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

Illicit (1931) Archie Mayo

“Illicit” was only Barbara Stanwyck’s fifth film and she was already a star. Having just appeared in Frank Capra’s “Ladies of Leisure” as a prostitute, or as they would call it, a ‘party girl’ for Columbia, Babs, who had arranged for non-exclusive contracts with both Columbia and Warner Brothers, starred in her next film  for Brothers Warner as a free thinking woman, a post feminist long before the term was even conceived.

Stanwyck is Anne Vincent and her lover, James Rennie, is wealthy Richard “Dick” Ives II. They have been happily living out of wedlock, going away together for weekends, enjoying life, but she refuses to marry Dick who wants to marry her. Anne explains her theories on marriage, how married couples become complacent, have kids and begin to take each other for granted leaving the fun and romance behind. Anne wants none of that. Eventually though pressure from friends and family force the couple to marry. Once married, egos get hurt, misunderstandings come out of the closet as well as former lovers. From Anne’s past comes Price Baines, played smoothly by Ricardo Cortez, who keeps popping up to complicate the situation. Late in the film Dick is about to run off with a former girlfriend (Natalie Moorhead) when the couple come to the realization they only want each other. Continue reading

Short Takes: Wall Street, Mitchum, Lincoln and Mansfield!

This edition of Short Takes includes one underrated fairly new film, from 2011, a made for television movie along with communists, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Joan Blondell and Jayne Mansfield.

Trial (1953) Mark Robson

A courtroom drama, filled with hot topics like racism, vigilantism, the Klu Klux Klan, communism, police brutality, paranoia and the influence of the media. On trial, a Mexican youth accused of murdering a local white girl. One of his lawyers (Arthur Kennedy) is more interested in using the boy as a martyr to raise money for the communist party while the other (Glenn Ford) is an idealistic young law professor who never tried a case before. Made during the McCarthy witch hunt era the story line has a strong anti-communist feel to it, but still manages to reflect some of dark sides of the American dream. Continue reading

The Cincinnati Kid (1965) Norman Jewison

By 1965, Steve McQueen was a star with hit films like “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Great Escape” already behind him. Yet, McQueen still had not proven he could carry a film, films where he alone was the big name. “The Honeymoon Machine,” “The War Lover” and “Hell is For Heroes” did little at the box office no matter what their quality. McQueen was still chasing the one actor who he saw as his rival, Paul Newman. With the release of “The Cincinnati Kid,” Steve would be on a cinematic roll pushing him through the stratosphere for the next few years equal to that of his screen rival.

I first saw “The Cincinnati Kid” in 1965 at a little theater in Downtown Brooklyn called the Duffield. Back in those days, this area of Brooklyn was a sort of mini Times Square with the boroughs largest and fanciest movie palaces all within walking distance. The Loew’s Metropolitan, RKO Albee, Brooklyn Fox and Brooklyn Paramount were all large grand scale theaters, each seating more than 3,000 people. The Duffield, on the other hand, was a small theater, approximately 900 seats, located on a side street (Duffield Street) just off Fulton Street, the main thoroughfare. McQueen was cool, as Eric Stoner, aka The Cincinnati Kid, his screen persona in full bloom. He had the walk and the look. He doesn’t talk too much but McQueen was always at his best when playing the silent type, it was all in his face and his body language. In truth, I was always more of a Paul Newman fan, but in this film McQueen was it, total sixties cool. 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/

Blondie Johnson (1933) Ray Enright

At a running time of 67 minutes one sits there wishing it was longer. This pre-code film gives Joan Blondell one of the rare opportunities to have a leading role and she takes it to the hilt. Though released in 1933, Virginia “Blondie” Johnson comes across as a 21st century woman, a prototype of today’s female using her intelligence and wit to climb to the top, in this case the mob world. On the surface the film may seem like just another rags to riches story, though on the wrong side of the track (this is a Warner Brothers film after all).  Continue reading

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

There’s Always a Woman (1939) Alexander Hall

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    “There’s Always a Woman”, is pretty much a forgotten film in Joan Blondell’s filmography. Made for Columbia in 1938, the film is a less sophisticated “Thin Man” variation with Blondell and Melvyn Douglas as the husband and wife detective team. The film won’t make you forget Nick and Nora or even Jean Arthur and William Powell in “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford”; still it is a fun light weight movie.

