Short Takes: Cagney, Dodsworth and Scream of Fear

Each DawnEach Dawn I Die (***1/2) It is Cagney versus Raft in this classic 1939 Warner Brothers prison drama. Directed by William Keighley, Cagney is Frank Ross an investigative reporter who exposes a political candidate’s corrupt association with a construction company. After the article is published, Ross is snatched by some goons right in front of the newspaper building. He’s knocked out, soused with alcohol and tossed into a speeding car resulting in a car accident which kills three innocent people. Framed for the murders, Ross is sent to prison where he meets big shot Stacey (George Raft). At first, they get off on the wrong foot with Ross continuing to claim he was framed and innocent, all falling on deaf ears. The two become pals when Ross saves Stacey’s life from an attempt by another prisoner to kill him. Continue reading

The Films of James Cagney and Joan Blondell

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It’s hard to imagine a better word to describe James Cagney and Joan Blondell as a team than the word moxie. They were both had it up to their eyelids. Cagney the fast talking, wise cracking smart aleck with a sly smile coming face to face with Blondell, who was just as fast with the wise cracks and added a sassiness all her own. Let’s just say Jimmy met his match. Officially, they were never a team like Tracy and Hepburn or Powell and Loy, but James Cagney and Joan Blondell made seven films together. I doubt either star ever had a more perfect fitting partner than these two had with each other. The real life Cagney/Blondell relationship, and they were good friends and never anything more, began before either ever set foot on a movie set.

They first met on Broadway back in 1929 when they both performed in a play called “Maggie the Magnificent” by George Kelly. Kelly told Cagney he got the part because he physically was what he was looking for, a “fresh mutt.” Blondell’s role called for her to be the type she would become best known for, the wisecracking dame. The play ran for only a month but the two performers became friends.  Fortunately for both, director William Keighley caught a performance of the show before it closed and liked the “young tough cookie and the strong, beautiful broad.” He recruited both for his own upcoming play, “Penny Arcade.” Within a few months the pair were back on Broadway, but it turned out be another flop running only twenty four performances. However, the play would be significant to both their future careers. Al Jolson caught the play and purchased the screen rights. He recommended to Jack Warner he take a look at it before it closed and to especially pay attention to the two supporting actors. Warner liked what he saw and signed up both Cagney and Blondell to contracts. Jolson then turned around and sold the film rights to Warners for a nice profit.

Though the made seven films together, within five years, they were not always paired on screen together. For example, in “The Crowd Roars,” Blondell was Cagney’s younger brother’s girl. However, there scenes together are some of the most electric in the film. Continue reading

White Heat (1949) Raoul Walsh

When James Cagney returned to the gangster role in 1949’s “White Heat”, the film exploded off the screen, just as it still does today. As Eddie Mueller points out in “Dark City” Cody is not a classic gangster but an outlaw and that is an important difference.  Arthur “Cody” Jarrett was not a victim of growing up on the poor side of town, like Tom Powers in “The Public Enemy” or a war veteran returning home to depression era high unemployment, as Eddie Bartlett did in “The Roaring Twenties.” Nor was Cody part of a criminal organization.  Jarrett instead is a cruel, psychotic, homicidal, maniacal mamma’s boy, a brother to Richard Widmark’s Tommy Udo, Lawrence Tierney’s Sam Wild and a father to Al Pacino’s Tony Montana along other post war psychotic criminals. Whether he shoots holes into the trunk of his car “to give some air” to fellow prison escapee Parker, who attempted to kill Jarrett in prison, or shoots Big Ed (Steve Cochran) and gleefully kicks him down the stairs telling his boys to catch, Cody is cruelly vicious and unstable. As portrayed by Cagney, he is magnetic, one of the great performances of all time; you just cannot take your eyes off him. Continue reading

Footlight Parade (1933) Lloyd Bacon

Check out my fifith of seven entries I am writing for the Musical Countdown being hosted by WONDERS IN THE DARK. Here is the link.

http://wondersinthedark.wordpress.com/2011/10/23/footlight-parade-no-17/

Lady Killer (1933) Roy Del Ruth

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.

Continue reading

Each Dawn I Die (1939) William Keighley

It is Cagney versus Raft in the classic 1939 Warners prison drama EACH DAWN I DIE. Directed by William  Keighley, Cagney is Frank Ross an investigative reporter who exposes a political candidate’s corrupt association with a construction company. After the article is published,  Ross is snatched by some goons right in front of the newspaper building, knocked out, and soused with alcohol he is sent away in a speeding car which results in a car accident with three innocent people being killed. Framed for the murders, Ross is sent to prison where he meets big shot Stacey (George Raft). At first, they get off on the wrong foot with Ross continuing to claim he was framed and innocent, all falling on deaf ears with both prison officials and his fellow inmates. The two soon become pals when Ross saves Stacey’s life from an attempt by another prisoner to kill him.

