Movie Reviews - 1930s posts
Monday October 11, 2021
Movie Review: A Slight Case of Murder (1938)
I don’t mean Edward G. Robinson playing a gangster, since he was supposed to do that. He played eight of them between “Little Caesar” and this. I'm talking something more specific: Robinson, in a comedy, playing a gangster boss who tries to go legit after Prohibition is repealed in 1933 and runs into trouble.
In “The Little Giant,” from ’33, Robinson played “Bugs” Ahearn, who decides to take his Prohibition-era dough and scram to LA/Hollywood, and mingle with the jet-set there. The joke is he thinks he’s entering refined society but they’re actually bigger crooks than he is.
In this one, he plays Remy Marco, a Prohibition-era gangster who decides, after repeal, to keep selling his beer legally. The joke is he doesn’t know his beer sucks, and, with tons of legal options, no one will buy it. Thus: trouble.
“A Slight Case of Murder” is based on the play by Howard Lindsay and Damon Runyon—Runyon’s only theatrical production—which ran for 60 or so shows in the fall of 1935. It was basically contemporaneous with repeal so the “sucky beer” gag makes sense. Warner Bros. also makes “Slight Case” contemporaneous—but to the year it was released: 1938. Meaning Marco has been trying to sell his awful beer for five years? And no one’s told him? I had trouble getting past that.
- “Say, you mugs, why aren’t we selling anything?”
- “Well, the beer sucks, boss.”
- “What are saying about Marco’s beer?”
- “I’m saying it’s no good, boss.”
- Sips. Spits. “Say, you’re right! Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
We get a scene like that but way, way too late. As a gag, I’ll buy his ignorance for a month or two. But five years? The gag loses its fizz and loses my interest.
That’s one aspect of the plot: Marco wheeling and dealing to keep the bank from seizing his brewery because he’s selling sucky beer and doesn’t know it. (Robinson is good, by the way, at drawing out the comedy of a man super confident in what everyone else knows is wrong.)
Marco’s financial troubles necessitate calling back his daughter, Mary (Jane Bryan), from her studies in France, and they all decide to meet at their Saratoga home in Upstate New York. And she’s got news: She’s engaged to the well-heeled Dick Whitewood (Willard Parker), who, feeling he should have some kind of job, gets one with the police. But his attempts to introduce himself at the Saratoga home are constantly rebuffed by Marco and his gang (Allen Jenkins, Edward Brophy, Harold Huber, an All-Star assemblage of Warner Bros. character actors), who assume he’s just another cop hassling them.
Remy brings with him an orphan from his former orphanage—a kid named Douglas Fairbanks Rosenbloom, played with “so’s your old man” charm by Bobby Jordan, one of the original Dead End Kids. Oh, and before they arrive, the nearby racetrack is robbed and the five crooks are hanging out with the dough at Marco’s home, upstairs, until one of them, the oddly named Innocence, panics and shoots the other four.
All of this, plus Whitewood’s uptight dad at Marco’s boisterous party, set the stage for madcap antics and misperceptions. You can definitely see the play in it. Once we arrive in Saratoga, I don’t think we move from the home.
I like the idea that finding four dead bodies upstairs isn’t a big deal for these gangsters, as it would be for most of us. In fact, they put the bodies to good use by depositing them on the doorsteps of Marco’s enemies. But once the gang finds out there’s a reward, dead or alive, the bodies are retrieved and stuffed in a closet upstairs.
Amid the chaos, order of a kind is restored. Marco uses the stolen racetrack money to convince the bankers he’s flush, so they extend his mortgage and his brewery is saved. He convinces his future son-in-law that the dead gangsters in the closet are alive and has him shoot them—and the kid becomes a hero in the process. A stray bullet from his jittery hand kills Innocence. The movie ends abruptly with Marco fainting at the news.
A standout is Ruth Donnelly as Marco’s wife, Nora, who is forever forgetting to put on airs and keeps returning to her plain-talking patois. But “A Slight Case of Murder” is just that: slight.
Thursday September 23, 2021
Movie Review: Kid Galahad (1937)
This one’s a bit odd: Warner Bros. pairs two of its biggest stars in a movie that isn’t really about them.
