Movie Reviews - 1930s posts
Saturday June 12, 2021
Movie Review: Employees' Entrance (1933)
I’ve seen a lot of pre-code movies, so I know the score, but “Employees’ Entrance” still shocked me.
Warren William plays Kurt Anderson, general manager of Franklin Monroe & Co. department store, who is also the worst aspects of capitalism personified. “My code is smash—or be smashed,” he says. When a clothier, Garfinkle (Frank Reicher), can’t deliver all of an order for an advertised sale, Anderson cancels the order and sues the man for the advertising and estimated loss on the sale—ruining him in the process. When his right-hand man, Higgins (Charles Sellon), offers no new ideas to boost sales, Anderson not only fires him but insults him out the door—calling him old, sick, dead wood. Later, Higgins commits suicide, and while everyone stands around distraught, Anderson offers this eulogy: “When a man outlives his usefulness, he ought to jump out a window!”
Yet somehow this horror show comes off as the hero of the story. Maybe because he’s true to his code? He tells off subordinates and superiors equally. He sneers at softness and praises and promotes ruthlessness. When Denton Ross (Albert Gran), a jolly executive, admires Anderson’s tenacity, Anderson responds, “Beginning to like me, eh? I despise you for that.” When his new right-hand man, Martin (Wallace Ford), storms into Anderson’s office with a bottle of poison, threatening to kill him, Anderson offers the man a gun: “Go ahead—and don’t miss.” When Martin hesitates, Anderson calls him yellow. When Martin merely wings him, Anderson says dismissively, “You can’t even shoot straight, can you?”
All of which is kind of fun. But then there are the rape scenes.
In their place
“Employees’ Entrance” is ostensibly a Depression-era romance between the up-and-coming Martin and the bewitchingly beautiful Madeline (Loretta Young), who models clothes for customers at the store. But every romance needs its complication, and the complication here is Anderson, their boss.
Martin is an up-and-comer because he has good ideas—putting the men’s briefs near the women’s dept., for example, since wives tend to buy for their husbands—and also because he’s ruthless. Anderson overhears him refusing to pay an artist for subpar work, then dismissing him with contempt, and he’s so impressed he offers him Higgins’ job. Then he peers in close.
Anderson: You’re not married are you? … This is no job for a married man. Where would I be with a wife hanging around my neck?
Martin: Don’t you like women?
Anderson: Sure, I like them. In their place! But there’s no time for wives in this job. Love ’em and leave ’em—get me?
Martin gets him. Except he’s just begun a romance with Madeline; and when they marry, they have to keep it secret from the boss. That’s the complication—or part of it. The bigger part is that earlier in the movie Anderson rapes Madeline.
That’s how we’d view it today anyway. Did Warner Bros. in 1933? Or society at large? Nah. A cursory search of the movie’s 1933 reviews indicates a “both sides” kind of thing: what girls do for a $10-a-week job; how employers take advantage. It's how the movie was marketed: titillation with a wink.
Here’s how it goes down. We open on a pullback shot of a busy department store over which we get its annual sales figures—$20 million in 1920—and then a 10-second vignette of a longtime employee getting fired by the unseen Mr. Anderson. Through the 1920s we go, with the ruthless Anderson raising annual sales to $100 mil by 1929. After the Wall Street Crash, sales dip to $45, and the board meets with concerns of Anderson’s overzealousness, suggesting he get a handler, but Anderson will have none of it. He demands twice the salary and no supervision or he’ll go to their competition. Then he insults all of them, particularly the fatuous owner Mr. Monroe (Hale Hamilton).
William is great in the role. With his angular face, sloe eyes, prominent, dignified nose and moustache, he already has a wolfish aspect, and he makes the most of it. One night, patrolling the store after hours, he hears a piano playing in a “model home” and investigates. It’s Madeline. The conceit is she’s homeless and hungry and needs a job, but at the same time she’s as put-together as a young Loretta Young. And if she's hiding there, why the piano playing? Kind of a giveaway. Anyway, sensing all this, the wolf closes in. He agrees to feed her; he agrees to give her a job. Then when she tries to leave, he closes the door and looms close.
Anderson: You don't have to go, you know.
Madeline: Oh, yes I do.
Anderson: No, you don't.
At which point he kisses her. Kisses? More like mashes his lips against her unresponsive ones. Fade out.
That’s the first instance. The second, which occurs at the annual office party, is even worse. By this time, Martin and Madeline are married and fighting. Off Martin goes to drink and sing “Sweet Adeline” with the boys, while Madeline sits and frets by herself. And the wolf closes in. Anderson plies her with champagne, and when she gets woozy he tells her to go to his room, 1032, to lie down for a bit. He’ll remain at the party, he says. For some reason, she believes him. Five minutes after she goes up, he goes up, finds her asleep on the bed, positioned alluringly, and loosens his tie. Fade out.
We expect some kind of comeuppance for all this—isn’t that how movies work?—but that's the shocking part of “Employees' Entrance”: It ever arrives. I don’t even think it departs. When Anderson finds out about the marriage—when he discovers that the woman he’s twice assaulted is married to the right-hand man he considers almost a son—he gets mad at them. “She’s hogtied you, my boy,” he tells Martin. “Turn her loose. A little money’ll do the trick.” The most startling moment is when Anderson blames Madeline for his own sexual assaults when he knows Martin is eavesdropping on the conversation:
“I was all right for you the first night I met you. I was all right for you the night of the party. Let’s see, you were married to Martin then, weren’t you? And that’s what you call love. You women make me sick! Come on, come on, how much?“
That’s when she slaps him, leaves, drinks poison, is rushed to the hospital. Cue gun scene with Martin.
OK, there’s nearly comeuppance. For some reason, the board is ready to drop him again, but Ross, who is supposed to be Anderson’s handler, now works to get the proxy votes from the globetrotting Monroe to save Anderson. And he does. And at the last minute, they rush to the meeting to save the day. It’s a common movie trope—we’ve seen it a million times—but it’s usually about saving the hero. Here, it’s about saving a ruthless SOB who uses his position to sexually assault women … who, sure, also seems like he's the movie’s hero.
It almost ends there, too, on our victorious hero, back to his ruthless ways. But then we get a final perfunctory scene of the cuckolded Martin visiting the sickly Madeline at the hospital and promising they’ll start over. “It’s been done before,” he says helplessly.
Overall, the film is light comedy, with blackout-like “bits” sprinkled throughout. A Jewish man considers a football for his son until the salesman calls it a “pigskin.” A woman asks where the basement is and a bored saleslady tells her “12th floor.” There are perennial problems with the men’s room, the elevator operator keeps enumerating (in a flat voice) the long list of items available per floor, and the company proudly—and one assumes speciously—reiterates that its founders are descendants of Benjamin Franklin and James Monroe.
“Employees’ Entrance” was directed by Roy Del Ruth—who did some of the better pre-code Cagney flicks: “Blonde Crazy,” “Taxi!” and “Lady Killer”—and heralded the return of Alice White, a late-era silent star who got involved in an early 1930s scandal. Apparently she had an affair with British actor John Warbuton and accused him of beating her so badly she required plastic surgery; allegedly, she and her ex, writer-producer Sy Bartlett, then hired goons to beat up Warburton. All of that hurt her career. For a while, she did comic supporting roles, such as this and “Picture Snatcher,” married actor-writer John Roberts in 1940, then disappeared from the screen. In the 1950s, after a divorce, she went back to secretarial work, which she’d been doing when Charlie Chaplin discovered her in the 1920s. She died in 1983.
Here she plays Polly Dale, another clothes model. She’s great: funny, sassy, brassy. Anderson hires her to seduce the portly Ross, and we see her using her boop-oop-a-doop charms on him but to not much avail. She reports back he only wants to play chess. “Try Post Office,” Anderson tells her.
Big department stores were new things back then, and the trailer for this one promised to tell you the stories behind the scenes, but you don't have to squint much to see the whole thing as a metaphor for a movie studio. Everyone's scrapping to get by in the depths of the Depression, while one man, a near-dictator, a mogul say, ruthlessly cracks the whip and shows them the way—while taking advantage of women on the side. No wonder Warners made Anderson the hero. He’s them.
All in fun in 1933.
Monday June 07, 2021
Movie Review: Ceiling Zero (1936)
“Ceiling Zero” is both same-old same-old and not.
It’s the fourth James Cagney-Pat O’Brien picture in two years, their second as pilots, with Cagney once again the hot-dog womanizer who endangers everyone while O’Brien is the firm man in command who teaches him how to be a team player. In “Devil Dogs in the Air” and “The Irish in Us,” Cagney steals O’Brien’s girl; here, he’s already stolen her. He had a relationship with her years before that O’Brien doesn’t know about. For good measure, he also steals aviatrix “Tommy” Thomas (June Travis) away from her fiancé. All of this is familiar.
What’s new is the movie’s pedigree and it informs everything else. The earlier flicks were directed by Lloyd Bacon, a solid journeyman, and this is from Howard Hawks, a famed auteur. But I think the big difference is the screenwriter. Frank Wead was a U.S. Navy pilot and early authority on flying who suffered a freak spinal injury accident in 1926 that left him paralyzed. At that point, along with his sober aviation manuals, he began writing fiction of pilot derring-do for the pulps, some of which were bought by Hollywood. Eventually he began writing directly for the movies: “Air Mail” (1932) and “West Point of the Air” (1935), among them. He became friends with director John Ford, and after Wead’s death in 1947 Ford made “The Wings of Eagles” in 1957, which was based on Wead’s life and writings. John Wayne played Wead.
Wead also wrote one play, “Ceiling Zero,” about pilots delivering airmail in zero-visibility conditions, which debuted on Broadway in 1935 to mixed reviews. He adapted it himself for the screen, but didn’t adapt it much. Most of the action takes place in a single location: the waiting area/hangar at the Newark branch of Federal Airlines. Pilots come and go, radio operators try to reach them in hazardous conditions, planes crash. The action, and thus the drama, is concentrated, and feels like a filmed play.
Actually, you know what it reminded me of? Those theatrical showcases in the early days of television: Studio One, Good Year Playhouse, Playhouse 90. There’s a close, emotionally heavy, mano a mano sense to scenes. It’s a melodrama, truncated in time and space, and with a low budget. Even the DVD I watched, the French version called “Brumes” (no U.S. version is available for legal reasons), reminded me of kinescopes of early television.
I wish I could—
We don’t see Cagney’s character, Dizzy Davis, until 17 minutes in. I like that. I like it when movies keep the lead offstage but talk him up. With Dizzy, men tend to smile and women tend to frown. Management isn’t too happy, either, when they find out he's been rehired. An early bit of dialogue between Jake (O’Brien) and aviation boss Al Stone (Barton MacLane) is pretty much the movie in a nutshell:
Al: I’m telling you, Jake, Dizzy’s a menace and a liability.
Jake: And the best cockeyed pilot on this airline or any other.
The boss wants college men who are technically expert but we’ve already seen potential problems with them. Eddie Payson (Carlyle Moore, Jr.) is a pilot who checks all the boxes except one: reactions to emergencies. The night before, in the fog, his radio out, Payson panicked and abandoned his plane, and there went $40,000. Surprised Jake doesn’t use this bottom-line argument with Al. Also, what happened to the plane? He was over Pennsylvania. Where did it crash? Did it hurt anyone? Did no one sue anyone during this period? Anyway he gets canned.
Dizzy’s the opposite. He arrives singing “I can’t give you anything but love, baby,” lands crazily, gets tossed around by his pals, Tex and Doc (Stuart Erwin and Edward Gargan), and lands at the feet of Joe Allen, commerce inspector (Craig Allen). Everyone’s got an eye on Dizzy but he maintains his rascally ways. He immediately makes a play for Tommy, strikes out, then bets the others he can get her to come with all of them to Mama Gini’s—their version of the Happy Bottom Riding Club from “The Right Stuff.” He wins.
Hollywood movies are forever tossing together older actors and young starlets without comment but here they comment. Fifteen years separate Cagney and Travis (37 and 22), and ditto Dizzy and Tommy (34 and 19), and he tries to convince her it’s no barrier. Why when she’s 34, he’ll only be 49. They keep upping the ages, flirting all the while, until this:
She: Do you realize when I’m 49 you’ll be 64?
He: When you’re 49 you’ll be rolling around in a wheelchair. I’ll be out dancing.
She: Oh yeah? With who?
He: How do I know—she hasn’t been born yet.
How the times have change. What would be a feminist punchline on SNL today is a winner here. Both chuckle and Tommy seems to soften. They’re about to kiss when Jake butts in.
For all that, the screenplay isn’t too backward-looking. The women are tough, with male names—Tommy, Lou—while Tommy, the beginner, is as enamored of aviation history as she is of Dizzy. After she ditches him at Mama Gini's, he confronts her the next morning, and they all but reverse gender roles. He feigns the vapors at the humiliation of it all; and when he corrects her when she says he's 35, she tells him not to be too sensitive about his age. She’s also up front about her sexuality. She admits she’s attracted to him but “I finally got a hold of myself and said, ‘Tommy, this is alright, but how does he look in the morning?’”
Still, he doesn't give up. He offers her flying lessons on the condition she’ll have dinner with him. His Cleveland mail run? Oh, he’ll get Tex to take it. And does—by feigning a bum ticker in the locker room. Think of it: He hasn’t even done one mail run for the outfit and he’s already shirking his duties.
