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 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.
SINNER’S HOLIDAY (1930)
For whatever reason, when “Penny Arcade“was brought to the screen, Warner Brothers changed the title to “Sinner’s Holiday.” Whatever it was to be called it was Cagney and Blondell’s first film together. They repeated their stage roles in the film, Jimmy as the weak brother and Joan as his tart of a girlfriend. The stars of the film were Grant Withers and Evelyn Knapp, two pretty much forgotten names today. The film is a decent if an unexceptional programmer that only comes alive when Cagney and Blondell are on screen, especially Jimmy who lights up every scene he appears in.
Notice the odd almost incestuous relationship Cagney’s character, Harry Delano has with his mother (Lucille LaVerne). This was the first time, though not the last, where one of Cagney’s character’s had a strange mother fixation. It would come into play again in “The Public Enemy” and still later and most famously in “White Heat.” Blondell, her hair darker than we would be use too in later films, also shines. Even in this early film, Blondell delivers a classic sassy line. When the police are asking if she was with Harry all night at the beach, her father tells her, “think of your reputation!” to which she replies, “You think of it, you worry about it more than I do.”
OTHER MEN’S WOMEN (1931)
Directed by William Wellman, this was Cagney and Blondell’s second film together. Jimmy had a minor role as a train engineer and Blondell was a sassy (what else?) waitress. The main leads were Grant Withers, again, as a railroad engineer who falls in love with the wife (Mary Astor) of co-worker Regis Toomey. Cagney gets to do a small dance bit in the film. Apparently, he did not care much for the film since he does not even bother mentioning it in his autobiography “Cagney by Cagney.” Blondell’s give us a touch of her perky wise talking dame she would become so well known for as Marie, a hash tossing waitress, She does have one great line in the film where she announces she A.P.O. – ain’t puttin’ out!
THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931)
Easily the most famous of the Cagney/Blondell films is “The Public Enemy,” a 1931 gangster flick extremely well directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman. His superb use camera angles adds significantly to the telling of the story. This was the film that put Cagney on the map as a movie star, but not the first film where he portrayed a gangster. That would be “Doorway to Hell ” which starred mild looking Lew Ayres as a big shot and Cagney as his right hand man. As Mick LaSalle writes in Dangerous Men, “Cagney comes strutting into the movie as if someone forgot to tell him he wasn’t the lead.” But I digress, as Tom Powers, Cagney eats up the screen. He shoves, pushes and kills his way to stardom. Most famously he heaves a grapefruit into Mae Clark’s face when she gets on his nerves after a night of heavy drinking. It’s an audacious performance that marks the true beginning of a long and brilliant screen career. Blondell’s time on the screen is minor and basically she is wasted as Matt Doyle’s (Edward Woods) girl, Power’s childhood friend. In fact, all the female parts, except for Power’s mother are small and that includes Cagney’s leading lady Jean Harlow who does not appear on screen until almost 47 minutes into the film. In truth, Harlow’s performance here is pretty bad, her speech pattern is at times a peculiar mix of odd pauses. Then there is her accent! She is suppose to be from Texas but sounds more like she is just arrived from the Lower East Side of New York. That all said, her screen presence and sex appeal already come through loud and clear.
Edward G. Robinson shocked audiences back in 1931 with his portrayal of Rico Bandello in “Little Caesar” (released earlier the same year), but he was an old softy compared to Cagney’s Tom Powers who killed anyone who double crossed him including a horse! It was also the beginning of a series of films where Cagney’s characters would beat, kick and generally man-handle women. Poor Mae Clark not only got a grapefruit in the face in “The Public Enemy,” a few years later in “The Lady Killer,” Cagney would drag Clark by her hair and kick her of his apartment. Still later, Virginia Mayo would be kicked off a chair in “White Heat.” On the bright side, Jimmy’s characters had ‘special relationships’ with their mothers in these same films.
BLONDE CRAZY (1931)
The biggest question about “Blonde Crazy” is when is this film going to see a DVD release? It was released on VHS many moons ago but has yet to be seen on home video since. “Blonde Crazy” was the only film written expressly for Cagney and Blondell as a team. This also happens to be one of the sexiest pre-code films out there. Cagney is all attitude, cocky as ever, a grifter working as a bellhop at a hotel. Blondell is a blue collar dame and the hotel’s newly hired maid thanks to Cagney who flipped for the dish the moment he saw her. The tough Blondell is warned by another experienced maid to stay away from our Jimmy. When he makes a pass at her she smacks him and all he can say is “I wouldn’t mind getting slugged by you every day.” Joanie obliges and smacks him once again. After chiseling an old man stuck on Joan, the pair becomes a team and head to the big city and bigger scams. “Blonde Crazy” is sassy, sexy and sumptuous filled with spicy dialogue and knowing looks. Blondell has one of her most revealing pre-code scenes when she soaks in a bathtub. Cagney gets to play with her underwear and not seem like a pervert while doing so. Be warned that while the film starts off as a light fun, sexy romp about two grifters, it turns darker toward the end. The film leaves you wishing the couple made more films like this.