It’s also not odd at all, since each actor becomes what they generally become in a Warner Bros. movie. Edward G. Robinson gets spurned by his woman, as so often happened, and then dies of a gunshot wound, as ditto; and Bette Davis, who did the spurning, exits the boxing gym at the end and walks out into the chill of the night, alone, forever alone, which is classic Bette.
“Kid Galahad” is directed well by Michael Curtiz, and the boxing scenes are powerful for the period—the camera is right in there with them—and the cinematography is beautiful black and white. But I lost interest halfway through.
They're dull, he's dumb
Robinson plays Nick Donati, an irascible boxing manager ready to fire any fighter who doesn’t follow his orders to the letter, while Bette is his girl, “Fluff,” who’s the brains of the operation, always figuring out ways to smooth things over.
Yes, That’s right: They cast Bette Davis as someone named Fluff. One wonders if Jack Warner wasn’t punishing her for her recent contract disputes.
The movie opens with a boxing match in Miami:
How often do boxing managers get billed above the fighters? One assumes: never?
Donati’s fighter, Burke, doesn’t follow the game plan, loses, so Donati cuts him loose. On the cabride back to the hotel, Donati asks Fluff how much they lost that night ($17,300) and what they have left ($1,800). “We might as well shoot it on a party and start over.” Cut to: the third day of the shindig, when Fluff is serving drinks because the hotel bellhop passed out drunk (hotel bellhops mix drinks at private parties?). So Donati orders up a clean-cut bellhop. He gets one. And how.
Ward Guisenberry (Wayne Morris) is tall, blonde, broadshouldered, and innocent as a lamb. All the women make innuendo with him and/or passes at him, and thus all the men resent him. Donati’s rival, Turkey Morgan (Humphrey Bogart), says he’s too cute to wear long pants and cuts off his pant legs below the knee with a knife. When Fluff tries to intervene, Morgan’s fighter Chuck McGraw (William Haade), a heavyweight contender, pushes her around. So the bellhop decks him. And a lightbulb goes on for Donati.
Well, a light bulb goes on for us; we’ve seen this movie before. Donati is a tougher sell. He agrees to manage the bellhop in a boxing match with McGraw’s brother because he wants him to get a beating, too. He’s jealous of how much Fluff likes him. Basically he’s siding with Turkey Morgan even though he’d just learned Morgan paid off Burke to take a dive. Makes no sense.
Yet Fluff does fall for the kid. I think it happens when she’s walking him to the elevator after the pants-leg incident and he admits he didn’t know what he was getting into. “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen anyone hit a lady,” he says. Her response is delayed. She measures what he says, then realizes she’s the lady. I think that’s when she begins to fall. Nice bit of acting.
Of course, the kid beats McGraw’s brother, Fluff dubs him Kid Galahad, and Donati realizes he might have something here. But since Turkey’s such a sore loser, Donati has to stash him at his mother’s farm upstate—with the added admonition that he stay away from, Marie (Jane Bryan), his recently cloistered sister. Though they initially toss barbs at one another, anyone can read the writing on the wall. That’s actually when I began to lose interest. I was hoping Bette would win the boy. I’d completely forgotten the point of Bette Davis is to wind up alone.
So Galahad rises, Fluff falls (when she realizes Galahad loves Marie), and Donati falls harder (when Fluff leaves him). But it’s all played out against irrelevance—that Galahad shouldn’t k.o. this boxer because it means a title shot too soon, etc. It feels like there’s a cleaner, harder story here, about a man who takes on a fighter for the wrong reasons and then loses everything that’s important to him: his woman and his sister. Or maybe it should be more comic? Hey, stay away from my sister and my woman. Either way, too much of the movie’s focus becomes the kids, who are dull things. Plus Fluff gets dull after she leaves Donati to sing torch songs in a nightclub, while Donati’s never smart enough. Seriously, he’s about the dumbest movie fight manager I’ve ever seen. He has a kid who has the stuff to be champion but never recognizes it: not at the beginning, when he wants him to get a pummeling, and not at the end, when he bets against him in the title bout vs. McGraw, and then feeds him bad advice. It’s never about the fight.
