Dougherty’s son. She’s might lose everything to keep afloat a newspaper that probably isn’t worth it.
Enter Cagney. She finds him unshaven and reading “The Pickwick Papers” beneath a statue in the town square, and talks to him about literature. “I met Charles Dickens when he was here in ’67,” she says. That one makes your head spin but the math adds up. Mostly she’s there to warn him that the town is tough on vagrants: “They rope them in and put them to work on the road gangs and treat them brutally.” He listens but doesn’t; he keeps reading.
Next time she sees him, he’s before the judge as a vagrant. Except while the other vagrants are docile, he’s bemused and keeps quietly arguing his points. Last night? He was wandering around. Isn't he destitute? Nah, he’s got two bucks. But the judge is still putting him on the chain gang until she intervenes and hires him as a reporter—his previous occupation.
Initially he urges her away from reform:
Richards: You haven’t got a chance. I tried it myself once on a newspaper and had the boss slip out from under me when the going got too hot for him. Left me holding the bag. I’m not a crusader anymore. You can’t win. So why do you try?”
McLeod: Because you’ve got to try.
So they do. They close down the newspaper for three days and come back revamped. Earlier, Dougherty demanded she print editorials he had written, and they do, but with his lies pointed out in italics. Richards, a caricaturist, puts his drawings of Dougherty on the front page next to demands for why Dougherty hired an ex-con for a campaign manager. It gets noticed, particularly by Dougherty, who offers to double Richards’ salary if he’ll work for him. “Negative.” The he demands the rest of his editorials back. “Oh, I’m sorry, we’ve accepted them.” When the ex-con, Dudley Hirsch (Norman Willis), makes threatening remarks about Mrs. McLeod, Richards throws a chair at him.
In his memoir, Cagney said the greatest accomplishment of “Johnny Come Lately” was hiring good supporting players, which is is true—to a point. McNamara as Dougherty, for example, is a bland villain, while Willis’ Dudley is stock. It’s the women who are memorable. Not just Grace George, but Hattie McDaniel as Aida, the maid, and Marjorie Main as “Gashouse” Mary, the Hays-Code madam, whom Richards tries to recruit to the cause. Richards’ most interesting conversations are with these women.
OK, so the McDaniel stuff can be problematic. She was three years removed from winning an Oscar for “Gone with the Wind,” and her Aida here is a bit like Mammy there: the tough maid who thinks she runs the house—and kind of does—but is also treated like comic relief. She’s a bad cook, thinks herself married even though her husband left her 15 years ago, etc. But the conversation she has with Richards in the kitchen isn’t bad. She’s the one who tells Tom about “Gas House” Mary running a straight place and warns him about “cutting up” in there. When he plays innocent, she responds. “You a man, ain’tcha? That bouncer of hers will cut your head wide open.”
The stuff with “Gas House” Mary is even better. Main plays her big, like a post-sexual Mae West. She hates Dougherty, too, but has to pay him protection to survive. We also get this conversation, which resonates in an America with the idiot brat Donald Trump in charge:
Tom: What are you going to do about it?
Mary: Suppose you tell me. I’d kinda like to hear some fresh ideas.
Tom: I had the idea that we might get the honest citizens together and give ‘em the facts.
Mary: Yeah? Well, I’ve found it’s no good depending on honest citizens for a fight.
Independent production or not, it's a movie in the Production Code era, so we need our happy ending. Dougherty overplays his hand by sending goons to attack Mrs. McLeod, “Gas House” Mary agrees to go on the record, Dougherty’s police toss her in jail. This upsets Bill Swain (Robert Barrat), a Democratic leader who’s had a thing for Mary since forever, so he gets involved. Now the town is up in arms, hanging Dougherty in effigy. So he brokers a deal to skip town if they'll let his son stay. That's pretty much it. Not much justice but sorta.
I like the ways it diverges from a traditional movie. It looks like the star will get the girl, as usual, and Dougherty’s son, Pete (William Henry), even challenges Richards to a fight. But he loses. Except Jane runs to help the fallen Pete rather than the victorious Tom, and in Cagney's eyes you see the realization, “Oh. I guess it won't be me.” All of which is necessary for our Lone Ranger ending. Everything fixed, Mrs. McLeod assumes he’ll be on the road again soon. She even does a variant of “Who was that masked man?”
Mrs. McLeod: It’s strange. How little I know about you. Where you come from, where you’re going. Anything. Have you no one belonging to you anywhere? Haven’t you even got a girl someplace?
Richards: Sure. Sure I have. You’re my girl. [kisses her cheek]
Then a train sounds in the distance, and soon he’s on one, riding the boxcars, returning to life on the open road. Free.
Open roads never stay open
That’s also Cagney, right? Free of Warners. On the open road at a time when most stars were still bound to their contracts. He never did much with it, though: a WWII actioner; an OSS actioner. Then he tried to get hifalutin with William Saroyan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Time of Your Life,” and it lost so much money he was forced to return to Warners and the gangster role he was always running from (“White Heat”). Open roads don’t stay open long. Not if you want to keep the farm.
The movie was helmed by a lot of Cagney one-timers: directed by William K. Howard (his third-to-last), and written by John Van Druten (who wrote the play “Cabaret” is based on), from a novel, “McLeod’s Folly,” by Louis Bromfield. Bromfield’s interesting. A novelist who hung out with Hemingway and Stein in the 1920s, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1927 for “Early Autumn.” He was hugely popular as well, selling millions of copies of his books, and in Hollywood did uncredited work in both “Dracula” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” He was best man at the wedding of Bogart and Bacall, and good friends with Cagney, with whom he shared an interest in farming. From John McCabe’s “Cagney”:
When Cagney Productions began to search out literary properties, it was inevitable that Jim would think of Bromfield. He selected one of the novelist’s gentlest stories, McLeod’s Folly, featuring a protagonist as unlike the standard Cagney screen persona as it was possible to be short of a hermit. The Cagneys obtained the services of the London and Broadway playwright John Van Druten to transmute a mild little novel into what unfortunately turned out to be a mild little movie, Johnny Come Lately.
Mild, sure. But not bad.
Anyway, all of this seems so Cagney. He dismissed what he did while idolizing the Gladys Georges and Louis Bromfields of the world. Now they’re mostly remembered for work they did with him.
Tuesday September 08, 2020
Movie Review: City for Conquest (1940)
Unlike most James Cagney characters, Danny Kenny actually reminded me of Cagney. Not because he’s a boxer and Cagney was a boxer early in his life; and certainly not because his girl Peggy (Ann Sheridan) is a dancer and he loses her to another dancer, Murray Burns (Anthony Quinn). Cagney could’ve danced rings around both actors.
No, for this reason: Danny Kenny, like Cagney, was really good at a thing but didn’t care about it that much. He even avoided it.
For Kenny, the thing was boxing. For Cagney, it was playing gangsters. Not many were better at it but he dismissed it; he fought it. You could say both men are gentle souls but good at a violent thing.
In the commentary track, Richard Schickel expands upon this thought:
Unlike everyone else in “City for Conquest,” [Kenny] is not a particularly ambitious man. He will later say to Ann Sheridan, lines to the effect, “Well, I’m on the local train and you’re on the express train.” And he’s happy to be on the local train. He doesn’t particularly want to make money—except to the degree it’ll help his brother pursue his studies and become a major composer. In a funny way, that sort of fit Cagney. He was, despite his talent … not more than a reluctant movie star.
The ambition angle is interesting. There’s a character here called Old Timer who’s obviously a ripoff of the Stage Manager from “Our Town”—which had opened on Broadway two years earlier. He’s even played by the same actor, Frank Craven, who originated the Stage Manager role. He’s quirky, whimsical, interacts with secondary characters, and comments upon the proceedings. He has a repeated line I like: “Because I got clothes on my back.”
He’s particularly interested in Danny, of course, and follows him from a boy who fights for the honor of Peggy to a man who works construction and boxes on the side under the heavily symbolic nom de guerre “Young Samson.” At one point, Old Timer talks to a guy backstage at the boxing arena:
Old Timer: Who won?
Worker: I never know till they come through.
Old Timer: I can tell you who won.
Old Timer: Young Samson. He’s got to win.
Old Timer: Because he doesn’t care whether he wins or not.
Is it a Zen thing? Hit the target by not aiming for it? Or is the author like an Old Testament God who punishes people for their ambition? Peggy wants her name in lights and gets raped. Danny reaches too high to get Peggy back and is blinded in a title bout. Googi (Elia Kazan) rises high in the gangster world but is shot down with these dying words: “Never figured on that at all.” (Great dying words.) The only ambitious people who aren’t struck down are the assholes like Murray. The story just punishes the good.
“City” is based upon a hugely successful 1936 novel by Aben Kandel that involved the rise and fall of a dozen characters over decades, and which has been compared to Dos Passos, but it was obviously truncated for the movies and probably became too reductive. Cagney was apparently a huge fan. According to his biographer, John McCabe, he reread parts regularly. And when he heard Warners bought the rights as a vehicle for him, he was all in.
Add a celebrated director like Anatole Litvak (“Sorry, Wrong Number,” “The Snake Pit”), a screenwriter like John Wexley (“Angels with Dirty Faces”), and one of the best cinematographers in Hollywood history, James Wong Howe, and it seems like a slam-dunk.
So why is it so awful?
The sharpie from 65th Street
Let’s start with overwrought. Here’s the Old Timer at the beginning talking to a cop (Ward Bond):
Look at it: seven million people, fighting, biting, clawing their way to get one foot on a ladder that’ll take them to a penthouse. Yes, siree, they come by the thousands, every which way: by water, by wheel, by foot, by ferry, by tunnel, by tube; over, across and under the river. They come like locusts from all over the nation. …
That’s not awful in itself but then they double down on it. Danny has a younger brother named Eddie (Arthur Kennedy in his screen debut), a composer, and one evening he tells Danny about his idea for a new symphony. About New York. And as he’s pounding on the piano keys, he repeats a lot of what the Old Timer said—but worse:
A full symphony of it—with all its proud, passionate beauty and all of its sordid ugliness and of its great wealth and power and its everlasting hunger. And of its teeming seven millions and its barren loneliness … with all of its mounting, shrieking jungle-cries for life and sun. And then carrying on, up to the towering skyscrapers, and the story of all those who tried to scale their dizzy heights … but CRASHED [hands crash over the piano keys], frustrated and broken to the concrete pavements.
