erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 1940s posts

Wednesday August 18, 2021

Movie Review: White Heat (1949)


In 2008, “White Heat” was voted the fourth-greatest gangster flick in Hollywood history by the American Film Institute, trailing only the first two “Godfather” movies and “Goodfellas,” and ahead of such classics as “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Pulp Fiction,” “The Public Enemy,” and both versions of “Scarface.” It’s the highest-ranked Cagney flick on IMDb, with an 8.1 rating, nudging out “Angels with Dirty Faces,” “One, Two, Three,” and “The Roaring Twenties,” all at 7.9. “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” has been quoted, or misquoted, everywhere and forever. Ed “Kookie” Burns imitated Cagney saying it in a 1960 episode of “77 Sunset Strip,” Bart Simpson says it several times throughout the “Simpsons” run, while the MST3K group repeated it so often they began to parody it: “Top of the pantry, Ma!”; “Top of the Wrigley Building, Ma!” When AFI ranked its top 100 movie quotes, “Top of the world” landed at No. 18.

So guess who didn’t like “White Heat” much? James Cagney.

In his 1974 memoir he calls it “another cheapjack job,” with a formulaic script “without a touch of imagination or originality,” and not much shooting time. He wanted his Irish Mafia pal Frank McHugh to play the role of Tommy Ryley, Warners said sure, then they said they couldn’t get him. “I found out later Frank had never been asked,” Cagney says.

The film also represented a defeat for him: his return to Warner Bros. and the despised Jack Warner—whom Cagney derided as the Shvontz, Yiddish for “prick”—after seven years of independent productions. During that time, Cagney and his brother Bill made four films. Two were gentle movies with literary pedigrees (“Johnny Come Lately” from the novel by Louis Brumfield, and “The Time of Your Life” from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by William Saroyan); and two were johnny-come-lately actioners (“Blood on the Sun,” a WWII movie released as the war was ending, and “13 Rue Madeleine,” an O.S.S. homage released a year after “O.S.S.”). “Time of Your Life” turned out to be the real problem. It went overbudget and bombed at the box office, and, as Cagney biographer John McCabe writes, “the Cagneys badly needed, badly wanted a success. They both recognized White Heat as it.” Thus Warners. And thus the gangster role Cagney had forever been trying to put behind him.

If you read between the lines, Cagney mostly dismisses “White Heat” for the experience of making “White Heat” rather than for the movie itself. But that doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t have problems. 

The original Waingro
Previous Cagney gangster flicks had been social-message movies about why men turn to crime: Tom Powers is corrupted by Putty Nose, Rocky Sullivan can’t run as fast as Jerry Connolly, Eddie Bartlett is a WWI “forgotten man.” None of that here. Here, it gets Freudian. The movie is based on a story by Virginia Kellogg, who based it on Ma Barker and her boys, with the four sons reduced to one. Apparently it was Cagney who suggested making Cody Jarrett psychotic; and it was Cagney who came up with the idea of sitting in Ma’s lap after she helps him through one of his debilitating headaches. The true shock of that scene is that it almost feels natural it’s acted so well.

They certainly don’t waste time getting to the Freudian: The opening shot is a train coming through a tunnel. They also don’t waste time giving us a classic Cagney line. During the train robbery, in front of the conductor, one of Cody’s men comments that the train’s burners are fancier than the ones he used on the C&O. That’s information—too much of it. Cody looks at the guy and says, “Shaddap!”

Four minutes in. I smiled.

A lot of the open is like the Waingro thing from Michael Mann’s “Heat.” Some guys just aren’t professional. The sloppy one here, Zuckie (Ford Rainey), not only says the above but calls Cody by name in front of the others. “Why don’t you give ’em my address, too?” Cody barks. Later, when the conductor says “You won’t get away with this, Cody,” Cody, after a glance at Zuckie, says, “You’ve got a good memory for names. Too good,” and shoots both him and his assistant in cold blood. Has a Cagney gangster ever shot a civilian before? An unarmed civilian? It’s the movie letting us know early on that this isn’t your father’s Cagney gangster.

