erik lundegaard

Saturday May 02, 2020

Movie Review: Discovering James Cagney (2014)


More like “Misdiscovering James Cagney.” A lot of what we hear in this documentary is dubious; some of it is just plain wrong.

Amazon doesn’t help. From its site:

And you can’t even watch whatever that amalgamation is. But the real one is available, just with the title oddly transposed: 

Once it began, and I heard the four British talking heads, all critics, I assumed I was in for a sharp, across-the-pond appreciation of Cagney from a time when he was alive. But I quickly realized this wasn’t from 1970; Amazon got the date wrong. And while there’s appreciation, it’s not exactly sharp.

Bells went off when Neil Norman talked up the film that made Cagney famous:

He got the role of the good guy in a film called “The Public Enemy.” What’s interesting about that is another actor was playing the villain—the gangster. And when the producers and the director looked at the first rushes they realized they’d cast it the wrong way around. So they reversed the roles. James Cagney became the gangster in “Public Enemy.” And the rest is history.

Good guy? What good guy? They’re both gangsters. One is just the lead gangster. Worse, Wendy Mitchell, editor at Screen International, says the exact same thing:

Thank god they switched him from playing the nice guy to playing the gangster.

Is there a British cut that makes Edward Woods’ character a good guy? I can’t even imagine how you’d do that. They’re lifelong pals and lifelong crooks. Unless they think Cagney was first cast as older brother Mike, played by Donald Cook? If so, they’re wrong.

It gets worse. The narrator tells us Cagney received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for “Angels with Dirty Faces.” It was a lead actor nomination. He’s the lead in “Angels.” Norman then talks about the “morally redemptive” ending to the film:

It involves a gangster who has to go to the electric chair. … He’s been a hero to the Dead End kids throughout and they think that he’s going to go bravely. But at the end, of course, he just collapses and falls and they can see him for the coward that he probably is.

What a misread. Father Connolly (Pat O’Brien) asks Rocky/Cagney to act the coward on the way to the chair so he won’t remain a hero-martyr to the kids, and Rocky dismisses him. Turn yella? It’s taking away the one thing he’s got left. But then he does it anyway. Connolly knows the sacrifice his friend is making—the supreme sacrifice. That’s why we get the close-up of him. That’s why he tears up. That’s why the movie resonates.

All four critics dismiss “Yankee Doodle Dandy” as pap, but Mitchell mentions its popularity in the states: “You can see it on TV every Fourth of July now.” You can? Film writer Ian Nathan talks up the incongruity of teaming Cagney with Doris Day—two opposite screen personas— in “The West Point Story,” and how well they worked together. Except every scene they show, Cagney is opposite Virginia Mayo. I don’t think they ever show Doris Day.

Why did Cagney quit movies after “One, Two, Three” in 1961? Derek Malcolm, critic with the London Evening Standard, says it was because he didn’t get along with director Billy Wilder. According to Cagney, co-star Horst Buchholz was the bigger problem. How good was Cagney when he returned for a small role in “Ragtime” in 1981? “Such was his performance,” Ian Nathan announces, “that he would get an Oscar nomination.” No, Ian. There was no Oscar nomination for Cagney for “Ragtime.” No Golden Globe or BAFTA nom, either. Nada. Good god, people. Is there no fact-check in Britain? No IMDb?

The 42-minute doc, directed by Lyndy Saville, turns out to be part of a “Discovering” series on movie stars that was created in mid-2010s Britain. They made more than 100 in two years. They churned them out. It shows.

Posted at 10:20 AM on Saturday May 02, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 2014  
« John Garfield by Walter Bernstein   |   Home   |   Ben Maddow by Walter Bernstein »

Twitter: @ErikLundegaard