A Trio of Diversified Gangsters

Anyone who has seen The Public Enemy has probably noticed the same thing:  In the opening scenes, where Tom and Matt as young men are seen, the character playing young Tom looks like a young version of Edward Woods and the young version of Matt looks like a young version of James Cagney.  But when we see them all grown up, Woods is playing Matt and Cagney is playing Tom.  So why do the young versions look the opposite?  Because those scenes were shot when the original casting was still in place, which was Edward Woods in the lead as Tom and James Cagney in the supporting role as Matt.  William Wellman, during rehearsals and early shoots, saw much more potential in Cagney as the lead and switched them, young lead casting be damned (they never bothered to go back and reshoot the young versions of Tom and Matt).  Wellman made the right decision.  Cagney simply had a vitality about him that lent itself to the psychotic lead role.  Gangster roles would stay with him the rest of his career.  Earlier in that same year, Edward G. Robinson had made a splash in Little Caesar and became associated with gangster roles as well.  And a few months earlier, in 1930, Humphrey Bogart played his first con ever in John Ford’s little known Up the River, with Spencer Tracy.  The thirties would see these three actors become the go-to guys for crime but over their entire careers, they became so much more.

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Cagney the Comedian: Boy Meets Girl (1938)

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By the end of 1935 James Cagney was irritated. Under his Warner Brothers contract he was assigned four-to-five movies a year, almost all in the pugilist-gangster mold. Cagney was getting burnt out on the repetition,  just as he was becoming a top ten box office attraction. Seeking a higher salary as well as greater input into his roles, Cagney walked off the studio lot and sued them for back pay. He had become a bad boy on-screen as well as off. He spent his time separated from WB making a couple of small features for the independent Grand National Pictures (Great Guy (’36) and Something to Sing About (’37)). The suit was settled in 1938, and Cagney was back at work at WB. His return film was the inside-Hollywood farce Boy Meets Girl, which was a recent Broadway hit. A rapid-fire parody of tinseltown excesses — it tracks the rise and fall of a literally newborn superstar — it allowed Cagney to stretch his comic chops. He gets to enact all of his mischievous Hollywood fantasies: mouthing off to the unit production chief (Ralph Bellamy), insulting soft-headed actors and inciting extras to riot. Cagney and Pat O’Brien play exaggerated versions of the famously acerbic screenwriting team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur as they sweet talk their way into the heart of a naive mother whose baby becomes an overnight star. This cockeyed comedy is now available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

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Bad Movie Mothers We Love to Hate

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TCM is celebrating Mother’s Day (Sunday, May 11th) with a great program of classic films showcasing notable mothers. While looking over Sunday’s line-up I was surprised to spot NOW, VOYAGER (1942), which features Gladys Cooper as the incredibly cold and domineering mother of Bette Davis. Cooper won an Oscar nomination for her memorable performance and went on to play another overbearing mother in SEPARATE TABLES (1958) who torments poor Deborah Kerr. While considering Gladys Cooper’s portrayal of two heartless mothers I started thinking about other horrible movie moms that I’ve enjoyed watching over the years. Many good actresses have portrayed nurturing mothers who treasure their children but it takes incredible range, a lot of skill and a strong backbone to portray the kind of rotten mother that Gladys Cooper was so apt at playing. In honor of Mother’s Day I decided to pay tribute to a few of my other favorite bad movie moms. These women would never be nominated for a Mother of the Year Award but a few of them were nominated for an Academy Award.

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Cagney and the Code: Winner Take All (1932) and Here Comes the Navy (1934)

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James Cagney was a destabilizing force, able to enliven stock scenarios with his grab bag of gestural curlicues, which could snap from playful to menacing in the curl of his lip. A professional boxer on the set of Winner Take All (1932) was impressed with Cagney’s fighting footwork, and asked if he’d ever been trained. Cagney responded, “Tommy, I’m a dancer. Moving around is no problem.” Whether it was the sneering violence of his grapefruit-to-the-face in Public Enemy or the grace in which he spins into a dance hall in Other Men’s Women, the pre-code Warner Brothers films of James Cagney are repositories of the infinite variety of his “moving around.” The enforcement of the production code of 1934 limited the range of Cagney’s expressive possibilities, as evidenced in his first post-code film, the subdued armed forces comedy, Here Comes the Navy (1934), which was duly nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. The Warner Archive has released both Winner Take All and Here Comes the Navy on DVD, lending an opportunity to see how Cagney handled the transition into post-code Hollywood.

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Precipageddon is upon us!