Zuckie winds up paying heavily for his loose lips—but from karma rather than Cody. When the assistant is killed, he falls on a lever that releases boiling steam right into Zuckie’s face. The man then has to hole up with the rest of the gang in a mountain cabin, in pain, face and hands bandaged, mummified. When they make a break for it, they have to leave him behind—he’s too conspicuous—but then Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) warns Cody about how talkative he is, so Cody sends back his pal Cotton (Wally Cassell) to put him out of his misery. Cotton can’t do it; he shoots in the air. He thinks he’s doing a good deed, but instead of dying quickly, Zuckie, already mummified, dies slowly and painfully of exposure. That’s a helluva lot of karma for one “Cody.”

It’s at the mountain cabin that we see the movie’s early conflicts. Cody’s main rival for gang leadership is Big Ed (Steve Cochran), who is making eyes with Cody’s wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo), a lazy, complaining thing. If Cody knows there’s something between them he doesn’t care much. Maybe because he doesn’t care much for Verna? And maybe Verna senses this? She’s an opportunist, and while she’s with the No. 1 guy, she knows she’ll never be No. 1 in his heart. That spot is for Ma. So she takes his rival, too.

Big Ed has a slight Robert Mitchum thing going, but in a nice monologue Cody cuts him down to size:

You know something, Verna? If I turn my back long enough for Big Ed to put a hole in it, there’d be a hole in it. Big Ed. Great Big Ed. You know why they call him that? Because his ideas are big. Someday he's gonna get a really big one—about me. And it’ll be his last.

No one ever made “Big” sound so small.

It’s right after this speech that he gets a debilitating headache. That’s when Ma takes control. She pushes him into the bedroom, shuts the door, massages his head, talks him through it, then makes him wait before reappearing before the gang. He sits in her lap and they talk; then she gives him a shot of bourbon and tells him “Top of the world, son.” The later explanation for these headaches, which we get through Treasury Dept. officials, is that as a child he faked headaches to get Ma’s attention and now he gets them for real. To me, why he gets them is less important than what they mean for the story. They’re our pathway into knowing more about Cody and his mom; and they’re the pathway for undercover T-Man Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) to get into his good graces.

Let’s talk about that second headache. By this time Cody is in prison in Springfield, Illinois, having pled guilty to a lesser crime that happened concurrently with the train robbery. Fallon is undercover as “Vic Pardo,” with an eye on Cody. He tries to break the ice in the courtroom, then in the prison yard, then in the prison machine shop where he saves Cody’s life. Nothing works. Cody doesn’t trust nobody he doesn’t know. It’s only after Ma visits Cody and warns him about Big Ed that he puts two and two together about the machine-shop “accident”; and it’s only after Cody gets the second headache, and Pardo talks him through it like Ma did, and massages his head like Ma did, that Cody decides to trust him. He even gives him the old Cagney cheek pat.

We don’t know it yet but a kind of transference has taken place. The visiting-room scene is the last time Cody (and we) will see of Ma—she’s shot in the back by Verna, off-screen—and who’s there to take her place? This smart kid, Pardo. For the rest of the movie, he’s the guy Cody trusts. At one point, Cody salutes him with Ma’s catchphrase, “Here’s to us: Top of the world,” and splits his share with him, 50-50, which he’d only done with Ma before. He’s the son he never had. Part of me wonders if the movie would’ve been more interesting if Ma hadn’t died, for then she would’ve had a true rival in Pardo, rather than the shallow rival Verna always represented.

That said, Ma’s death is when the movie roars to life.

The original Joker
Before then, Cody was always back on his heels. After the train robbery, he: 1) holes up in the cabin; 2) holes up in a motel; 3) holes up in prison. He’s forever biding his time. It gets a little dull. Then he hears about Ma. Now he’s relentless, gunning for Big Ed and Verna and forever on the move, eating a chicken drumstick with one hand while killing a guy in his car trunk with the other. Whoever came up with the drumstick, the nonchalance of it, is a genius. It’s one of the best scenes in a movie filled with great scenes. It’s “Goodfellas” 40 years before “Goodfellas.”

