erik lundegaard

Wednesday May 03, 2023

Movie Review: Come Fill the Cup (1951)

Talkin' tomato juice. The guy on the left was supposed to be a different color until Jack Warner intervened.


This was James Cagney’s last Warner Bros. film. Well, this or “Starlift,” in which he plays himself in a cameo. The two were filmed concurrently—May to July 1951—but this one was released first. Cagney did make a few films in the 1950s distributed by Warners (“A Lion Is In the Streets,” “Mister Roberts”), but Warners was never the production company. He made movies produced by MGM and Universal, and by a host of independents, but as a freelancer in the ’50s he mostly steered clear of the studio that made him a star, and with whom he had a famously tumultuous relationship.

One wonders if the roommate was the last straw.

“Come Fill the Cup” is based on a 1951 novel by Harlan Ware, a Chicago newspaper man (Cagney couldn’t get away from Chicago newspaper men, could he?); and in the novel, and in the original script by Ben Roberts and Ivan Goff, the guy who helps the protagonist sober up—who saves him, basically—is Black. Per Cagney biographer John McCabe: 

Cagney thought this was a particularly striking aspect of the novel; he had personally witnessed and resented ongoing prejudice against black vaudeville performers. When Roberts and Goff turned in a script that retained Dolan’s blackness, Jack Warner was upset. He told Goff, “You think Cagney’s gonna be under the same roof as a nigger?”

So there went that.

At the same time, there is something in the character, Charley Dolan, that feels like how well-meaning white people, and white Hollywood in particular, portrayed Black people back then. It’s not quite Magic Negro stuff, but…

  1. Dolan seems to have no life outside of the protagonist, Lew Marsh
  2. Dolan takes on the female role—cooking and maintaining the house—while Marsh works
  3. He’s the butt of an ongoing comic relief bit: trying to make tomato juice taste like something besides tomato juice
  4. White people cause his death but he forgives all

So even if the role went to a Black actor, it would still feel a little problematic to modern audiences.

That said, James Gleason does a fine job with it. And Jack Warner is still a schmuck.

Flamboyant rogues
“Come Fill the Cup” is not only Cagney’s last starring role with Warners, it’s the last Cagney film I needed to complete the canon. How about that? There’s some side stuff to pick up—that one film he directed, ’50s TV episodes, “Terrible Joe”—and I’ll probably re-do “Angels With Dirty Faces” (my review is nearly a quarter-century old), but every one of his 62 feature films has now been viewed and reviewed. Made it, ma!

“Cup” was last because it was impossible to find—no streaming, no DVD—but it might’ve been near the end anyway. Movies about addiction are tough rows for me. The trajectory is always down, down, down,and the questions are always the same. Does he recover? When does he hit bottom? What does he ruin in the process?

The answers here come quickly but not glibly. Marsh ruins himself and begins recovery in 10-15 minutes of screentime, but the ruin is rough and the recovery haunted. “You’ve an incurable disease,” the doctor at the sanatorium tells him. “Liquor is as poisonous to you as sugar is to the man with diabetes. The only sure treatment is to quit. … The one drink you don’t take is that first one. Forever.”

What made Marsh hit bottom? He was a successful reporter who lost his job, his girl, and any semblance of dignity—begging for a quarter on a weekday morning to get another drink, and then falling into the street in front of an oncoming truck—but none of that was what turned him around. “It was a sound that made me quit,” he tells Charley Dolan. “As I was lying there in the gutter, where you saw me, it kept coming at me like an animal—a whirring sound.”

Dolan nods. “Angel feathers,” he says. It’s a repeated line.

Dolan is the last guy Marsh tried to bum a quarter off of, and he’s waiting for him when he gets out of the sanitarium. He was an alcoholic, too, and he keeps a bottle of whiskey in the cabinet above the sink less as temptation than reminder. He offers Marsh a place to stay, gets him a job on a construction crew, encourages him to get back into the reporting biz. Then we get a montage of newspaper headlines welcoming the new year: 1946 … 1947 … 1948 … We pick up the story again in 1951, by which point Marsh is a tough but sympathetic city editor at the Sun-Herald who’s hired back several ex-drunks, all of whom are doing well. He seems to be forever rushing forward, trying to stay one step ahead of that first drink.

So what’s the conflict now? Where’s the drama?

Well, the publisher of the newspaper is a bit of an idiot. John Ives is supposed to be a flamboyant rogue, and apparently they wanted Adolphe Menjou but he wasn’t available. Raymond Massey is “a fine actor,” says Cagney, but not exactly flamboyant. Both Cagney and McCabe thought it didn’t work but I’d say it doesn’t not work. Ives comes off as thick—default mode for rich people running things. 

Ives’ nephew, Boyd Copeland (Gig Young), is flamboyant. He’s an alcoholic music composer, in the process of ruining his life and marriage to Paula (Phyllis Thaxter), and Ives wants Marsh to set Boyd straight like with the other ex-drunks on staff. Marsh insists it doesn’t work that way, but Ives won’t listen. And Ives keeps not listening. Does he even know Marsh is Paula’s ex? Would he care? Marsh supposedly still has a candle burning for Paula, but I get those late-Cagney vibes of not being particularly interested in that aspect of the story. At best, his passion would exhibit itself in a pat on the cheek and let’s get on with the story, shall we?