It’s a testament to Cagney’s talent that he can look on admiringly while listening to this crap.
So that’s a problem. Even so, put these actors together on a Lower East Side set on the Warner Bros. lot, with Howe photographing, and I’m happy. And for a time I was happy.
And then the rape.
No, even before that. Our hero, Danny, will do anything for Peggy, but we quickly realize she’s not worth it. After Danny knocks out an up-and-comer to get money for Eddie, they all go out to celebrate. Except she’s late in congratulating him and constantly looking around. Eventually she notices Quinn’s character—shoes first, like Peggy Noonan with Reagan—and the two dance together and wind up winning a silver loving cup. Danny’s cool with it until Murray opens his trap and Danny decks him. Later, he apologizes: “I don’t mind you dancing with the guy but he tried to make you look like two cents.” Murray actually insulted all of them but it’s the insult to Peggy that bugs him. But Peggy doesn’t hear it or see it. She wants to see her name in lights and figures Murray Burns is the way to go; so she immediately phones him, then spends several scenes standing Danny up. Then she shows up for a Sunday afternoon on Coney Island with Danny like everything’s fine. This is when we get that express/local exchange, and she criticizes him for not having any ambition, so he decides to get some. He decides to take boxing more seriously. He even gets a manager, Scotty MacPherson (Donald Crisp), and goes out on the circuit.
I love all the things Danny calls Murray Burns:
- That speiler
- That sharpshooter
- That creepy cake-eater
- That sharpie from 65th street
This last comes after Peggy’s mom blames Danny for Peggy’s late nights: “Peggy chasing around every night with that sharpie from 65th Street,” Danny says to Eddie, “and I gotta take the schlack.” Such a great line. (Is it schleck? Shleck? Shrek? Does anyone know? I get the feeling it’s Yiddish but can’t find anything.)
Then we get an even greater line—the most Warner Bros. line that Warner Bros. ever produced. Again, to Eddie, Danny says: “And everything was going along good until that sharpie came along and gave her a fancy line of gab.”
But then the rape.
Another sharpie, Al (Charles Lane, who always played this type), sees Peggy and Murray dance and signs them to a contract. They’re going to go on the road! Billed, believe it or not, as “Burns and Company.” Peggy’s the company. And she’s fine with it; she leaves everything to Murray, she says. And after Al leaves, they’re joyous, celebrating, and Peggy kicks up her leg and one of her shoes winds up in the corner. And that’s when Murray makes his move:
Peggy: Please let me go, Murray, my shoe.
Burns: Don’t worry about that, baby.
[Closeup of shoe in the corner]
Peggy: Please let me go, Murray. Murray, please let me go. Please let me go. Let me go!
[Fade to black]
The horror is that even after that she’s still with him—dancing every night. Because of the contract? Because of the times? Because she’s been broken? And she and Danny keep criss-crossing paths on their various circuits—she dance, he boxing—until they hook up again back in NYC. And they walk around the city, or against a backdrop of the city, and reconnect. He asks if she’s still his girl, and she says yes, and it looks like things might be good again. She only has two weeks left on the contract and she’s done. But back in the dressing room, there’s Al, talking about how he books them on a world tour: $850 a week, 40 weeks. And she seems torn until Al mentions how her name will be spelled out in lights. And her eyes light up. And instead of returning to New York to Danny, she sends Danny a letter. And he’s crushed all over again.
Here’s the thing: They could have made this work. They could have made it dramatic without us losing respect for Peggy—who is, after all, a victim of a violent crime. I kept flashing to that great “Sopranos” episode where Dr. Melfi is raped, and her rapist gets off on a technicality, and the drama is in this: Does she tell Tony? “I could have him squashed like a bug,” she says of the rapist, and she could, but then she would be beholden to Tony; then she would be in his universe. That’s the drama—what does she do?—and that could be the drama here. If she tells Danny, he’d squash Murray like a bug; he’d beat him to death. But then Danny would wind up in prison, maybe, and so that’s why she doesn’t do it. She’s looking out for Danny. Instead, she gets raped and nothing happens because she wants to see her name in lights.
The whole thing is more disgusting than anything I ever saw in any precode movie. Thanks for nothing, Joe Breen.
It doesn’t get any better, either. Danny figures he really needs to get on the express to win Peggy; so, against the counsel of his manager, he goes for the welterweight championship. He gets ambition. Would’ve won, too, but the other side cheats. They rub the champ’s gloves in rosin, it gets in Danny’s eyes; then they spend seven more rounds pounding it in. By the end, Danny’s blind. Cf., Samson. “
He winds up running a newsstand in Times Square. It’s from there that he listens to Eddie’s great symphony about New York, which he finally gets to conduct, and which is such a hit that a speech from the composer/conducted is demanded. And boy does Eddie give a speech. It that overwrought shit again—all about his brother:
In his heart and soul there was such wealth of music. Music of the city. The music that led him on to glory, to conquest, to tragedy and defeat. But in that very defeat, he conquered. For all of the men that I have come to know, who have loved and lost, this boy retained a great nobility that far surpassed any possible conquest. Yes, my brother made music with his fists so that I might make a gentler music—the symphony that you have heard tonight. It is his as much as mine. And so with deep pride and gratitude, I dedicate this music to my brother: known to most of you … as Young Samson!
Of course Peggy’s there. And of course she runs into Danny’s friend, Mutt (Frank McHugh), and he tells her about the newsstand, and that’s where she goes. They’re reunited. Then he says a version of the line repeated throughout the movie:
Danny: You were always my girl. Ain’t that right, Peg?
Peggy: Always, Danny, always!
Cagney is excellent as a blind man—he really is such an underrated actor; O’Connell is perfectly cast as Danny’s younger brother; and Quinn makes a nasty villain. We also get Sidney Miller as a young bandleader, as well as Craven’s good turn as the Old Timer. But it’s not a good movie. Interesting note: Craven, for all his progressive trappings here, was actually a rock-ribbed Republican, and election night 1940 Cagney and his wife were invited to Bob Montgomery’s party, where they were about the only Democrats. From Cagney’s autobiography:
It was black-tie, all very fancy. My wife wore a huge Roosevelt button, and when we walked into this group of rabid Republicans, we were received in some quarters with coolness. Old Frank Craven, with whom I’d just finished a picture, wouldn’t even shake hands with me.
“City for Conquest” is a turning point in a couple of ways in the Cagney oeuvre. Throughout the ’30s, his characters were almost always referred to by the diminutive or diminutive-sounding: Jimmy, Lefty, Danny, Patsy, Danny (II), Jimmy (II), Chesty, Eddie, Tommy, Danny (III), Dizzy, Johnny, Terry, Rocky, Eddie (II) and Jerry. And here they double-down on it: His fourth go as Danny, followed by Kenny. But guess what? It’s the last diminutive he’ll have in his career. After this, he becomes Biff, Steve, Brian, George, Nick, Bob, etc. I guess if you’re in your 40s or 50s, the diminutives just don’t fit.
It’s also the last movie Cagney made before he was accused of being a communist. “City” wrapped in June/July, and in August, before a Grand Jury, John L. Leech, a former Communist official in LA, named Cagney, Bogart, Frederic March and a dozen or so Hollywood bigwigs as Communist party members, sympathizers or contributors. It made the front page of The New York Times on August 15:
Cagney had to fly to the west coast—he hated flying—and make his case before Martin Dies of the Dies Committee. A week later, he was cleared. The Times printed that, too. On page 21.
Not sure if it's a coincidence, but after his personal red scare you don’t see Cagney making many of these Warner Bros. “social message” movies. His next is a turn-of-the-century romance steeped in nostalgia; then he tries a screwball comedy with Bette Davis. Before the U.S.’s entry into the war, he makes a movie about the heroism of Canadian bush pilots who go to war; and during and after Pearl Harbor, he makes “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” with all those grand old flags. After that, no committee, Dies or HUAC, can touch him. But I can't help but wonder what we missed.
Monday August 31, 2020
Movie Review: 13 Rue Madeleine (1947)
“Tattaglia is a pimp. He never could have outfought Santino. But I didn't know until this day that it was Barzini all along.” – Don Vito Corleone.
James Cagney is a little smarter than Don Corleone. He figured out fast that it was Barzini—or actor Richard Conte, who plays Barzini in “The Godfather” and Bill O’Connell here: a Nazi spy amid the U.S. Secret Intelligence service during World War II. One wonders if this wasn’t inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s casting or if Conte was commonly cast as the turncoat in ’40s and ’50s movie. Or if it was just a coincidence.
It’s supposed to be O.S.S., and Cagney’s character, Bob Sharkey, is supposed to be “Wild” Bill Donovan, but apparently neither Donovan nor the O.S.S. liked the storyline. I don’t blame them. The U.S. Secret Intelligence service doesn’t come off very intelligent. That’s why the filmmakers chose the lookalike “O77,” which stands for Operation 77, since this is the 77th operation the service has engaged in since the war began. I know that’s the letter “o” not the number zero, but I couldn’t help notice the James Bond connotation: oh double-seven instead of double-oh seven. The first Bond novel was published five years later, so one wonders if this wasn’t some kind of inspiration for Ian Fleming. Or if it was just a coincidence.
Anyway, to firmer ground.
Where have you gone, Lefty Merrill?