That moment, 40 minutes into a 90-minute movie, sets up the rest.
The movie opens with a description of the term ceiling zero: “... that time when fog, rain or snow completely fills the flying air between sky or ceiling and the earth.” According to Wiki, the service ceiling is the maximum usable altitude of an aircraft, so ceiling zero is when nothing should be in the air. That’s what Tex winds up flying in. Jake observes that even the seagulls are staying on the ground. So the men, behind radio operator Buzz (James Bush), try to talk Tex home.
Not sure when the movie is set—the opening titles indicate it’s a time when airmail pilots “challenged and conquered ceiling zero” but no date is given. I’m assuming the 1920s or early ’30s? Before radar anyway. Tex not only winds up flying in adverse conditions but he loses radio contact. The men on the ground can hear him but he can’t hear them. Earlier, Tex was the cool, calm counterpart to Eddie Payson’s panic, so when panic begins to creep into his voice, it’s startling, and sets up his end: his plane bursts into flame as he cuts through wires trying to land. All because Dizzy shirked his duties.
The rest is Dizzy’s attempt to make good. Dizzy gets Lawson (Henry Wadsworth), Tommy’s fiancé, and the pilot working on the new de-icing protocol, to tell him all about it; then he decks him and takes his place. It’s again ceiling zero weather and he radios back the dope on the de-icers: “Pressure has got to be doubled. And the rear tube has to be moved back at least eight inches, so the ice won’t fall behind it.” Eventually the wings ice up too much and the plane plummets. These are Dizzy’s last words:
Give my love to everybody and pay Mama Gini the four bucks I owe her. So long, baby, don’t be mad at me. I wish I could—
I wish I could. Not bad last words. The last thoughts for most of us, I imagine.
Dizzy and Tex redux
“Ceiling Zero” has a lot of similarities with another Frank Wead-penned Hollywood flick, “Air Mail,” directed by John Ford in 1932. There’s a character named Dizzy, another named Tex, and a member of the ground crew who keeps getting chastised for wearing his cap backward—instead of being chastised for not wearing it at all, per “Zero.” A crash at the beginning necessitates the hire of a reckless ace, “Duke” Talbot (Pat O’Brien, ironically), who has an affair with Dizzy’s wife, and who later saves the life of the stolid man in command, Mike Miller (Ralph Bellamy) during ceiling zero conditions. Most of the action takes place in the waiting area/hangar.
One of the most affective parts of “Zero” is Mike Owens (Garry Owen), a former ace pilot who suffered brain damage in a crash and now does menial work around the place. All this unbeknownst to Dizzy, who is excited when he sees him, calling him “the only guy in the outfit crazier than I was,” and referencing their WWI-era 59th Squad at Kelly Field. “Oh, I remember you,” Mike says slowly. “You were a pilot.” “I still am,” Dizzy responds. The collapse in Cagney’s face, the dawning realization in his eyes, is so well-done. Owen is quite good, too, but sadly never broke out. He has 186 credits between 1933 and 1952, uncredited in 146 of them. He died in 1951, age 49.
I also liked Erwin as Tex, Travis as Tommy and Isabel Jewell as Lou. Early Warner Bros. had some fast talkers—Cagney, Bogart, Bette Davis—but I bet O’Brien could give them all a run. He barks orders here that are impossible to keep up with. Coffee at the studio must’ve been strong.
This was the last Warners movie Cagney made before his mid-1930s break from the studio, and, as mentioned, his second go-round as a pilot. When he returned he would make two more: “The Bride Came C.O.D.” and “Captains of the Clouds.” In both, he's the hot-shot pilot who steals women. Not bad for a guy who was notoriously aerophobic and monogamous.
Monday April 12, 2021
Movie Review: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
Kong before Kong, when he was just Erik.
I’m probably the only person in the world who watched this early Universal horror film because of Arlene Francis.
Francis was a frequent game show participant in the 1950s and ’60s, sharp and sardonic, and she played the same as James Cagney’s wife in Billy Wilder’s “One, Two, Three,” and did it fabulously. So I was curious what other movies she made. Sadly, not many: 19 actress credits, of which only seven are feature films. This was the first. She plays a bit part: “Woman of the Streets.” Yes, Arlene Francis. That’s what led me here.
The movie is one hour and one minute long, and it’s not much. Based on an Edgar Allen Poe short story, it’s got Bela Lugosi hamming it up a year after “Dracula,” and Leon Ames as the boyfriend-hero a decade before he played the stuffy father in “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
Ames is Pierre Dupin, a medical student and amateur detective, who, while investigating the recent, mysterious deaths of young women, takes his fiancée Camille (Sidney Fox) and their friends to a carnival, where they visit the sideshow of Dr. Mirakle (Lugosi) and his caged ape. During the show, the ape grabs Camille’s bonnet and tries to strangle Pierre. Mirakle tries to make it up by offering to replace the bonnet and creepily asks for Camille’s address. They pass. But he has them followed.
Everything is related of course. In his investigations, Pierre discovers the same foreign substance in the blood of all the victims, and it’s something Mirakle injects into the victims to see if they’d make a good mate for the ape. I think. As for why Mirakle is looking for a human mate for his ape, the movie is silent. He just is. Cuz mad scientist.
A couple things stand out for me. One is personal:
Apparently Erik with a k was big for creepy villains in the 1920s and '30s: that Phantom, this ape. Now it’s big in the Marvel universe for villains whose dastardly schemes make sense: Magneto, Killmonger. I'll take the upgrade.
The police don’t come off well. Mirakle sends Erik to abduct Camille, Pierre hears her screams, bursts in and finds empty room. So the police arrest Pierre. Then we get the second thing that stands out for me: the most digressive bit of ethnic-based comedy I’ve seen in a horror movie. Three witnesses tell the gendarmes they heard screams and someone speaking in a foreign language, but each disagrees on the language: the German says it was Italian, the Italian says it was Danish, the Dane says it was German. The bit goes on for minutes until someone discovers Camille’s mother stuffed up the chimney, dead, with what looks like ape fur clutched in her fist. That, as they say, puts an end to the comedy routine.
By now Mirakle has discovered Camille will make a perfect mate for Erik. But then he’s surrounded by the cops, Pierre’s pounding on the door, and Erik does the monster-movie thing of killing his maker. That leads us to the third standout moment: Erik the ape grabs Camille and carries her over the rooftops of Paris as he’s pursued by the police. It’s like a mini-version of “King Kong” a year before “King Kong.” In the end, of course, Pierre shoots Erik, Erik falls into the Seine, the lovers are reunited.
“Rue Morgue” was directed by Paris-born Robert Florey, whose career began with a 1920 silent short named “Isidore a la deveine,” continued with the Marx Bros.’ first feature, “The Cocoanuts,” and whose last credit is an episode of “The Outer Limits” from 1964. Think of that span and the technological changes within it. Somehow he navigated it all.
Sidney Fox’s career was a great deal shorter. She was discovered by Universal in several Broadway comedies, was named a “Wampas Baby Star” of 1931, but never quite caught on. Her marriage to writer Charles Beahan was tabloid fodder, she tried Europe for a bit, but by 1934 her movie career was over. She killed herself with sleeping pills in 1942.
Overall, in these early films, it’s the oddities I like. The ruts of Hollywood storytelling hadn’t been dug deep yet. They were still throwing things on the wall to see what stuck. This didn't. Moments did.
Thursday April 08, 2021
Movie Review: The Last Gangster (1937)
Did Al Capone get a story credit on this? Or a cut of the dough? Because the first half of the movie is basically his story.
Joe Krozac (Edward G. Robinson) is a Prohibition-era gangster who is as charming with the press as he is ruthless with his rivals. When the cops can’t tie him to a Saint Valentine’s Day-like massacre of the three Kyle brothers, they bring in the feds to bust him on tax evasion charges. Capone got 11 years for that, Krozac 10. Capone was sent to Atlanta U.S. Penitentiary and then Alcatraz shortly after it opened in 1934; Krozac is sent straight to Alcatraz (anachronistically: it wasn’t open in 1927). In prison, Capone was bullied(!) and wound up being protected by a former associate; Krozac is bullied (by John Carradine, good in a small role), and protected by a former associate. Capone suffered cocaine withdrawal and cognitive difficulties from neurosyphilis; Krozac suffers because his wife, Tayla (Rose Stradner), takes their newborn son and leaves him.
After that, “The Last Gangster” diverges from Capone’s story simply because Capone was still in prison when the movie was made in 1937. Screenwriters had to make up the rest. They had to work for a living.
Jimmy Stewart, ass
This is MGM, by the way, not Warner Bros., and I’m curious if the moralists there wanted to play up the “crime don’t pay” angle; because they make Krozac suffer. Like really, really suffer. After he does time, he’s met by his right-hand man Curly (Lionel Stander), who convinces him to get back in the rackets before going after his wife and kid. Except it’s a trap. At the hideout, the gang wants to know where he stashed the extra loot from back in the day. First they disrespect him, then they beat him, then they torture him. They make him walk back and forth in a small room for 10 hours. They dangle a glass of water before him and then drop it. They take out rubber truncheons. None of this works. So they kidnap his now 10-year-old son, Junior (Douglas Scott), and threaten to torture him. And that’s what finally does it.
Here’s the thing: if they were trying to show that “crime doesn’t pay,” and “Hey, don’t be like this guy,” it kind of backfired. At the least, it makes us sympathize with Krozac. He becomes our guy.
Plus the upstanding citizens are the usual dull assholes.
The wife is OK. She’s from the same Eastern European city Krozac is, doesn’t speak much English, doesn’t know he’s a gangster until too late. She’s an innocent. But the second lead? Paul North, a reporter, played by MGM’s then-rising star Jimmy Stewart? What an asshole. When Tayla and her baby are hounded by the press outside Alcatraz, North is the worst of them: He places a toy gun on top of the swaddled baby for a tabloid photo-op accompanied by the headline PUBLIC ENEMY JR. And when she goes to the newspaper to complain, his editor continues to condemn her and the child—"sins of the father” stuff—while North gleefully takes down her words. It’s only when she begins to cry that he gets that Jimmy Stewart look of guilt and solicitousness and becomes the Jimmy Stewart we all know and love. Then he quits his job, takes her away, marries her and raises the kid as his own. He becomes an editor himself and grows one of those William Powell moustaches. But for me he never recovers from the original sin of being an asshole.
Krozac’s post-prison plan was to kill his ex and take the boy. But after the kidnapping, on their long trek back in the rain and the cold, the boy demonstrates such scouting skills and toughness, learned from the step-dad, that Krozac decides the kid’s better off with them. So delivers the kid and walks away. His reward? The fourth Kyle brother, Frankie (Alan Baxter), who’s shown up periodically promising revenge, shows up outside the North house, leads him into a back alley, and shoots him dead. And sure, Krozac manages to get the gun and kill Frankie before dying himself, and meanwhile the old Krozac gang get theirs off-stage in a shootout with the cops, so all the crooks are taken care of. But that’s still some cold-blooded shit to play on our guy, MGM.
How sad that a studio makes a movie basically about Al Capone and they come off as the villains.
Mother of mercy
The woman who plays Krozac’s wife, Rose Stradner, is a sad story. Born in Austria, she was signed by MGM to be another of their exotic beauties like Hedy Lamarr, but she wasn’t that beautiful, her career didn’t take off, and then she married Joseph Mankiewicz, younger brother of “Mank,” and writer-director of such great films as “All About Eve.” While he rose, she stayed home, became depressed, drank. In 1958, she killed herself. She was 45.
The best MGM touch is the title credits. This is a ‘ripped from the headlines” story so that’s what the credits are: newspaper headlines. They look good. The movie was directed by Edward Ludwig, whom I only know from John Wayne’s HUAC-friendly “Big Jim McLain.” I’m sure he’s done better. (He has. His highest-rated via IMDb is “Let’s Be Ritzy” from 1934. This one is his fifth-best, supposedly; “Big Jim” is near the bottom.)
Robinson became a star a few months before James Cagney, both with Warner Bros. gangster flicks, but Robinson kept returning to the genre way more than Cagney. Because he didn’t object to it the way Cagney did? He wasn’t hard to handle like Cagney? Robinson did all the iterations. He played the gangster as Greek gambler (“Smart Money”), as Chinese assassin (“Hatchet Man”), as condemned man (“Two Seconds”), as intellectual (“The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse”) and as monk (“Brother Orchid”). He played a dual role: meek accountant and murderer (“The Whole Town’s Talking”). Twice he played a ’20s gangster comically adapting to the post-Prohibition era (“The Little Giant” and “A Slight Case of Murder”). That’s just up to 1940. They call this one “The Last Gangster” but we know that's a lie. As long as gangsters sell tickets, it’ll never be the end of Rico.
Thursday March 04, 2021
Movie Review: Bullets or Ballots (1936)
There’s a small, startling scene in this code-era Warner Bros. gangster flick that almost makes it worth watching 85 years later.
Edward G. Robinson plays Johnny Blake, a NYC detective demoted to Bronx flatfoot, who roughs up crooks and demands that they tip their cap to him when they pass him on the street. Early on, we see him punch a crook through the glass door of a nightclub and when a passing cop asks him what’s going on, Blake simply says “Put him under arrest for destroying property.” And they do. That's not the startling scene, though.