And then just as suddenly the air goes out of the movie again. Once he’s killed Big Ed (after Verna lies about who killed Ma), all the old conflicts are resolved: Ma’s dead, Big Ed’s dead, and Verna is muted. With a half hour left, it’s like the movie needs to regroup. The transition is almost comic. We go from Cody pushing Big Ed’s body down the stairs—“Catch,” he says to his men with that Cagney sneer, as the soundtrack music wells up—to a close-up of a ceramic tchotchke, a woman carrying a bowl, into which Cody is quietly tossing coffee beans. Tink. Tink. Tink. His men are gathered around a dining table with a new caper but they can’t get him interested. He’s like a kid, a motherless child, but it leaves the movie slightly adrift. What now?

Well, three things. We get the new caper—a payroll heist of a chemical plant. The movie also introduces us to an operator above Cody, Winston, AKA “the Trader” (Fred Clark), whom Cody calls “my manager.” It’s an 11th-hour inclusion that feels a little lame, to be honest. Finally, and most important, we begin to get a sense of Cody not as some malicious unstoppable force, or a crazy mama’s boy, but as a regular guy. He takes Pardo into his confidence. He admits he walks around at night talking to his mother. “That sound funny to you?” he asks. “Some might think so.” He opens up about his dad in the nuthouse and how his mom always propped him up. The two men drink together with Verna, who gets excited about traveling to Paris. They feel like regular people here. You almost begin to feel sorry for Cody. The two closest people in his life are an undercover Fed and the woman who killed his beloved mother.

All of which raises the question: Just how nuts is Cody? Sure, he loses it in the prison mess hell, climbing over everything and blindly fighting everybody to get away from the mere knowledge of his mother’s death. Cagney, as a kid, once visited a friend’s uncle at a hospital for the insane on Ward’s Island. “My God, what an education that was!” he says in his memoir. “The shrieks, the screams of those people under restraint.” Those are the noises he’s making as he’s fighting the guards. And yet, in the next scene, Cody is totally lucid, plotting with Tommy Ryley (Robert Osterloh), and for the rest of the movie his mental state seems to improve. No headaches, for example. He loosens up. Pardo is good for him. He’s someone to take over, as Cody took over from Ma.

No, what really sends Cody over the edge is the great betrayal, when he finds out that Pardo is a copper, a lousy copper, and that he’s truly alone in the world. Cagney’s reaction shot to this is underrated—smiling through the pain and tears in his eyes. That’s when the giggle enters his voice. That’s when, giggling and fighting amid the industrial landscape, he seems like the first-onscreen version of the Joker. He even begins talking about himself in the third person, as if he’s narrating his own story:

They think they got Cody Jarrett. They haven’t got Cody Jarrett, you hear? They haven’t got him. And I’m going to show you how they haven’t got him.

Is this a first for a Cagney movie? This third-person talking? Either way, Ryley, the last man standing in his gang, sees where Cody is going (taking the stairs up and up to disaster, the mirror image of John Garfield taking the stairs down and down in “Force of Evil”), and he tries to surrender to the cops; but Cody, giggling, shoots him in the back. This is where Cagney’s wished-for casting really would’ve had an impact. That was supposed to be Frank McHugh. Imagine Cagney shooting his old Irish Mafia pal in the back. Wow.

And then another wow: the famous ending. Rather than surrender, Cody goes out in a blaze of glory, shouting the words Ma drummed into him. Did he get the irony of it? I think he did. Were the explosions supposed to remind 1949 audiences of the A-bomb? I think they were. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t end there. The original story was just as much police procedural as gangster tale until writers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts scaled the police part back—just not enough. The cops keep showing up: flat, institutional men talking oscillators and transmitter wavelengths and cross-plotting at a bearing of 210 degrees. It’s Dick Tracy decoder-ring stuff without the gee whiz. And the movie gives them the last word. It doesn’t go out on top, with No. 18 on the AFI list, but pans back to the T-Men watching it all in the flickering light of the fires Cody created:

Evans [dismissive]: Cody Jarrett.
Fallon: He finally got to the top of the world. And it blew right up in his face.

They’re the guys explaining the joke that everyone gets.

The original
Anyway, those are some of my problems with the film: our lead is back on his heels too much, the movie needs to regroup 30 minutes before the end, and the police procedural stuff is flat. Director Raoul Walsh films it flat, too, documentary style. Warners’ chinciness didn’t help.