“13 Rue Madeleine” is the second Henry Hathaway-directed movie in as many years with a street address for a title (“The House on 92 Street”), a plot revolving around a Nazi double agent, and what the AFI site calls a “documentary-like” feel (the stentorian voice of wartime narrator Reed Hadley is used for exposition). The movie begins on the rainy streets of Washington D.C., and then we get a shot of the National Archives. Beneath a statue of “the future” is a phrase from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” And our stentorian narration begins:
“What is past is prologue. Yes, here in the National Archives in Washington D.C., past is prologue. For this is the final resting place of the histories and records of tens of thousands of illustrious Americans. World War II has come to a victorious conclusion, and now new names and new records are being added to the list. For the nation and the world are for the first time learning of silent and significant deeds performed in foreign lands by a legion of anonymous men and women—the Army of Secret Intelligence.”
He keeps going. How long? We’re six and a half minutes in before we get the first snippet of dialogue. Then imore narration. I guess it's one way to go. Probably beats dialogue like: “Hi, I’m Bob--” “No need to introduce yourself, Mr. Sharkey, your reputation proceeds you. Master of five languages. Expert in judo. You grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, right?” “Yeah, that’s right. [smiles] Should’ve known Secret Intelligence would have some intelligence on me.”
As Cagney’s previous film, “Blood on the Sun,” was sloppy seconds to “Casablanca” (pre-war romance with exotic beauty in exotic land), so this is sloppy seconds to Alan Ladd’s “O.S.S.,” which was released almost a year earlier (May 1946 to January 1947) and obviously received Donovan’s imprimatur. And just as “Blood” contained its echo of Bogart’s “hill of beans” speech, so this contains an echo of “O.S.S.”’s speech about how the spy biz is antithetical to the American character.
“Americans aren’t brought up to fight the way the enemy fights. We can learn to become intelligence agents and saboteurs if we have to. But we’re too sentimental, too trusting, too easy-going...”
“Now the average American is a good sport—plays by the rules. But this war is no game, and no secret agent is a hero or a good sport. That is—no living agent. You’re going to be taught to kill, to cheat, to rob, to lie. And everything you learn is moving you toward one objective—just one, that’s all: the success of your mission. Fair play? That’s out. Years of decency and honest living? Forget all about them or turn in your suits.”
It’s funny hearing Cagney talk about how Americans play by the rules when his spent his entire career cast as gangsters like Tom Powers and grifters like Lefty Merrill. There’s some truth to his speech, I suppose, but there’s more truth in Lefty’s line: “I'm telling you, Mac, the public is like a cow, bellowing, bellowing to be milked.” Or maybe the above speeches were how a postwar America was bellowing? After all that, it wanted to be told it was still innocent.
At the training grounds in England, Sharkey's superior, Charles Gibson (Walter Abel), tells him that one of the recruits is a spy and it’s up to Sharkey to figure it out. The narrator has already helpfully introduced us to three possibilities:
- Suzanne de Beaumont (Annabella): a French citizen whose husband is MIA
- Jeff Lassiter (Frank Latimore), educated in Geneva, Oxford and UCLA and All-American-looking
- Bill O’Connell (Conte), Rutgers
Since O’Connell graduates at the top of his class—passing tests that were designed for failure—Sharkey knows it’s him.
Then the first mistake. Rather than arrest him, the service decides to feed him false intel. The big question at this point in the war is where the U.S. is going to open a second front, so they send O’Connell, Lassister and de Beaumont on a mission to Holland, where, they imply, the second front will be opened. Then they make a bigger mistake: They let Lassiter in on it. They tell him his pal, with whom he trained, joked and played backgammon, is a Nazi spy, and the kid can’t deal. On the flight over, O’Connell makes small talk but Lassiter can barely look at him. Immediately O’Connell figures his cover his blown and Holland is a lie, and he takes swift action. Before the jump, he cuts Lassiter’s parachute cord and Lassiter plunges to his death, while “O’Connell” (real name: Kuncel) slips back to Gestapo headquarters in Le Havre: the 13 Rue Madeleine of the title.
Up to this point, our main characters have been Lassiter, O’Connell and the narration, and we’ve basically just lost all of them. So who fills the gap? Cagney, of course. Sharkey decides he’s the one who should continue the mission—capturing a man named Duclois (Marcel Rousseau), who built a factory in Le Havre at which the Germans are manufacturing V-2 rockets. Some of the intrigue isn’t bad. He parachutes in, is met silently by a French farm family who bury his parachute and whose little girl points him to the safe house. It’s run by a severe, older French woman (Blanche Yurka), who’s great. She talks to Sharkey sternly, tells him he needs to move on at first light, betrays nothing of her allegiances. Lassiter should’ve had such a game face.
Sharkey goes by the undercover name Chavat and runs into a lot of luck. He asks the town’s mayor (Sam Jaffe) about Duclois, and the mayor turns out to be Free French. They work together to pull German guards from Duclois so they can snatch him; but Sharkey is captured by O’Connell/Kuncel and brought to the titular house, where, we’re told, he’ll suffer “the cruelest tortures the Germans can devise.” Cut to Germans sipping coffee while we hear whipping noises from the other room. Painful, sure, but hardly devised by the Germans.
The ending is interesting for two reasons. One, it prefigures Cagney's famous end in “White Heat.“ Cagney's in the torture room, sweating, bloodied, eyeing Kuncel, when the Allied planes go overhead. He knows the Allies will blow up the V-2 factory and 13 Rue Madeleine, thus ending his pain and Kuncel’s chance to find out about the second front. Which is what happens, and he laughs. And that's how he dies: Laughing in a fiery explosion, laughing. Top of the world.
All at once
But this isn’t the end-end. We actually return to Washington, D.C., the National Archives buidling, and the quote: “What is past is prologue.” The camera lingers on it to remind us of ... what? If this is the past, then the prologue is … the Soviets? I got a real Cold War vibe from that. Concurrently, but oddly, IMDb lists Julie and Ethel Rosenberg among the cast:
It's odd because the Rosenbergs weren't arrested for espionage until the summer of 1950. So was the footagae from an earlier arrest? Was Roseneberg footage adde to the film upon a re-release in the 1950s? Or is IMDb mistaken?
“Rue” is the only movie Cagney made between 1943 and 1948 (his second Warner-less period) that was a true studio film (20th Century Fox). It’s also the movie where he really begins to show his age. Just three years earlier, in “Johnny Come Lately,” he looked youthful. Here, he’s put on weight, his face is blockier, his lips have turned inward. Was it the war? The time off? The farm work? I guess this is how it happens: Bit by bit, then all at once.
But he’s still Cagney. I like this exchange before Sharkey parachutes into occupied France.
Gibson: You won’t come back.
Sharkey: I’ve just discovered something about you.
Sharkey: You’re a worrier.
It’s a nice bit—particularly Cagney’s eyes darting over Gibson’s face. It’s the eyes of an actor listening as well as talking.
Newspaper ad, 1947. ”Wanna go see the new Cagney picture?“ ”Well, as long as Little Lulu is playing."
Wednesday July 08, 2020
Movie Review: The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)
James Cagney and Bette Davis were the stars that made the most trouble for Warner Bros. during the studio era. Cagney wanted more money, Davis wanted better roles, and both felt Jack Warner didn’t know jack. In his book “Warner Bros.: The Making of an American Movie Studio,” film historian David Thomson attempts to thread the contretemps:
Bette was looking for a battle, whether she could know that, or admit it. At any other studio, she would have become a problem, because her angry eyes needed to feel she was embattled and scorned. There are artistic spirits that can be crushed by kindness and understanding.
As for Cagney, his own track record wasn't stellar. After the classic Warner Bros. film “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (best picture, best actor), he was finally free of his contract, and he and his brother William promptly produced two war movies at the end of the war (when everyone was tired of the war), and “The Time of Your Life,” based on the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play by William Saroyan. Prestige! Importance! Cagney plays “Joseph T. (who observes people).” Yes, that’s his character name. The movie bombed so badly that Cagney was forced to return to Warners, which promptly put him into another classic, “White Heat,” and the gangster role he was always running from.
So maybe Warners knew a little something.
Was “The Bride Came C.O.D.” a kind of punishment for both of its unruly stars? Cagney was afraid of flying yet Warners kept casting him as a pilot. This is his third of four goes in the cockpit between 1935 and 1942. Meanwhile, Davis spends half the picture landing ass-first on cacti. “We both reached bottom with this one,” Davis writes, probably punnily, in her autobiography.
But it’s not that bad. Davis in particular is good, and surprisingly sexy, as the frivolous, combative daughter of a wealthy oil man who runs off to marry a bandleader/singer after knowing him only four days. The supporting cast—led by Jack Carson as Allen Brice, and Harry Davenport as Pop Tolliver—is about perfect.
Cagney’s the problem. He’s not as trim as he used to be and he lands too hard on jokes that need a soft touch. Was he not made for comedy? Or love stories? Here’s Thomson again on Cagney’s appeal:
He was Irish—he was a gentle, quiet guy in life and a family man—but he photographed like a featherweight devil, full of violent urges and sniping back talk. He was dangerous on screen; it was what he had instead of sex. He might kill anyone, devour an actress, or turn into a dancing machine. No one had ever moved like Cagney, or seemed such a feral, animated figure.
What do you call a feral figure in a screwball comedy? Misplaced, maybe.
Back and forthy
The movie opens with a nationally known gossip columnist, Tommy Keenan (Stuart Erwin), literally ambulance-chasing for a story for his upcoming broadcast. Even the scoop by blithely vain bandleader Allen Brice (Carson, brilliant) that he plans to marry oil heiress Joan Winfield (Davis) won’t help. That’s three days away, and Brice has been married before, so who cares? But wait! If they elope to Vegas? Now that’s entertainment.
But Winfield’s dad, the recent oil millionaire Lucius K. (Eugene Pallette), strenuously objects, which is probably one reason why it’s so appealing to Joan. It’s classic Bette: I’m going to do what you don’t want me to. The plan is to charter a plane to Vegas, Keenan will be aboard, he’ll get his scoop. Except the plane belongs to Steve Collins (Cagney), he owes $1,000, so he makes a deal with the dad to deliver his daughter without the fiancé. $10 per pound, cash on delivery.