    What’s make the film most enjoyable is Joan Blondell, who on loan to Columbia, is out of her sassy, smart aleck Warner’s Brother mode and into a more Carole Lombard/Jean Arthur type, though there may be a little Gracie Allen tossed in too.   The snooping couple are Sally and Bill Reardon who are going broke operating a detective agency due to a lack of clients. William, a former Assistant D.A. decides to go running back to get his old job when the bills begin to pile up too high. Sally meanwhile, is determined to make the private eye business a success and stumbles onto a client, Lola Fraser (Mary Astor, another tie to The Thin Man) who suspects an affair is going on between her husband and his former fiancée (Frances Drake). Lola’s advance practically wipes their debits off the books. The remainder of the story involves the comical sleuthing of the Reardon’s trying to track down the murderer of a double homicide.

Theres always a woman still   The script and the jokes are rather thin though Blondell confirms to all that she is a wonderful comedienne. She’s excellent in a scene when the police are interrogating her under a harsh light and the only ones to show a strain from the interrogation are the police while Joan remains as perky as the moment she walked in.  My biggest problem with the film is the treatment Sally receives from her husband, which is a bit troubling unless you think pulling your wife’s hair or making gestures that you are going to smack her for “disobeying” you are the stuff of yucks. Bill Reardon comes across as an archaic Neanderthal who only wants his wife home, cooking with those pots and pans in the kitchen, and not meddling in a murder investigation though in the end she is partially responsible for solving the case.

   Alexander Hall, who keeps things moving at a nice pace directed the film that was based on a short story by Wilson Collison. Columbia’s original plan was for this to be the first in a series, however it only resulted in one sequel in 1939, “There’s That Woman, Again” with Douglas reprising his role, however with Virginia Bruce replacing Blondell. The film opened at Radio City Music Hall in April of 1938 to moderate business. Look for Rita Hayworth in a bit part as a secretary to an attorney.

Night Nurse (1931) William Wellman

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       Violence against women, alcoholism, child abuse, racy dialogue, gangsters, lust driven interns, bootlegging and sex – “Night Nurse”, a 1932 William Wellman melodrama, has it all. You never have seen so much vice tossed and mixed into one 75-minute cinematic festival of sin.  In addition, it stars two of the sexiest, talented and biggest stars of the pre-code era, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell. If you add in a young virile, though nasty Clark Gable, you cannot ask for more.
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    Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) wants to be a nurse and is at first turned down by the old biddy nurse in charge because she lacks the required education. You see Lora had to quit school to help out with her family. Dejected and on her way out of the hospital, a gentlemen entering accidently knocks her bag out of her hand. Well, it turns out the man is Dr. Bell (Charles Wininger) head of the hospital. To make amends, for dropping the contents of her bag all over the floor, and staring at her legs as he picks up the dropped items placing them back in her bag, he arranges with the nasty head nurse, now all smiles, apologetic and under the assumption Lora knows Dr. Bell, for Lora to start her training on the night shift.  She is set up to share a room with fellow nurse the jaded gum chewing Maloney (Joan Blondell). Soon the two are going out partying and undressing together, even sharing a bed after being caught coming in after curfew by the old biddy nurse. On a more serious note, Lora get some real medical emergency education assisting doctors in surgery, sometime successfully and well sometimes not so much. One night, while on duty in comes Mortie, (Ben Lyons), a bootlegger we soon find out, with a bullet wound. Bound by duty to report all bullet injuries to the police, Mortie, who deep down is a swell guy, convinces her not to do so.

