Wednesday August 12, 2020
Movie Review: He Was Her Man (1934)
You dirty rat.
The line Cagney never spoke is the character he becomes in “He Was Her Man” (working titles: “Without Honor”; “He Was a Man”), a 1934 Lloyd Bacon-directed Warner Bros. quickie. It’s kind of shocking to see. In both the Cagney and Warner Bros. ethos, no one was lower than a rat; yet here was Cagney, Warners’ biggest star, playing one.
Flicker Hayes is a safecracker who just spent three years in the stir, and who, as the movie opens, is in a Turkish bath being offered another gig. First words from the other guys: “It’s a cinch.” I like the bargaining—maybe a sly nod to the back-and-forth between Cagney and Warner Bros. Flicker wants half his cut up front, $15k, but they’re not having it. Eventually they offer $5k. OK, how about 10? At which point he raises his ask to 20. Eventually they settle on the 15 he originally wanted.
Then he rats them out to the cops.
There's a safe full of junk and nose candy at the Empire Wholesale Drug Warehouse. They've hired me to use a can opener. Yeah. Tonight.
Even the cops find this distasteful but they get it. These guys, Dan Curly’s gang, are the reason Flicker spends three years in prison and now it’s payback time. At the scene of the crime, Flicker escapes by window with a laugh, but soon it’s no laughing matter. There’s a shootout, a cop dies, and one of the gang, Red Deering (Ralf Harolde, no childe), will go the chair. So Curly sends J.C. and Monk (Harold Huber and Russell Hopton) to pay back Flicker in kind.
By now he's in San Francisco, goes by the name of Jerry Allen, and seems trapped. A hotel clerk, innocent of all the aforementioned, recognizes him from New York, so Flicker realizes he’s still not safe. Plus he’s run out of continent. He contemplates a slow boat to China but doesn’t have a passport and apparently can’t figure out a crooked way to get one. Seattle? Alaska? Canada? Not a thought. How about at least shaving that pencil-thin moustache? No soap.
For whom the bell tolls
Fate intervenes in the form of Rose Lawrence (Joan Blondell), who enters his hotel room to retrieve, of all things, a wedding dress she left under the mattress when the cops busted her the other night. She’s a prostitute, barely ex, and Nick Gardella (Victory Jory), an Italian fisherman from the small village of Santa Avila 100 miles or so south, has proposed. The wedding is in a few days. A quiet little place, she says. Dead to the world. Doesn’t take Einstein to figure out Flicker’s next move.
Except it gets a little creepy here. He takes the wedding dress from her, hangs it up in the closet, says he’ll get her stuff out of hock and go with her. Then, while she looks resigned, he removes her coat. Fadeout. Eww. Or is the eww on me? I assumed the worst, the last sad sex of the pre-code era, but the rest of the movie indicates otherwise. Either way, Warners should've been more careful with its fadeouts.
Blondell, by the way, is great. I kept coming back to the word ripe. There’s a scene in her room at the Gardella house where Nick is saying good night, or she’s saying we’d better say good night, and it’s just the two of them in profile, staring at each other, the attraction palpable, maybe leaning in a little, until … he says buon night and leaves. But steamy.
Both Rose and Flicker/Jerry are welcomed into the Gardella house by the merry mother (Sarah Padden), with whom Jerry flirts. Jerry also spends a happy day on the boat with Nick. But a Curly associate (Frank Craven), who’d seen them leave SF, finds them in Santa Avila, alerts the gang, and steals Flicker’s gun. The two assassins arrive the day of the wedding.
By this point, Rose has confessed her love for Jerry, and the two of them are thinking of lamming it. They stick around because she feels she owes it to Nick to explain. Except she can’t—Blondell is sadly passive for most of the movie, missing her usual firecracker wit—and so now she’s just waiting for Jerry. Except Jerry has already left. He saw his gat was gone, as well as the Curly associate, and knows what’s coming. He and the assassins even pass each other on the road to/from Santa Avila—unknowingly.
About that: Early on, we’re told it’s 12 miles from the bus depot/café to Santa Avila, but near the end of the movie people seem to make this trip in minutes. One guy, for example, the young driver for the assassins, panics when he hears them talking about roughing up Rose, and he makes it to the café/depot on foot—and in time, with his babble, to clue Flicker in to what’s going on.
So what’s he going to do? He has one foot on the step of a bus heading south, toward anonymity and safety, but then, nah, he takes a cab back to the Gardellas, where no violence or even epiphanies have occurred. There, he says goodbye to Rose and leaves with the assassins. I assumed he had a plan and would escape improbably in the Hollywood manner, but it turns out: no. His plan is to get Rose and the Gardellas away from the danger he put them in. He makes the great sacrifice, smiling, and is killed offscreen, while Rose, with an 11th-hour realization of how much she loves Nick, gets married in the town chapel. The bell tolls in celebration. And sorrow.
That's not bad. The supporting cast, meanwhile, is fun. Jory, who will play Oberon to Cagney’s Bottom in “A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream” from 1935, and who will make an excellent Lamont Cranston/Shadow in the 1940 Columbia serial, makes this happy, nonjudgmental fisherman believable. I like how he’s proud of his work, dismissive of the men who can’t do it, but thinks it’s no life for anyone. John Qualen, Berger in “Casablanca,” is comic relief as the bucktoothed Avila cabbie, while George Chandler (who looks so familiar but can’t place him) is the kid behind the counter at the café. I was particularly impressed with the two assassins. They’re like precursors to Jules and Vincent—forever in disagreement over what to do next. While Monk wants to rough up Rose, J.C. is smarter. He knows she knows nothing and counsels patience and not tipping your hand. There's a stillness to him, which makes him more menacing.
“He Was Her Man” is clunky, not well thought-out, and the title is horrible. But it’s like Flicker: It redeems itself in the end.