Yeah, it’s a little “It Happened One Night”: engaged heiress battles her rich father, who’s against the wedding, but on the road she falls in love with rascally working man.
I love Davis’ reaction when he tells her she’s been kidnapped. Kidnapped, she says, intrigued. One can see her imagining the headlines and just the scandal of it all. We get the following Q&A:
- “Have you got a mob?” “No, they call me The Solo Kid.”
- “I suppose you’re taking me to your hideout.” [Almost Bogart-esque]: “You said it, babe.”
- “Have you always been a criminal?” “Oh no, ma’am. I used to be a boy scout.”
- “How much are you asking for me?” “I’m just a beginner. I’m only asking for carrying charges.”
Could his lines have been better here? The screenwriters are the Epstein brothers, Jules and Philip, who would pen “Casablanca” a year later, so it’s not like they suck at this. The director is William Keighley, who directed his share of so-so Cagneys: from “Picture Snatcher” to “The Fighting 69th.” This is his last with Jimmy. He made a few more before supervising the First Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Air Force during the war.
Once Joan realizes it’s not a scandalous kidnapping but her father’s powerful arm trying to rein her in, she grabs a parachute to jump from the plane. Except Steve knows it’s not a parachute so he keeps tilting the plane to keep her in. One too many times and the plane sputters and crash-lands in the desert. Luckily it’s near the former gold mining town of Bonanza. Unluckily, it’s deserted. Luckily, there’s one man remaining, Pop Tolliver (Davenport, charming), who lives in the deserted hotel.
The movie’s basically this kind of back-and-forth, and it might get a little too back-and-forthy. Steve claims they’re a honeymooning couple and Pop won’t believe Joan’s pleadings that she’s been kidnapped until the news comes over his radio. (The media frenzy montage is great.) Now Pop won’t believe Steve’s declaration that he was simply returning daughter to father. Instead, Pop nearly shoots his head off and locks him in the local jail. Joan attempts to signal search planes with a mirror (“They’re looking for me! Isn’t it wonderful? I feel so terribly important!”), and Steve’s attempts to foil her by shooting a pebble via a rubber band from the jail cell. It's that kind of silly. But they’re spied, and it’s a race between fiancé and father to get to Bonanza first. In the meantime, on the radio, the truth of Steve’s declarations are revealed, so Steve is sprung and Joan is jailed. She gets out, he chases her into a mine, which she collapses. Etc.
The first to arrive is neither father nor fiancé but LA’s Sheriff McGee (William Frawley, in his second Cagney feature). By this point, Pop is part of Steve’s scheme to delay the wedding so he can collect the money, and Pop puts off the sheriff with Maine-like stoicism:
McGee: How’s business?
Tolliver: About the same.
McGee: Same as what?
Tolliver: About the same as usual.
The mine scene isn’t bad. She suspects they’ll die; he finds a way out via Pop’s food-laden storage cellar, eats his fill, returns but doesn’t tell her. By this point, they’re canoodling and eventually they kiss. Five seconds in, her eyes widen, she leaps to her feet and shouts “Mustard!” Great moment.
We get more screwball antics for the wedding. Is Bonanza in California or Nevada? (Pronounced Ne-VAY-de by Pops.) Which minister will work? Steve challenges the groom to a fight and gets clobbered by the good-natured Brice. (It’s fun seeing Cagney lose a fight for a change.) Steve’s schemes are all about getting the C.O.D. money but all the while Joan is falling for him. The final scene is their honeymoon, back in Bonanza. Hold the mustard.
Again, a lot of the elements are there for a classic. The miscast, sadly, is Cagney. Put Gable in the role and you see things maybe falling into place.
Tuesday June 16, 2020
Movie Review: The Letter (1940)
“So what do you think happens?” I asked my wife as both of us were watching “The Letter” for the first time. “Does she get away with it?” I assumed I knew the answer: 1940, Production Code, murder. Nope.
Confession: Bette Davis movies are one of the big gaps in my film studies. If she’s with Cagney or Bogart, sure, and I own “All About Eve,” but the women-centered pictures she made in the late ’30s and early ’40s, and which Carol Burnett parodied so often and seemingly so well on her variety show, I’ve never gotten around to. Trying to rectify that.
Another confession: I can’t even look at the title of this movie without think of Carol saying “Give me the lettah!” I couldn’t find that skit online but the search did make me realize the bit didn’t originate with Carol. “Petah, give me the lettah” was such a common Davis impersonation that Davis herself sent it up with Jack Paar in 1962. Like many of the classic imitations—“You dirty rat,” “Play it again, Sam,” “Judy Judy Judy”—it's a line the actor never said.
Third confession? I was a bit disappointed in “The Letter.” It’s directed by a great, William Wyler, from a play by a great, W. Somerset Maugham, and garnered seven Oscar nominations—including picture, director, actress, supporting actor, editing, cinematography. It’s got a good opening scene, too. The rest is a slog. It’s pure melodrama. Not to mention tinged with the racism of the day.
Apparently it’s based on a true story, the 1911 Ethel Proudlock case, which caused a scandal in British-run Malaysia, and which Maugham turned into a short story and then a play in the 1920s. The highlighted portion of this Wikipedia description of the crime is almost the beginning of “The Letter” exactly:
On the evening of 23 April 1911, she was alone in the VI headmaster's bungalow while her husband dined with a fellow teacher. In the course of that evening, she shot dead William Steward, a mine manager. Steward had visited her by rickshaw and had told the rickshaw boy to wait outside. Shortly afterwards, the boy heard two shots and saw Steward stumble out of the house across the veranda followed by Proudlock carrying a revolver, who then emptied the remaining four bullets into him.
In the movie, it’s Leslie Crosbie (Davis), who empties the gun into Geoff Hammond (David Newell), in the middle of a hot, steamy night, while Chinese and Malay servants silently gather. Leslie stares with a kind of dread at the moon, and a servant stares with a kind of dread at her lacemaking; and then her husband, Robert (Herbert Marshall), a police inspector (Bruce Lester) and a lawyer, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson), all arrive to hear her story.
We know she did it so there’s no tension there. After she tells her side of it—admirably without flashbacks—we seemingly know why she did it: Hammond got drunk and tried to take advantage. Joyce, her lawyer, thinks she’ll be acquitted soon enough.
Ah, but then the lettah.
It’s brought to the attention of Joyce by his assistant, Ong (Victor Sen Yung, Hop Sing on “Bonanza”), who, throughout, is both ingratiating and vaguely threatening. The letter Joyce sees is a copy—meaning hand-copied—and it’s from Leslie to Geoff on the night of the murder asking him to come by the estate. When Joyce asks Leslie about it, she says, yes, in the horror she forgot about that, but she only wanted to ask him about birthday-present ideas for her husband. Joyce says the letter implies more. It does. It implies they were lovers. Ong tells Joyce the original is in the hands of Hammond’s Chinese widow (Gale Sondergaard, playing ethnic again), a Dragon Lady type who lives in the Chinese district, and can be had for a price: $10,000. Joyce balks. It’s unethical! It could get him disbarred! But Ong keeps insinuating himself, the letter, and the money, into the conversation.
I never really bought Joyce’s turnaround on the ethics of it all: from “No way!” to jumping through all those hoops to make it happen. Once they agree to the $10k, Mrs. Hammond makes an extra demand: Leslie has to deliver the money herself. She does, with Joyce, riding a big car through narrow Chinatown streets. The two wind up in the Opium Den of the perpetually smiling and vaguely threatening Chung Hi (Willie Fung), where Leslie examines an ornate knife before Mrs. Hammond makes her arrival through beaded curtains. I assumed Leslie would try to use the knife. Otherwise why show it? Right, because of the Chekhovian adage; it shows up in the third act.
I think I would’ve liked this face-to-face more if Warners had cast a Chinese woman in the role. Here, it’s pretty one-note: the widow stares down imperiously from a top step, bristling with anger, while Ong translates slowly and Chung Hi laughs inappropriately. The widow keeps upping her demands. Mrs. Crosbie has to remove her veil. Mrs. Crosbie has to walk over. Mrs. Crosbie has to pick up the letter off the floor when the widow drops it on the ground. It’s a long elaborate ritual that delivers not much.
The widow and the servant
So the letter is bought, the trial occurs, Joyce is conflicted but performs his duties, and the jury exonerates Leslie after less than an hour. But she can’t exonerate herself. (Plus Production Code.) On another moonlit night, she confesses to her husband that she loved Hammond and still loves him; that she killed him because he was leaving her. Afterwards, led by sounds, and by the appearance/disappearance of the ornate knife, she wanders outside the gates, where Mrs. Hammond is standing, bristling with anger. Wait, it’s not just Mrs. Hammond but Leslie’s own servant? Who muffles her screams while the widow takes the dagger and stabs her? Why did he get involved? Was it the lacemaking. Is it part of the movie’s overt/covert racism? You can’t trust any of them.
I don’t know about the play, but in the 1929 movie version, made before the Production Code had teeth, Leslie doesn't die; her husband simply keeps her on the plantation “as punishment”—I guess because he’s broke so there are no servants. By 1940 this wasn’t enough. The widow and servant can’t get away with it, either, so after they do the deed they turn and, whoops, there’s a cop. A little too neatly tied up, Warners. I like the camerawork anyway: panning from Leslie’s body outside the gate to the party still happening in the house. But then we have to have the moon again. “The Letter” is too much that: moon and melodrama.
I’m curious if Mrs. Hammond got a trial? Or if Joyce was ever disbarred? So many loose ends. I’m mostly interested in the marginal figures. Did Ong buy a bigger car? (His teeny car is a sight gag in the movie.) Did he fight the Japanese, who occupied Malaysia for three years during the war? Did he fight the British afterwards? Independence was finally declared on August 31, 1957. I know so little of it all.
