James Cagney most likely did not think much of “Lady Killer,” not even giving it a mention in his autobiography, “Cagney by Cagney.” The film was a typical Warner Brothers programmer with the studio heads ensuring that Cagney’s character was exactly how the public liked Jimmy served; tough, cheeky, a hardboiled know it all with a winning sly smile. He had already in his short career played similar brash characters in earlier films like, “Taxi”, “Blonde Crazy” and “Hard to Handle.” Released at the end of 1933, Cagney already seems to be spoofing his tough guy persona in this rough and tumble comedy/drama.
Dan Quigley, a typical smart aleck Cagney type does not like to play by the rules. Unlike his role of Tom Powers in “The Public Enemy” that made him a star, Dan Quigley is more a small time con-artist than a big time gangster. Dan is soon fired from a job as a uniformed usher at Warner’s famed Broadway Theater, The Strand after treating customers shabbily along with other previous infractions including running a dice game in the men’s room. Though he is a con artist, Dan is quickly conned himself when a beautiful dame named Myrna (Mae Clarke) “drops” her purse on the street and he gallantly retrieves it delivering it to her apartment where her “brother” and some friends are playing a friendly poker game. Dan is quickly suckered into the game and loses his money just as fast. As he leaves, just outside the apartment, he runs into another chump delivering another lost purse! Realizing he has been had, Dan intimidates his way into the gang taking charge as the gang sucker more marks into losing their money with the help of a draw full of lost purses. With Dan at the helm, the gang’s cons quickly escalate their fortunes until they are running an upscale nightclub, and scamming better dressed suckers. They soon graduate to burglary until one of the crew kills a housemaid during a jewelry robbery. The entire gang skips town heading west to Chicago and on the L.A. where Dan is quickly picked up and questioned by the police. Held on five-thousand dollars bail, Dan calls Myrna who he gave his money to hold, only to find out she and gang member Spade Maddock (Douglas Dumbrille) are skipping the country heading down to Mexico leaving Dan out to dry.
Without enough evidence, the police are forced to release Dan who is soon “discovered” by a movie producer and finds himself working as an extra in the movies where he meets the beautiful star, Lois Underwood (Margaret Lindsay).
Once a scam artist, always a scam artist, Dan has been writing more than two hundred “fan” letters a week to the studio promoting himself. The studio heads believing they have a new star on their hands elevate his roles and soon Dan becomes a leading man. But his past comes back to haunt him when Spade, Myrna and the rest of the crew come back attempting to blackmail him about his past and get his help in robbing the homes of his rich and famous movie star friends.
Reteaming with Mae Clarke, the pretty actress who received the grapefruit right smack in the face from Cagney in “The Public Enemy”, “Lady Killer” comes across as Cagney already parodying his tough guy image. Clarke and others are in for a rough and tumble time from the pugnacious Jimmy. The filmmakers upped the ante here in Cagney’s treatment of Clarke. In what is a nod to the famous grapefruit scene in “The Public Enemy,” here Mae Clarke not only has a pineapple dropped into her lap but much more brutally, Cagney grabs her by her hair, drags her across the floor and tosses her out of his apartment! And it is all played rather light heartedly. The filmmakers also get their licks in on film critics later in the film when Dan invites a film critic, who insulted his movie star girlfriend, in a review of her latest film, to his “private office,” the men’s room of a night club, where he forces the critic under the threat of violence to eat the newspaper clipping of his review.
While the film is funny and entertaining, by today’s standards there is plenty that could be considered in questionable taste. The treatment of Mae Clarke is especially unsettling, dragging her across the room and literally kicking her out is played for pure laughs (even the publicity for the film focused on Cagney’s treatment of Clarke). Clarke in a letter to a friend explained that she was not hurt during the filming of this scene. If one looks closely, you will see her hands are firmly gripping Cagney’s wrist taking all the pressure off the actual hair pulling. Another questionable scene involves about two dozen monkeys who are let loose during a Hollywood dinner party. The monkeys look like they were tossed into bowls of cream, smashed into cake and forcibly flung around the room. Today, this would certainly raise the blood pressure of animal rights groups and correctly so. I somehow doubt anyone gave a second thought to either of these kinds of behavior back in 1933. While these scenes are cringe worthy, again like so many other films where manners, thoughts and ideas have evolved since, one needs to accept the times in which these films were made.
Cagney is his pugnacious, smart aleck self. When Mae Clarke offers him a drink early in the film following it up with, “Chaser?” He quickly responds with that devilish Cagney grin, “Always.” Cagney’s own personal humor shined also in another scene where still a movie extra, he is dressed as an Indian Chief, and between takes wanders into the trailer of movie star Margaret Lindsay. When Lindsay returns to her trailer she questions who he is and what he is made up for. Cagney ad-libbed, “I am Big Chief es-tut-mir-vay-in-tuches,” which is Yiddish for Big Chief pain in the ass! The ad-lib was left in the film though it went over the heads of most in the audience except for Jewish ticket buyers who roared with laughter.
Mae Clarke, an actress who deserved more attention and better treatment than the violence she endured with Cagney, is praise worthy in her role as Myrna, as are Margaret Lindsay as his new love Lois and Douglas Dumbrille as the slimy hoodlum, Spade Mattock who meets a violent end. Director Roy Del Ruth keeps the film moving at a fast pace for the entire short 75 minutes or so. Del Ruth directed Cagney in three other pre-code flicks, “Blonde Crazy,” “Taxi” and “Winner Take All.” “Lady Killer” remains an entertaining if minor film in Cagney’s filmography.