It’s still a great movie. Howard Hawks once said that a good movie is three good scenes and no bad scenes, and while the police procedural is dull there are more than enough great scenes to make up for it. When Cagney’s on the screen, the movie is on. He’s also got a nice supporting cast. Virginia Mayo just pops; there’s not a false note there. I love her spitting out her gum before kissing Cody, or the way she attempts to ingratiate herself with the T-Men—an opportunist to the end. She also gets the Mae Clarke treatment: knocked off a chair rather than the grapefruit to the face. Cagney liked her so much he requested her for his next Warners movie, the musical “The West Point Story,” even though she had to learn to dance. Then there’s Margaret Wycherly, a British stage actress, who played Ma with a matter-of-fact maliciousness. She’s all business and task No. 1 is her boy. You get why Cody loves her.

“White Heat” is a good end to Cagney’s Warner Bros. gangster cycle, recalling the first, “Public Enemy,” more than the middle two, “Angels” and “Roaring Twenties,” where Cagney is essentially an orphan and nice guy. Here, as in “Enemy,” he’s got Ma and that sneer. “Ruthless is back!” the ads proclaimed, and it was, even if, at times, on quiet nights when it couldn’t sleep, it still wandered around talking to its mother.

The happy couple.

Posted at 08:23 AM on Wednesday August 18, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  

Sunday July 04, 2021

Movie Review: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)


Do we have Martin Dies and the aptly named John L. Leech to thank for “Yankee Doodle Dandy”?

Dies (pronounced “Dees”) was a U.S. congressman from Texas, who, from 1937 to 1944, chaired the Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities, also known as the Dies Committee, which was the predecessor to HUAC. Leech was a government witness for Dies who accused James Cagney and more than 40 Hollywood artists and artisans of being communists. His accusations made the front page of The New York Times in mid-August 1940. A week later, the stars were cleared … on pg. 21 of the Times. 

So who exactly was John L. Leech and why did he say these terrible things about Jimmy Cagney? I spent a recent weekend doing a deep dive on trying to figure it out. It’s quite the journey.

In the early ’30s, Leech twice ran for political office in Los Angeles on the communist ticket, got swamped both times, then showed up a few years later in Portland, Ore., working as a house painter while acting as a government witness in the deportation hearing of west coast labor leader Harry Bridges, whom Leech accused of being a communist. It was a huge story in the summer of 1939. In the end, Bridges won the case, while the dean who adjudicated, James M. Landis, had strong words about Leech:

“It is impossible accurately even to summarize this day and a half of testimony by Leech. In evasion, qualification, and contradiction it is almost unique. Its flavor cannot be conveyed by a few scattered abstracts from the record, for the evasions are truly labyrinthine in nature.”

Apparently to Martin Dies, this meant someone he could work with. Just a year later came the headlines accusing Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Frederic March, Franchot Tone, Jean Muir, Fritz Lang, Clifford Odets, and many others of being communists. In his testimony, Leech said that Cagney was both a Communist Party member and contributor, who, since 1934, was so important he dealt directly with the central committee. Leech also said Bogie attended communist study groups and contributed $150 a month. The reaction from the stars was swift. “I have never contributed money to a political organization of any form,” Bogart said. “That includes Republican, Democratic, Hollywood Anti-Nazi League or the Communist party.” He then asked for the chance to face his accuser. Frederic March said the same. “Mr. Leech is an unmitigated liar. … I will welcome the opportunity to meet Mr. Leech face to face and call him a liar.”

William Cagney spoke for Jimmy:

“As his brother and manager I say that Jimmy is not a Communist, never was a Communist, and never will be a Communist. Neither is he in sympathy with the Communist cause in any way whatsoever. … He did give a donation six years ago for food and clothing to the starving women and children who were the innocent victims of the San Joaquin Valley cotton strike. This was purely a humanitarian gesture, as are his contributions to the Community Chest, the Red Cross, the Motion-Picture Relief Fund and other deserving groups.”

Bogie was the first to get his name cleared, followed by March. A few days later, despite a lifelong fear of flying, Cagney made a cross-country planetrip to meet Dies in San Francisco and get the all-clear sign. In all, everyone Leech accused but one (Lionel Stander) was cleared. Think of that. There were communists in Hollywood, particularly among screenwriters, but Leech’s scattershot accusations only managed to net one. Leech was not just a rat, he was a dirty rat. He accusations were filled with lies.