“Kid Galahad” did well at the box office and with the critics. Bette, a tough critic herself, talked highly of it in her autobiography, and it’s still sporting a 7.2 rating on IMDb. It was remade with Elvis in the early ’60s, while “The Wagons Roll at Night” from 1941 is apparently another version, albeit set in a circus, with Bogart in the Robinson role. It’s his last movie before he officially became Bogart; his next role was “The Maltese Falcon.”
According to IMDb, Bogart and Robinson made five movies together, and in only one of them, “Brother Orchid,” do both survive. The tally otherwise is: Robinson kills Bogart (“Dr. Clitterhouse”), Bogart kills Robinson (“Key Largo”), and they both kill each other (“Bullets or Ballots” and this one). So 1-1-2.
Here, because Donati tells Turkey what he’s up to with the title match, Turkey bets a wad on his own fighter, but loses it when Fluff and Marie convince Donati to fight for real. Thinking he’s been double-crossed, and generally a sore loser, he figures revenge is a dish best served really, really hot. So he finagles his way backstage, holds Donati, Fluff and the Kid hostage, and then he and Donati shoot each other. Donati gets some final words to Fluff before dying, then she slumps off into the night. The world is left to the boring kids.
Neither of those up-and-comers, by the way, lasted as long as the old hands. Robinson kept going into the 1970s, Davis into the late ’80s, while Jane Bryan, highly touted and a favorite of Davis’, made 17 movies between 1936 and 1940, then quit to marry Justin Dart, a bigwig in the pharmaceutical industry, a staunch Republican, and a friend and adviser to Ronald Reagan. She spent the rest of her life doing GOP things. Wayne Morris kept acting but died young, at age 45, in 1959, of a heart attack. His best-known role may be as a cowardly soldier in Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory,” which is ironic: as a pilot during World War II, he shot down seven Japanese planes, helped sink five Japanese ships, and was awarded four Distinguished Flying Crosses and two Air Medals.
Silent film star Harry Carey has a small role as a fight trainer, and he’s good: calm, wise. Among Bogie’s gang, I particularly like Ben Welden, whose Buzz Barett is perpetually smiling in the most annoying fashion. Spain’s Soledad Jimenez plays the Italian mother of the Jewish-Romanian fight manager. Early ads for the film include Pat O’Brien in the cast, but I can’t figure out what his part would be, since both Robinson and Bogart are mentioned as well. Not Galahad, surely.
Overall, there’s not much here but history. And a lesson: Find someone who looks at you the way every woman in this movie looks at Wayne Morris.
“Someone wanted me?” “I bet plenty of ’em do, honey.”
Monday August 09, 2021
Movie Review: The Little Giant (1933)
It’s basically a one-joke movie, isn’t it? An Al Capone-type Chicago gangster, J. Francis “Bugs” Ahearn (Edward G. Robinson), sees the writing on the wall when FDR is elected and Prohibition is about to end, and decides to go legit. So with his ill-gotten gains ($1.25 million), and his right-hand man, Al (Russell Hopton), he moves to Santa Barbara and tries to enter high society. “I’m gonna mingle with the upper classes,” he says. “I’m gonna be a gentleman!”
The joke is he thinks the upper classes have class but they don’t. In fact, the very rich are bigger crooks than he is, and take him for a yap, a chump, a sucker. This goes on for 60 minutes of a 75-minute movie. It’s only at the end that he wises up, gets the gang back together, and makes the rich and corrupt pay. That’s the fun part.
Man, if only he were around today. Send him over to Mar-a-Lago.
Anyway, the one joke isn’t good enough. Much of the movie is a slog. It’s just an hour-plus, but it took me several sittings to get through. “Bugs” makes typical working-class errors: says “Pluto” for “Plato,” assumes a “Siamese beauty” has a twin. Robinson’s good—he’s always good—but most of the lines (from the otherwise reliable Robert Lord-Wilson Mizer team) don’t stick. The dame he falls for, Polly Cass (Helen Vinson), is a leech, and so is her entire family. They’re only interested in him when they find out he’s got money; then they’re scared when they find out he’s that Ahearn—Ahearn is the wrong name for a gangster anyway—but still, for a time, they get the better of him. And sorry to be crass, but for Bugs to fall so hard for so long, the actress playing Polly should’ve been a stunner. Vinson’s fine but not a stunner.