Tuesday June 09, 2020
Movie Review: They Drive By Night (1940)
This is an historic movie. Most people don’t know that.
No, it wasn’t acclaimed at the time, garnering no film awards or even nominations. I doubt it did any kind of boffo box office. And the storyline is muddled. The first half is about two brothers, Joe and Paul Fabrini (George Raft and Humphrey Bogart), wildcat truckers struggling to survive in a tough, bottom-line world. The second half is about the screwy dame (Ida Lupino) who has such a thing for Joe that she kills her husband (Alan Hale) to give him an opening. Which Joe doesn’t take. So she pins the murder on him.
So why should we consider it historic? Because Bogart's next movie was “High Sierra,” and one after that he did “The Maltese Falcon,” and three after that he was cast in “Casablanca.” He’s fourth-billed here but afterwards he’ll always be the lead. He'll become the biggest Hollywood star of the 1940s and at the end of the century the American Film Institute will vote him the greatest male movie star of all time.
And he owes it all to his co-star on this one.
That’s well-known, right? That George Raft kept turning down the roles that made Bogie Bogie? Raft was offered “High Sierra” but didn’t want to die in the end. He turned down “Maltese Falcon” because he didn’t think it was an important picture. He even turned down “Casablanca.” By the end of that one, Raft was no longer the star; he was the asterisk.
In this one, he’s the star. The Fabrini brothers begin this thing on the road, exhausted, in hock, and one step ahead of the creditors. After a mishap, Joe winds up at a roadside café where one guy, Irish (Roscoe Karns), is stuck at a pinball machine because he keeps winning, and where the rest of the guys are making eyes at the waitress, Cassie (Ann Sheridan, the “oomph” girl), who takes no crap.
Paul, perpetually sleepy, wouldn’t mind getting off the road for good. It’s not just the long hours; he’s got a wife who wants kids, who wants a family, and who wants him home. But Joe’s got a dream of turning this haul into that profit, and that haul into another, until they own a whole fleet of trucks, see? So he keeps pushing. And suddenly they’re doing kinda OK. They buy a load of lemons and sell them for several times their value. They pay off the truck and are on their way. But at gas station, the same gas station they always seem to wind up at, the attendant wonders why Joe is always driving while Paul is always asleep. That doesn’t seem right to him. Joe suddenly cares what somebody else thinks—this gas station attendant, of all people—so he and Paul switch places. Ah, but Paul, sad Paul, forever sleepy Paul, falls asleep at the wheel and goes into a ravine. Joe is thrown clear. The brothers lose the rig and Paul loses his right arm.
That sets up our second half. Without Paul, Joe finally agrees to get off the road and take a job with his friend Ed Carlsen (Hale), a former trucker who now owns the proverbial fleet. He also has a slim, perpetually scowling wife, Lana (Lupino), whose every cutting remark Ed laughs off. He doesn’t see that she has eyes for Joe, nor how uncomfortable it makes Joe—who is with Cassie now. Ed doesn’t see the danger.
We do. At a party, Ed gets drunk, a disgusted Lana drives him home, and in the garage, staring at him asleep in the passenger seat, she gets an idea: a wonderful, horrible, awful idea. With the motor still running, she slowly eases herself out of the car and onto the driveway and past the censor that automatically closes the garage door—new tech which Ed proudly showed off earlier in the movie. And as the music wells, those doors close onto Ed like a tomb. Next scene, she’s tearfully explaining to the police how Ed must’ve driven himself home and… Sob!
I assumed the censor would be the clue that nails her—since how could the garage doors close unless someone walked past it—and it is, but not that way. It’s the blood stain for her Lady Macbeth. Anytime she sees a censor, she panics, and relives her crime. At Joe’s murder trial, she breaks down on the stand. There’s not even any suspense to it. She’s a state’s witness but she cracks without effort.
Stuff dreams are made of
After all that, Joe wants to leave Ed’s company but none of the rest of the guys are having it. So he stays on as president, with Paul by his side. They finally have their fleet of trucks, and good women at their sides. Yay.
None of it really works. Sometimes that happens no matter the talent involve. So you regroup and try again. Director Raoul Walsh regrouped and made “High Sierra” with Bogart. Then he regrouped again and made “Manpower” with George Raft and Edward G. Robinson as friends on an LA power-company road crew who compete for Marlene Dietrich. You get why Raft went that route. Him and Robinson and Dietrich? Seems like a winner. Makes way more sense than working with that rookie director who’s trying yet another version—the third version in 10 years!—of Dashiell Hammett’s silly novel about a black bird.
Tuesday May 12, 2020
Movie Review: Captains of the Clouds (1942)
Here’s some things James Cagney’s character, Brian MacLean, a hot-shot Canadian bush pilot, does in this movie:
- He steals clients from fellow pilots
- He steals the fiancée of a fellow pilot
- He causes serious injury to a young Royal Canadian Air Force pilot
- His suggestion to buzz the RCAF graduation ceremony causes his friend to die
That’s our hero.
I normally like Cagney but there’s very little to like about Brian MacLean. I like Cagney’s gangsters—the guys who kill people with a sneer—better than I like this guy. Is that true for most of Cagney's roles? His gangsters may break the law, but they have a code. Tom Powers, for example, who exploded onto the gangster movie scene in “The Public Enemy,” refused to sleep with his friend Paddy’s wife when she makes a pass. MacLean? He’d be all over that. Same with a lot of his other legit characters. Maybe there's a correlation there. If you break the law, you‘re still looking for some kind of boundaries; that’s your code. If you don't break the law, well, those are your boundaries. Do what you will within those. Codeless.
‘She’s not worth the following’
“Captains of the Clouds” is two movies. 1) Pilots struggle against each other in the Canadian bush; then 2) they struggle to join the RCAF after September 1, 1939. Both stories have problems. The second half is understandably heavy on patriotism: men in formation, planes in formation, etc. It can get a little dull. The first half, meanwhile, disses the girl to save the lead.
It begins well. One pilot after another lands in another beautiful, pristine Canadian location to bring goods and pick up deliveries, only to be told, nope, Brian MacLean beat you to it. And he’s doing it cheaper than you, too! After bitching and commiserating in a stopover diner, three of the pilots—handsome Johnny Dutton (Dennis Morgan), comic relief Blimp Lebec (George Tobias, playing French Canadian), and comic relief “Tiny” Murphy (Alan Hale, playing Alan Hale)—decide to go after him.
I always liked these kinds of opens: Where you keep hearing about the lead character before seeing the lead character. It was particularly effective in “Casablanca” with Bogie. Less so here. Cagney’s getting a paunch and for the first time he’s filmed in Technicolor. Was any actor better made for black and white? Plus, per above, he’s a bit of an asshole.
You know who was made for Technicolor? Brenda Marshall (nee Ardis Ankerson). We first see her at Lac Vert rushing up to the camera, all red hair and flaming red lips, breathless and excited on the dock. You watch her and wonder, “Wow. How did she not become a bigger star?”
Maybe because the characters she plays are so uneven? At first, Emily seems feisty. She’s expecting Johnny Dutton, her fiancé, and gets MacLean, who tosses heavy bags at her while flirting with a sneer. Then she warms to him—way too fast. He’s basically a lout but she finds him charming. That idiocy. If the MacLean role had gone to Clark Gable or Errol Flynn, I could see it. But Cagney? I mean, I love ya, kid, but c’mon.
Our three bushers eventually find MacLean, who engages in a high-flying game of chicken and leaves them in the dust. Later, at Lac Vert, unloading again, engaging in more feisty back-and-forth with Emily, MacLean is hit by his plane’s propeller and goes in the lac. Emily rescues him, nurses him back to health, and Johnny risks his neck to get a doctor from a nearby village. Is MacLean grateful? Not initially. He still steals Emily. One night, he kisses her, she kisses back, he says, “You see, either a fellow has it or he hasn’t.”
Initially he steals her because that’s his nature: Lout 101. He basically says the 1942 version of: “Who wouldn’t tap that?” But as he becomes partners and then friends with Johnny, Tiny and Blimp, he steals Emily, and marries her, for noble reasons. To save Johnny from her. It’s 180-degree turn for both him and the movie that is only vaguely explained. She’s bad news, she’d spend all his dough, she’d put him behind the eight ball. At one point I began to wonder: Is she a prostitute? “Everybody knows about it but you,” MacLean tells Johnny. “She’s nothing but a—” which, of course, is when Johnny decks him. Hays code. Later, Johnny shows up at Lac Vert and Emily’s dad tells him, “She’s not worth the following.” Yes, her dad. That's some cold shit. What happened to that lovely, feisty girl on the dock? Why give her that great intro only to toss her into the trash? Because you needed to make the lead look good? Because there’s a war on?
Once the Emily thing is in the rearview—MacLean dumps her on their wedding night, as he’d planned, albeit with a $4k alimony payment—suddenly everyone’s aware there’s a war on. We see recruitment posters for the Tank Corps, the Blackwatch, the RCAF. Heartbroken Johnny is the first to join. After Churchill’s Dunkirk speech (recreated by Miles Mander, as there was no audio recording of the original), our other pilots do the same. They show up thinking they’re hot shit but no one cares. Get your planes off the tarmac. 6,000 flight hours? Sorry, gramps, fighter pilots have to be 26 or younger. But you can train them if you like. MacLean tries, but he chafes under the regimentation—preferring flying by the seat of your pants. He insists on taking a young pilot out on a bombing run, keeps getting too close to the target, and the plane is caught in the explosion. The kid nearly dies.
Has he learned his lesson? Nah. Drummed out and drunk, along with Tiny, the two decide to divebomb the graduation ceremony—presided over by real-life World War I Canadian flying ace Billy Bishop, playing himself. Apparently this was a real graduation ceremony, too; Warners just filmed it. It’s a nice scene. Kids are joining the fight from all over, including the U.S., which had not entered the war yet:
Bishop: Where are you from, Grove?