And he kept doing it! That’s the amazing thing. In a 1944 congressional race, some of Leech’s previous testimony—accusing  U.S. Rep. Franck R. Havenner of communist ties—surfaced. Havenner still won his election but it smarted, and in office he denounced Leech’s testimony as “malicious perjury,” called the now-defunct Dies Committee a “star chamber,” and demanded Leech be subpoenaed for questioning. Didn’t happen. Instead, HUAC was formed, and in a few years it would make the Dies committee look like pikers.

Meanwhile, Leech kept going. In May 1949, his name surfaced as a government witness in deportation hearings in LA. Two months later, he’s the government witness in deportation hearings in Seattle. A year after that, it’s back to LA for more scare headlines and deportation hearings. Almost no newspaper mentioned his previous discredited testimony.

But someone finally called him on his shit. On May 9, 1951, the Spokesman-Review printed a small AP story about Jacob Kaufmann of Spokane, Wash., who had been ousted from the Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers of America for alleged communist ties. He was now suing his union for libel, and one member, John L. Leech, for slander. The following year, Kaufmann was publicly cleared of all allegations, and Leech was forced to sign an affidavit stating that Kaufmann was not a communist “and statements made linking him to Moscow were due to mistaken identity.” Then this:

Kaufman, whose slander suit against John L. Leech as the outgrowth of the charges was settled out of court after the plaintiff’s testimony was completed in a Superior Court trial last month, also is to receive a nominal sum for damages.

John L. Leech spent more than a decade accusing powerful labor leaders, politicians and Hollywood stars of having communist ties, and he kept getting away with it and getting away with it. And then a house painter brought him down.

Anyway, back to “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

In 1940, Bill Cagney was rattled enough by the bad publicity surrounding Leech’s accusations that he went looking for vehicles to wash away the taint from his brother. And along came this biopic about the flag-wavingest song-and-dance man to ever hit the Great White Way. And he was Irish to boot.

For a time, the biopic property was with Samuel Goldwyn Co., with Fred Astaire—Cohan’s choice—considered for the lead. After Astaire passed, and the project went to Warner Bros., Cagney was suggested. “Cagney? The gangster guy?” Cohan supposedly said. “Can he dance?” Told he could, he asked if he could sing. “Not much, but neither could you.”

Believe it or not, Cagney had his problems with the project, too. He was a strong union man—a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild, its president in 1942—while Cohan had refused to join Actors Equity, and as a producer opposed a 1919 strike by the group. When Cagney got past that, he had a problem with the original screenplay by Robert Buckner—not funny enough, he said—and demanded that the Epstein brothers, Julius and Philip, who had done such good work on “The Strawberry Blonde,” punch it up.

Eventually, with Warners pushing, and brother Bill pulling, Cagney agreed to star in what he’d always wanted to star in: a big-budget musical. It was one of the highest-grossing movies of the year, won him his only Oscar, and in 2007 was voted by the American Film Institute as the 98th greatest Hollywood film of all time.

And all because of a dirty rat.

Such, such are the joys
I’m curious how the original script ended. In the final version, FDR gives George M. Cohan the Congressional Medal of Honor—“the first person of your profession to receive this honor”—Cohan does a jaunty wing-step down the White House stairs, then walks out into the D.C. night, where a parade is going by: new recruits for World War II singing Cohan’s WWI hit “Over There.” He joins the marching but not the singing. One soldier, calling him “Old Timer,” asks if he doesn’t remember the song. “Seems to me I do,” Cohan replies. “Well, I don’t hear anything,” the guy responds. So Cohan starts singing, tears in his eyes. And ours.

But this couldn’t have been the ending in the original script. Production began Dec. 3, 1941, four days before Pearl Harbor, and five days before we declared war on Japan. Warner Bros. was the first studio to pull out of Germany and the first to make real anti-Nazi movies, but even with that pedigree I can’t imagine they’d end a movie with contemporary U.S. soldiers singing “Over There!” if we weren’t already at war.