Basically, he's the original Dirty Harry, who complains about mollycoddling crooks in a manner Clint Eastwood would understand:
I’m no use to them downtown anymore. … They don’t believe in kicking the rats into line any more. Nowadays, you’re supposed to kiss them and tuck them in.
And yet his best friends seem to be Lee Morgan (Joan Blondell), a cabaret manager who runs a lucrative numbers game in Harlem with her former hairdresser, Nellie LaFeleur (Louise Beavers); and Al Kruger (Barton MacLane), the top gangster in town. Blake visits Kruger shortly after the death of Ward Bryant (Henry O’Neill), a crusading newspaper editor who gets it at the hands of “Bugs” Fenner (Humphrey Bogart), Kruger’s trigger-happy No. 2 man—despite Kruger’s warning to leave Bryant alone.
Kruger is the decent gangster, see? He and Blake even reminisce about “the good ol’ days” when Blake would beat confessions out of him in some back alley. Oh, what fun. It’s all so phony it makes me long for the good ol’ days of pre-code Hollywood—just three years previous—when Robinson could play gangsters, men and women could sleep together (Lee and Blake don’t even kiss), and screenwriters like Seton I. Miller didn’t have to strain so much to shoehorn expository dialogue into the story.
At one point, Kruger ticks off reasons Johnny should actually join his gang: he’s being disrespected by the department, he’s poorly paid, and he’ll make more with Kruger in a year than with the force in his lifetime. Smoking his pipe, Blake turns him down, just as he had when Kruger made the offer years earlier. “If I’d gone in with you,” Blake says, of that earlier offer, “I would’ve done it to nail you.”
Which is exactly what happens. That’s the movie laid out in a sentence.
In the wake of the Bryant shooting, Blake’s old friend Captain McLaren (Joe King) is promoted to police commissioner, promising to wipe out the rackets, and he begins by cleaning house. Blake is one of the first cops to go. So Blake takes Kruger up on his offer. When the other gangsters complain about the headbusting cop in their midst, Kruger insists Blake would never double-cross anyone. One wonders how he got such a rep, but that's exactly what he's doing. Halfway through, we find out he's working undercover to destroy the rackets, find Bryant’s murderer, and discover who the real money men are. (Turns out: a respectable banker and other local business leaders.)
It's working, too. The rackets are being destroyed via his inside information. Which is when the others finally convince Kruger that Blake isn't to be trusted. Blake walks into a room full of suspicious, angry faces, but he saves his ass by offering them a more lucrative pipeline: Lee’s numbers racket in Harlem. That means Lee gets squeezed out. Right away, two men show up in her office and tell her and Nellie that they're through.
And that’s when we get to our startling moment.
First, she and Nellie push back—particularly Nellie. “You and no other gunman’s going to tell us what to do,” she says. One of the guys smiles and says they’re not gunmen, they don’t even carry guns, see? At which point Lee suggests they meet Timothy. Nellie smiles, nods, and calls to him as she opens the door: “Timothy!” He’s standing right there, a tall, sturdy Black man in suit and hat. “Throw those gentlemen out on their ears,” she says.
And that's exactly what he does.
It's pretty great. I can’t recall another mainstream 1930s Hollywood movie in which a Black dude beats up two white dudes.
The actor is John Lester Johnson, who appeared in 39 movies, mostly uncredited, from the 1920s to the 1940s. That was his second career. His first career was as a light heavyweight boxer. In 1916, he took on an up-and-comer from the west coast, Jack Dempsey, at the Harlem Sporting Club, and won a 10-round decision, breaking Dempsey’s ribs in the process. Dempsey, of course, went on to the heavyweight championship and became one of the most famous celebrities of the 1920s; Johnson, the victor, got a one-way ticket to Palookaville. For all the obvious reasons, one assumes.
All of which is way more interesting than “Bullets or Ballots.”
Stories to be told
The real-life background to “Bullets or Ballots” is also interesting. Kruger and Fenner are based on Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano, who took over the Harlem numbers rackets started by Nellie’s character, Stephanie “Madam Queen” St. Clair. Good god, can you imagine the movie they could make of that today? (UPDATE: I guess that's part of what “The Cotton Club” was all about, as well as a 1997 gangster flick, “Hoodlum,” starring Laurence Fishburne. Might have to revisit “Cotton” and check out “Hoodlum.”)
Blake, meanwhile, was based on a real NYC cop, “Broadway Johnny” Broderick, who was known for beating up crooks—so much so that one of them was freed by the state supreme court in 1937 because he’d been hurt so badly the court felt “this man has more than expiated his crime.” “Broadway Johnny” liked the spotlight but didn't like this movie much—for narrow reasons. “I ought to flatten [Robinson],” he said. “Suppose I had let my kids go see that picture, and they had seen him, playing me, and actually taking a drink and smoking a cigar!”
As for how it ends? The cops close in on the gang as the gang closes in on Blake. Fenner machinates in that bad-guy Bogie manner—turning Lee against Blake, killing Kruger, then shooting Blake on his way to meet the crooked local business leaders. Wounded, Blake kills Fenner, guts out the meeting, and allows the cops to arrest the higher-ups. Outside, he dies in McLaren’s arms. “Keep kicking them into line, Mac,” he gasps as he dies. “I like to think, when those mugs pass a policeman, they’ll keep on tipping their hats.”
Not exactly “Is this the end of Rico?”
“Bullets” is the first of five movies Robinson and Bogart made together. For most, Robinson was the good guy and Bogie would get it. For the last, “Key Largo” in 1948, Bogart was the star, Robinson was resurrecting his ’30s gangster role, and it’s Robinson who gets it.
Both Louise Beavers and John Lester Johnson are interred at Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles. An IMDb user created a list of movie people buried there, and since it’s all African Americans I assumed it was a Black cemetery. It’s not. It’s just one of the few in LA that, at the time, allowed Blacks to be buried there. Yet another story to be told.
Tuesday March 02, 2021
Movie Review: The Roaring Twenties (1939)
There’s a nice musical homage near the beginning of Raoul Walsh’s “The Roaring Twenties” that’s indicative of the place James Cagney held in 1930s cinema as well as the attention to detail of the artists and artisans at Warners Bros. Or it’s just a nice coincidence.
Eddie Bartlett (Cagney) is returning stateside after WWI, but late, more than a year after the war ended. I'm reminded of Hemingway's short story, “Soldiers Home”: “People seemed to think it was rather ridiculous for Krebs to be getting back so late, years after the war was over.” Both characters were patrolling the Rhine, but the situation is slightly more ridiculous for Eddie because everyone thinks he’s dead: his landlady, his old boss at the garage, his best friend Danny (Frank McHugh). It’s a running gag for a bit. At this point, though, Eddie doesn’t know any of that. He’s fresh off the boat, in fighting trim, garrison cap at a jaunty angle. And just before he walks up the steps to his old brownstone, he smiles as an organ grinder plays “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” in the crowded streets outside. That's the same song that played over the opening credits and in the closing scene of “The Public Enemy,” the movie that made Cagney a star eight years earlier.
So: homage or coincidence?
In homage’s favor is the level of detail in the scene. Walsh could’ve just had Cagney walk up the steps but instead we get this great tableau: two boys share an apple, two girls dance with each other to the organ grinder’s song, and a kid in a whoopee cap stares up solemnly at the organ grinder’s monkey. A tall, older well-dressed man enters the shot looking for an address. People keep coming and going. I suppose it represents a return to normalcy. Or the promise of.
The song may recall “Public Enemy” but Eddie Bartlett is no Tom Powers. Start with the fact that Eddie went to war. To Tom, that’s for saps—like his older brother Mike, the ding-ding. Eddie may be tough like Tom, but he’s also a nice guy. He winds up in a foxhole with a bully named George (Humphrey Bogart), and not only stands up to him, but stands up for another soldier, a law grad named Lloyd (Jeffrey Lynn), who, after admitting he’s scared, is taunted by George.
George: He’s one of them guys that cheer the loudest back home, and then when they get over here, and the going gets tough, they fold up.
George: I’m talking to him.
Eddie: And I’m talking to you. I don’t like heels or big mouths. We’re all scared, and why shouldn’t we be? What do you think they’re using in this war—water pistols? [To Lloyd] You’re all right, kid. I like guys who are honest with themselves. Stay that way.
Love that scene. At this point, Eddie is the perfect balance between nice (Lloyd) and nasty (George), a la the split halves of Capt. Kirk in “The Enemy Within,” an early, first-season episode of “Star Trek.” He doesn’t run from trouble but he’s not looking for it, either. Later, in fact, as the boys talk up what they’re going to do when the war is over, Eddie says he just wants his old mechanic’s job back: “All I know is I don’t want any more trouble,” he says. Great, ironic line.
So how did this great guy become a gangster? Blame the times.
This is the only Cagney gangster movie that suggests as much, isn’t it? Tom Powers and Rocky Sullivan were into crime at a young age, and I assume Cody Jarrett, too. They didn’t need Prohibition and the Volstead Act. Eddie does.
Back home, the mechanic’s job isn’t waiting for him, no job is, and Eddie winds up driving/sharing Danny’s cab. Then one night, delivering a package of bootleg booze to Panama Smith (Gladys George), the cops slap the cuffs on him. He’s innocent, Panama isn’t, but he’s the one who gets 60 days. Guess who his lawyer is? Lloyd, forever ineffectual. But Panama pays his fine and introduces him to the world of speakeasies. He and Danny start out in distribution—the cabs are a good way to deliver booze—but when the supplier jacks up the price they get into production as well: bathtub gin. The money comes fast and easy. And Eddie changes.
He doesn’t become mean or violent so much as obsessed with money—and, oddly, workplace efficiency. It's less forever blowing bubbles than forever counting bills. Then he gets really greedy. He tries to make a deal with Nick Brown (Paul Kelly), a bootlegger who has the good stuff; but Brown, a WASP eating spaghetti in an Italian restaurant, can’t be bothered. So Eddie hijacks the stuff off of Brown’s boat, which just happens to be captained by George. That’s how Bogie is reintroduced into the narrative—he becomes Eddie’s right-hand man. Per ’30s Bogie, he's also restless, thin-skinned, and dangerous.
At this point, it become ante-upping in the gangster tradition. For heisting the booze, Brown kills Danny; Eddie kills Brown for killing Danny. George had tipped off Brown, but Eddie doesn’t have proof so he merely delivers a warning to George. Bad move. One of many he makes around this time.
Weaving throughout all this is a romance that’s awkward, one-sided, and keeps running hot and cold in a way that doesn't feel real. It starts back in France with American girls sending photos to soldiers. George gets one from an unattractive woman—they’re quite cruel to her—while Eddie lucks out with Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), a pretty blonde with long hair, beret, and a come-hither look. Back home, he visits her in Mineola on Long Island and it turns out she’s …15 or something. Meaning she was 14 or 13 when she sent the photo? Yikes. The photo came from a high school play (“The Fortune Teller” by Victor Herbert), and Eddie tries to politely excuse himself. She: “Oh, aren’t you going to tell me about the war? And how you suffered?” He: “Honey, you’ll never know how I suffered.”
Years later, a theater manager keeps stiffing him for bootleg booze, so Eddie pays him a visit but becomes distracted by a girl in the chorus line: Jean, of course, now a young adult. In the earlier scene, she was interested in him, he wasn’t in her. Now she can't be bothered with him—at all—while he won't go away. He waits outside the stage door, insists on walking her to the station, then takes the train with her to Mineola. He even walks her to her door at like 2 a.m. (Where did the doll she’s holding come from, by the way? Did we lose a scene?) By now she’s relaxed around him, saying she’s had the best time, even though on the train he seemed a little dickish—mocking her youth and ambitions. He’s also not exactly a gentleman by the door. She says good night, he says “Kind of a quick brushoff, ain’t it?” She suggests the porch, he suggests inside. She’s about to let him inside (good god, girl) when she mentions in passing that her mother died the year before. It's at this moment, when nothing’s stopping him, that Eddie suddenly becomes a gentleman. She re-invites him inside and he's like, “Oh no. As you said, it’s getting late.” I guess the dead mother touches his heart? Anyway he goes to Panama’s place to get Jean a regular singing gig.
Is this the beginning of the divide in Cagney’s cinematic treatment of women? Early in his career, particularly pre-code, he was always checking them out and leering after them and dragging them across the floor by the hair. From the 1940s on, he’s almost paternal with his romantic partners: patting their cheeks and kissing their foreheads. Maybe because he’s so much older by then? He only had seven years on Joan Blondell but 16 on Priscilla Lane, and this gap will just grow: 28 on Barbara Payton (“Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”), 31 on Anne Francis (“A Lion is in the Streets”) and 35 on Shirley Jones (“Never Steal Anything Small”).
The whole “gangster gets girl a singing gig” is based on the Moe Snyder/Ruth Etting story, which Cagney played for real with Doris Day in 1955, where he was obsessive and cruel. Not here. Around Jean he’s smitten and solicitous. Does he even make one move? Mostly, he sits in the audience, squeezes Panama’s hand, smiles up at Jean singing. Whatever interest Jean had in him, meanwhile, has long vanished—particularly after she meets Lloyd. They start up a relationship which everyone but Eddie can see. George tries to tell him, Panama tries to tell him. No soap. The nightclub owner calls him a sucker and Eddie yanks the dude’s cigar out of his mouth and mashes it back in. It’s the grapefruit scene all over again but with a dude. One wonders if it wasn’t a constant Warners directive: Find something Cagney can mash into someone’s face.