The film has all the by now standard prison themes you expect, the innocent man who  was framed, the prisoner who is a snitch, the sadistic guard, the prison system that turns a good man bad, the prison break and the riot. It’s all there but what is most exciting is Cagney! Brash, cocky and full of himself, grinning confidently just the way we like him. Here he gets to face off against George Raft, who by the way hooked up with some real gangsters in his off-screen  life, and is even better known for giving Humphrey Bogart some of the best roles of his career when he turned down “Casablanca” and “High Sierra.” Raft is fine as Stacey but the film belongs to Cagney who goes through an entire array of emotions from a wronged innocent to a crazed bitter jail-bird locked up in solitary.       

The cast also includes George Bancroft as the Warden, Victor Jory as a corrupt member of the parole board, Jane Bryant as Cagney’s loyal girlfriend fighting for his release and former boxer Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom. This is the kind of film you expect from Warner Brothers, hard-hitting, socially conscience and gritty.

***1/2 

 

Picture Snatcher (1933) Lloyd Bacon

Within four years Cagney made 19 films establishing his brash New York City persona as an alternative to the typical Hollywood male stars of the era. Cagney and the advent of movies were a perfect fit. His fast talking self-confident, cocky style was a perfect antidote to the stiffness of many actors transforming themselves from silents to sound. Besides the cockier Cagney was, the more we loved him.

“Picture Snatcher” is a breezy fast paced entertaining pre-code film that does it all right without ever managing to achieve greatness. The film stars an electric James Cagney as Danny Kean a street wise recently released ex-con who decides to go straight.

After telling his former cohorts, and collecting his share of the last job before his incarceration, that he is quitting the rackets Danny gets a job at a New York tabloid called “The Graphic” through a connection he made with the City Editor Al McLean (Ralph Bellamy) while in the clink.  Not really suited for reporting but brash enough to take a job as a photographer when all others are reluctant to go the scene where a crazed firemen is hold up  with a rifle after discovering his wife’s remains in bed with another man after a fire. Posing as an insurance adjustor, Danny worms his way into the distraught man’s confidence while his only true goal is to steal a photo of the man’s family to publish in the paper.

Along the way Danny meets Allison (Alice White) a two timing dame who is suppose to be McLean’s girl but has desires for Danny who continually fights her off. Danny does have his principles, he does not fool around with a friend’s dame.  He is more attracted to a young journalism student  named Patricia Nolan (Patricia Ellis) who happens to be the daughter of tough but loveable cop Lt. Casey Nolan (Robert O’Connor).

Danny’s methods as a reporter are no better than they were as a hoodlum; he steals a pass from another reporter to gain entry into Sing Sing to witness an electrocution of a female prisoner. Inside the prison Danny, with a miniature camera strapped to his ankle, gets his money shot which makes the paper’s front page but in the process get s his girlfriend’s father/cop busted in rank as was in charge of security and received the blame for Danny slipping by.

The execution sequence is based on the true story of one Ruth Snyder who in 1928 became the first woman to be electrocuted since the late 1800’s. Snyder and her lover, who was also electrocuted, killed her husband for insurance money (should sound familiar, the case inspired James Cain to use as the basis for Double Indemnity).   The New York Daily News hired an out of town photographer from the Chicago Tribune, someone unknown to the prison guards at Sing Sing, to sneak in to witness the execution and snap the photo which appeared the next day on the front page of the Daily News with the headline DEAD!

Danny does redeem himself somewhat by the end of the film when he is caught in an apartment with one of his former hoodlum buddies, Jerry the Mug. He protects Jerry’s frightened wife and kids trapped in the apartment as Jerry recklessly shoots it out with the police. As the battle with the police is about to reach it dramatic end, Danny gets an incredible photo of Jerry as he shot to death by the police.

Written by Allan Rivkin and P.J. Wolfson based on a story by Danny Adhern, “The Picture Snatcher” is overall a light hearted fast moving film filled with gangsters and newspaperman directed by Lloyd Bacon and played to the hilt by Cagney. The films generally low opinion of the news media, whether intentional or not, remains relevant to today with the onslaught of all the in your face vulture paparazzi we see brought to the extremes today in gossip magazines and TV. To say the least it is Cagney’s film all the way, his exhilarating performance drives the film and must have been a revelation to audiences of the day who were used to more suave refined leading men than the in your face anti-authoritarian  character Cagney is here and would perfect in so many films yet to come.