I admit I have trouble being impartial about “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” I saw it as a kid on TV some weekend afternoon in the ’70s and fell in love. I wasn’t the only one. When he was 5, John Travolta watched it on “The Million-Dollar Movie” on local New York TV, and became so enamored of the film and its star that his mother used to get him to do his chores by telling him Jimmy Cagney was on the phone telling him to do them.

That said, the movie is a little cornball. I have less trouble with the flag-waving than with all the talk about “the people” and their wisdom: “I’m an ordinary guy who knows what ordinary guys like” kind of stuff. The female lead, Joan Leslie, all of 16 when production began, is so sweet it makes your cheeks hurt, while the FDR portrayal is overdone and stentorian. Then there’s the racial matters: the Cohans doing a number in blackface; the quiet black servants constantly waiting on the white stars; and the Negro spiritual during the superpatriotic “George Washington Jr.” None of it has aged well.

But it’s got Cagney in Cohan numbers, and that makes it worth it. The centerpiece of the film, the “Little Johnny Jones” production on Broadway in 1904, which made a huge star out of Cohan, kills me every time. I get such joy watching it. Watching him. Cagney lights up and lights us up. Most people assume the way Cagney dances here is the way he normally danced, but it’s not. He’s imitating Cohan. He’s acting the dance.

It is amusing to think about the story told in “Little Johnny Jones.” An American jockey goes to London to win the English Derby Cup but loses so badly everyone assumes he threw the race. Eventually he’s cleared, which is another light-up moment, and the play’s happy ending. But doesn’t that mean he was just … bad? Our happy ending is that Little Johnny Jones isn’t a cheat, he’s just overrated.

(The real Cohan musical was more complicated and melodramatic, involving a girlfriend, a San Francisco gambler, and kidnapping. Cohan based it on Tod Sloan, a flashy, well-dressed—thus: “dandy”—American jockey who popularized the modern forward-riding style, became an international celebrity, and was invited to England to race for the stable of the Prince of Wales—eventually Edward VII. A year later, Sloan was accused of betting on his own races, there was no flare exonerating him, and despite scant evidence he was banned from the sport in both Britain and the U.S. for life. Secondary careers, including in Hollywood, never took off. He went broke in the 1910s and died in 1933, age 59.)

I’m also amused by the framing device for the film. Cohan, long retired to the family farm, has returned to the stage as FDR in the triumphant Rodgers, Hart and Kaufman musical “I’d Rather Be Right,” which debuted in 1937 though the movie makes it contemporary. Amid post-show banter he gets a telegram from the big man himself, asking him to the White House, and he assumes he’s in trouble. Of course not. It’s the Congressional Medal of Honor. But he doesn’t get that until the end of the movie. First, he tells the president—who, remember, is presiding over a country that’s just entered a world war—his entire life story. One can’t help but wonder if FDR ever snuck a glance at his watch.

We see Cohan’s birth on the Fourth of July (in reality, a day earlier), then his early, bratty days. He performs the song his father, Jerry (Walter Huston) has sung, an Irish ditty called “Keep Your Eyes Upon Me,“ at age 7, played by Henry Blair. Better is when he progresses to pre-teen world and is played by curly-haired Douglas Croft. Neither boy tries to do a Cagney the way Frankie Burke did in “Angels with Dirty Faces” (and, to a lesser extent, the way Frankie Darro managed in “The Public Enemy” before the roles were switched), but Croft is excellent both on stage in “Peck’s Bad Boy” and backstage as the little diva who gets a licking from the Brooklyn kids, then from his father after his vanity ruins a high-paying vaudeville gig.

(Croft is his own sad story. In 1942 alone, he played boyhood versions of Gary Cooper (“Pride of the Yankees”), Ronald Reagan (“Kings Row”), Glenn Ford (“Flight Lieutenant”) and Cagney. A year later, he became the first cinematic Robin, the Boy Wonder, in the Columbia movie serial “Batman.” Then he served in WWII, technician 5th grade, suffered a motorcycle accident in 1947, and doesn’t have a credit after that. He died in 1963, from acute alcohol intoxication and liver disease, age 37.)

