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.
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.
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.
Unlike “The Oklahoma Kid” starring James Cagney and directed by Lloyd Bacon, “Frisco Kid” starring James Cagney and directed by Lloyd Bacon is not a western. “Frisco Kid” takes place in San Francisco’s vice and violent teeming Barbary Coast. Here Bat Morgan (James Cagney) is a sailor just arriving in town fresh from another voyage. He soon is shanghaied by powerful gang leader Spider Burke (Barton McLane). With the help of a friendly Jewish tailor, Bat overcomes Spider and sends him off to sea instead. Bat returns to the saloon run by the crooked Paul Morra (Ricardo Cortez) where he meets up with Shanghai Duck (Fred Kohler) who arranged the deal for Bat to be shanghaied. He confronts Shanghai, who has a lethal hook in place of his missing right hand, and they get into a ferocious fight that is one of the highlights of the film. Bat kills Shanghai, impressing Morra who offers him a job as a bouncer working in his saloon. However, Bat has bigger ideas and soon becomes the boss of the Barbary Coast running a crooked casino and getting in with crooked politicians to take over the city. Bat meets Jean Barret (Margaret Lindsay) who runs the San Francisco newspaper and is trying to clean up the Barbary Coast along with the help of Judge Crawford. Judge Crawford (Robert McWade) who seems to be the only honest man in town is soon murdered resulting in Bat being accused of the murder. Barbary Coast citizens are now outraged by the murder they want to clean up the city and resorting to a murderous mob rule, they hang Morra. Bat is spared the same faith with when Jean Barret realizes, after numerous denials that she love hooligan Bat and pleads for his life.
When the film opened in 1935 at the Strand Theater on Broadway, the New York Times gave it a good review calling Cagney’s character “a violent Irishmen who became the Al Capone of San Francisco’s vice district.” However, many critics were not impressed comparing it unfavorable to Howard Hawk’s “Barbary Coast” with Edward G. Robinson and Miriam Hopkins which opened a month earlier the same year. ” “Frisco Kid” is a typical Warner Brothers programmer and not one of their best efforts. The film starts okay but is uneven and at times seems rushed. Bat Morgan’s rise to the top and the building of his grand saloon seem to happen quickly. Cagney and Margaret Lindsay do not seem to have much spark between them. Most of their scenes fall flat. Director Lloyd Bacon and his crew do a nice job of creating the salty fog bound atmosphere of the Barbary Coast and the scenes of the fiery lynch mob are exiting and well done. Other cast members include Barton McLane, Lili Damita and Ricardo Cortez whose performance as rotten saloon owner Paul Morra is worth watching this film for by itself.