THE CROWD ROARS (1932)
Directed by Howard Hawks, Cagney plays racecar driver Joe Greer who coddles his kid brother Eddie (Eric Linden) from the dames and booze that comes with the life of a race car driver. Joe is against brother Eddie following in his footsteps as a driver and even more dead set against his hooking up with Ann Scott (Joan Blondell) the feisty talking girlfriend of Lee Merrick (Ann Dvorak), Joe’s girl. Many of Cagney’s characters prone to sexual inmaturity, seeing women as second class (The Public Enmey). In this film Cagney’s Joe Greer cannot bring himself to introduce Lee to his family. She’s good enough to shack up with and he claims to be in love with her, however he also sees her, and Blondell’s Ann Scott, as nothing more than race track groupies. When Eddie meets Ann, he quickly falls head over heels in love and her with him. Upset with Lee, blaming her for Eddie and Ann hooking up, Joe dumps her. When Joe finds out Eddie and Ann are still seeing each other, he gets drunk and confronts Ann demanding she stay away from Eddie. The brothers fight with Joe bitch slapping Eddie, telling him he’s on his own now. Joe’s drinking increases causing an horrific fire filled accident during a race that kills his best pal Spud (Frank McHugh). His grief runs deep causing him to lose his nerve on the track. Brother Eddie has continued to race but is injured during “the big race.” Joe shows up and takes his place overcoming his fear and wins. The film is dated but Cagney is always a joy to watch. He and Blondell have a dramatic scene that is a turning point in the film. The final car race is at the Indianapolis Speedway.
Footlights Parade (1933)
“Footlight Parade” teams Cagney and Blondell in their only musical together. Cagney is Chester Kent, a Broadway producer whose career hits a slump when the movies take over as popular entertainment. That is until he comes up with the idea of doing “prologues,” short but large scale musical production numbers that would appear before the movie. His success may be more than he can handle as producers continuously want new material, and on top of that, someone inside his organization is stealing his ideas. Blondell is Nan, his trusty and smart secretary who has fallen in love with Kent but like many man, he is too blind to see. Blondell’s Nan is the one to eventually uncover who is stealing Cagney’s ideas and cooking the books in the process. The movie is filled with great Busby Berkeley musical numbers like “Honeymoon Hotel,” “By a Waterfall,” “Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence,” and “Shanghai Lil” where we get to see Cagney dance for the first time since he did a little hoofing in “Taxi.” “Footlight Parade” is generally listed as among three of Warner Brother’s best musicals. The film is also notable for some risqué moments and dialogue like Blondell telling her roommate, who attempts to steal Cagney, that as long as there are streets she will never be out of a job. There are other references to kept men and prostitution and many of the musical numbers are as suggestive as the ladies are lightly clad. Blondell looks great, not surprising since the cinematographer was her brand new husband, George Barnes.
HE WAS HER MAN (1934)
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. Both stars surprisingly play it low-key in this downbeat story, Cagney even sports a mustache. The story revolves around Flicker Hayes (Cagney) recently released from jail and seeking revenge on his former gang members who set him up to take the rap on a robbery. Not expecting Flicker to be vindictive, his former buddies include him in on a new job. However, Flicker squeals to the police resulting in one of the gang members being caught and sentenced to die in the electric chair. To avoid getting bumped off, Flicker skips town, settling in San Francisco where he meets Blondell’s Rose Lawrence, a former prostitute. She’s 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. Flicker takes Rose to the fishing village figuring the small out of the way area is a good place to hide out. The two unexpectedly fall in love. Eventually, the gang find Flicker’s hideout and now want to bump off both him and Rose, figuring she knows too much. He convinces the thugs Rose knows nothing of his past, he has been living under an alias, and if they agree to leave her alone he’ll go with them quietly. The film concludes with Flicker and his two assassins driving 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 Cagney’s character going off to his death. Throughout the film Cagney is subdued. Fans who like the hyperactive Jimmy will probably be disappointed. Blondell, in a rare lead role, is also fairly subdued as Rose avoiding her usual perky wise cracking style.
While both James Cagney and Joan Blondell had long and successful careers going into the 1960’s, the poignant “He Was Her Man” was their final on screen appearance together.
This article is my contribution to the CAGNEY BLOGATHON hosted by The Movie Projector. For more articles and reviews from the blogathon please click here.