He Was Her Man (1934) Lloyd Bacon

    The team of Cagney and Blondell never reached the iconic level of Tracy and Hepburn though these two Warner Brothers stars set off plenty of sparks in their six films together. Released in 1934 just short of the start date for the newly enforced policing of Hollywood sinema, ‘He Was Her Man’ is a slight but entertaining drama from the most street wise of Hollywood studios. Both stars play it low-key in this downbeat story, with Cagney even sporting a mustache.

    The plot evolves around Flicker Hayes (Cagney) recently released from jail and seeking revenge on the gang members who set him up to take the rap. Not expecting Flicker to be vindictive, his former buddies include him in on a new job. He squeals to the police on the plan, a drug company’s safe, resulting in one of the gang members being caught and sentenced to die in the electric chair. To avoid getting bumped off for his revenge driven deed, Flicker skips town settling in San Francisco where he meets down and out former prostitute Rose Lawrence (Blondell) who is on her way to a small fishing village to marry Nick Gardella (Victor Jory), a respectable fisherman she met who loves her despite her immoral past.  A couple of the gang members come west on a tip to find Flicker who decided to take Rose to the fishing village figuring the small out of the way town is a good place to hide.  Flicker and Rose don’t plan it but they fall in love.

    The gang members soon manage to track Flicker down at the seaside village, only they want to kill Rose also figuring she knows too much. Flicker, who she only knows by his alias Jerry Allan, convinces the thugs Rose knows nothing of his past and if they agree to leave her alone he’ll go with them. As the film concludes, Flicker and his two assassins drive off toward the ocean where they will do their dirty deed. Rose marries the kindly Nick as the film comes to a rather poignant conclusion.     

    Despite the movie’s final wedding scene, the film ends on a despondent note with our gangster hero going off to his death. Cagney is subdued in this film and fans who like the hyperactive Jimmie may be disappointed. Blondell in a rare lead role is also fairly subdued as Rose avoiding her usual perky wise cracking style. Victor Jory does well as Nick Gardella, the Portuguese fisherman in love with Blondell.  As a pre-code film, it met the standard sinful requirements in a few instances. First Bondell’s character makes it clear she was selling herself to survive and that wedding dress she wears at the end of the film is low cut enough to qualify for 2009. There is also, early in the film, a scene when Cagney’s character is squealing to the cops, telling them that the drug company going to be robbed is loaded with “junk and nose candy.”

    Directed by Warner’s studio director Lloyd Bacon, the film lacks the kind of action most folks expect from a Warner’s gangster film. Its countryside by the seas location instead of the big city is also a change of pace from what is generally expected. While this is not a must see, it is worth a look and Cagney and Blondell completist will be pleased.

** 1/2

Hard to Handle (1933) Mervyn LeRoy

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The dance marathon became a phenomenon beginning in the 1920’s. Unlike flag pole sitting, another craze of those times, dance marathons had many participants who at first danced for just the pleasure of the wild heady experience, but later on as we entered the 1930’s and the depression, danced out of necessity for much needed money. The winner would get $1,000. Even if you did not win, you were fed, and had a place to keep warm. With the Great Depression going at full speed, there were many people in desperate need looking for any way possible to make a few dollars. The contests were long grueling endurance affairs going on for weeks, even months at a time before there was only one couple left standing and declared the winner.

lf    Rules were different depending on who held the contest. Some allowed 15-minute breaks on the hour allowing time for a bathroom pit stop, sleep and change of clothes. Horace McCoy’s 1930’s novel, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” gives a notable account of what these contests entailed. While the contestants were hard pressed folks out of work and luck, the promoters did create jobs for many other people like nurses, doctors, janitors, announcers, and others involved in putting on the event.  McCoy’s novel, not surprisingly, was ignored by the public when first published in the middle of the depression; however, it was eventually made into a magnificent movie in 1969, directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Jane Fonda, Susannah York, Michael Sarrazin and Gig Young.

Hard to Handle Cagney Brain    Over thirty years earlier, Mervyn LeRoy directed the 1933 film, “Hard to Handle”, a James Cagney vehicle, which starts on a somewhat serious tone during the opening dance marathon, providing a realistic harsh look at what these lengthy contests involved, and reminding me much of the Pollack classic. However, soon after, the film moves into a different direction more toward a lighthearted energetic comedy. It could have just as easily turned into a con game/gangster drama from the early tone of the film.