Grove: Texas, sir.
Bishop: One of our most loyal provinces.
Grove: We think so, sir.
Bishop: Well, I think so, too.
Grove: Thank you.
Bishop: And we thank you for coming up here and helping us.
Then MacLean and Tiny show up. Tiny blacks out after a dive and crashes and dies. MacLean, whose idea it was, drops his head.
Again, that’s our hero.
‘Believe me, I would have’
I began to wonder if we’d see the source of conflict from the first half of the movie in the second. We do. The night before they ship out, Johnny, Blimp and Scrounger (Reginald Gardiner, playing dry, British comic relief, forever asking after tea), resplendent in their uniforms, show up at the super-fancy Club Penguin in Ottawa, and find Emily there. She’s resplendent, too, in evening gown, and she and Johnny talk. She comes clean.
Remember the bad things MacLean and her own father said about her? Well, now it’s her turn:
Brian married me for only one reason: to keep me from marrying you. To keep me from making a mess of your life. And I would have. Believe me, I would have.
That's so absurd it made me laugh out loud.
The movie has four screenwriters. Two of them—Roland Gillett, a Brit, and longtime B-movie writer Arthur T. Horman—never wrote another Cagney picture. They’re credited with the story, and Horman with dialogue. The others, Richard Macaulay (“The Roaring Twenties”) and Norman Reilly Raine (“Emile Zola,” “Each Dawn I Die”), were probably brought in to help fix it. Michael Curtiz directed. His next two movies would be “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Casablanca.”
The mission at the end is to get planes from Newfoundland to England, and for that they need civilian pilots, too. Which is when MacLean shows up, pretending to be “Tiny.” (Everyone thinks another pilot died in that plane crash.) We get a nice bit when they’re reading out names:
Soldier: Francis Patrick Murphy.
Almost to England, the unarmed planes run into a Messerschmidt, piloted by a steely-eyed, high-cheekboned German, and they’re all sitting ducks. Then MacLean breaks formation and flies by the seat of his pants. He basically kamikazes the Messerschmidt, and both fall into the ocean, but the rest of the men are saved. Johnny, leading the team, lets them know, “The landfall bearing 020 degrees straight ahead of you, gentlemen, is England,” and we hear a reprise of the faux Churchill speech, ending with “We shall never surrender.” And that’s our end.
There are a couple of firsts associated with “Captains of the Clouds.” It was the first Hollywood movie filmed entirely on location in Canada, and it's Cagney's first movie in Technicolor. Probably any kind of color. It was filmed during the summer and fall of ’41, but it wasn’t released until February ’42, so it was probably one of the first “war” movies released after Pearl Harbor. I’m sure it hit home. It was also Cagney’s fourth movie in which he played a pilot. Fun fact: He was actually afraid of flying.
Saturday December 14, 2019
Movie Review: Torrid Zone (1940)
In his 1974 autobiography, “Cagney By Cagney,” James Cagney dismisses “Torrid Zone” as “the same piece of yard-goods” and “really just a reworking of the Hecht-MacArthur play The Front Page.” He always thought of it as “Hildy Johnson Among the Bananas.”
He wasn’t wrong. It reteams the cast of “Angels with Dirty Faces,” stick them in (I guess) Central America, and divvies up the Hecht roles thus: Pat O’Brien, making his eighth and final movie with Cagney, and who played Hildy in the 1931 version of “Front Page,” has the Walter Burns role as hard-driving banana plantation owner Steve Case; Cagney’s Hildy is Nick Butler, the best manager of the plantation, who doesn’t want anything to do with it anymore, but keeps getting coaxed back; and Ann Sheridan, the Oomph Girl, making her second of three movies with Cagney, is Lee Donley, the cabaret-singing card shark. The man who escapes execution isn’t a railroaded innocent but a Latin American revolutionary, Rosario (George Tobias), while there’s fast-talking and double-dealing throughout. In the end, Case gets his man (Nick), Nick gets the girl (Lee), and Rosario gets away.
So he was right. He was also wrong:
I thought that just to effect some kind of change, I’d grow a mustache. It was really rather a silly-looking thing, but at least it was inoffensive.
Nah. It’s the worst thing in the movie.
We don’t see the star for the first 20 minutes or so—we just keep hearing about him. He’s left the banana plantation, is about to return to the states, and keeps sending taunting radiograms to Burns. Collect. Not a bad bit.
The first part of the movie is actually Sheridan’s. She shows up in Puerto Aguilar, where she sings Spanish-y songs in a sequin gown to comic, ogling Hispanics (played by Caucasian actors). “Fire her,” Case, the president of the Baldwin Fruit Co., tells the nightclub owner. He thinks American girls in the country cause trouble, and he’s probably not wrong, but he’s a petty tyrant. When Lee wins/cheats in cards, he has her arrested. He pressures the police chief into shooting the revolutionary, Rosario, a day early, but Rosario escapes. So does Lee, and she winds up with Nick Butler, cheats him at cards, and escapes once more. She winds up stowing away on the train to the banana plantation, unbeknownst to Nick, who’s back working for Case, and is riding on the train with his right-hand man, Wally Davis, played with the usual sing-songy distracted charm of Andy Devine.
The stowing away doesn’t make much sense. She’s on the lam from the law, and from Nick, so she ... follows Nick? Deeper into the jungle? With no baggage, just the clothes she’s wearing? It’s a white tropical suit—skirt, jacket, polka-dot blouse and white pumps—and doesn’t exactly scream ‘stowaway.“ Not smart. At Plantation No. 7, there she is, on the tracks, smirk on her face, but she’s got nothing to bargain with. Nick immediately asks for the card-money back, she feigns innocence, and he threatens to turn her upside-down and shake it out of her. Then he does just that.
Sheridan mostly pulls it off, though. She’s got a tough brassiness that works wells with Cagney’s. And she’s immediately at odds with Mrs. Anderson (Helen Vinson), who’s cuckolding her husband with Nick. That husband, by the way, the ineffectual manager in Nick’s absence, is played by Jerome Cowan, who, a year later, as Miles Archer in “The Maltese Falcon,” will be cuckolded by Bogart. One wonders how often Cowan got cuckolded in the movies. It’s a living, I guess.
Though Mrs. A is sleeping with two men, she’s kind of held in contempt by both—and us. “He was always begging me to marry him,” she says of Anderson. “Finally, he landed this job. So I did.” Now she’s clinging to Nick to take her back to Chicago. But it’s Lee who tells her off. At one point, she plants one on Nick, he drops his smoldering cigarette on the mat floor, where Lee picks it up and warns them about starting another Chicago fire.
Mrs. A: The Chicago fire was started by a cow.
Lee: History repeats itself.
Nick’s job, besides avoiding Mrs. A—or being caught in flagrante by Mr. A (the Hays Code seems surprisingly cool with all this)—is to get the bananas to port on time, but he’s continually sabotaged by Rosario, so he has to go into the mountains after him.
Here’s the thing: Though Rosario is an ostensible villain, and he’s played by a Caucasian actor—the longtime character actor, George Tobias, who would eventually play Agnes Kravitz’s put-upon husband on “Bewitched”—he’s probably the most likeable character on screen. He looks a bit like a spaghetti-western Eli Wallach, except not pinched by greed. He’s got a large, c’est-la-vie spirit. The second time in jail, he makes a play for Lee, learns she likes Nick, shrugs. “ There is an old native proverb: ‘Beautiful horses always love mules.’”
In the mountains, with his men, he lays out his plans:
This is what we do. We make things so bad, they can’t move a banana off the plantation. Then maybe perhaps they get tired. And they move away. Then we get our land back again, huh?
He’s not wrong.
”Torrid Zone" was directed by William Keighley (his fourth movie with Cagney), written by Richard Macauley (“The Roaring Twenties,” “Across the Pacific”) and Jerry Wald (who became a big-time producer, and may have been part inspiration for Sammy Glick, Budd Schulberg’s ruthless, backstabbing go-getter in the novel “What Makes Sammy Run?”), but its best-known filmmaker is probably the cinematographer, James Wong Howe. You can see his hand in some of the beautiful deep-focus shots in the nightclub at the beginning.
George Reeves, the future Superman, too, has a small role as a Rosario spy who winds up getting decked by Cagney with one punch. The politics in it are mostly distant. The idea that the U.S. banana company is there, and exploiting the country and its people, is mostly passed off as a fait accompli, or a joke at the expense of the inept locals in charge. But Rosario has his say.
Do we get a couple of anti-FDR references? That would be odd, given Warners and Cagney’s support at the time. Nevertheless, early on, Andy Devine’s character says “Nick’s silly, going back to the States. I hear it’s so tough, you gotta support yourself and the government on one income.” And when Case tells the local police chief, Rodriguez (Frank Puglia), that the people will throw him out in the next election, Rodriguez pronounces grandly, “Mr. Case, I do not believe in a third term.”
Yard-goods or not, “Torrid Zone” isn’t bad. The worst thing about it is the thing Cagney brought—that mustache.
Monday December 02, 2019
Movie Review: Blood on the Sun (1945)
A tough American man (with a hint of the gangster) and a beautiful woman (foreign, exotic) are trapped in an Axis country before America’s entry into World War II. The bad guys are closing in but our heroes are about to get away. Then at the last minute he tells her to go on without him. As she objects, he looks deeply into her eyes and says the following:
We’ve got jobs to do. Nobody gave them to us but they’ve got to be done. You’re my girl, aren’t you? All right then, you’re gonna do what I want you to do. I know it’s tough. Tougher to go than it is to stay. But you can’t hold ’em and I think I can.
Yeah, not exactly Bogart to Bergman in “Casablanca.”