Eddie finally finds out about Jean the night Danny dies. Helluva night: He loses his best friend, his right-hand man, and his girl. No wonder he sidles up to the bar. Up to this point, Eddie’s been a teetotaler, literally drinking milk, but now he orders a bottle of the hootch he’s been peddling. We suspect it’ll lead to his downfall.
Except that’s not what leads to his downfall. What does? Blame the times again.
Throughout, we’ve been getting faux “March of Time” montages—anticipating “Citizen Kane” by a few years, and apparently put together by a young Don Siegel, who was a montage man back in the day. They’re not bad. John Deering’s stentorian voice moves along the action and the years until we reach the stock-market crash:
1929! … Confusion spreads through the canyons of New York's financial district, and men stare wild-eyed at the spectacle of complete ruin. More than 16 and a half million shares change hands in a single day of frenzied selling. The paper fortunes built up over the last few years crumble into nothing …
That’s what does him in. He loses tons of money, and then, to shore up his losing position, he stupidly sells his only tangible assets—the fleet of taxis—to George, the traitor, for a pittance. He panics, George doesn’t, George wins. Then George sticks the knife in. “I’m gonna leave you one [cab],” he says. “Just one. Cause you’re gonna need it, pal.”
Which he does. Another montage of Eddie in increasingly shabby clothes and settings, often with Panama, and when Prohibition ends he’s back to driving the cab George left him. Eddie Bartlett is our representative 1920s figure: He rose with Prohibition and fell with the stock-market crash.
Don't worry, there’s more downfall. We've got to tie up all the loose ends. One day, outside of a fancy department store at Christmastime, who happens to get into his cab but Jean. She’s excited to see him—chattering away about Lloyd’s work with the D.A.’s office and their four-year-old son—but Eddie’s dead-eyed, flat voiced, and she eventually gets the message and sinks back into her seat. Oddly, he helps take the packages into the house, where he meets her bratty kid (“Come over someday and shoot Indians WITH ME!”), as well as Lloyd, whose D.A. team is going after George’s racket. Eddie warns him that George plays rough, and in the next scene George’s men deliver just that warning to Jean: “If your boyfriend don’t bury [the evidence], your boyfriend will get buried himself.”
So who does she run to? Eddie, of course. By now he’s in a dive bar with Panama, oiled to the gills, trying to douse the torch he still carries for Jean. For all the build-up of him drinking, this is the one time we see him drunk. It’s also the one time he turns down Jean, who wants him to talk to George. “Why should I?” he asks. “Lloyd’ll be killed. … Eddie, please, for my sake.” He still refuses. You know who convinces him? Panama, the one holding a torch for Eddie. I guess? Sorta?
Alright, I’ll say it: A lot of the movie doesn’t make much sense. “Roaring Twenties” is a movie beloved by cineastes, but of Cagney’s four big gangster flicks I think it’s his weakest. It starts strong, is well-made, but the characters serve the needs of the plot rather than themselves. The shift from nice-guy Eddie to greedy Eddie, for example, never feels real, nor does his stock-market panic, while the relationship with Jean is full of starts and stops and odd turns. More, if your hero is going to make a fool of himself over a girl, she needs to be worth it. Jean isn't worth it.
There there’s the final act bit about Eddie telling himself he’ll bounce back? As a gangster? Could no one remind this guy what he was before the Volstead Act? It’s not just that he’s forgotten, I get the feeling the movie’s forgotten. According to Patrick McGilligan’s book, “Cagney: The Actor as Auteur,” the original “Roaring Twenties” screenplay was one of the worst Cagney’s brother and manager William had ever seen, and up to 10 Warners screenwriters tried to improve it. And even then Cagney, McHugh and Bogart wound up improvising a lot of dialogue.
But we do get a good end. At this point, George lives in a mansion with half a dozen gunmen protecting him, and they decide to bring in the soused, disheveled Eddie for a laugh; but George thinks that Eddie, like Lloyd, knows too much. Eddie, who could never read Jean, reads this threat fine, disarms and kills a gunman, then kills George (who, like all Bogie villains, proves a sniveler in the end), then blasts his way out of the joint. He almost makes it, too, but he’s shot running down the street. That sets up our famous ending in the snow. As he stumbles up and back down the church steps, he’s tracing his own rise and fall, before dying, in pieta fashion, in the arms of the ever-loyal Panama. A passing cop asks who he was and what was his business. “This is Eddie Bartlett,” she says. “He used to be a big shot.”
Pullback, rising music, The End.
Interesting footnote: I assumed this movie—whose working title was “The World Moves On”— was eventually called “The Roaring Twenties” because that’s what everyone called the 1920s back then. It was the definitive phrase. Now I’m thinking it’s the definitive phrase because of this movie. According to newspapers.com, which tracks American newspapers through the years, the phrase comes up only 198 times in the 1920s, and in the 1930s it ranges from just six mentions in 1932 to 78 mentions in 1935 and ’37. But the year this movie came out, that number suddenly shot up to 4,164. Maybe “Roaring Twenties” would’ve become definitive anyway, but I like to think Cagney helped.
For all my complaints, the movie is still fun. Gladys George is excellent. Her character, originally called Kansas Smith, is based on Texas Guinan, a one-time actress who ran speakeasies in the ’20s and greeted crowds with the phrase, “Hello, suckers!,” which George does here. Bogie is excellent, too. You begin to understand why he was stuck playing second-rate gangsters with chips on their shoulders for so long: he does it well. There’s that great heist scene at the government facility where he disarms the guard (Joe Sawyer), then realizes who it is: “Well, if it ain’t my old sergeant,” he says, practically licking his lips. “I told ya we’d meet some time when you didn’t have no stripes on your sleeves.” BLAM! This is the last of three movies Cagney made with Bogie, and Bogie’s killed in all of them; it’s the first of four movies Cagney made with Raoul Walsh, and Cagney is killed in three of them.
Cagney’s in fine form, too. I like the foxhole scene— the steel that goes up in Eddie’s eyes with George, his gentleness toward Lloyd. In the cigar-mashing scene, I like how Eddie is ready to deck the guy but checks himself, calculates, goes for the cigar instead, which may be less paintful but much more humiliating. It's often such little touches that make a movie. In the dive bar near the end, Jean’s left, Panama has made her case and been rebuffed, and Eddie is waiting for Panama to get her coat. As he stumbles through the bar, he passes a man playing a tune on the piano, “My Melancholy Baby," I think, the same song Jean sang on the train to Mineola. Eddie listens with a wistful look on his face. When he helps Panama on with her coat, he finally admits she was right: They had finished out of the money. It’s never stated, but that’s when he decides to confront George. The understated that says so much.
Monday February 15, 2021
Movie Review: The Public Enemy (1931)
After six months in Hollywood, Warner Bros. contract player James Cagney had been assigned the following roles, usually fourth- or fifth-billed:
- A cowardly bootlegger
- An incompetent gangster sidekick
- A pal to a railroad man
- Insurance salesman
Then he was cast as another sidekick in another gangster drama ostensibly called “Beer and Blood”—up-and-comer Edward Woods was tapped to play the lead—and it probably seemed his lot in life. Cagney was short, red-haired, not conventionally handsome, with something feral about him. You could imagine a career of cameos, cowards, sidekicks.
Since success has a thousand fathers, there’s no end of people taking credit for switching the roles and making Cagney the lead gangster in “The Public Enemy,” and thus one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history.
In his autobiography, Warner Bros. chief Jack Warner wrote that he not only bought the unpublished “Beer and Blood” novel by Chicagoans John Bright and Kubec Glasmon but “gambled that Jimmy Cagney, who was a sort of bonus rookie, could deliver when the pressure was on.” Except, if true, there would’ve been no need to switch roles. Cagney would’ve been cast at the outset. He wasn’t. Scratch Warner.
Producer Darryl Zanuck has also claimed credit but in most accounts he actually fought the change. Edwards Woods, you see, was engaged to the daughter of Louella O. Parsons, the powerful Hearst gossip columnist, and Zanuck didn’t want to get on her bad side. It took director William Wellman to prick his ego: “Are you going to let some newspaperwoman run your business?” He wasn’t. But scratch Zanuck.
Most credit Wellman, who was himself a second choice. Archie Mayo, who had directed the gangster drama “The Doorway to Hell,” the year before, was originally tapped. But Mayo didn’t want to be pigeonholed into what most assumed would be a shortlived genre, so he turned it down. That’s why it went to Wellman, known as “Wild Bill” since his days in the Lafayette Escadrille—the air wing of the French Foreign Legion—during the Great War. He was a man’s man who knew tough guys when he saw them. Film historian David Thomson lays out the scene in “Warner Bros.: The Making of an American Movie Studio”:
After a few days, Wellman was looking at the early footage with his cutter and he felt uneasy without knowing why. Then he got it. He realized they had the casting wrong. Edward Woods was too restrained in the lead role, Tom Powers, while Cagney was seething with unused energy as Matt Doyle. Wellman called Zanuck, who was in New York, and explained the dilemma. Zanuck did not believe in doubt: he was devout about immediate decisions. “Make the switch,” he ordered.
You know who else credits Wellman? James Cagney. In a 1954 episode of “This is Your Life,” honoring Wellman, Cagney shows up and says the following:
I was not supposed to be play the first hoodlum in the picture; another fellow was supposed to play it. And after we’d been going a couple of days, Bill said “There’s something cockeyed about this casting.” He said, “Cagney should play that first hoodlum.” Why? I don’t know. Seriously. Well, anyway, the parts were switched. … Bill made quite an issue of it, and he got together with the writers and Darryl Zanuck, the producer, and between them they cooked it up. And that was the first break. And Bill, I’ll always be grateful.
Did you catch it? The mistake? Cagney said Wellman “got together with the writers” to make the switch. Now why would a director need to get together with writers on a casting decision? That’s not how Hollywood works. But if the writers had instigated everything? This, I think, is closer to what happened.
In his memoir, John Bright says that when Ed Woods, “a young Broadway actor of sensitivity,” had been cast as their swaggering gangster, he and Glasmon were distraught. “In desperation,” he writes, “we took the vital problem to Bill Wellman. ‘Why not Jimmy Cagney, a breezy bouncy Irishman Zanuck had chosen to play a minor part?’”
Cagney scholar Henry Cohen, in his 1981 intro to the original screenplay of “The Public Enemy,” adds a few pertinent details. Apparently Wellman wasn’t even on the set when shooting began; he was finishing another project. “By then Bright and Glasmon were after him to reverse the Cagney and Woods assignments. Wellman saw [the rushes] and agreed…” Author Patrick McGilligan disputes the rushes business, writing in his book “Cagney, Actor as Auteur” that the early shooting was mostly establishing shots, and Bright and Glasmon simply had Cagney read the Tom Powers part to Wellman in person. Bright’s memoir says the same.
I assume this is closer to how it went down: Bright and Glasmon convinced Wellman, who convinced Zanuck. And a star was born.
The birth of modern acting
When I was growing up in the 1970s, you’d see Cagney impressions regularly on TV. He hadn’t acted in movies for 10, 15 years, but there he was again, sandwiched in-between Richard Nixons and John Waynes. Frank Gorshin did him on variety shows, Radar O’Reilly in an episode of “M*A*S*H,” Richard Dawson on “Family Feud.”
“The Public Enemy” is the first time we see anyone doing a Cagney—since it’s the first time a child actor plays a younger version of him—and they nailed it. They cast 13-year-old former circus performer Frankie Darro, who would later star in Wellman’s “Wild Boys of the Road,” as well as the Cagney flick “The Mayor of Hell,” and he’s perfect: the right size, the right sneer. You can see his face becoming Cagney’s.
And then they neglected to switch the kids roles when they switched the adult ones.
Throws me every time. Darro, the short, pugnacious one, grows up to be Ed Woods, while the tall, dark-haired kid (Frank Coughlan Jr., who would play Billy Batson in the 1941 serial “The Adventures of Captain Marvel”) becomes Cagney. It's a crime. Bugs me to this day. We would have to wait seven years, for Frankie Burke’s great imitation in “Angels with Dirty Faces,” before seeing a young Cagney that made sense.
Though cameras in early sound films were often static, Wellman begins with a glorious, extended shot. It's 1909, we're told, and after some archival footage of workers at factories and kids playing in a back-of-the-yards neighborhood, we follow a horse-drawn wagon full of kegs leaving a brewing company and clomping down the street. It goes past a pipe-smoking man with a lunch bucket, who crosses the street and walks by a boy hawking newspapers near a saloon, from which a worker emerges carrying a pole lined with six full tins of beer. He crosses the street in front of yet another saloon, past which a Salvation Army band marches, until the camera settles on the “Family Entrance” of the saloon. From there, carrying their own bucket of beer, Tom and Matt, as kids, emerge. Beautiful.
The boys are tough but different. Tom wants to drink beer, Matt wants to kiss girls. We see them at a department store, running from cops and floorwalkers, and knocking top hats off stuffed shirts. Then it’s girl trouble again. Matt objects to Tom pranking Matt’s sister but Tom does it anyway. For that, and his thievery, he gets in trouble with his father, a formidable figure in suspenders and police helmet, who grabs a belt and gives Tom a licking. This is the only time we see the father in the movie. We don’t even hear what happens to him—he’s just gone, like Tom wished him away. Cagney, generally a cinematic orphan or momma’s boy, wouldn’t have another cinematic father for eight years.