Cagney is Lefty Merrill, who along with his shady partner are running a dance marathon, which, “surprisingly” is won by Lefty’s girlfriend, Ruth Waters (Mary Brian). The opening scenes, reminiscent of Pollack’s excellent downbeat 1969 film, finds Allan Jenkins, in the Gig Young role, as the marathon’s emcee, rousing the audience to cheer on the final two surviving couples who are barely able to stand, (the second couple’s male dancer is a young Sterling Holloway).  Watching this scene with the audience’s bloodthirsty cheers edging the couples onward, reminds me of the vulture culture, that today’s TV audience has for shows like “Survivor” and other reality type shows. The similarities between this film and “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” quickly end with the marathon scenes conclusion. “Horses” goes on to be a bleak dark vision of the depression times and its toll on a group of people, while “Hard to Handle” veers off in the direction of a fast moving light comedy.lf

The second dancing couple soon falls by the wayside, and Ruth and her partner are declared the winners. What should be a happy moment for Ruth, her clinging mother, Lil (Ruth Donnelly) and for Lefty turns into a nightmare when Lefty’s partner runs off with all the proceeds from the contest, leaving Lefty to face an angry crowd who believe they have been swindled. Lil is more outraged at Lefty for the loss of the money than Ruth is, but Lefty has more immediate problems, like quickly getting away from the massive angry crowd.

Lefty soon falls on hard times financially when he finds Ruth, now a model, on the cover of Vogue, and finds her dating a successful fashion photographer. He begs to stay with Ruth and her mother just until he can get back on his feet. Lefty, ever the ingenious publicist gets a new idea when he spots Ruth struggling to rub facial cream on her face one day, and comes up with the absurd notion that women can lose calories this way, and promotes the facial cream as a diet treatment! The idea is “unbelievably” successful, and so lucrative that even money conscience Mamma Lil decides Lefty is marital worthy material again for her daughter Ruth.

197388_1020_A    Lefty financially successful again, next promotes a fund raising campaign for a small college where he successfully raises one million dollars and gains the attention of young student Marlene Reeves (Claire Dodd), who has eyes for him. Marlene’s father hires Lefty to promote a real estate deal in Florida, Grapefruit Acres.  Lefty wants to marry Ruth but she is still resistant, saying she will marry him only after he comes back from his big deal in Florida. While in Florida, Lefty is surprised to find Marlene there who makes it plain that she is very interested in Lefty, who defensively, declares his love for Ruth. Ruth and Lil decide to fly down to the sunshine state to surprise Lefty, and are surprised themselves when they find him and Marlene having breakfast together in their pajamas. Lefty claims that nothing happened, though that is hard to believe, since he is in her hotel room in his PJ’s. The Waters women fly quickly back to New York with Lefty chasing after them trying to explain. Soon after, Lefty is arrested for false advertising related to the Grapefruit Acres project. While in jail, he meets his thieving dance marathon partner who happens to tells him he lost weight over the past few days just eating nothing but grapefruit. Lefty’s new idea, The 18 day Grapefruit Diet, which becomes the nation’s latest fad.   A success again, and in Mama Lil’s favor again, Lefty finally, with some trickery, gets Ruth to say yes and marry him.

“Hard to Handle” is certainly entertaining enough with the usually fine performance by Mr. Cagney, and a especially entertaining performance by Ruth Donnelly who plays the  money hungry Mama Lil, despite in real life being only three years older than Jimmy and ten years older the Mary Brian. Her character has plenty of sharp funny lines, delivered with fine timing, constantly referring to her daughter and herself as “we” when marrying and not marrying Cagney’s Lefty Merrill. Anyone marrying Ruth was definitely getting two for the price of one.  While Mary Brian is competent, I would have liked to have seen Joan Blondell in the role of Ruth. She and Donnelly would have been two quick pistols together and the charisma between Cagney and Blondell is always electric. The picture moves at lightening speed, thanks to Cagney’s exceptional flair for rapid speech, which gives no one any time to pause.

The film unfortunately has never been released in the home video format and remains a hard film to see, undeservedly so. Hopefully, Warner Brothers will see fit to release this film in the near future. “Hard to Handle” was originally brought to my attention by Judy of Movie Classics’s who has written her own great review some time back, and as a Cagney admirer, is certainly worth reading to get her perspective on this film and other classics.