Instead, it’s James Cagney to Sylvia Sidney in “Blood on the Sun,” a movie filmed in 1944 for Cagney’s nascent production company, but not released, via United Artists, until April 26, 1945—four days before Adolf Hitler killed himself. “Blood” is a movie set before the war but released just as the war was ending. (It still did well at the box office.)
Cagney, of course, was never Bogart in the romance department. The brilliance of Bogart was he was the toughest guy in the room but a woman could still break his heart. The brilliance of Cagney was he was the toughest guy in the room but a woman could ... shaddap.
Some of my best friends
Cagney plays Nick Condon, crusading managing editor of The Tokyo Chronicle, which, as the movie opens, prints a story about one of Japan’s leaders:
TANAKA PLANS ATTACK ON UNITED STATES
Apparently this was a real thing—or a real hoax. News stories about the “Tanaka Memorial”—plans to take over the world after attacking China and the U.S.—were first published in the late 1920s, got an English translation in the early ’30s, and treated by the U.S. government throughout World War II as the Japanese version of Mein Kampf, but most scholars today think it never existed. Even in the movie, Condon isn’t sure—a bit odd, given his headline—so he spends the rest of the movie chasing down leads to a story he’s already written. Not exactly Journalism 101.
Indeed, one of the movie’s villains, Joe Cassell (Rhys Williams), an American reporter in league with the Japanese, turns out to be more correct than our hero. He and Condon are introduced at an expat bar and discuss Condon’s story:
Cassell: Of course there’s not a grain of truth in it. You know that.
Condon: I don’t know anything. Do you?
Cassell: Quite a bit. Our Chinese cousins are trying desperately to shape public opinion against Japan.
Apparently he was right. Not bad for the bad guy. But here's the dialogue that made me do a double take:
Cassell: Not that I haven’t a tremendous admiration for the Chinese people.
Condon: I see. [Smiles] Some of my best friends are Chinese, huh?
Wow. So how long has that line been around? Not just people using the line, but using it ironically.
The New York Times archive isn’t that helpful. Its first “Some of my best friends are...” reference came in 1944, when this movie was being filmed, but it was in a review of a homefront novel playing off that phrase: “Some of My Best Friends are Soldiers.” It wasn’t until Russell Baker used it in a 1964 humorous op-ed about a Triborough bridge protest that we got the first ironic usage in the paper. Speaking in the voice of a commuter, Baker writes, “Some of my best friends are city dwellers but I don’t want to have them living across my fastest right-of-way.” By 1970, the Times will have eight such references, a year later it’s the title of a movie about a Greenwich Village gay bar, and we’re off to the races.
Thanks to Rick Santorum, though, we know it started much earlier than that. In the 2011 presidential election, CNN’s Don Lemon asked him if he had any gay friends, Santorum used a vague version of the line, and Bradford Plumer, in The New Republic, did a deep dive into the term. According to Plumer, it was used without irony in the first few decades of the 20th century by, among others:
- Democratic VP nominee John Worth Kern in 1908 (“...Republicans”)
- Baptist preacher John Roach Straton, objecting to Al Smith’s 1928 presidential run (“...Catholics)
- Hugo Black, 1937 nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, on his KKK past (“...Jews”)
Such forthright usage among the powerful (and racist) surely led to its ironic usage among the marginalized. Robert Gessner’s 1936 history of anti-Semitism was called “Some of My Best Friends are Jews,” for example. Either way, “Blood” seems ahead of its time here.
The movie is also ahead of its time in its treatment of martials arts. For the film, Cagney, a one-time boxer, trained under a judo master and kept going with the sport long after filming was over. He treated it seriously, and so does the film.
Anyway, shortly after Condon’s tete-a-tete with Cassell, one of Condon’s reporters, Ollie Miller (Wallace Ford), shows up at the bar flashing cash. He pays off old debts, buys new rounds, says sayonara to his colleagues. Where did he get the dough? He refuses to say. So does his wife, Edith (Rosemary DeCamp), whom Condon visits; she’s just happy they’re finally leaving Japan. Ever the friend, Condon shows up at the ship with a bottle of champagne but finds her dead, seemingly strangled, and him missing.
Later, Miller shows up at Condon’s place, shot, dying, with the Tanaka plan in his hand and the Japanese on his tail. Condon has to move fast—but where to hide it? Here, that Golden-Age Hollywood conceit that people keep framed photos of world figures on the wall comes in handy. (It was just a conceit, wasn’t it?) Condon is so international, it seems, he not only has a photo of Pres. Hoover in his bedroom but Emperor Hirohito, and he hides the Tanaka plan behind the latter, assuming the Japanese won’t disturb it. They don’t. They bow to it.
After a short judo battle, Condon is jailed (Cagney gets his usual down-and-out scruff), traduced (accused of drunken partying: “Find Nicholas Condon with two girls,” says Police Chief Yamada, tsking), but the Tanaka plan behind Hirohito’s picture has gone missing. Next thing we know, Condon is being forced to leave the country. Then he’s introduced, by Cassell, to Iris Hilliard (Sylvia Sidney), a half-Chinese woman who seems to be doing the bidding of the Japanese, and who may have been involved in the murder of the Millers.
Up to this point, the movie isn’t a bad espionage thriller. But the romance really doesn’t work. Are Cagney and Sidney too old for it? He’s still light on his feet but has that growing heaviness in his face and gut. She’s just returning from a four-year film hiatus, during which she had a child. It begins well enough. She's interested, he's suspicious of that interest—like Michael Caine in “Funeral in Berlin”:
Iris: Perhaps I like your looks.
Condon: Uh-uh. [Circles his face] Not with this.
Iris: There are maybe things about that I like.
Condon: Yeah? What?
Iris: I’ve always liked red hair.
Condon: Well, I grew it for you.
Iris: And the ears.
Condon: Two of those.
Iris: Isn’t that good?
Condon: More would be vulgar.
But our boy quickly gets dull. He drops doubt for randy come-ons and lame double entendres:
Iris: You know what this chase has done for me? Developed a ravenous appetite.
Condon [gives her the once over]: I’ve developed a few myself.
Iris [after saying she’s there to help Japanese women]: Why not? I’m a woman.
Condon [once over]: I’ve been aware of that for some time.
Oddly, once they become a couple—and it’s revealed that, yes, she was working with the Japanese, but as a kind of double agent, evidenced by the fact that she stole the Tanaka plan—Condon immediately seems past any love, or lust, and treats her with a kind of brisk paternalism: forehead kisses and cheek pats. There’s no heat whatsoever.
The scroll of the poet
The screenplay was written by Lester Cole (one of his last), with additional scenes by Nathaniel Curtis (his first), and again we get some not-bad moments. There’s a good back-and-forth, for example, between Prince Tatsugi (Frank Puglia), who is counseling a more peaceful path, and Premier Tanaka (John Emery), who isn’t. “I’m the scroll of the poet behind which samurai swords are being sharpened,” Tatsugi says. Good line.
If the Japanese aren’t all bad—interesting in itself in a WWII movie—none of them are Japanese. It's the usual Caucasian actors in yellowface. Besides Emery and Puglia, Robert Armstrong of “King Kong” fame plays Col. Tojo; John Halloran, an LA cop and judo expert, plays Condon’s nemesis Capt. Oshima; while Marvin Miller is the super-annoying, tsking Capt. Yamada. Miller is good at it. Cf., Kwon in “Peking Express.”
“Blood on the Sun” tries for the big finish. After his “Casablanca”ish goodbye to Sylvia Sidney, Condon battles Oshima (a judo challenge issued in the first act will go off in the third), wins, is chased down the wharf, and makes his way to the U.S. embassy. Then he’s shot. Dead? Nah. U.S. diplomat Johnny Clarke (a young Hugh Beaumont) takes him past the entreaties of Yamada, and Cagney delivers the film’s final line for an audience still at war: “Sure, forgive your enemies. But first, get even.” Pan back, welling music, THE END.
Doesn’t resonate. Wasn't the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Saturday November 23, 2019
Movie Review: The Masked Marvel (1943)
In many of the ur-superhero movie serials of the 1930s and ’40s, specifically “The Spider’s Web,” “The Shadow” and “The Green Hornet,” the true identity of the masked villain is unknown, and the likely suspects, a group of nondescript business leaders meeting regularly around a table, keep dropping like flies until we get the Big Reveal in the final chapter. Ah. Him. Sure.
“The Masked Marvel” reverses this conceit. It was 1943 so we knew who the villain was: Japan, here in the form of Mura Sakima (Johnny Arthur in yellowface), who, according to a helpful radio announcer in the first chapter, is “formerly Tokyo representative of the Worldwide Insurance Company, and secretly head of the Japanese espionage service...”
(Wait: Secretly? It’s on the radio. How secret can it be?)
What we don’t know is who the hero is. We’re told the Masked Marvel is one of four “ace investigators” for the same insurance company, all of whom are about the same size, with the same wide-shouldered gray suits, gray fedoras and gray personalities. But only one of them periodically puts on a black rubber face mask to fight crime as the Masked Marvel. But which one?
Here’s the burden of the home entertainment age: I actually tried to figure it out—pausing and rewinding, comparing and contrasting. I thought: “Well, that one’s got personality ... but is that to throw us off the track? Besides, his face isn’t lean enough. How about the one with the Southern accent? Or the stiff one with the Brooklyn accent? He’s the least likely, so ... maybe the most likely?”
Anyway, in the final chapter, we find out it’s the one with personality, Bob Barton (David Bacon). Ah. Him. Sure.
Except, in truth, the Masked Marvel was none of the above. He’d always been stuntman Tom Steele, nee Thomas Skeoch, born in Scotland in 1909, who was such a staple at Republic Pictures that some serial stars were chosen because of their resemblance to him, the stunt man, rather than vice versa. IMDb lists 440 stunt credits for him: from the Zane Grey-based “Lone Star Ranger” in 1930 to “The Blues Brothers,” “Scarface” and “Tough Guys” in the 1980s. Helluva career. He also has 219 acting credits, bit parts mostly. You might know him as the man who falls off the chair when Sheriff Black Bart rides into town in “Blazing Saddles.” Yeah, that’s the Masked Marvel. Tell your friends.