Mary Astor plays Ruth, the stolid working woman who rents him his mansion. Turns out, it used to be her family’s until the Casses bilked her father for his fortune—sending him to an early death. That shift in focus is disappointing as well. Initially, all of high society seem suspect; by the end, it’s just the Casses. Ruth sees them as aberrations rather than as representative. The rich get off the hook again.
I do like an early “Public Enemy” reference, as Al and Bugs reminisce about the old days:
Al: Remember all the good times we had together? Remember the time we busted into that loft after them furs?
Bugs: Yeah, and you went into a panic over that big stuffed polar bear in the corner.
Al: I give it to him, didn’t I?
Bugs: Yeah, you sure opened up on him. The cops on the west side was swarming around that joint like they was bees around a hive!
It’s almost like the Warners Studio reminiscing about the glorious pre-code era as it was coming to an end.
Thursday August 05, 2021
Movie Review: The Mind Reader (1933)
The titular mind reader, Chandler, AKA Chandra the Great (Warren William), gives a speech near the end of the film that reminded me of a speech Jimmy Cagney gives as a PR rep in “Hard to Handle,” which was released by the same studio, Warner Bros., in the same year, 1933.
Cagney’s speech, near the beginning of his film, is peppier and more modern:
Sure, yaps, suckers, chumps, anything you want to call them—the public. And how do you get ’em? Publicity. Listen, Mac, here’s the idea: You take the bankroll, open a publicity agency. Exploitation, advertising, ballyhoo, bull, hot air—the greatest force in modern-day civilization. ... I’m telling you, Mac, the public is like a cow bellowing, bellowing to be milked.
Chandra’s speech is spoken directly to those yaps, suckers and chumps. He’s on stage, drunk, and tired of the scam:
You ask me to tell you things. You think I know! I’ll tell you what I know. I’m the guy who knows how stupid you are. You pay me money to wreck you, torture you, boil you up, play to you, and laugh at you. Sitting there like a school of fish with your mouths open!
It’s the movies letting us know how the world works—and what the people who pull the levers really think of us. There's even a kind of smuggled-in admission that the lever-pullers include Hollywood. Look at that “wreck you, torture you” line. Chandra doesn’t really do that in his act. That’s what the movies do in theirs. We pay them money to sit in the dark and be wrecked, roiled, played with.
So guess when Warners released “The Mind Reader”? April 1st. A bit on the nose.
The most interesting man in the world
What else do these two movies have in common? Screenwriters Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner. For the moment, let’s focus on Mizner.
Apparently he was one of the all-time great raconteurs and con men. The son of a diplomat, he was a 6’ 5” cardsharp, hotel man, dealer in fake art, prizefight manager, and roulette-wheel fixer. In the 1890s, he and his brother Addison joined the Klondike Gold Rush in Canada but to bilk the miners rather than pan for gold. (Bilking is where the real gold is anyway; it never runs out.) Afterwards, he became a playwright, opium addict, founder and co-owner of the world-famous Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles, and a wit who coined some of our great cynical phrases:
- “Be nice to people on the way up because you'll meet the same people on the way down.”
- “When you steal from one author, it's plagiarism; when you steal from many, it's research.”
- “Never give a sucker an even break.”
Apparently he was both friends with Wyatt Earp and the model for Clark Gable’s restauranteur/gangster in the 1936 smash hit “San Francisco.” Remember Hyman Roth’s speech in “The Godfather Part II” about the kid who had a dream of building a city in the desert as a stopover for GIs? “That kid’s name was Moe Greene, and the city he invented was Las Vegas.” You could say the same about Wilson’s brother Addison and Boca Raton, Florida, which Wilson helped him create, and from which both men fled after their corrupt wheeling and dealing became known. Stephen Sondheim was so entranced by their story he wrote a musical based on them: Road Show. It was a helluva life.
Some of that life seems to be in “The Mind Reader.” The movie opens with Chandler, and his two right-hand men, Frank (Allen Jenkins) and Sam (Clarence Muse), making their itinerant way through the U.S. as they try to perfect their scam. Chandler plays a “Painless dentist” in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and a “Wonder Hair Tonic” salesman to Black folks in Nashville, Tennessee. In Emporia, Kansas, he talks up Frank as a champion flagpole sitter (50+ days, etc.) but the only ones stopping by are two kids who whisper their question. Chandler listens and repeats, “How does he what?” Which, yes, is our question, too.