But in the very next scene, he gets a father figure. At the Red Oaks Club, Tom and Matt meet Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell), a fence and low-level crook, who teaches them the ways of the world—in part by ripping them off. They steal watches, he shortchanges them. Six years later, he gives the boys guns and set them on a fur-robbing caper, but it goes awry: a cop is killed, and Putty Nose flees and leaves them unprotected. Tom never forgives him.
By this point, it’s Cagney and Woods, and it’s worth talking about the moment when Cagney shows up. No less an authority than Martin Scorsese calls it “the birth of modern acting.”
“There’s something special when he walks on the screen,” Scorsese says in the documentary “Beer and Blood: Enemies of the Public.” “The command he has. He takes over the picture, in a way. And he has such confidence. It also has a lot to do with the way he moves his body.”
All of that is apparent in his first scenes. We’re outside the Red Oaks Social Club, Matt wipes his hand across his nose—his signature gesture—and Tom spits and pushes his Cockney cap forward on his head. Inside, there’s a bored tough behind a cigar counter, acting as a kind of bouncer. In the original script, Tom is supposed to question this guy “silently with raised eyebrows.” Cagney doesn’t even do that. He just stares at him from under that pushed-forward Cockney cap until the guy gestures toward the backroom. You get everything from that stare.
Cagney keeps doing this—giving us little details that feel true. One of Putty’s men, Miller (Snitz Edwards, in his final role), greets the boys with a grand gesture, and Tom smirks, brings his hand up as if in greeting, then turns it, as if he’s thumbing his nose at him. Later in the movie, when he shakes hands with a nervous brewer, he gives Matt a look, wipes his right hand off with his left and then flicks the left once as if getting rid of excess sweat. None of this stuff is in the script.
Look in the other actor’s camera eye and tell the truth. That’s what acting was to Cagney, and you can see it in the first Paddy Ryan scene. By now it’s 1917. While newsboys shout that the U.S. has entered the war in Europe, Matt and Tom are looking to hock crates of cigars they lifted, which is why they go to Paddy (Robert Emmett O’Connor), a tavern owner and another low-level crook. Paddy’s not a fence but he whispers a name to them; then he gives the “Paddy Ryan’s your friend” speech. After the Putty Nose debacle, Tom is nothing but suspicious: “Why you wanna front for us, we ain’t done nothing for you.” It’s fun watching Cagney watching Paddy, as if trying to divine the truth in his face. To see if he’s a right guy.
Another comparison with the original script is instructive. After Paddy’s speech, this is the line:
Gee, Paddy … that’s swell.
Cornball. But Cagney doesn’t do that. Instead, he smiles, spits, winks, gives that short-armed fist jab—his signature gesture—and says, “That’s swell.” Just that. It’s not really admiring, either. To be honest, you could read it as sarcastic. Tom still isn't showing his cards.
But Paddy isn’t Putty, and once Prohibition kicks in they all make a mint. That’s when the boys hit the big time. They get new clothes, a new car (“That ain’t no Ford, stoop!”), show up at the Black & Tan cafe and get new girls: Mamie and Kitty (Joan Blondell and Mae Clark). Then they reopen Leehman’s brewery and sell bootleg beer with a real gangster, “Nails” Nathan (Leslie Fenton). They’re the muscle. Well, Tom is. Matt is just Matt. “I’m always alone when I’m with Matt,” Tom says several times.
Up to now, Tom’s propensity for violence has been felt but not demonstrated. He punches out the speakeasy window when Putty betrays them, sure, but he also panics during the fur caper and loses a fight to his older brother Mike (Donald Cook). But we feel it, coiled, within him. Now it springs loose.
Three acts of violence stand out for me.
The first is with the speakeasy owner who says he doesn’t want any more kegs because “business is on the bum.” So Tom orders a beer, tastes it’s not theirs, and spits it in the guy’s face. He goes behind the bar and turns on all the taps; when the owner cravenly objects, saying Nails’ rival, Schemer Burns, has threatened him, too, Tom calls him yellow and slaps him once, twice, and upside for the third. He pokes his finger in his face while yelling at him in that rat-a-tat Cagney manner: “If you don't play ball, someone’s gonna drop by and kick your teeth out one at a time. Get me?” It’s startling—the viciousness and energy, but also the workmanlike way he goes about it. Plus there’s that knowing smile before it all goes down. As the owner is making his excuses, Tom leans against the bar, takes in the place, and smiles. Much of Tom’s violence is preceded by that smile.
The second incident is one of the most famous moments in movie history: the grapefruit scene. And like the casting switch, everyone wants credit. Wellman respected Zanuck but was disappointed when Zanuck said it was his idea. Bright respected Wellman but likewise. It’s in the script so Bright has a point.
It’s based on a story about Chicago mobster Hymie Weiss, who threw an omelet at his moll, and the writers switched it to grapefruit to make it less messy. Where Wellman deserves credit is in its ferocity. The script merely says Tom throws half a grapefruit at Kitty’s face, which could mean anything. Does he hit her? Does he miss? Mae Clark probably deserves a kind of credit, too. Filming that day, she told Cagney her nose was sore and could he be gentle? He agreed. Overhearing, Wellman took Cagney aside, told him the scene was important, and he really needed to shove it in her face. And man did he ever. It’s almost like he’s punching her with that grapefruit. It’s both vicious and calculated—his tongue even sticks out a bit, like he’s aiming. And over nothing. She doesn’t want him to drink before breakfast, and when he gets angry, she wonders if maybe he found someone else. That’s it. Ironically, at this point, he hadn’t found anyone else, but in the next scene he does: He picks up Gwen (Jean Harlow), the true female lead, who gets second billing. Mae Clark not only gets the grapefruit, she doesn’t get billed. She just gets movie immortality.
For all of that, it’s Tom’s third act of violence that is his most terrifying.
The first act of violence.
During the 1930s, Warners was famous for its social-message movies: men aren’t bad, society makes them so. That’s everything from “I Was a Fugitive on a Chain Gang” to “Angels with Dirty Faces.” There are elements of it in “The Public Enemy,” too, but it’s undercut by the fact that Tom was always a rotten kid. And Tom himself kind of undercuts it just before he gets his revenge on Putty Nose.
It’s the night of Matt’s marriage to Mamie, everyone’s celebrating at a ritzy club, when, off at a small table, Tom spies Putty talking with Miller. He hasn’t seen him since Putty fled after the fur heist went bad. After he and Matt follow him home, we get this exchange:
Putty Nose: You ain’t sore are you, Tom? I’ve always been your friend.
Tom: Sure, you taught us how to cheat, steal and kill. And then you lambed out on us.
Matt: Yeah, if it hadn’t been for you, we might have been on the level.
Tom: Sure. We might’ve been ding-dings on a streetcar.
That's great dialogue. Even though Tom and Matt are working together, they’re not really together. I think Matt actually buys the social-message argument, because for him it’s true. If it wasn’t for Putty—and, more, Tom—he would’ve been on the level. Meanwhile, Tom uses the social-message argument like a cudgel. It’s a means at manufacturing an edge against Putty, and when Matt takes it too seriously, Tom undercuts it with his dismissive term for legit work: ding-dings.
The scene still has a Frankenstein vibe: the creation rearing up to kill its creator. Inside, once Putty realizes the seriousness of the situation, he turns to Matt and begs; he knows he’s got no chance with Tom. And he doesn’t. It’s Tom who kicks his legs out from under him, and it’s Tom who follows him over to the piano, where Putty, in desperation, plays and sings the song he used to play and sing at the Red Oaks Club: “Hesitation Blues.” And it’s Tom who pulls out his gun while Putty, with an undercurrent of terror pinching his voice, sings: “Tell me how long do I have to wait?”
It’s worth juxtaposing the two scenes where he sings that song. Both times, this ribald lyric is interrupted:
Lizzy Jones, big and fat
Slipped on the ice and broke her –
In 1909, it’s covered over by a whistle and raucous laughter. In the 1920s, it’s cut short by the gunshot that ends Putty’s life.
Most of the murders in the movie happen off-screen: Tom, Nails, Schemer Burns’ gang, even Rajah the horse. Here, too. As Putty sings, the camera pans over to Matt by the door, who flinches at the gunshot, then stares in horror as we hear a body collapsing over piano keys and dropping to the floor. He’s still horrified when Tom walks into camera frame. We don’t see Tom's face, but he sounds blasé. “Guess I’ll call up Gwen, she oughta be home by now,” he says, as he gives a no-look double-fist jab to Matt. He’s like a working stiff punching the clock at the end of the day.
Critics have often wondered how Cagney could play criminals and sociopaths and still retain our sympathy. That question comes up as early as 1931, in newspapers articles about audience reaction to “The Public Enemy,” and it’s been bandied about by everyone from Orson Welles to Norman Mailer. A part of the answer is simple wish fulfillment. All of us wouldn’t mind slapping around those who lie to us or betray us. Cagney is the “You messed with the wrong guy” guy, and most of us are the other guy—the right ones to mess with. There’s also an honesty in Cagney’s acting that’s appealing. And then there’s this: most of Cagney’s gangsters have a code. Tom spends the entire movie ribbing Matt, but when Matt is killed in a hail of bullets, Tom risks his life—throws it away, really—to get revenge. That’s the code. He’s horrified when he figures out Paddy’s moll seduced him. That’s against the code. And what Putty did after the fur caper? That’s against the code, too, and why Putty had to be punished. What feels like a personal act of revenge becomes, in the aftermath, something blasé and workmanlike. Tom was just doing his job. And now it’s time to call Gwen.
For some reason, most early publicity shots have the gangsters looking frightened rather than frightful.
That was Tom’s rise. His fall is swift, and doesn’t come from excessive greed or violence but happenstance. One day a horse throws Nails Nathan and kills him. That’s it. That's the start. As the boys get revenge on the horse—based on another infamous Chicago gangland incident—Schemer Burns seizes his chance, bombs Paddy’s place, and Nails’ men scatter. Paddy orders the loyal ones to hole up in his safe house while he searches for reinforcements. He even takes away their guns—the mirror image of Putty handing guns to the boys back in ’15. Then two things happen: Putty’s old friend Miller spies Paddy leaving and drops a dime on their hangout (probably as revenge for Putty); and Paddy’s moll seduces Tom. He can’t abide that, or all the waiting, so he leaves. Matt follows and is immediately killed, balletically, by Schemer’s machine guns across the street. Then Tom enacts his revenge in the rain.
His line as he collapses, “I ain’t so tough,” isn’t in the original script and was probably added to placate the Hays Office or local censor boards. Or maybe Warners felt they needed a big finish? Another line like “Is this the end of Rico”? I've heard a lot of praise for it, but it feels false to me. I can’t imagine Tom thinking it, let alone saying it.
But if you’re going to have him say it, it should end the movie. Instead, the movie keeps going along. Or limping along. It loses Cagney’s energy and sharpness—he lies in a hospital bed, mumbling to Mike that he’s sorry, agreeing with Ma that he’s her baby—and the movie is reduced to mea culpas and handwringing.
Critics have pointed out the documentary feel to “Public Enemy”—a straightforward tale of a low-level gangster’s rise and fall, with fade-ins and fade-outs—but there’s a kind of macabre slowness to scenes, too. The scene with the father at the beginning has a dead-man-walking slowness to it, while Harlow’s Gwen talks in a slow, sing-songy voice that almost acts as a narcotic. Then there are the movie’s final moments. The Burns’ gang kidnaps Tom from the hospital and delivers the corpse to the Powers’ doorstep. When Mike opens the door, Tom’s beat-up, mummified body wobbles for a moment before falling forward into the foyer. It’s like a scene from a horror movie. Mike is certainly horrified. Upstairs his mother hums to herself, getting the bed ready for Tom, and Mike knows he needs to tell her. He rises, and walks slowly, like a zombie, toward the camera, while the record playing in the living room, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” finishes, and the movie ends.
Interesting note: In the original screenplay, Mike doesn’t head for the stairs; he goes directly to his “war closet,” stuffs hand grenades into each pocket, and strides into the night to get revenge. “His brother’s fate has turned him into a killer,” the script reads. For whatever reason, they changed it, but there’s a moment, right before Mike rises, when his face hardens into something fierce, angry and determined, that you can see a flicker of it. Maybe they filmed it both ways? And decided in the editing room? Either way, they made the right choice. I mean, hand grenades? For shell-shocked Mike? Right below Ma’s bedroom? C’mon.
And as powerful as the scene is, I don’t get why Schemer’s gang delivers Tom’s corpse to the Powers family. Aren’t they civilians? Wouldn’t Paddy’s place make more sense?
I do like all the loose ends. The original screenplay tied up some of them. After Matt’s death, for example, Tom returns to Gwen’s place to find a “Dear John” letter. Here, there's no end. He’s with her when Nails dies, then she's out of the picture. That’s the documentary feel again. As is the fact that, despite the title, Tom is never close to being Public Enemy No. 1. He's not a Capone or Dillinger. He’s just a lieutenant in an internecine bootleg war. It’s as if “The Sopranos” was all about Christopher Moltisanti.
