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James Cagney's pre-code films

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CoffeeDan
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James Cagney's pre-code films

Postby CoffeeDan » March 26th, 2018, 11:24 am

Years ago, when I read James Cagney's autobiography Cagney by Cagney, I was rather disheartened by his dismissal of his pre-code work (up to 1934). He complained about how quickly and cheaply they were made -- admittedly, some had only a 2-3 week shooting schedule ("Hell, we could have phoned them in!" he said at one point). But when I read the contemporary reviews of his pre-1934 output, plus a glorifying profile of Cagney in Collier's magazine circa 1932, I got a most different impression of his early work.

I didn't see most of Cagney's early movies until I discovered TCM in 1997, when he was Star of the Month for the first time, but I kept an eye out for his pre-code work. And I was not disappointed. In fact, many of those early films -- pictures like DOORWAY TO HELL, BLONDE CRAZY, WINNER TAKE ALL, TAXI!, and LADY KILLER -- are still among my all-time favorite Cagney performances. They're "full of firecrackers!", as he says in WINNER TAKE ALL. Compared to these, his later performances in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, THE ROARING TWENTIES, and even EACH DAWN I DIE seem mannered and self-conscious. The Warner Brothers knew what they were doing when they started casting Cagney in these short, snappy, and invigorating pictures early in his career. The later "masterpieces" wouldn't have been possible had he not made these breezy numbers first.

I've been rewatching them a lot in recent weeks and will start discussing my favorites here. You come along, too!

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Re: James Cagney's pre-code films

Postby movieman1957 » March 31st, 2018, 9:21 am

It's been awhile since I have seen most of them. I do recall enjoying watching pre-Cagney Cagney. There is enough of the later Cagney to see how he developed. When I found out he could dance, well, that was something quite different.

I will have to get busy if I am going to keep up but carry on.
Chris

"Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana."

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Re: James Cagney's pre-code films

Postby CoffeeDan » March 31st, 2018, 9:45 am

Chris, I've had to fall back and regroup, too. One thing I have found in watching Cagney's pre-codes is how many of them hark back to THE PUBLIC ENEMY, Cagney's 5th film and his first, defining hit from 1931. (As an example, several subsequent Cagney films use the song "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" as background music, and I don't think that's a coincidence.)

It colors a lot of what comes after, so I am taking a fresh look at PUBLIC ENEMY as a touchstone for this thread. After 87 years, I don't know if I can say anything new about it. But I just got the Blu-ray, so we'll see what happens!

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THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931)

Postby CoffeeDan » April 7th, 2018, 4:05 pm

As I started to watch James Cagney's pre-code films anew, one common aspect stood out -- each one had at least one element that referred back to Cagney's first big hit. I was going to start out with a few sentimental favorites, but then realized I couldn't go on without a look at . . .

THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931). Trailer, opening credits, and we're off:

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This is the 1931 film that made Cagney -- and grapefruit -- a star. His four previous pictures cast him in supporting roles, usually as the best friend of the star. The best of these was THE DOORWAY TO HELL, where he played the buddy and triggerman of up-and-coming gangleader Lew Ayres.

THE PUBLIC ENEMY almost repeated that formula. The movie was based on a best-selling novel, Beer and Blood, written by two Chicago newspaper reporters, Kubec Glasmon and John Bright, based on the careers of Chicago beer barons Frankie Lake and Terry Druggan, the inseparable, dapper leaders of the Valley Gang. Glasmon and Bright had come to Hollywood to adapt their novel for the screen, which depicted the rise and fall of gangster Tom Powers, played by Eddie Woods, and his pal Matt Doyle, played by Cagney. However, early in rehearsals, Glasmon and Bright felt the two main roles had been miscast, so they told director William Wellman that Woods and Cagney should switch roles. With an OK from producer Darryl Zanuck, the switch was made -- and so was Cagney's future.

Seen today, Cagney is the main reason for watching this picture. When he is not on screen, the picture looks like the stodgy early talkie that it would have been without his presence. He strides into a scene, steps on the other actors' lines, and generally acts like he owns the joint. His defining gesture is a soft right jab he uses in an affectionate manner (you can see it in the opening credits, above). Even his mother (Beryl Mercer) returns it in one scene.

Several scenes from THE PUBLIC ENEMY became in-jokes in Cagney's subsequent films. For instance, the rising young gangster is fitted for a new suit, a definite pre-code moment:

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(This scene was slightly shortened in reissues dating from the 1940's, but was restored for the DVD release in 2005.)

Then there's the grapefruit scene with Mae Clarke, which launched a thousand bad jokes. What amazed me the first time I saw THE PUBLIC ENEMY was how short this scene really is -- about the last 10 seconds of this clip. This scene is actually taken directly from the novel Beer and Blood. Co-writer John Bright says it was inspired by a story he heard gangster "Little Hymie" Weiss telling about how he shoved a grapefruit into his girl's face. Cagney relates in his autobiography that Lew Brice, who was married to Mae Clarke at the time, would buy a ticket to see the film every day, leaving just after the grapefruit scene, "grinning from ear to ear."

