After recently watching James Cagney in the 1931 film, The Public Enemy, I was inspired to begin work on a new short story. It was one of the film’s most famous scenes and lines uttered by the actor that caught my attention. Badly shot after a shootout, Cagney as Tom Powers, comes out of a storefront carrying two guns. He staggers down a rainy dark street. Just before dying and falling to the ground, he mumbles his famous line, “I ain’t so tough.”
My story deals with a small time local hood on the run from the cops, after catching his girlfriend in bed with another guy, and shooting them both. At this point in time those famous last words are the title of my story, but that could change as the tales evolves. Inspiration can come from anywhere.
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. Continue reading →
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 →
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.
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.