It’s in Emporia where they see a grift that works:
The Marvel of the Age
HE TELLS PAST PRESENT AND FUTURE
Frank does some research, discovers that people spend about $125 million a year on fortune-telling, and the other shoe drops for Chandler. “It’s a sure cleanup!” he says. “All you gotta do is look wise, tie a bath towel around your head, and tell the chumps what they wanna hear. The whole world is full of hopeful suckers. Just keep promising them things.”
Their grift isn’t bad. Sam collects questions from the audience, seems to burn them on stage, but secretly funnels them to Frank below, who reads them via electronic hookup to Chandra. Then they set up private sessions for $1 a pop.
To be honest, the movie doesn’t do nearly enough with the grift. It momentarily wrecks it for a one-note gag—when Chandra tells a dude he won’t have any children but his wife will have three, which isn't exactly what the chump wants to hear—then permanently wrecks it by having Chandra fall for Sylvia (Constance Cummings) in Kokomo, Indiana. She’s an innocent kid, but he woos her anyway and brings her along. So now we have three scam artists and an innocent. What happens when she finds out?
Initially, not much. In fact, she joins the scam, reading the notes to Chandra while Frank is busy breaking into a jewelry story—a crime Chandra will “predict” to those present. In the act, Frank can’t help himself and also lifts a diamond, which Chandra then uses for Sylvia’s wedding ring.
If he had corrupted her, the movie might’ve stayed interesting. Sadly, the opposite. A woman (Mayo Methot, Bogart’s wife before Bacall) shows up at their hotel, says Chandra gave her advice that led her to give up the man she loved, who subsequently committed suicide, and what's what she does immediately after leaving the room: down an elevator shaft. That’s enough for Sylvia. She's about to leave town when Chandler shows up at the train station on bended knee promising to reform.
Cut to: Chandler in New York City, trying to sell brushes door to door in the snow.
Not a bad gag. A tame Chandler, though, is a dull Chandler. Thankfully, he runs into Frank again, who’s now a chauffer:
Frank: A guy with your con, your larceny, selling brushes? What’s the idea?
Chandler: I’m on the straight and narrow. You know. The wife.
Frank: The wife. Love. Marriage. Honesty. Now there’s a combination guaranteed to get anybody in the poorhouse.
Which leads to the second successful grift. Same deal, but now he’s Dr. Munro, and he gets the inside dope from chauffers like Frank, who know about the peccadillos of the powerful men they drive around. It’s actually a more honest grift. Instead of making up lies about the future, Chandler is telling the truth about the present—and the wives are buying it.
But same deal again. One husband who’s been fingered shows up, tries to get tough, there’s a gun, it goes off, he dies. Chandler scrams to Juarez, New Mexico, where he’s now “The Great Divoni,” while Sylvia, who was also at the scene of the crime, is railroaded by the cops into taking the murder charge. That leads to Chandler’s drunken rant. And that leads to his 11th-hour return to New York and confession at the DA’s office. Then under police guard he visits her hospital room—she collapsed at her murder trial—tells her he wants her to divorce him, but no, she’s sticking by him. Out in the hall, he runs into Frank and Sam. As the cops pull him away, Frank gets in the last line: “Sure is tough to be going away just when beer is coming back.”
More on Muse
A few words on Clarence Muse, who played Sam, and who was one of the few Black actors during this time that didn’t contort himself into the stereotypes of the day. Here, again, he’s his own man. A running gag is Sam and Frank arguing about horse racing, with Sam usually getting the best of him. More startling is when Sylvia shows up backstage at the carny and Sam checks her out—tilting his head to the side as she enters Chandra’s trailer. “That’s a nice-looking girl,” he says afterwards. Pre-code or no, I’m shocked this got through censors. At the least, I assume it was relegated to the cutting-room floor by a lot of local censors in the South and Midwest. Shame we don’t see more of Muse in the movie. Not to mention the movies.
