Tuesday September 08, 2020
Movie Review: City for Conquest (1940)
Unlike most James Cagney characters, Danny Kenny actually reminded me of Cagney. Not because he’s a boxer and Cagney was a boxer early in his life; and certainly not because his girl Peggy (Ann Sheridan) is a dancer and he loses her to another dancer, Murray Burns (Anthony Quinn). Cagney could’ve danced rings around both actors.
No, for this reason: Danny Kenny, like Cagney, was really good at a thing but didn’t care about it that much. He even avoided it.
For Kenny, the thing was boxing. For Cagney, it was playing gangsters. Not many were better at it but he dismissed it; he fought it. You could say both men are gentle souls but good at a violent thing.
In the commentary track, Richard Schickel expands upon this thought:
Unlike everyone else in “City for Conquest,” [Kenny] is not a particularly ambitious man. He will later say to Ann Sheridan, lines to the effect, “Well, I’m on the local train and you’re on the express train.” And he’s happy to be on the local train. He doesn’t particularly want to make money—except to the degree it’ll help his brother pursue his studies and become a major composer. In a funny way, that sort of fit Cagney. He was, despite his talent … not more than a reluctant movie star.
The ambition angle is interesting. There’s a character here called Old Timer who’s obviously a ripoff of the Stage Manager from “Our Town”—which had opened on Broadway two years earlier. He’s even played by the same actor, Frank Craven, who originated the Stage Manager role. He’s quirky, whimsical, interacts with secondary characters, and comments upon the proceedings. He has a repeated line I like: “Because I got clothes on my back.”
He’s particularly interested in Danny, of course, and follows him from a boy who fights for the honor of Peggy to a man who works construction and boxes on the side under the heavily symbolic nom de guerre “Young Samson.” At one point, Old Timer talks to a guy backstage at the boxing arena:
Old Timer: Who won?
Worker: I never know till they come through.
Old Timer: I can tell you who won.
Old Timer: Young Samson. He’s got to win.
Old Timer: Because he doesn’t care whether he wins or not.
Is it a Zen thing? Hit the target by not aiming for it? Or is the author like an Old Testament God who punishes people for their ambition? Peggy wants her name in lights and gets raped. Danny reaches too high to get Peggy back and is blinded in a title bout. Googi (Elia Kazan) rises high in the gangster world but is shot down with these dying words: “Never figured on that at all.” (Great dying words.) The only ambitious people who aren’t struck down are the assholes like Murray. The story just punishes the good.
“City” is based upon a hugely successful 1936 novel by Aben Kandel that involved the rise and fall of a dozen characters over decades, and which has been compared to Dos Passos, but it was obviously truncated for the movies and probably became too reductive. Cagney was apparently a huge fan. According to his biographer, John McCabe, he reread parts regularly. And when he heard Warners bought the rights as a vehicle for him, he was all in.
Add a celebrated director like Anatole Litvak (“Sorry, Wrong Number,” “The Snake Pit”), a screenwriter like John Wexley (“Angels with Dirty Faces”), and one of the best cinematographers in Hollywood history, James Wong Howe, and it seems like a slam-dunk.
So why is it so awful?
The sharpie from 65th Street
Let’s start with overwrought. Here’s the Old Timer at the beginning talking to a cop (Ward Bond):
Look at it: seven million people, fighting, biting, clawing their way to get one foot on a ladder that’ll take them to a penthouse. Yes, siree, they come by the thousands, every which way: by water, by wheel, by foot, by ferry, by tunnel, by tube; over, across and under the river. They come like locusts from all over the nation. …
That’s not awful in itself but then they double down on it. Danny has a younger brother named Eddie (Arthur Kennedy in his screen debut), a composer, and one evening he tells Danny about his idea for a new symphony. About New York. And as he’s pounding on the piano keys, he repeats a lot of what the Old Timer said—but worse:
A full symphony of it—with all its proud, passionate beauty and all of its sordid ugliness and of its great wealth and power and its everlasting hunger. And of its teeming seven millions and its barren loneliness … with all of its mounting, shrieking jungle-cries for life and sun. And then carrying on, up to the towering skyscrapers, and the story of all those who tried to scale their dizzy heights … but CRASHED [hands crash over the piano keys], frustrated and broken to the concrete pavements.
