The Films of James Cagney and Joan Blondell

james_cagney_and_joan_blondell_1932

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

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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/

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) Michael Curtiz

This is the fourth 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/2011/10/10/yankee-doodle-dandy-no-28/

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 sound 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 silent films 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 streetwise 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 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 real 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 supposed 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 lovable cop Lt. Casey Nolan (Robert O’Connor).

Danny’s ethics as a press photographer 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 into the facility.

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, 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. The Picture Snatcher 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.