Vivian Crosby gets a story credit, while Lord and Mizner share screenplay credit, as they do on “Hard to Handle,” “Frisco Jenny” and “20,000 Years in Sing Sing.” According to Philippe Garnier’s book Scoundrels & Spitballers: Writers and Hollywood in the 1930s, Lord did all the typing and most of the writing, though Mizner “could be counted upon to inject some authenticity or wit in whatever prison or gangster yarn the studio was churning out.” Mizner lived only two days past the film’s premiere, dying of a heart attack at the Ambassador Hotel on April 3, 1933, age 56. His final last words, most likely apocryphal: “I’m dying above my means.”
This one was directed by frequent Cagney collaborator Roy Del Ruth, with cinematography from Sol Polito, and we get some nice shots in the early going. I also like the map interludes. Probably played well in those places, too. It gave the people what they wanted—themselves.
Overall, “The Mind Reader” is worth watching and comes close to being quite good. But I gotta go with Frank: love, marriage, honesty? Now that’s a combo guaranteed to ruin a nice larcenous picture.
Friday June 18, 2021
Movie Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)
I’d always assumed James Cagney wanted to be in the 1935 Warner Bros. production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as a chance to to do something different than the usual gangster, grifter, or hot-shot pilot roles he played. But according to biographer John McCabe, and Cagney’s own memoir (as told to McCabe), he had no real desire to play Shakespeare. “It was not, he said, his cup of tea,” McCabe wrote.
So then I wondered if Warners cast him as Bottom, the fool who becomes a literal ass, as punishment for forever fighting them over pay. You act like a stubborn mule, we’ll cast you as a stubborn mule. Nope again. Jack Warner wasn’t really involved in the casting, while Hal Wallis wanted character actor Guy Kibbee for the part.
So how did it happen?
Max Reinhardt. He directed a lavish version of the play on Broadway, took it on the road, and when Wallis saw it at the Hollywood Bowl he was inspired enough to suggest making it a film. (He was also inspired enough to put the girl playing Hermia under contract: Olivia de Havilland. One out of two ain’t bad.) And it was Reinhardt who insisted on casting Cagney. “Few artists have ever had his intensity, his dramatic drive,” he said. “Every movement of his body, and his incredible hands, contribute to the story he is trying to tell.”
Shame it didn’t work out—for either of them.
Reinhardt was primarily a stage director. His film work was minimal and dated: just three short photoplays in Germany in the early days of the silents. From Cagney’s memoir:
Because Reinhardt was essentially a spectacle director … he remained largely on the sideline while Bill Dieterle directed. Reinhardt, so used to broad stage gestures, made some of the actors do things that were, I thought, ridiculous for the screen. We used to stand back, watching him, and say, “Somebody ought to tell him.”
I'm curious if Reinhardt directed Cagney in this manner because he brings way too much energy to the role. He’s breathless from the beginning and it gets worse. And when he imitates the storm? Talk about broad stage gestures. Somebody ought to have told him.
Bottom’s personality here, the braggart, isn’t that different from some of Cagney’s successful roles— “Blonde Crazy” and “Devil Dogs in the Air” to name two—so it's a little odd that it doesn’t work. The theater troupe Bottom is part of, which is led by Peter Quince (Frank McHugh), is set to perform “The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe” during wedding-day celebrations for Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta, but they’re all hopeless. That’s the gag. Bottom is the big fish in the little pond, and he gets cast as one of the leads, Pyramus, but he wants to play him as tyrant rather than lover. Then he wants to play the other lead, too. Then he wants the lion’s part. When Quince tries to placate him by saying he’d be too fierce a lion, he suggests a dovelike lion.
It’s tiresome. When is Cagney ever tiresome? Here. I guess it’s partly the broad gestures and breathlessness, but it feels like there’s something else. The glint in his eye is missing. He’s stupefied and selfish rather than joyous and looking for an angle.
You know the overall story. Different groups converge in the woods on a summer night, where they’re toyed with by spirits and faeries:
- Hermia and Lysander (de Havilland and Dick Powell) are leaving to get married against her father's wishes
- They are pursued by Demetrius (Ross Alexander), who loves Hermia, and Helena (Jean Muir), who loves Demetrius
- Bottom’s theater troupe meets to practice the play
(The theater kids never interact with the young lovers, do they? Just with the faeries. Maybe that’s another problem: Quince’s troupe is not relevant to the main storyline.)