That spanking from his dad is supposed to set Georgie right but it never does. Cohan remains cocky—but now with the Cagney twinkle—and his ego keeps losing the family gigs. He’s basically Dustin Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey from “Tootsie” but suffering from vanity rather than perfectionism. At their boarding house, overhearing he’s a liability, he pretends he’s just sold a musical and urges mom, dad and sis (Jeanne Cagney) to go on the road themselves. It all works out because he keeps meeting cute: his future wife, Mary, who thinks he’s the old man he’s been playing onstage; and his future partner, Sam Harris (Richard Whorf), when the two scam Schwab (S.Z. Sakall) into backing “Little Johnny Jones.” It’s an odd scam. Harris is pitching a play Schwab isn’t interested in, Cohan interrupts, pretends to be Harris’ partner, and pretends they have a meeting with another money-man about his play—which is exactly the kind of thing Schwab is looking for. So wouldn’t it make more sense for Cohan to pitch “Little Johnny Jones” himself? Without the subterfuge? As a kid, I always enjoyed their friendship but as an adult I keep thinking, “What does Sam Harris do exactly?”

For the record
Should we talk about the songs? As a kid, I always loved the “Harrigan” number he and Mary perform, to no avail, before Dietz and Gotz. It’s an Irish song, about an Irish man, with Cagney turning the Irish up to 11. I just remember being thrilled. I loved “Mary,” too, and often helplessly sing it in my head when I meet a Mary. I like the rhythms and rhymes in the opening stanza of “Yankee Doodle,” and I like how Cagney comes in a beat behind for the first chorus. “Over There” is rousing but “Grand Old Flag” was never my bag—although “emblem of/land I love” scans well. And the song has obviously lasted.

The brunt of the movie contains three big musicals from Cohan’s heyday: “Little Johnny Jones” (which includes “The Yankee Doodle Boy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway”); “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway” (the title song, “Mary Is a Grand Old Name”); and “George Washington Jr.” (“Grand Old Flag”). Between the first and second musical we get Cohan’s marriage to Mary and the wooing of actress Fay Templeton (Irene Manning), and between the second and third we get the comic back-and-forth between Cohan and theatrical rival Eddie Foy (Eddie Foy Jr.). Warners was grooming Manning to be a star, so she gets a lot of screen time, but I’m not sure “Yankee Doodle” served her well. We wind up not liking her much. Cohan, the biggest thing on Broadway, has to come hat-in-hand to her? And she turns him down and insults him? Then she insists on singing “Mary,” which he’d written for his wife? Plus the ”Forty-Five Minutes" musical flags a bit without Cagney on stage. Manning just doesn’t have that Warners vibe. She’s more MGM.

Cohan is considered the father of the American musical so it would’ve been nice to see more of what he was displacing, and why he was considered so fresh. And shouldn’t he also be considered the father of American sampling? Many of his songs contain snatches of earlier songs. In the “Grand Old Flag” sequence alone, we hear snippets of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Auld Lang Syne,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Was he the first to do this or was it a common practice back then?

The movie gives us a sense of why he ended, though. After WWI, there’s a nice montage—by Warners’ montage master Don Siegel—with the camera wandering around the Broadway lights in the late teens and ’20s, and landing on different Cohan musicals, from which we hear a few lines. It’s supposed to demonstrate his ubiquity but it also demonstrates his lack of range: “Nellie Kelly” sounds a bit like “Molly Malone,” which sounds a bit like “Billie,” which sounds a lot like “Mary Is a Grand Old Name.” Cohan is becoming derivative. Of himself.

If the first third of the movie is his struggle and rise, and the second third is his ascendance, the movie falters a bit with the final third, when things fall away. Sister Josie gets married and decides to leave the act, and mom and dad do the same. We get a sappy bit where Georgie makes Dad his equal partner. We get another bit where Cohan tries to write a drama and fails. Mom and Josie die off camera, the father famously on camera. (The scene brought director Michael Curtiz to tears.) Cohan and Harris part company, Cohan and Mary travel the globe, then there’s a restless retirement on the farm. Those damn kids in their jalopy stop by, like a Paleolithic version of Archie’s gang, and don’t know who he is. That’s about when Sam Harris needs help, so Cohan returns in “I’d Rather Be Right.” 