Except Steele was only the body of the Masked Marvel. His stentorian voice actually belonged to Gayne Whitman, nee Alfred Vosburgh, born in Chicago in 1890, who started out in silent movies, often fourth-billed, went on to minor, uncredited roles in ’30s talkies, then became a longtime radio announcer—voicing Chandu the Magician among others. I find this fascinating. Think about it: He had success in the silents, where he was seen but not heard; and on the radio, where he was heard but not seen; but less success in the talkies when you put the two together. He died in 1958. His New York Times obit is a paragraph long.
So we begin the serial trying to figure out which of four men is the Masked Marvel, and it turns out, on the production side, he’s three men. And the third, Bob Barton/David Bacon, is the most fascinating of all. And the most tragic.
Maguffins and traitors
Thanks to that helpful radio announcer, we learn a lot in the first few minutes of the serial. He lets us know about Sakima; then he lets us know that the Masked Marvel, a Republic Pictures invention, is already a legendary figure “who smashed the greatest crime ring the world has ever seen.”
Then he’s maybe a little too helpful.
He announces that the president of the Worldwide Insurance Company, Warren Hamilton (Howard Hickman), will deliver documents to the Masked Marvel with info that will lead to Sakima’s capture. Of course, Sakima is listening in. (Sakima is always listening in.) And Sakima sends his goons, including Killer Mace (Anthony Warde), to retrieve the documents. For good measure, they kill Hamilton in front of his daughter, Alice (Louise Currie), who cries out “Dad! Dad!” but seems to get over it pretty fast. In the aftermath, Martin Crane (William Forrest, top-billed), becomes the new president of the insurance company; the Masked Marvel shows up at the Hamilton place to keep “photostatic reproductions” from Mace; four same-sized investigators arrive to help protect Alice and the company; and the Masked Marvel returns to reveal his secret identity to Alice—but not to us.
Crane, by the way, is really working for Sakima. Which means the top-billed guy is the villain. And a traitor to America.
That’s always bugged me about these World War II-era serials with Japanese villains and American henchmen. It’s not like they’re doing dirty work for the usual masked underworld figure. They’re helping their country’s enemy defeat their country. Are they that dumb? Greedy? Short-sighted? I know it’s asking a lot of slap-dash serials, but you’d think someone would raise the issue at some point—like in Chapter 3 when Mace says it’s impossible to ambush a bullet-proof car and Sakima replies, “Nothing is impossible for the Japanese!” Or in Chapter 4 when they steal diamonds and Sakima says, “How unfortunate we cannot get these to Japan. They would be so useful to my people.” No second glances, Mace? No epiphany? No “Hey, wait a minute...”
As usual with serials, each episode has a new maguffin added, necessitating the good guys and bad guys converge, clash and cliffhang. In one chapter, they fight over a newly designed periscope; in another, precision parts for U.S. bombers. They tussle at an airplane factory, a seaside café, the rooftop of the Super-X Products Co., and at the Ferndale train depot.
Meanwhile, our insurance investigators get winnowed down. At the end of Chapter 8, it looks like the Masked Marvel is pushed from a rooftop but it’s really Jim Arnold, who isn’t the Masked Marvel. In Chapter 10, Frank Jeffers discovers Crane is in league with Sakima but is shot trying to get away. My favorite bit is when he radios ahead to Alice:
“Alice, tell the others ... they’re planning to blow up the train ... with the bomber parts ... just outside ... Ferndale. The man behind all this is ... uhhh ...”
I can just see 10-year-old boys in matinees across the country slapping their foreheads over that one
For completists, here are the cliffhangers:
|1||The Masked Crusader||MM is punched from a rooftop into a flaming truck, which blows up||He wakes up and runs away before the explosion|
|2||Death Takes the Helm||He fights a bad guy on a boat laden with explosives||Jumps out in time|
|3||Dive to Doom||Killer Mace punches MM down elevator shaft||The elevator is 10 feet below|
|4||Suspense at Midnight||Villain announces the identity of MM||He's wrong|
|5||Murder Meter||A bomb goes off in an aeroplane factory tunnel||MM escapes|
|6||Exit to Eternity||A truck, driving straight at MM, crashes through a wall||MM sidesteps it|
|7||Doorway to Destruction||Killer Mace shoots a rifle through a door and MM falls||He's not hit|
|8||Destined to Die||MM falls from a rooftop||It was Jim Arnold|
|9||Danger Express||MM is trapped in truck that goes over ravine||Elaborate! MM ties a rope to the truck's door and then around a passing tree, so the door is ripped off, allowing him to escape|
|10||Suicide Sacrifice||MM's car collides with train||He'd already jumped out|
|11||The Fatal Mistake||A live hand grenade drops on a boat with an unconscious Alice||She wakes up and dives off|
|12||The Man Behind the Mask||n/a||n/a|
The fight scenes aren’t bad. Amusingly, no one’s hat ever goes flying off—I guess that was a Tom Steele trademark. I particularly like the Frank Jeffers fight in the basement of Crane’s place in Chapter 10, although the double for Sakima is too big. I also like how Crane’s desk chair lowers into Sakima’s lair like a precursor to the Adam West batpole.
Feminists can take pride in the Chapter 3 cliffhanger. At first, it seems like the usual damsel-in-distress deal. Killer Mace and his goons have Alice tied up, crush a barrel beneath an elevator and say the same thing will happen to her if she doesn’t talk. She doesn’t. So she’s put in the elevator pit. “Bring it down ... slowly,” Mace says. Classic cliffhanger. Except that’s not the cliffhanger. The Masked Marvel shows up, stops the elevator, kills the guy operating it, and follows the bad guys to the 5th floor for yet another slugfest. In the meantime, Alice frees herself. The cliffhanger is when Mace punches the Masked Marvel into the elevator shaft. What saves him is ... Alice. She’s taking the elevator up to help him, so he only falls like 10 feet.
Another interesting sidenote. When the Masked Marvel finally catches up with Sakima in Chapter 12, he says this: “Alive or dead, you’re coming with me.” It’s almost word for word the catchphrase for 1987’s Robocop. Did they get it from here? It seems like it would be a common-enough action-hero phrase, yet I haven’t heard it anywhere else.
The lonesome death of Gaspar Griswold Bacon, Jr.
That said, there’s not much here here. The top-billed guy is an American traitor, Louise Currie is not my favorite serial heroine, while our hero is split into the three aforementioned parts: actor, voice, stunt man. Plus he’s not someone we imagined first on the radio or in comic books. He’s not Batman or The Shadow or even Green Hornet; he’s someone Republic Pictures imagined to make a buck. He’s basically a guy who looks like the Spirit but without the Spirit’s cool name or cool extras. Did Will Eisner contemplate a lawsuit? Or were guys in suits, fedoras and facemasks too common back then?
Some background on David Bacon, nee Gaspar Griswold Bacon, Jr., who came from a prominent Boston Brahmins family. His grandfather, Robert Bacon, was a business lieutenant to J.P. Morgan, ambassador to France, and briefly U.S. Secretary of State under Teddy Roosevelt. His father, Gaspar Griswold, Sr., was the president of the Massachusetts Senate in the 1920s and lieutenant governor in the 1930s.
David was educated at Harvard but went into acting—one assumes against family wishes. He became part of a theater troupe that included Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. Two years after Harvard, he moved to LA, and a few years later he was signed to a contract by Howard Hughes, who was thinking of him for Billy the Kid in “The Outlaw.” Instead, David got bit parts before Hughes loaned him out for this. “The Masked Marvel” opened on Nov. 6, 1943, but David wasn’t there to promote it or see it. He’d been dead for two months. Murdered. Literally stabbed in the back.
His death was written up in the Sept. 14, 1943 New York Times under the headline: “D.G. BACON IS SLAIN AS IN MOVIE ROLES”:
Clad in blue denim shorts and returning from a swim, Mr. Bacon lost control of his small, English-built automobile. It bounced over the curb and stopped [in a bean field]. He climbed out and collapsed. He died of a stab wound in the back, gasping his plea to Wayne Powell, a passer-by.
Witnesses said that Mr. Bacon’s car wavered along Washington Boulevard before leaping the curb. One woman said that she saw a black-haired man in the vehicle beside the driver, while a service station attendant a half mile west of the bean field said that a man and a woman, besides the driver, were in the car when it passed his place.
A few days later, the Times printed a UP story about how Bacon wrote a penciled will three months before his death, as if he were anticipating it. He left everything to his wife, Greta Keller, an Austrian concert singer 11 years his senior.
The bigger reveal came years later from his widow: He was gay, she was gay, theirs was a lavender marriage. There were other reveals, too. The cops found a camera in his car with one photo taken—David, on the beach, in the nude. Someone came forward saying David was being blackmailed. His widow thought Howard Hughes was involved. As with any Hollywood death, theories abound. It might make a good movie someday.
As for the Masked Marvel, this was it for him. One and done. Beyond the Green Hornet, masked men in suits and fedoras just didn’t survive into the true superhero age. One wonders if anyone still owns the rights to him.
The title card before every episode. He looks a lot like the Spirit there. One wonders if Will Eisner contemplated a lawsuit.
Here's what he looks like. Remember, kids: Never mixed Nitrolene and lend-lease gasoline.
In the serial's conceit, he's supposed to be one of these guys. (David Bacon is the right-most picture.)
In truth, he was always longtime Republic Pictures stuntman Tom Steele—even during non-stunt scenes.
Our yellowface villain.
Killer Mace, his henchman, who gives no thought to betraying America in its time of need.
Louise Currey as the damset in distress. But in one cliffhanger she‘ll save the day.
Ironically, tragically, two of the four actors who played tine the ace insurance investigators would be murdered within four years of the serial’s release.
The first and last insurance-investigator superhero. *FIN*