Meanwhile, the king of the faeries, Oberon (Victor Jory), is angry with his queen, Titania (Anita Louise, quite lovely), who has become enamored of an Indian changeling, and he wants to punish her for it. So he instructs his magic sprite, Puck (Mickey Rooney), to rub a love-in-idleness flower on her eyelids when she’s asleep, so that when she wakes she’ll fall in love with the first thing she sees. (He’s hoping for an animal.) Oberon then hears Demetrius lambasting Helena, and he instructs Puck to do the same to such a cruel man. It’s this latter order that creates chaos: Puck thinks Lysander is Demetrius and causes Lysander to fall madly in love with Helena. A correction with Demetrius means both men are now pursuing Helena rather than Hermia, and Helena thinks they’re making fun of her, while Hermia accuses Helena of stealing her man. Arguments, fights, ensue.
On his own, Puck transforms Bottom’s head into that of an ass, causing the rest of the troupe to flee in terror. Initially unaware of the change, Bottom sits waiting for them to return. He sings to himself, which awakens Titania, dabbed with the magical flower, and she falls for him.
For all the Shakespearean misunderstandings, most everything happens the way Oberon wants: He gets the Indian changeling, gets Titania back, and orders Puck to fix everything else. Puck does. Kinda. Yes, Bottom is restored, as is Lysander, but Demetrius remains in love with Helena. I guess we assume that’s for the good—it allows all four young people to be happy—but it doesn’t say much for his free will. Imagine if the spell was removed when Demetrius was 60. Poor guy.
Afterwards, there's the wedding celebration, at which the Quince troupe performs lamentably to the condescending amusement of the royals and rich folks.
More cynical than Gore Vidal
A few things work. The flying of the faeries is pretty amazing, and makes me wonder what might’ve happened if a major studio had attempted a superhero film in, say, the 1940s. (Superheroes not having been invented at this time.) Most of the Warners players aren’t bad, given their non-Shakespearean backgrounds, while Joe E. Brown is hilarious as Flute, one of Quince’s troupe. We even get a mid-’30s Warners vibe at times. Early on, for example, Demetrius finks on our couple to Hermia’s father (Grant Mitchell), who drags her away, leaving Demetrius and Lysander staring at each other. Lysander, with the upper hand, then does a kind of insouciant tie-loosening gesture and leaves singing to himself.
Mickey Rooney, who also played Puck on the stage, got some of the best notices, but it’s another performance that feels too broad, too loud. Even so, it had quite the effect on Gore Vidal, age 10, who was mesmerized by Rooney and sought out the play and the author. Because of this film, he claims to have read all of Shakespeare by the time he was 16. “Yes, Cymbeline, too,” he writes in Screening History, before adding, “I’m sure my response was not unique.” It’s one of those rare moments when I feel more cynical than Vidal.
Warners’ gamble didn’t do great box office but it was nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture, and won two: cinematography for Hal Mohr (the only write-in nominee to win) and editing for Ralph Dawson. Trivia question: Name the four Cagney movies nominated best picture. This one, of course, but the other three?
Interesting the fates for these stars. Both Cagney and de Havilland broke free of oppressive Warner Bros. contracts (Cagney in '36, de Havilland in '44), helping upend the studio system. Dick Powell, singing sensation of the '30s, became a hard-boiled detective in the '40s. The rest of the lovers quadrangle were less lucky. Alexander, who played Demetrius, was a closeted homosexual who killed himself in 1937, age 29, while Jean Muir was named (along with Cagney and Bogart) by John L. Leech as a communist before the Dies Committee in 1940. She was cleared, left Hollywood in the '40s, but was named again in the 1950s and lost her livelihood in radio and TV. Her last screen credit is “Naked City” in 1962. She died in 1996.
As to the best picture trivia? Yes to “Yankee Doodle Dandy.“ No to any of the gangster flicks: “Angels with Dirty Faces,” “The Public Enemy,” ”The Roaring Twenties“ and “White Heat.” Nor to ”Love Me or Leave Me," which garnered Cagney his final Oscar nod. But yes to another movie from that year: “Mister Roberts.” I'll tell you the final one, because unless you know it you won't guess it: “Here Comes the Navy” from 1934. None won.
Bottom and Titania, both punished.
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