The Rains of Ranchipur

It’s raining in Los Angeles and we’re afraid. Rain does that to us, occurring as it does here so infrequently. Our terra firma is too sun-baked to properly absorb precipitation and there is too much concrete; our storm drains are clogged with leaves and fast food detritus and the rain water pools when it comes down, forming lakes at every intersection and making sluiceways (yes, sluiceways) of the gutters. The natural response of Angelenos to rain is to drive very, very fast, cutting yellow lights in the red and not using turn signals. We can only hope this helps. I am high and dry at the moment and thinking of some of my favorite rain scenes in movies because, as film lovers do, when real life intrudes I go to the movies…  [...MORE]

I’m in a fightin’ mood!

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Oooh, I’m spoiling for a fight today… a real knock-down, dust-up, take-no-prisoners, no-quarter-given, apocalyptic barney. My knuckles are itching to bite into a set of teeth and my teeth are itching to lay into a row of knuckles. I won’t be satisfied until I dissolve in a flurry of biffery, until I drink blood — mine or yours — and if you want to be the one to set me off here’s all you have to do…  [...MORE]

Reimagining Escape from the Planet of the Apes as a Warner Brothers gangster picture

Escape from the Planet of the Apes

If you grew up, as I did, in the Seventies and came of age with 20th Century Fox’s PLANET OF THE APES films then it is likely that you have struggled over the past forty years to make a case for the third film in the series, ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971). The franchise entry stands alone for being the only one set in the present time — not in the distant future of PLANET OF THE APES (1968) and BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970) nor in the near future of CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972) and BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (1973) — but in today (AKA 1971). ESCAPE drops the only three characters to survive the Apocalyptic blowout of BENEATH into contemporary Los Angeles, where they must conceal from modern man his destiny while enjoying the attention that comes with celebrity and suffering the realities of being branded public enemies. It took me many years to appreciate how thought-provoking ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES really is; as a 10-year-old, I was annoyed that there was no element of fantasy to it (well, apart from intelligent apes with British accents)… no ape army, no nuclear bomb-loving mutants, no wilted Statue of Liberty, no melted Metropolitan Transit System. It was just the LA Zoo, Rodeo Drive, and apes wearing street clothes. And yet… as I grew older and enjoyed many other kinds of movies I began to see reflections in ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES in them… and nowhere more prominently than in the crime genre. [...MORE]

One More Sad Song: Ragtime

Ragtime was released in 1981 to great fanfare.  The 1975 novel was a bestseller and everyone wanted to see a big budget movie adaptation of the sprawling epic that takes the lives of one American family (father, mother, son and younger brother) and intertwines them with the lives of famous and fictional figures from American history, such as Booker T. Washington, Stanford White and Evelyn Nesbit.  It was originally rumored to be Robert Altman’s next project but ended up in the able hands of Milos Forman, at the time a one-time Best Director Oscar winner for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (he went on to win one more for Amadeus in 1984).  It was expected to be a huge success and it was, to a degree.  The reviews were generally favorable and it received eight Oscar nominations, though none for director or picture.  It did respectable box office though nothing like the studios were hoping.  Then, it simply faded away.  No one talks much about Ragtime anymore, if they ever did, but it’s a movie worth revisiting.

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Pleasures of the Pre-Code: Forbidden Hollywood Volumes 4 and 5

This astounding publicity shot of a screwfaced James Cagney reluctantly probing the shoulder of a coolly admiring Claire Dodd should sell anyone on the value of Hard To Handle (1933), or of the two new volumes of WB’s Forbidden Hollywood DVD series that is releasing it. The way Cagney separates his left ring and pinky fingers – as if he couldn’t bear to put the effort into using all five digits – exemplifies his casual mastery (even in PR shoots!) in fleshing out the con-artist cads he played throughout this period. And this is only one of the pleasures found within volumes 4 and 5 of the series, which includes a trio of treats from director William Dieterle, and snappy banter from the likes of Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell. The last edition appeared in 2009, containing a bevy of depression-scarred William Wellman films, but as DVD sales have continued to crater, so has the prominence of this series, with the new editions being released on WB’s movies-on-demand line, the Warner Archive.

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A Declaration of Love and Independence

Today’s the day my facebook feed gets inundated with pictures of James Cagney because, well, you know why.   And who can blame my facebook film friends for turning to Cagney as George M. Cohan as the go-to pic of the day?  He’s wonderful in the role and there’s something refreshing about a movie so brazenly and fervently flag-waving as Yankee Doodle Dandy, in part because, unlike other propaganda, it isn’t about how bad some other country is but just about how proud of his country this particular song and dance man is.   And when that song and dance man is played by Cagney, it’s all the more enjoyable.  And so on this day when we here in the states celebrate our Independence Day (cue emotional salute from over-acting bit player) allow me to wave the flag just a bit for American movies of yore.

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