What's even more amazing is the persistence of that scene -- it followed Cagney for nearly his whole career, right up to his intended final movie ONE, TWO, THREE (1961), where he threatens Horst Buckholz with a grapefruit. Countless people, seeing Cagney eating out, would order grapefruit sent to his table, which he happily ate.

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When his pal Matt is killed by Schemer Burns's gang, Tom seeks revenge. First he "buys" a new gun. Note the way he goes back and forth between the "innocent" and his real vengeful self in this scene:

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Then he follows the gang to a private function and waits his chance. His thirst for revenge, the rain, and the resultant gunfight force Tom to an uncomfortable conclusion: "I ain't so tough!"

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I would post the justifibly famous conclusion, but I'm no party pooper. (And I think I may have reached my limit for video clips, too!)

Critical response to THE PUBLIC ENEMY was mixed. Andre Sennwald described it in The New York Times as "Just another gangster film . . . Weaker than most in its story, stronger than most in its acting." Frederick James Smith said pretty much the same thing in Liberty magazine: "Another gangster yarn -- and rather more of a shocker than most of its predecessors . . . The final kick of THE PUBLIC ENEMY is something to haunt your choicest nightmare." And Variety described the film as "[The] roughest, most powerful and best gang picture to date. So strong as to be repulsive in some aspects, plus a revolting climax. No strong cast names, but a lot of merit."

Well, there it is. Now we can put the rest of James Cagney's pre-code films in their proper context. I may expand or revise this post further as this thread goes on, but for now, I'm done, it's up, and I hope you like it!

One final mystery: The Liberty review quoted above is illustrated by a still of Leslie Fenton and Jean Harlow in a cuddly pose. While both actors are in the final film, they have no scenes together. Was this a subplot that ended up on the cutting room floor?

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Re: James Cagney's pre-code films

Postby movieman1957 » April 9th, 2018, 6:47 pm

I watched "Jimmy The Gent." Oddball comedy of sorts with Cagney running a business that finds "heirs" to fortunes that aren't supposed to have any. Bette Davis costars.

Streetwise tough guy with a soft spot for Davis shows there is some charm to him all the while finding a way to get a cut of something no one is entitled to collect. He want to learn to be more proper in his manner and speech but you can't take NY out of the boy. He is a fast talker, as is nearly everyone, who knows how to get things done. Scheming and double crossing are specialties.

Maybe he could be the flip side to "The Public Enemy" as he will double cross you but he isn't going to hurt you. This could be one he might have mentioned phoning in. It runs just over an hour and I read he didn't care for the script he does a good job with what he has to work with. Not enough weight to it to carry it any longer. Alan Jenkins is his usual solid self as his sidekick. Hardly memorable but okay.
Chris

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Re: James Cagney's pre-code films

Postby CoffeeDan » April 15th, 2018, 1:00 pm

Oh man, I love JIMMY THE GENT! I remember seeing it for the first time on TCM, and thinking it was too much of a good thing -- too many firecrackers going off for me. But then I saw it in a theater, and I really enjoyed it to the point that it's one of my favorite Cagney performances. The big screen actually makes more room for all those firecrackers to go off! And that made all that constant action easier to follow.

By the way, the remastered DVD from the Warner Archive looks great, too. I'll have more to say about this one later . . .

But I do want to mention my favorite line from the film, where Bette Davis tells Cagney, "You can go down deeper, stay down longer, and come up dirtier than any other man I know!"

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OTHER MEN'S WOMEN: Cagney's first "turn" on the silver screen

Postby CoffeeDan » May 1st, 2018, 7:14 pm

In OTHER MEN'S WOMEN, railroad worker Regis Toomey and his wife, Mary Astor, takes in Regis's fireman Grant Withers, when he is thrown out of his boarding house. Over the next few months Grant falls in love with Mary, which leads to a confrontation between the two men on a moving train, causing an accident that leaves Regis blind. It's a rather bland melodrama with some nice directorial touches from William Wellman (who would later direct Cagney in THE PUBLIC ENEMY), and some great railroad location shooting (Cagney's first scene is on top of a moving train).

The critics weren't kind. Andre Sennwald called it "an unimportant little drama" in the New York Times and Variety damned it with faint praise: "Good railroad melo for the lesser run theatres."

But for me, OTHER MEN'S WOMEN is notable as the first film where Cagney shows off his dancing talents. He doesn't have much to do as Regis Toomey's best friend, but in this minute-long scene, Cagney outshines everybody else in the film. I love his partner's reaction when he whirls her out on the dance floor!

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