Beryl Mercer’s performance as Ma has been criticized but I thought she was fine; I just found the family scenes dull and Donald Cook overwrought and theatrical. O’Connor as Paddy is serviceable, Blondell underused, ditto Mae Clarke, who, for all the attention, only has two short scenes. Loved Kinnell as Putty. The two actors that approach Cagney’s energy and naturalism are Darro—more’s the pity they didn’t switch the kids’ roles—and Leslie Fenton as Nails Nathan. “He’s so dapper, so different from everybody else,” film scholar Robert Sklar says on the commentary track. “I don’t know why it was he went from being an actor to a director but he certainly had a flair and an energy as an actor.” Totally agree. He comes in, snapping his gum, and lights up the room.
As for the man who would be Tom Powers? Edward Woods is great at conveying the horror of Putty Nose’s death but feels thin and reedy as a tough guy. He tries too hard at it. Ironically, for all the behind-the-scenes turmoil about switching roles, The New York Times mistakenly gave Woods top billing in its review (which was negative), while many movie ads featured Woods: a silhouette of Matt’s balletic death. If it was a comfort, it didn’t last. Cagney became a top box-office star for decades and remains a legend nearly 100 years later, while Woods’ movie career was over by 1938. After that, he became a theater director and producer (for Les Schubert), and a PR rep (for 20th Century Fox), then retired to Salt Lake City in 1975. When he died in 1989, his obits weren’t the journalistic kind but the paid kind: one in the Salt Lake Tribune, the other in the LA Times. The Times obit is just two paragraphs long, mentions two of his movies, and gets both titles wrong: “Hot Saturday” is referred to as “Saturday’s Child,” while this one is called “Public Enemy Number 1.” It says he made it with “long-time friend, Jimmy Cagney.” Except Cagney barely mentions Woods in his autobiography and anyway friends didn’t call Cagney “Jimmy”; it was always “Jim.” Like Matt, Woods deserved a better end than this.
Bright and Glasmon? They became part of the Cagney factory, churning out screenplays for “Smart Money,” “Blonde Crazy,” “Taxi,” and “The Crowd Roars”; but eventually they had a falling out with Warners and then with each other. Bright was the hard-drinking rebel, Glasmon the proper company man. So of course it’s Glasmon who died of a heart attack in 1940, while Bright kept sloshing around for another 40 years.
Wellman kept making great movies: “Wild Boys of the Road,” “A Star is Born,” “Beau Geste,” “The Ox-Bow Incident,” “Battleground.” His last film, “Lafayette Escadrille,” released in 1958, was a personal film, based on his own Great War exploits, and had casting problems similar to “The Public Enemy.” Warners wanted heartthrob Tab Hunter as the lead but Wellman didn’t like his chemistry with the supporting player. Given the power, would he have switched the roles again, as he did with Woods and Cagney? Interesting if he had. The supporting player was Clint Eastwood. Instead, Eastwood got shunted to a smaller role, Warners demanded a happy ending to Wellman’s bittersweet tale, and the movie died artistically and commercially. Wellman said enough of that.
Three years later, Cagney said enough of that, too. Over 31 years, he’d made 63 movies, was nominated best actor three times, and won for “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” but there really is something about his first starring role. I never get tired of it. It’s watching the thing become the thing. It’s that backdrop of macabre slowness, against which Wellman places Cagney, who electrifies.
The thing becoming the thing.
- John Bright. Worms in the Winecup: A Memoir. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, 2002
- James Cagney. Cagney By Cagney. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1976
- Henry Cohen. The Public Enemy: Wisconsin/Warner Bros Screenplay Series. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1981
- Mel Gusso. Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking: A Biography of Darryl Zanuck. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971
- John McCabe. Cagney. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997
- Patrick McGilligan. Cagney, Actor As Auteur. San Diego: A.S. Barnes & Company, 1975
- David Thomson. Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017
- Jack Warner: My First Hundred Years in Hollywood. Los Angeles, New York: GrayMalkin Media, 1964
- William A. Wellman. A Short Time for Insanity: An Autobiography. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1974
Wednesday December 23, 2020
The Big 3: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy
From the “Motion Picture Herald,” a trade pub, heralding the release of “Frankenstein.” Great spread. Not sure why they call Dwight Frye's character “the Dwarf,” though. And while Mae Clarke's “the bride of Frankenstein” is technically correct, it will have a whole new meaning in a few years.
The week before Halloween, trying to distract myself from the potential horror of the upcoming election (which we appear to have escaped in the final reel), I watched that trifecta of great Universal Pictures horror films from the early 1930s: “Dracula,” “The Mummy” and “Frankenstein.”
I'd seen “Dracula” before but not the others—not even “Frankenstein”!—and it's interesting the similarities between them.
“Dracula” was a hit first (release date: Feb. 1931) and they wanted Bela Legosi for “Frankenstein,” too (release date: Nov. 1931), but apparently he thought himself a romantic figure now and didn't want to play the Monster. So they got Boris Karloff. Lucky for them. At that point in his career, Karloff was relegated to bit parts in gangster films but he's amazing and heart-rending in “Frankensein.” As a result, he became their go-to monster, taking a turn at “The Mummy” (release date: Dec. 1932) and many others. Lesson, kids? Check your ego.
Other similarities/continuities between the films:
- Edward Van Sloan plays the wise man in each: Van Helsing, Dr. Walding and Dr. Muller.
- Dwight Frye is lacky in both “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” doing the bidding of the Master. In the latter, he's Fritz rather than Igor. In between the two, he played Wilmer in the original “Maltese Falcon.”
- David Manners is romantic lead in both “Dracula” and “The Mummy.” The romantic lead in “Frankenstein” is basically Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive).
The story structures are similar, too. In the first reel we see the danger, as demonstrated by Frye's Renfield in “Dracula” (who is bitten) or Bramwell Fletcher in “The Mummy” (who goes mad). Second reel the danger moves closer to us, or we to it, and the authority figure (Van Sloan) arrives to help. Third reel, how we overcome it. “The Mummy” is the least interesting of the movies to me. “Frankenstein” is the best, because in “Frankenstein” we're the monster. My wife, who loves horror movies, can't even watch the windmill scene. It's like killing a helpless animal.
Some day it would be cool to check out the subsequent horror films these guys were in (“The Monkey's Paw,” “The Black Cat”), which didn't catch on with the public, and try to figure out why. And why these did.
Tuesday December 22, 2020
Movie Review: Baby Face (1933)
“Baby Face” is one of the most famous/infamous of the pre-code films, but one wonders if its scandals might be more problematic for our time than theirs.
Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck), the daughter of a man who runs a speakeasy, takes the advice of a Nietzsche-loving cobbler (Alphonse Ethier) and moves to New York, where she sleeps her way to the top, leaving broken hearts, ruined careers, and death in her wake.
So you see the problem: Nietzsche.
Kidding. It’s this: Is the movie playing into the stereotype/smear that women sleep their way to the top? Or is it upending it, and thus, somehow, patriarchy itself?
But sure, the Nietzsche, too.
Six floors of the Blue Angel
For a time, we see Lily’s rise literally. After each seduction, from outside the high-rise bank where she works, the camera pans up, floor by floor, and department by department. This is how it looks, top to bottom, with each seduced man referenced:
- ACCOUNTING DEPT.: Ned Stevens (Donald Cook)
- ESCROW DEPT.
- MORTGAGE DEPT.: Brody (Douglass Dumbrille)
- BUILDING & LOAN
- FILING DEPT.: Jimmy McCoy, Jr. (John Wayne)
- FOREIGN EXCHANGES
- PERSONNEL: Mr. Pratt (Maynard Holmes)
Meaning the Filing Dept. is more prestigious than Foreign Exchanges? And the Accounting Dept. is the top of the food chain? Who knew? Certainly not accountants.
Above Accounting is the bank’s vice-president, J.R. Carter (Henry Kolker), and above him is the Board of Directors and its new president, Courtland Trenholm (George Brent), brought in to rehabilitate the bank’s rep in the wake of Lily’s scandals. He’s the romantic lead but doesn’t appear until we’re halfway through. So less lead than follower.
Even if all the seductions aren’t the same, there’s a sameness to the rise. Lily flirts with the beat cop to find out where the personnel dept. is, then heads behind closed doors with its pudgy secretary, Mr. Pratt of Tallapoosa, Ga., who seems as gay as the ’90s to me. We never see the best-looking (and ultimately best-known) of her seductions, a young Duke Wayne, even though he’s the one who gives her the titular nickname. Instead, his role is to encourage Brody to hire her. Brody then begins the true pattern of bosses/lovers:
- sexual interest
- can’t live without her
I get the first two. But can’t live without her? Where did that come from? I mean, I love Stanwyck, but she’s hardly Marlene Dietrich. Yet the movie is like “Six Floors of the Blue Angel”: Every dept. head becomes a Prof. Rath willing to crow for her.
The higher she climbs, the greater the fall for the men. Duke is just disappointed when she moves on, while Brody, caught in flagrante delicto, is canned. A week later, he bangs on her apartment door, overcoat wet, desperate, but she tells him to go back to his wife and three kids and leaves him stunned and bereft in the hallway. He’d be more stunned if he knew who was inside with her: Ned Stevens, the man who fired him, and whose secretaries think is a great guy (beware crappy exposition):
Secretary 1: Well, she certainly works fast.
Secretary 2: Won’t do her any good. He’s very much in love with the girl he’s engaged to.
Secretary 1: Say, I was surprised to read that in the paper. It’s a good match for him, too—marrying old Carter’s daughter.
Secretary 2: Mr. Stevens is an extraordinarily fine person. He has high ideals. He’s not like other men.
Turns out he’s worse. He not only has the affair, but, given a second chance with the boss’ daughter (Margaret Lindsay), he chooses Lily again. He even gives up his job so Lily can keep hers. And when he finds Lily and Carter together, he kills Carter in cold blood. Beware of men with high ideals, I guess.
Up to this point, she gets away with it by playing innocent. To Stevens about Brody: “What could I do—he’s my boss. Oh, I’m so ashamed!” To Carter about Stevens: “He told me I was the only one!” After the shooting she can’t play innocent, but with the Board she doesn’t need to. She’s been offered $10k by a local tabloid for her steamy story, and she uses it as leverage to extract $15k from the bank and a job with their Paris branch. The Paris gig is really just to get her out of town, and Trenholm assumes a woman like her won’t last long in the role. But that’s the new path to seduction: not innocence but gumption. Six months later, he shows up, she’s still working hard, he’s impressed, etc.
The second half of the film is a bit dull. Removed from the rise, it’s just the romance, and not a particularly interesting one. Our main question is: Is Lily faking it like with the others? They get married anyway, but on their honeymoon Trenholm discovers he’s become scapegoat for bank mismanagement, so he asks Lily to hock her jewels to help fund his defense. She bolts. She books passage on a luxury liner, and when he finds she’s gone he shoots himself. Back on the boat, she sees a rich older man and smiles. The End.
Kidding. That’d be my dream ending. Instead, between Hollywood and Hays and local censor boards, we wind up with this: Yes, she does bolt, and yes he does shoot himself. But then she’s overcome with grief and guilt. She really does love him! So she returns. And in the ambulance to the hospital, while she cries in his arms, he wakes and smiles at her. The End.
Eww. If you’re going to go there, and make her suddenly care, he should die. That’d be true comeuppance: as soon as she loves, she loses her love. That might even be powerful. But Hollywood endings.
Thus spake Zanuck
Here’s a bit of the backstory on the resurrection of “Baby Face.” In 2004, an uncensored version was recovered in a film vault in Dayton, Ohio, and a year later that version was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry. That same year, Time magazine (or Richard Schickel and Richard Corliss) named it to their top 100 movies of the last 80 years—or since Time began in March 1923.
I wouldn’t go that far. One argument against the movie upending patriarchal stereotypes is that it’s mostly dudes behind the scenes. “Baby Face” was based on a story idea by Darryl Zanuck, written by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola (the lone woman), and directed by Alfred E. Green. Markey is mostly known for being a sparkling wit around Hollywood, and for his impressive string of marriages: Joan Bennett, Hedy Lamarr, Myrna Loy. Scola is mostly known for working with Markey. Green began in the silent era, directed the most racist of the early Cagneys (“Smart Money” with Edward G. Robinson), and ended his career with a series of “Story” movies: “The Jolson Story,” “The Jackie Robinson Story,” “The Eddie Cantor Story.” According to IMDb’s rating system, the best each of them did is this.
Others have lauded the film for being ahead of its time in racial matters. Throughout, Lily’s best friend is Chico, a Black woman, played by Theresa Harris. I’ve written about Harris before. In the ’30s and ’40s, she was mostly stuck in maid roles, and most of those went uncredited. This was her first screen credit and it’s a meatier part. Even so, as Lily rises, what does Chico become? Her maid.
A lot of the Nietzsche, meanwhile, sounds like ur-Ayn Rand:
Watching, I kept thinking of another Nietzsche acolyte on the rise in 1933. That cobbler must’ve gotten around.
Tuesday October 06, 2020
Movie Review: San Francisco (1936)
“San Francisco,” which garnered six Oscar nominations, including picture, director, story and actor, and was the No. 2 box-office hit of 1936, is really two stories. One is aimed at men and was seen a lot in the 1930s. The other is aimed at women and is the most successful movie framework of all time.