Marsh is flown in a private plane to Ives’ estate, where he witnesses various toxic relationships: Boyd’s smothering mother, everyone ignoring the problem. He’s up-front about it. He calls Boyd “Boyd-y,” which Boyd can’t stand, and Boyd calls Marsh “Senor,” which Marsh never mentions. The back-and-forth between the two is good. Boyd is living life with a smiling drunken shrug, while Marsh stands back in that Cagney manner, almost on his toes, ready to take him on. But then Boyd splits, and Ives insists Marsh track him down. “I make you fully responsible!” he thunders. “You owe me this, Lewis!” 

Which … no? It’s a bit weird. Marsh could just leave the Sun-Herald and go to another paper, right? But he has his own shrug here—a repeated line: “You pay, and you pay, and you pay.” I.e., for alcoholism. And this is part of that. Even though it isn’t.

You know what their relationship is like? Cagney and Jack Warner. Warner had stupid ideas that Cagney was forced to go along with because he was under contract. One wonders if Cagney wanted Menjou for Ives because Menjou is closer to Warner. Right down to the moustache.

The other stupid idea Jack Warner demanded is the inclusion of a gangster, which wasn’t in the novel, but which he wanted for a Cagney flick. So in the rewrite, Maria (Charlita), the nightclub singer Boyd is seeing, is also moll to local gangster Lennie Garr (Sheldon Leonard). That’s the drama in the second half: saving Boyd not only from alcoholism but Lennie Garr. At one point, Marsh says this: 

You get to Lenny Garr. You tell him that the Sun-Herald is personally interested in the welfare of Boyd Copeland. Make it clear to the rat.

I love that Cagney is still saying “rat” in the 1950s. I’m also curious what Sheldon Leonard thought. Aside from playing bartenders like Nick in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” gangsterism was his default role. He’d done it many times before, but never in front of one of cinema’s ur-gangsters. What was that like?

At this point our questions are: Will Paula divorce Boyd and wind up with Marsh? No. But Charley does figure out the ingredient to make tomato juice taste like something else: mustard. Unfortunately, Marsh also sends him to pick up Boyd at the nightclub, and for some reason Boyd drives, and he’s speeding, and it’s raining. The real issue, though, is the brake line: It’s been cut by one of Garr’s men. Boyd survives the crash (“Heaven takes care of drunks and children,” Marsh says later), but not Charley. “I can hear the angel feathers, Lew,” he tells Marsh. “This time, there’s nothing I can do about it.” 

Afterwards, we get a remarkable scene. With tears in his eyes, Marsh confronts Boyd. He slaps him, and keeps slapping him, saying this all the while: 

You can’t buy your way out of this Boyd-y. You can’t bury your head in Mama’s lap and forget it. Not this time, Boyd-y. Charley’s there and you’re here, and it oughta be the other way around!

He seems lost, unhinged, with Cagney making that ng ng guttural sound he made when he found out his mom had died in “White Heat.” It’s powerful stuff. It’s also the moment Marsh almost falls off the wagon. At work, he sees the bar across the street, turns away, turns back. He goes in, orders a bourbon. He stares at it, raises it. Then our deus ex machina: a colleague races in to tell him about the punctured hole in the brake line. And off they go.

Now it becomes a split film: Boyd drying out and the Sun-Herald taking on the mob with misleading headlines about a fingerprint on the brake line. The final confrontation takes place at Boyd’s high-rise apartment. Marsh wants the missing Maria to talk, she agrees, but then Garr and henchman show up, guns drawn, and in Leonard’s “Guys and Dolls” voice he tells them the whole plan. They’re going to throw Maria out the window and leave Boyd and Marsh drunk with bottles strewn around to take the blame. Of course Marsh gets the upper hand, justice prevails, Paula chooses Boyd, etc. 

Two Cohans
We do get a nice bookending scene. At the beginning of the movie, Marsh is hanging at the bar across the street when Paula shows up.

Paula: Let me take you home.
Marsh: Don’t you see, Paula? I am home.

The movie’s final scene takes place at the newspaper office.

Ives: Can I drop you at your home?
Marsh: Don’t see you, Mr. Ives? I am home.

That’s not bad for a so-so movie.

This is the period when Cagney always seemed to be a few beats behind: a pre-WWII movie released at the end of World War II; an OSS movie a year after “O.S.S.”; a take on Huey Long four years after “All the King’s Men”; and here, a take on alcoholism six years after “The Lost Weekend.” 

“Cup” was directed by Gordon Douglas, who got his start with Hal Roach, went over to RKO, then landed at Warners in 1950. He directed the sci-fi classic “Them!” and a slew of forgettable tough guy flicks (tail-end Sinatra) in the ’60s. His only other Cagney is “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” an underrated gangster movie. Gig Young did get a supporting Oscar nom here, his first of three. And … holy shit, the kid who plays the copy boy, the one who reluctantly cleans out Marsh’s desk at the beginning? Henry Blair, who played George M. Cohan, age 7, in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” How great is that? The two Cohans even get a scene together.

Posted at 12:11 PM on Wednesday May 03, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 1950s  
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