It’s a testament to Cagney’s talent that he can look on admiringly while listening to this crap.
So that’s a problem. Even so, put these actors together on a Lower East Side set on the Warner Bros. lot, with Howe photographing, and I’m happy. And for a time I was happy.
And then the rape.
No, even before that. Our hero, Danny, will do anything for Peggy, but we quickly realize she’s not worth it. After Danny knocks out an up-and-comer to get money for Eddie, they all go out to celebrate. Except she’s late in congratulating him and constantly looking around. Eventually she notices Quinn’s character—shoes first, like Peggy Noonan with Reagan—and the two dance together and wind up winning a silver loving cup. Danny’s cool with it until Murray opens his trap and Danny decks him. Later, he apologizes: “I don’t mind you dancing with the guy but he tried to make you look like two cents.” Murray actually insulted all of them but it’s the insult to Peggy that bugs him. But Peggy doesn’t hear it or see it. She wants to see her name in lights and figures Murray Burns is the way to go; so she immediately phones him, then spends several scenes standing Danny up. Then she shows up for a Sunday afternoon on Coney Island with Danny like everything’s fine. This is when we get that express/local exchange, and she criticizes him for not having any ambition, so he decides to get some. He decides to take boxing more seriously. He even gets a manager, Scotty MacPherson (Donald Crisp), and goes out on the circuit.
I love all the things Danny calls Murray Burns:
- That speiler
- That sharpshooter
- That creepy cake-eater
- That sharpie from 65th street
This last comes after Peggy’s mom blames Danny for Peggy’s late nights: “Peggy chasing around every night with that sharpie from 65th Street,” Danny says to Eddie, “and I gotta take the schlack.” Such a great line. (Is it schleck? Shleck? Shrek? Does anyone know? I get the feeling it’s Yiddish but can’t find anything.)
Then we get an even greater line—the most Warner Bros. line that Warner Bros. ever produced. Again, to Eddie, Danny says: “And everything was going along good until that sharpie came along and gave her a fancy line of gab.”
But then the rape.
Another sharpie, Al (Charles Lane, who always played this type), sees Peggy and Murray dance and signs them to a contract. They’re going to go on the road! Billed, believe it or not, as “Burns and Company.” Peggy’s the company. And she’s fine with it; she leaves everything to Murray, she says. And after Al leaves, they’re joyous, celebrating, and Peggy kicks up her leg and one of her shoes winds up in the corner. And that’s when Murray makes his move:
Peggy: Please let me go, Murray, my shoe.
Burns: Don’t worry about that, baby.
[Closeup of shoe in the corner]
Peggy: Please let me go, Murray. Murray, please let me go. Please let me go. Let me go!
[Fade to black]
The horror is that even after that she’s still with him—dancing every night. Because of the contract? Because of the times? Because she’s been broken? And she and Danny keep criss-crossing paths on their various circuits—she dance, he boxing—until they hook up again back in NYC. And they walk around the city, or against a backdrop of the city, and reconnect. He asks if she’s still his girl, and she says yes, and it looks like things might be good again. She only has two weeks left on the contract and she’s done. But back in the dressing room, there’s Al, talking about how he books them on a world tour: $850 a week, 40 weeks. And she seems torn until Al mentions how her name will be spelled out in lights. And her eyes light up. And instead of returning to New York to Danny, she sends Danny a letter. And he’s crushed all over again.
Here’s the thing: They could have made this work. They could have made it dramatic without us losing respect for Peggy—who is, after all, a victim of a violent crime. I kept flashing to that great “Sopranos” episode where Dr. Melfi is raped, and her rapist gets off on a technicality, and the drama is in this: Does she tell Tony? “I could have him squashed like a bug,” she says of the rapist, and she could, but then she would be beholden to Tony; then she would be in his universe. That’s the drama—what does she do?—and that could be the drama here. If she tells Danny, he’d squash Murray like a bug; he’d beat him to death. But then Danny would wind up in prison, maybe, and so that’s why she doesn’t do it. She’s looking out for Danny. Instead, she gets raped and nothing happens because she wants to see her name in lights.