The story aimed at men is this: two childhood pals wind up on opposite sides of the law. That’s “Manhattan Melodrama,” “Dead End,” and “Angels with Dirty Faces.” Here, Blackie Norton (Clark Gable), who runs the disreputable Paradise saloon along the Barbary Coast in 1906 San Francisco, is still good friends with Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy), the original fightin’ priest, who knows Blackie’s got a good heart even if he doesn’t believe in all that God hooey. They spar at the local gym and eat chop suey together. Blackie donates an organ—the musical kind—to Father Tim’s church. They’re just on opposite sides of the Big Question.
The most successful movie framework of all time is this: a woman has to choose between two men against a backdrop of historical tragedy. That’s “Gone with the Wind,” “The Sound of Music,” and “Titanic.” (Also, in more cartoonish form, the “Twilight” movies, “Hunger Games” and “Frozen.”) Here, Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) must choose between Blackie and Jack Burley (Jack Holt) against the backdrop of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. If she goes with the man she loves (Gable, of course), she’ll get the career she doesn’t want (singing in his saloon). If she goes with the other guy, she gets her dream job (the Tivoli Opera House), plus respectability (Nob Hill money), plus a straight-talking mother-in-law (Jessie Ralph, who’s fantastic). So every instinct is against choosing Gable. But then there’s Gable. As a result, we wind up with a lot of tortured looks and flip-flopping from MacDonald.
You know what decides for her? The earthquake. It kills Jack Burley, destroys the Paradise Saloon and helps Blackie find God. Think about that: It gets rid of the man she doesn’t want and the place she doesn’t want to work. And the big problem with the man she loves? His Godlessness? Solved. Modern smart weaponry should be so precise.
Question: Is the earthquake also God’s judgment on the wickedness of turn-of-the-century San Francisco? Early on, Father Tim warns Mary, a parson’s daughter from Benson, Colorado, about her new home:
You’re in probably the wickedest, most corrupt, most Godless city in America. Sometimes it frightens me. I wonder what the end’s going to be.
And the end was the earthquake. Because of the city’s licentiousness? Or maybe God just couldn’t stand one more rendition of “San Francisco …open your golden gate/ You’ll let nobody wait outside your door…”
Kidding. I like that song.
You know what I liked about the earthquake? It comes out of nowhere. For most of the movie, the drama is elsewhere. Not just in the decisions Mary doesn’t make but in the battles Blackie fights.
The movie opens with a fire on the Barbary Coast and a demand from local leaders for fire-safety reform. So they ask Blackie to run for supervisor and he seems a natural candidate. Jack Burley, who owns those fire-trap tenements on the coast, objects, and the two men battle for both Mary and power. At one point, to fill his political coffers, Blackie is hoping to win the “Chicken’s Ball” talent show, as his saloon usually does, with its $10k prize, but that very night he’s raided by cops at the behest of Burley. At the last instant, though, Mary—who at this point is Burley’s betrothed—agrees to sing for the Paradise. She goes with “San Francisco,” of course, and wins. Except Blackie’s not having it. He throws the trophy on the ground and stomps off. Mary is upset. Jack Burley is leading her outside when the earthquake hits. And all that drama about Blackie running for supervisor gets lost in the cracks and fissures. We don’t hear one thing about it again. It’s like Marion Crane’s machinations before she shows up at the Bates Motel. Which feels like life to me. What we think is the story isn’t necessarily the story.
I expected to be disappointed by the quake. I mean, it’s nearly 100 years old. How good could the special effects be? Answer: pretty damned good. Audiences at the time must’ve been wowed. Example: There’s a brilliant scene where Blackie, dazed, stumbles through the streets amid the aftershocks; and then the earth cracks open, one person falls to his death, another nearly does the same, but, even as the slab of earth he’s standing on heaves upward, and a water main below bursts, Blackie pulls the man out. It’s just this constantly moving chaos. I guess if there’s one thing people in LA know, it’s what an earthquake feels like.
I like the first meeting, or non-meeting, between Blackie and Mary, too. They’re on a busy street, New Year’s Eve, and she’s walking several paces ahead of him, oblivious to him as he is to her. He’s faster but keeps getting stopped to greet friends and acquaintances. Eventually he catches up … and passes her without a glance, kind of annoyed that she’s in his way. Good bit.
Her destination turns out to be his, the Paradise, where she wants to audition for his stage show. In his office we get the following exchange:
Blackie: Well, sister, what’s your racket?
Mary: I’m a singer.
Blackie: Let's see your legs
Mary [confused]: I said, I'm a singer.
Blackie: I know. Let’s see your legs.
So out of sight of the camera, she hoists her dress demurely. It would be interesting to compare this scene with Margot Robbie’s dress-hoisting audition in “Bombshell,” about sexual harassment at Fox News. Why is the Fox scene icky and this not? Because Fox president Roger Ailes tells her to keep going, gets a sad, sexual thrill out of it, and looks like Roger Ailes/Jabba the Hutt? Yes. Meanwhile, for Blackie is all about business: Will her legs draw crowds? Plus he looks like Clark Gable.
Perishing with a cry
Is this my first Jeannette MacDonald movie? She’s beautiful but not a great actress. I couldn’t even tell if she liked Gable—the actors apparently didn’t like each other at all—so Gable has to underline it for us: “How does it feel,” he says, as she remains stone-faced after his umpteenth advance, “to feel like a woman and be afraid of of it?” Ah, so that’s what’s going on. I thought he was just a creep.
Overall, there’s too much melodrama for me in “San Francisco,” but it has its moments—like the non-meet cute. I also like the opera scene. Blackie goes to the Tivoli Opera House with his right-hand man “Babe” (Harold Huber, another great character actor of the period) to stop her debut because she’s under contract to him; but he winds up so amazed by her singing, and by the opera itself, that he lets it ride. It’s the lowbrow guy getting culture. That was the MGM way, wasn’t it? They were the Tiffany of movie studios and Gable was their Warner Bros. guy. But he had to learn.
The movie, as mentioned, is the two childhood pals story, and the woman choosing between two men against a backdrop of historical tragedy story. But is it something else? This is the opening title card:
San Francisco—guardian of the Golden Gate—stands today a queen among sea-ports: industrious, mature, respectable. But perhaps she dreams of the queen and city she was—splendid and sensuous, vulgar and magnificent—that perished suddenly with a cry still heard in the hearts of those who knew her, at exactly:
April 18, 1906
“San Francisco” was released two years after the Production Code Administration under Joseph Breen ended the glorious “Forbidden Hollywood” era of skin and sin. So is 1906 San Francisco a kind of stand-in for Forbidden Hollywood itself? Maybe even MGM, with its highbrow pretensions, misses the studio she was—splendid and sensuous, vulgar and magnificent.
Friday October 02, 2020
Movie Review: Here Comes the Navy (1934)
A lot of firsts with this one.
It’s the first Cagney movie to be nominated best picture (there would be others), his first with Irish Mafia pal Pat O’Brien (there would be eight), and his first set in the military. The closest he’d come to the military before was singing and dancing the “Shanghai Lil” number in Navy blues at the end of “Footlight Parade,” but such films would soon become a Cagney staple: the malcontent learning to be a team player.
“Navy” was also the first Cagney movie released after the Production Code Administration was created. I actually think that first informs all the others.
In the 1920s and early ’30s, Hollywood movies were regulated by the Hays Code, under former Postmaster General Will Hayes, but the moguls kinda ran amok over Hayes and the result was the glorious pre-code “Forbidden Hollywood” era of sin and skin. But by 1934, there was mounting pressure to clean up from both the Catholic clergy, which instituted successful boycotts of scandalous pictures, and the U.S. government, which, under FDR, was creating new regulatory agencies, and there were rumors Hollywood might be next. To prevent this, and to win back Catholic moviegoers, the moguls appointed their own watchdog: the PCA under the leadership of Joseph Breen, an Irish Catholic and no pushover. And there went that glorious era.
The dividing line for Cagney is stark. After he became a star in “The Public Enemy,” Warners would occasionally toss him into a “sports” picture (“Winner Take All”), but mostly he played grifters (“Blonde Crazy,” “Hard to Handle,” “Jimmy the Gent”), and low-level gangsters (“The Mayor of Hell,” “Lady Killer,” “He Was Her Man”). With the creation of the PCA, that went away. Now he was a G-man, a family man, or the aforementioned rebel in the military. And now he was teamed with Pat O’Brien to show him the way, rather than Joan Blondell, who showed him another way. From 1930 to 1934 he made seven films with Blondell but “He Was Her Man,” released earlier in ’34, was their last. At that point, almost as if they tagged off, O’Brien became his partner. From 1934 to 1940, they made eight pictures together.
I actually like Cagney’s pre-code grifters better. Pre-code, he had a code. With the Production Code, he just became an asshole. Way to go, Catholics.
Live and don’t learn, that's our motto
I guess I don’t mind Chesty O’Conner too much. He starts out as a smart-ass riveter in a Navy yard in Bremerton, Wash., who tries to take some of the starch out of officer Biff Martin (O’Brien), and does, but then gets quick comeuppance. At the big dance, at which he’s bringing and presenting the dance trophy, which he expects to win, he: 1) loses an alley fight with Biff, who then 2) wins the dance contest, with 3) Chesty’s girl. Gets a kiss, too. Chesty is so angry, he decides to enlist to get back at Biff. No one told him about the 90-day training period, nor the fact that it’s highly unlikely he’ll be assigned to Biff’s ship: The U.S.S. Arizona.
But he makes it through training and even makes a friend along the way, Droopy, played by third Irish Mafia pal Frank McHugh. There’s a running gag about Droopy needing money so his mother in Walla Walla can get a new set of teeth. It’s not a great bit, but at least they say Walla Walla.
Oh, and of course both men are assigned to the Arizona.
Another thing Chesty didn’t think through: Biff is now his commanding officer. “From now on,” O’Brien says with a rare sneer, “call me Mister!” There’s another girl, too, Dorothy (Gloria Stuart), of whom Droopy says, “Holy smoke, look at the trim lines on that Destroyer.” Does Chesty go after her because he thinks she’s Biff’s girl? She isn’t. She’s his sister, and initially the complication is Biff forbidding her to see Chesty—but, no, that’s never really the complication. She stands her ground. The real problem is that Chesty jumps ship to see her, then, after she admonishes him for going AWOL, tries to jump back. For that he’s court-martialed, gets two months confined to ship, etc. But that’s not the real problem, either. It’s that he badmouths the Navy and everyone in it, calling them whipped dogs, “bootlicking to a flock of mugs in uniforms who push you around like a lot of rag dolls.” After that, he’s persona non grata on ship—“a wrong guy,” as one Navy extra says.
When does he realize the error of his ways? He doesn’t. Instead, he shows bravery by smothering a fire and is awarded the Navy Cross, which he dismisses as a “tin lavalier.” The higher-ups don’t like this so he gets transferred to the Navy’s dirigible outfit; and when the dirigible U.S.S. Macon visits his old unit in high winds, Biff, trying to secure the airship with a mooring line, is swept up with it and clings for life. It’s up to Chesty to shimmy down and parachute them both to safety. After this act of bravery, he finds out—in the midst of his wedding ceremony to Dorothy—that he’s been promoted to boatswain, making him Biff’s superior. Biff is aghast, Chesty is amused. “And whenever you speak to me,” he says with a laugh, “call me Mister.” Then the ceremony continues with Droopy’s mom, dentures slipping, singing an off-key version of “Oh, Promise Me,” whose lyrics are tattooed on Droopy’s body. The end.
So: Lesson unlearned, Chesty never really changes at all. He just shows he’s worthwhile by showing courage. Basically he’s a courageous asshole. Cf., “Fighting 69th” when he plays a cowardly asshole.
Anyway, these plot points aren’t what makes “Here Comes the Navy” (working title: “Hey Sailor”) interesting.
”Make it shine, sailor. I want to see my face in it." Precursor to men riding rockets.
Military tragedies and the other kinds
First, there’s the doom of it. The film is a favorite of Navy vets and military historians because it was filmed in Navy locations with Navy hardware that was tinged with tragedy. The U.S.S. Macon, apparently our biggest helium-filled airship, crashed off the coast of Santa Barbara less than a year after the movie was filmed, more or less ending the Navy’s experiment with “fabric-clad rigid airships.” (Headlines at the time praised the crew but included warnings such as: “Navy Has Spent $40,000,000 on Four Dirigibles: All Have Crashed.”) But the Macon has nothing on the Arizona, which was sunk by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. More than 1,000 crewmen died. There’s a memorial marker to this day on the spot where it sank. It’s sacred.
Even the mooring line incident is based on Navy tragedy. In May 1932, the airship U.S.S. Akron suddenly jerked upwards with three men clinging to mooring lines; two died. A year later, the Akron was destroyed in a thunderstorm off the Atlantic coast, killing 73.
I like the scene of Chesty’s first act of courage. I don’t even have the language to describe it properly. In an enclosed space, Chesty, Biff and the other men, stripped to the waist, are loading shells (wrapped in cloth?) into the back end of naval guns. As the guns angle high in the air, the floor drops away, so the men crowd along a ledge opposite the guns, which stays put. After the guns fire, the floor elevates again and they repeat. It’s like a dangerous dance routine. One time, a piece of paper, or cloth, aflame, is pushed back into the room, gun powder is spilled on it, and that’s when Chesty cries out “fire!” and smothers the flames with his own body.