As a kid I was confused by a dancing FDR—“Didn’t they know he had polio?” I asked my father—but the number we see, Rodgers and Hart’s “Off the Record,” totally works. I particularly like the verse they added for WWII:

And for my friends in Washington who complain about the taxes
Who cares as long as we can knock the axe out of the Axis?
Don't print it—strictly off the record

I can’t forget how Lafayette helped give us our first chance
To win our fight for liberty, and now they’ve taken France
We’ll take it back from Hitler and put ants in his Japants
And that’s for the record!

On the last two lines, Cagney breaks the fourth wall, talking directly to the camera as if he’s calling out Hitler and Tojo. I get chills watching it now. Can’t imagine how thrilling it must’ve been when the movie was released in the early, dark days of the war, when we were still slightly staggered from the sucker punch. There he was, our favorite movie tough guy, dressed as our longtime president, laying down the law. It’s moments like these that help me forgive the movie its shortcomings, and urge me to return to it again and again.

A pretty good part
“Yankee Doodle Dandy” premiered on May 29, 1942, about a week before the Battle of Midway, and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Picture, Director and Supporting Actor for Huston. It won three: Sound Recording, Musical Score, and Actor. Cagney’s acceptance speech was, like him, short and modest. 

I’ve always had the feeling ever since coming into it, that you can only be as good as the other fellow thinks you are—or, I might add, as bad. And it seems that quite a number of people have thought a good job has been done, and that makes me very happy. And just one added thought: I might say it was a pretty good part. Thank you.

Some irony. Cagney had finally gotten the type of role he’d longed for at the Warners factory: not another gangster or hot-shot pilot but what he was: a song and dance man. Ever since 1938, though, he’d had an out clause in his contract. At the conclusion of any film, if he felt his relationship with the studio had become toxic, he could walk. This is what he and brother Bill did after “Yankee Doodle,” just when he and Warners had begun making beautiful music together. Shame. For five years, and four undistinguished pictures, the Cagneys were on their own. They only returned when they ran into financial trouble. His first movie back? “White Heat.” One can’t help but wonder what else they might’ve made if he’d stuck around. 

“Yankee Doodle” presages Cagney’s own retirement to his farm on Martha’s Vineyard in 1961—though I doubt, like Cohan, he was reading Variety there. Eventually Cagney was persuaded to return to work, too, for a small part in Milos Foreman’s “Ragtime.” Like Cohan’s, this return took place exactly five years before his death. “Ragtime” was 1981, Cagney died in ’86. “I’d Rather Be Right” was 1937, Cohan died on Nov. 5, 1942, age 64.

Cohan did get to see the picture before he passed. He’d long fought with Warners over what parts of his life to portray—Mary, for example, is an attempt to gloss over the fact that he had two wives, neither named Mary—but after watching the film in in his home in Monroe, New York, he cabled Cagney this simple message: “How’s my double? Thanks for a wonderful job. Sincerely, George M. Cohan.”

Posted at 08:34 AM on Sunday July 04, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  

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.

Posted at 08:40 AM on Friday December 18, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  

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:

She: Joseph?
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.

Posted at 07:59 AM on Wednesday November 11, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  

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.

Three women
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.

Posted at 07:24 AM on Tuesday September 15, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  

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.
Worker: Who?
Old Timer: Young Samson. He’s got to win.
Worker: Why?
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.

Page 21
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.

Posted at 07:50 AM on Tuesday September 08, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  

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...”

“13 Rue”:

“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.
Gibson: What?
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."

Posted at 08:12 AM on Monday August 31, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  

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.

Posted at 08:38 AM on Wednesday July 08, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  

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.

Vaguely threatening
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.

Posted at 07:31 AM on Tuesday June 16, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  

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.

Sleepy Paul
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.

Posted at 07:20 AM on Tuesday June 09, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  

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:

  1. He steals clients from fellow pilots
  2. He steals the fiancée of a fellow pilot
  3. He causes serious injury to a young Royal Canadian Air Force pilot
  4. 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.
Cagney: Here.
Soldier: Irish?
Cagney: Close.

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.

Posted at 08:30 AM on Tuesday May 12, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  

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.

Chicago fire
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.

Third terms
”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.

Posted at 09:24 AM on Saturday December 14, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  
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Twitter: @ErikLundegaard