The whole thing is more disgusting than anything I ever saw in any precode movie. Thanks for nothing, Joe Breen.
It doesn’t get any better, either. Danny figures he really needs to get on the express to win Peggy; so, against the counsel of his manager, he goes for the welterweight championship. He gets ambition. Would’ve won, too, but the other side cheats. They rub the champ’s gloves in rosin, it gets in Danny’s eyes; then they spend seven more rounds pounding it in. By the end, Danny’s blind. Cf., Samson. “
He winds up running a newsstand in Times Square. It’s from there that he listens to Eddie’s great symphony about New York, which he finally gets to conduct, and which is such a hit that a speech from the composer/conducted is demanded. And boy does Eddie give a speech. It that overwrought shit again—all about his brother:
In his heart and soul there was such wealth of music. Music of the city. The music that led him on to glory, to conquest, to tragedy and defeat. But in that very defeat, he conquered. For all of the men that I have come to know, who have loved and lost, this boy retained a great nobility that far surpassed any possible conquest. Yes, my brother made music with his fists so that I might make a gentler music—the symphony that you have heard tonight. It is his as much as mine. And so with deep pride and gratitude, I dedicate this music to my brother: known to most of you … as Young Samson!
Of course Peggy’s there. And of course she runs into Danny’s friend, Mutt (Frank McHugh), and he tells her about the newsstand, and that’s where she goes. They’re reunited. Then he says a version of the line repeated throughout the movie:
Danny: You were always my girl. Ain’t that right, Peg?
Peggy: Always, Danny, always!
Cagney is excellent as a blind man—he really is such an underrated actor; O’Connell is perfectly cast as Danny’s younger brother; and Quinn makes a nasty villain. We also get Sidney Miller as a young bandleader, as well as Craven’s good turn as the Old Timer. But it’s not a good movie. Interesting note: Craven, for all his progressive trappings here, was actually a rock-ribbed Republican, and election night 1940 Cagney and his wife were invited to Bob Montgomery’s party, where they were about the only Democrats. From Cagney’s autobiography:
It was black-tie, all very fancy. My wife wore a huge Roosevelt button, and when we walked into this group of rabid Republicans, we were received in some quarters with coolness. Old Frank Craven, with whom I’d just finished a picture, wouldn’t even shake hands with me.
“City for Conquest” is a turning point in a couple of ways in the Cagney oeuvre. Throughout the ’30s, his characters were almost always referred to by the diminutive or diminutive-sounding: Jimmy, Lefty, Danny, Patsy, Danny (II), Jimmy (II), Chesty, Eddie, Tommy, Danny (III), Dizzy, Johnny, Terry, Rocky, Eddie (II) and Jerry. And here they double-down on it: His fourth go as Danny, followed by Kenny. But guess what? It’s the last diminutive he’ll have in his career. After this, he becomes Biff, Steve, Brian, George, Nick, Bob, etc. I guess if you’re in your 40s or 50s, the diminutives just don’t fit.
It’s also the last movie Cagney made before he was accused of being a communist. “City” wrapped in June/July, and in August, before a Grand Jury, John L. Leech, a former Communist official in LA, named Cagney, Bogart, Frederic March and a dozen or so Hollywood bigwigs as Communist party members, sympathizers or contributors. It made the front page of The New York Times on August 15:
Cagney had to fly to the west coast—he hated flying—and make his case before Martin Dies of the Dies Committee. A week later, he was cleared. The Times printed that, too. On page 21.
Not sure if it's a coincidence, but after his personal red scare you don’t see Cagney making many of these Warner Bros. “social message” movies. His next is a turn-of-the-century romance steeped in nostalgia; then he tries a screwball comedy with Bette Davis. Before the U.S.’s entry into the war, he makes a movie about the heroism of Canadian bush pilots who go to war; and during and after Pearl Harbor, he makes “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” with all those grand old flags. After that, no committee, Dies or HUAC, can touch him. But I can't help but wonder what we missed.