I also like Stuart. She was a one-and-done Cagney leading lady but she’s got a bemused quality about her. She seems smarter than the boys but not above them. She was versatile, too, starring in horror films (“The Invisible Man” with Claude Rains), comedies (“Roman Scandals” with Eddie Cantor) and musicals (“Gold Diggers of “1935” with Dick Powell), but stopped acting in movies in the 1940s and went on to stage work and oil painting. Thirty years later, she returned to screen acting. She danced with Peter O’Toole in “My Favorite Year,” and was first-time Oscar-nominated at the age of 78 for playing the aged Rose in James Cameron’s “Titanic.” In this way, she’s connected to two of the most famous ships to sink in the 20th century.
For all the military history, it’s the racial history that will shock 21st-century viewers the most. Not only do we get Cagney in blackface, we also get one of the most demeaning Black stereotypes in a Cagney film: Fred “Snowflake” Toones, playing Cookie, who wears a stupid, droop-lipped expression with his hair out of place. This is the AWOL scene. Chesty doesn’t have liberty but wants to go ashore to see Dorothy, and he and Cookie have the following conversation—with Cagney using his usual rat-a-tat delivery, and Toones horribly slow in comparison:
Chesty: Hey Cookie, you got liberty tonight, ain’tcha?
Cookie: Sho is! Yessuh.
Chesty: Wanna make some dough?
Cookie: How much!
Chesty: Three bucks for your liberty card.
Cookie: I’d like to obligate you, Mr. Chesty, but I got a date.
Chesty: Well, I’ll make it five. That’s a lot of dough for one night’s liberty.
Cookie: Doggone! I almost come. But I just cain’t disappoint my hone.
Chesty: She won’t be disappointed.
Cookie: Yessuh, she will.
Chesty: Well, look, I’ll make it ten bucks…
[Gives him a new $10 bill]
Cookie [smiles]: You know, this thing does things to me. I guess you got me!
So is it an act? Cookie seems like an idiot but he talks our hero up from $3 to $10. So is he playing the fool in order to fool? Or is the fool he’s playing so repugnant, so embarrassing (in the words of film historian Donald Bogle), that it doesn’t matter what he wins? Because he loses too much in the process.
Anyway, it’s why Cagney winds up in blackface. He’s got Cookie’s liberty so I suppose he has to look like Cookie. He doesn’t look at all like him, of course, but he gets away with it. White people don’t see him—including Biff, who straightens his tie. That’s interesting. The only ones who pay attention are the other Black servicemen—kitchen help, one assumes, since the military wasn’t integrated until after World War II. On ship, they do double-takes while Cagney smiles and cackles; on land, they crowd around, puzzled, as Cagney talks up and then leaves with Dorothy. It’s played for comedy but there’s a lot buried there. Imagine if others noticed a black-faced Cagney leaving with a white girl. Imagine they tried to stop him. Damn, you could’ve had a whole other kind of movie. But it would’ve required a whole other kind of Hollywood. And a whole other kind of America.
Playing the fool in order to fool?
Sunday September 27, 2020
Movie Review: Mothers Cry (1930)
I watched “Mothers Cry” because of this Louella Parsons column, syndicated in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dec. 8, 1930, and touting a “young film comer” chosen for the lead in the new Warner Bros. gangster picture “The Public Enemy.” Not James Cagney, of course: Edward Woods. Most film fans, or at least Cagney fans, know that Woods was tapped for the lead but the roles were switched early in production. What I didn’t know was that the publicity machine had already begun working on Woods. The column also made me wonder why Woods was cast as Tom Powers in the first place. This part:
Young Woods, who played the role of the first boy to die in the stage production of “The Last Mile,” and Danny, the bad boy in “Mother’s Cry,” is just getting his foothold in Hollywood.
Woods never really impresses in “Public Enemy.” Maybe because he’s the nicer one? He’s the guy who’s horrified when Tom kills Putty Nose in cold blood. That’s his role. So maybe, as the bad boy in “Mothers Cry,” I’d be able to see why Warners cast him as Tom Powers in the first place. That’s why I watched this.
And … nope. In “Mothers Cry,” Woods has a thin, reedy voice, is as pale and powdered as any silent film star, and overacts. There’s nothing in the performance that makes you think: lead role in tough-guy gangster movie.
But “Cry” does have interesting similarities with “Public Enemy.” As well as strong differences.
“Public Enemy” is an early attempt at what became the Warner Bros. “social problem” film. In the nature/nurture argument, it takes both sides. Sure, Tom is a rotten kid, and his brother is upstanding; but look what happens to the brother: shell-shocked during the Great War, the sap. And maybe if it wasn’t for the Putty Noses of the world, Tom might’ve become a ding-ding on a streetcar. You never know. The social problem argument isn’t as strong as it would become in “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” and “Angels with Dirty Faces,” but it’s there.
In “Mothers Cry,” it’s non-existent. Danny’s a shitty kid who becomes a shitty adult who is executed for his shitty crimes. The end.
As you might gather from the title, it’s the story from the mother’s perspective and the whole thing is steeped in melodrama. Mary (Dorothy Peterson) marries Frank Williams, has four children with him, and is then widowed. She has to raise them on her own while working as a seamstress in a sweatshop. But she does it. And her kids grow up to be OK—mostly:
- Jenny (Evalyn Knapp), interested in homemaking, marries a boisterous, hard-working German, Karl Muller (Reinhold Pasch)
- Beattie (Helen Chandler), an idealistic, artistic spirit, can’t decide on a discipline
- Arthur (David Manners), good-natured, is interested in architecture
- Danny (Woods) becomes a two-bit hood
The worst part of Danny isn’t his two-bit hoodiness; it’s that he’s bad at it. As an adult, we first see him downing a shot with a dame and bragging how about he’s going to collect from both ends of a shady deal. Except she’s working with the gang he’s trying to cheat, and they show up behind him. “Give him the works,” she tells the boys, then addresses Danny. “So, Mister Wise Guy, you’re gonna collect from both ends? Yes, you are.” This is both a common idiom back then—sarcastic agreement with previous statement—and chilling promise.
It’s delivered. Danny is dumped, beaten and bloody, on his family’s front porch—a scene prefiguring the ending of “Public Enemy.” The family scurries to help but Danny knows the mob will be back and flees.
“Three years pass,” as the intertitles say. Arthur has just been awarded a prize for architectural design, the family is celebrating, and Danny shows up full of false bravado and with a floozy for a wife. The two spend an evening making everyone uncomfortable before the cops show up and haul Danny to prison for a crime he committed elsewhere. I guess he thought he was safe at home? Another mistake. As is the floozy. “You gotta keep him for a son,” she tells Mrs. Williams, as she skips town, “but I don’t gotta keep him for a husband.” So Danny can’t even get girls right.
Beattie, the idealistic one, flees, too (Danny makes her feel bad), and winds up in Palm Beach, Florida, where she gets a job as the public stenographer for a fancy hotel. One guest, Mr. Hart, keeps calling for her … and we see where that’s going. After she returns home, heartbroken, there’s a good scene where she tells Arthur all. She’s crying, he sits her on his lap and says with a solicitous smile, “Now, tell me everything.” As she begins, the screen dissolves from top to bottom. Then for several seconds, it remains black—and silent. Maybe five seconds? Seems forever in film time. When it dissolves back—from bottom to top—Beattie has reached the end of her sordid tale, and Arthur, shocked, is now holding onto her as much for support as to be supportive. Great scene. Plus the top-to-bottom dissolve is something I’ve never seen before.
The day she returns, of course, is the same day Danny gets out of prison. Arthur is now a huge success and Danny looks to scam him, but instead finds Beattie crying with her old love letters from the married Mr. Hart. Danny sees his chance—blackmail!—and tries to steal the letters, but he can’t even do this. Beattie simply takes them back and runs upstairs. So he shoots her. Dead. Now he’s on death row, where his mother goes to see him the day he’s to be executed. By this point, he’s got one thing left to lose. It’s the thing Cagney pretended to lose in “Angels with Dirty Faces,” and Danny raises the issue immediately:
All them newspaper guys that thinks I’m gonna flap can go jump in the lake. Cause I ain’t gonna flap, see. Cause I ain’t afraid.
She nods. He nods. She says goodbye. He says goodbye. She’s slowly led out. Then he twists the bars, emotes, and grunts out a desperate “Mama!” This is Woods’ best bit of acting. There’s a real undercurrent of desperation here. She tries to go back to him but the guard won’t have it. He grunts it out again: “Mama!” Then he breaks down. And that’s the last we see of him.
The perils of Helen Chandler
“Mothers Cry” is based on a best-selling novel by Helen Grace Carlisle, was adapted by Lenore J. Coffee, a prolific Hollywood screenwriter whose work includes the original non-musical version of “Chicago,” and was directed by Hobart Henley, a silent film actor and director whose last credit is from 1934.
The point of it all, the mother’s cry, is that the mother does everything for her kids and loses them all. Danny kills Beattie and the state kills him. Jenny and Karl leave because of the floozy—I think. Arthur stays but Mom pushes him away. There’s a media frenzy about Danny and she doesn’t want him caught up in it. But we get a coda. She visits him in New York, where it’s implied he’s designed the Chrysler Building, which, at the time of the movie’s release, December 1930, was the tallest building in the world.
Something similar actually happened with the actors. The mother, Dorothy Peterson, kept going like the mother in the movie. This is her first screen credit and IMDb lists 103 more until her final role in a 1964 episode of “The Patty Duke Show.” But the movie careers of the kids barely make it out of the 1930s. David Manners went from playing Arthur to playing the romantic lead in a string of horror films (“Dracula,” “The Mummy,” “The Black Cat”), but he quickly tired of Hollywood, left for a ranch, and never returned; his last credit is from 1936. Evalyn Knapp played Cagney’s sister in his first movie, “Sinners’ Holiday,” caused his death in “Smart Money,” and recreated the role of Pauline in a remake of the hugely successful silent serial “The Perils of Pauline” in 1933. But that was her high point. Her career was over by 1943.
Then there’s Helen Chandler. She’s great as Beattie, so lovely and fragile, you wonder why she didn’t become bigger. She was also in “Dracula,” and co-starred with Douglas Fairbanks in “The Lost Generation,” but her last movie credit is from 1938. What happened? This is her IMDb bio. It’s about the saddest I’ve read:
In 1937 Chandler left Hollywood to return to the stage, but a dependency on alcohol and sleeping pills haunted her subsequent career, and in 1940 she was committed to a sanitarium. Ten years later she was disfigured in a fire, apparently caused by smoking in bed. Helen Chandler died (following surgery for a bleeding ulcer) on April 30, 1965. Her body was cremated, and as no relative ever came forward to claim the remains, her ashes now repose in the vaultage section (off limits to visitors) of the Chapel of the Pines Crematory in Los Angeles.
As for Woods? He did this, “Public Enemy,” and only 10 more movies, generally fourth- or fifth-billed, and was done by 1938. He went on to produce and direct in the theater (for Les Schubert), and did promotional work (for 20th Century Fox), before retiring to Salt Lake City in 1975. His death in 1989 didn’t even rate a mention in the newspaper. Any newspaper. The only obits I could find were the kind family and friends pay for. One was in The Salt Lake Tribune, the other in the Los Angeles Times. The Times obit contains several errors. It says Woods acted in a movie called “Saturday’s Child,” when they probably meant “Hot Saturday”; and it gets his big movie wrong. They call it “Public Enemy Number 1.”
As to my original question: Why was he cast as the lead in “Public Enemy” when, even playing a tough guy in “Mothers Cry,” he’s not exactly tough? It could be his look. Lew Ayres was cast as the gangster lead in “The Doorway to Hell” earlier in 1930, with Cagney as his right-hand man, and “Enemy” seemed to follow that pattern. But while researching the question, I came across this fun fact: At the time of the Louella Parsons column touting Woods as a “young film comer,” guess who Woods was engaged to? Louella Parsons’ daughter. And now I’m wondering if maybe this connection had something to do with the original casting. According to Cagney biographer John McCabe, Warners producer Darryl Zanuck appreciated Woods’ connection to the powerful Parsons, and that’s why he was initially reluctant to switch the roles. Indeed, when he did it, Parsons wasn’t happy. According to Samantha Barbas’ biography “The First Lady of Hollywood,” she wrote this in her column:
“I happen to know the Cagney role was originally written for Eddie, but through the friendship of someone in the studio the big part was handed the other boy.”
Two things. While the writers—John Bright and Kubec Glasmon—had a preference for Cagney, the role of Tom Powers wasn’t written for anyone. But worse is the second part of her sentence. The nepotism she claims others engaged in is exactly what she’s guilty of. Hell, the “friends” she claims Cagney had at the studio were the writers. The second part of her sentence negates the first.
I will say this about Woods’ performance in “Mothers Cry”: If the studios were truly interested in deglamorizing criminals—as they always claimed—this was the way to do it. Woods’ Danny isn’t anyone you’d want to be. He’s not cool, he’s not respected, and he’s only feared by his fragile sister. Going with Cagney, Warners chose a more realistic, energetic, and lucrative path. Yes, they did.
Woods before his big scene; and before the fall.