Page 1 of 2

James Cagney's pre-code films

Posted: March 26th, 2018, 11:24 am
by CoffeeDan
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!

Re: James Cagney's pre-code films

Posted: March 31st, 2018, 9:21 am
by movieman1957
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.

Re: James Cagney's pre-code films

Posted: March 31st, 2018, 9:45 am
by CoffeeDan
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!

THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931): The flash point of Cagney's career

Posted: April 7th, 2018, 4:05 pm
by CoffeeDan
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:

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:

(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 from gangster "Little Hymie" Weiss 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.

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:

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!"

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?

Re: James Cagney's pre-code films

Posted: April 9th, 2018, 6:47 pm
by movieman1957
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.

Re: James Cagney's pre-code films

Posted: April 15th, 2018, 1:00 pm
by CoffeeDan
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!"

OTHER MEN'S WOMEN (1931): Cagney's first "turn" on the silver screen

Posted: May 1st, 2018, 7:14 pm
by CoffeeDan
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!

Re: James Cagney's pre-code films

Posted: June 15th, 2018, 5:00 pm
by CoffeeDan
Hello, SSO! My apologies for my long absence, due to personal and health reasons. But I haven't forgotten about this thread, and I'd like to thank all my fellow Cagney fans for your interest! I've been working on a few more entries, now in various stages of completion, which I hope to post in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, I thought you'd like to see this 1931 conversation with Cagney from the "Intimate Interviews" film series:

THE MILLIONAIRE (1931): "Fool the doctors and live forever!"

Posted: June 17th, 2018, 3:47 pm
by CoffeeDan
James Cagney in a pivotal role in THE MILLIONAIRE (his 4th film), immediately preceding his star turn in THE PUBLIC ENEMY. It's less than four minutes long, but he packs a wallop in that short length of time, and his performance really complements that of the star, the great British actor George Arliss.

In the film, Arliss plays automobile magnate John Alden, who is forced into retirement by his family and board members. Restless at rest, his health suffering as well, Alden fights to find a reason for going on until Schofield, the go-getting insurance salesman (Cagney) literally bounds his way into Alden's life and gives him the will and the way to put his idle hands to work again:

Following Schofield's advice, Alden buys a failing gas station, hires Bill Merrick (David Manners) as a partner, and soon business is booming. Alden later finds out that Merrick is in love with his daughter Barbara (Evelyn Knapp) and wants to marry her, but doesn't know Alden is her father. Alden then plays "foxy Grandpa" to the couple to bring the film to a more than satisfying conclusion.

Seen today, THE MILLIONAIRE is a charming and disarming comedy, well worth your attention, but the high point is definitely Cagney's pep-up scene with Arliss, which plays almost like a movie within a movie. It airs occasionally on TCM -- watch for it.

ARLISS ON CAGNEY: "There was a small but important part in THE MILLIONAIRE -- the part of an insurance agent. The scene was entirely with me, and was the turning part of the story. I knew it depended largely on the actor of this small part whether my change of mental attitude would appear convincing. I saw several promising young men without being much impressed one way or the other; but there was one more waiting to be seen; he was a lithe, smallish man. I knew at once he was right; as I talked to him I was sure he could give me everything I wanted. He wasn't acting to me now; he wasn't trying to impress me; he was just being natural, and, I thought, a trifle independent for a bit actor; there was a suggestion of 'Here I am; take me or leave me; and hurry up.' As I came to my decision I remember saying, 'Let him come as he is -- those clothes, and no make-up stuff. Just as he is!' The man was James Cagney. I was lucky!"

--George Arliss, My Ten Years in the Studios

CAGNEY ON ARLISS: "In THE MILLIONAIRE, my only picture with George Arliss, I played a fast-talking insurance man who has to sell a policy and warn Mr. Arliss that he is getting nothing out of life in his retirement. That was my only scene with this great star, and it lasted just two minutes. I wanted it to be good. In the scene, he sits with a shawl about his shoulders, and during the rehearsal, I said, 'Mr. Arliss, may I adjust your shawl if it falls down off your shoulders?' He said, 'Young man, you do anything you like. I trust your judgment implicitly.' Which I thought was awfully nice coming from a grand old trouper to a young guy just beginning to get warm in the business."

--Cagney by Cagney

Re: James Cagney's pre-code films

Posted: June 18th, 2018, 8:13 pm
by movieman1957
Thanks for more stuff. Haven't caught another Cagney film recently but you keep bringing it and I'll follow along.

Re: James Cagney's pre-code films

Posted: June 20th, 2018, 6:32 am
by CoffeeDan
Hey, thanks for chiming in, Chris! I've got two more posts that I'm working on now, and I hope to get those up soon. James Cagney made 17 films before the new MPPDA code became effective in 1934, so obviously I have a long way to go!

But good news for pre-code Cagney fans -- all but two of those films are now available on DVD or Blu-ray! The only exceptions are THE MlLLIONAIRE (covered above) and HE WAS HER MAN, Cagney's last pre-code film from 1934. So far, the only pre-code Cagney on Blu is THE PUBLIC ENEMY. So pre-code Cagney fans have a lot to enjoy!

Re: James Cagney's pre-code films

Posted: July 2nd, 2018, 4:36 pm
by moira finnie
I loved that electrifying scene between Arliss & Cagney in that early appearance of the star, too. Thank you for this thread. I hope you will have a chance to post about the wonderfully subversive Blonde Crazy (1931) eventually.

Re: James Cagney's pre-code films

Posted: July 2nd, 2018, 6:15 pm
by Sue Sue Applegate
Thanks for this lively, lovely thread, CoffeeDan!

Re: James Cagney's pre-code films

Posted: July 3rd, 2018, 5:43 am
by BiggieB
According to the suit-fitting scene, Cagney had a 37" waist and a 33" inseam! Given that he was 5'5, that gives him a very peculiar physique... :)

Re: James Cagney's pre-code films

Posted: July 11th, 2018, 2:47 pm
by CoffeeDan
Thanks for your comments, everybody! I really wanted to make this a dialogue among Cagney fans instead of just me blathering on and on, and I'm glad you all came out! Moira, right now I'm taking a closer look at the films Kubec Glasmon and John Bright wrote for Cagney, and BLONDE CRAZY is one of them (and one of my especial favorites), so you can be sure to see something on it in the near future. Good to see you too, Sue Sue and BiggieB! I pray I will not disappoint you as I continue this thread. More to come shortly . . .