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     Upon graduating, both Lora and Maloney get jobs as private nurses for a well to do family with Lora as the night nurse and Maloney taking the day shift. Their main responsibilities are taking care of two young children, whose father is dead and whose mother is too busy drinking and partying to care of them.  The kids are heirs to a large fortune and this is where Nick, the Chauffeur (Clark Gable), enters the scene. Nick is a low life who is arranging, along with a crooked doctor in on the plot, to starve the children to death, marry the widow mother, and get access to the kids’ trust fund. Of course, our heroine, discovered what Nick is up too and with the help of bootlegger Mortie manages to save the day and the kids but only after being viciously beaten by Nick and giving a blood transfusion to save one of the malnourished young girls.

    “Night Nurse” was one of the first of the pre-code films released on home video under the Forbidden Hollywood banner back in the 1990’s. Back in those days, the VHS series was hosted and introduced by Leonard Maltin.

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    The film is dated in many respects but there is much to keep you interested. Racy wild dialogue like when a young intern tells nurses Stanwyck and Blondell that they can’t show him anything he has not just seen in a delivery room and  the children’s mother wildly yelling out at one point “I’m a dipsomaniac and I like it!” And what other film ends with the audience being told that Clark Gable has been “taken for a ride.”  Mortie, Lora’s bootlegging admirer and the guy who knows the guys who took Nick for his final ride end up with Lora riding off into the urban sunset.

    Gable, in an early role, is convincingly evil as Nick the Chauffeur. Had he not become a star he could have had a good career portraying immoral characters as he does here and in some other early performances. With his gruff voice, he is perfect. Joan Blondell is her sexy and sassy self and for anyone who has followed this blog knows Joan, along with Stanwyck, are two of my favorite actresses. This was the second of three films they appeared in together. Stanwyck is wonderful as the strong willed nurse determined to save the children from the cruelty being imposed on them by Nick and an inattentive mother. In one scene, she actually drags the drunken mother across a room hoping to get her to pay attention to what is happening to her daughters and mutters under her breath “you mother!” The part itself does not require much depth from an acting perspective just a lot of toughness and a ‘have been there before attitude’ from Stanwyck, which she does so well. Just how tough was Stanwyck? Well, here she puts the soon to be anointed “King” Clark Gable in his place and just two years later, she cuts down to size a young John Wayne in “Baby Face.” That pretty tough! Interesting enough, Warner Brothers had the chance to sign Gable to a contract but passed on him leaving the door open for MGM to sign the future Rhett Butler.

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    The screenplay is based on a novel by Dora Macy, aka Grace Perkins. Reading a review of the novel in Time magazine (6/13/30), demonstrates the faithfulness of the screenplay to the book except for the character of Nick who in the movie seems to have replaced an Uncle, along with a sister-in-law, as the brains behind the plot to starve the children.

Directed by William Wellman, who keeps the pace moving, though like many Wellman films it is rough around the edges, but never dull. “Night Nurse” was the first of five films Wellman would make with Stanwyck. The others were “The Purchase Price”, “So Big”, “The Great Man’s Lady” and “Lady of Burlesque.”   With at least ten sinful pre-code films in her credits Stanwyck stands up there alongside Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, Ruth Chatterton and other queens of pre-code films.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) Mervyn LeRoy

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Directed by Merlyn LeRoy with songs by Al Rubin and Harry Warren and choreographed by Busby Berkeley (in the credits he is listed as dance director), “Gold Diggers of 1933” was the second of Warner Brothers three 1933 backstage musicals, all reflecting the depression though none as directly as this one.

The film opens during a rehearsal with the ironic and iconic “We’re in the Money” sung by Ginger Rogers (Fay), in a full face close up dressed in an outfit lined with silver dollars and a strategically placed large silver dollar covering her “private parts.” Along with a chorus of scantily dress showgirls, Rogers sings:

 

                                   “We’re in the Money, We’re in the Money,

                                     We got a lot of what it takes to get along.

                                     We’re in the Money, The sky is sunny,

                   Old Man depression, you are though you’ve done us wrong.” Continue reading