Weekend’s Best Bet Continued…

In running through TCM’s lineup for this weekend, I came across far too many good flicks to list in my regular viewing recommendations in the left column. Not only are there a number of gems showing this weekend, but I have already written about a few them. So click on the links below to learn more about the movies and consider checking them out yourself this weekend. P.S. All times are Eastern Standard Time and on the U.S. programming schedule.

The Public Enemy
6 am Saturday on TCM
James Cagney, Jean Harlow

The Saint Strikes Back
noon Saturday on TCM
George Sanders, Wendy Barrie

Dinner at Eight 
8 pm Saturday on TCM
John Barrymore, Marie Dressler

The Thin Man
10 pm Saturday on TCM
William Powell, Myrna Loy

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner 
2 am Sunday on TCM
Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

 San Francisco
8 am Sunday on TCM
Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald

A Day at the Races
10 am Sunday on TCM
The Marx Brothers

Witness for the Prosecution
noon Sunday on TCM
Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power

Tribute to a Bad Man

Dullsville

Tribute to a Bad Man (1956)

     James Cagney would never be my first pick to act in a western. The star who made his name playing gangsters and later returned to his native song-and-dance genre did not exude “cowboy”, at least not at this point in his career. In Tribute to a Bad Man, Cagney is 57 but still a tough guy. The title of the film is confusing at first, as we wonder who this “bad man” might be. Cagney starts off the picture seeming rather congenial, but we gradually see just how deep seated his “badness” is.

     The story is narrated by Steve Miller (Don Dubbins) who comes across a gun fight in a valley belonging to Jeremy Rodock, although the young man has not yet heard this name. Steve scares away the aggressors and attends to a man shot in the back who is this Rodock (Cagney). The two develop a simple friendship overnight on their way back to Rodock’s farm where Steve will get work.

     Rodock is a horse wrangler and has the largest and most successful enterprise for raising and selling the animal anywhere in the area. His expanses of land on which the horses graze, however, leave plenty of opportunity for theft, which Rodock strictly punishes by hanging. At home, Rodock has a young ethnic woman (probably meant to be Latina but played by Greek Irene Papas) who appears to be his mistress. Upon meeting her, Steve is immediately struck by Jocasta’s beauty –as are others who work and live on the ranch– but respects Rodock too much to do anything about it.

     Through Jocasta’s pleading that Rodock not go around killing the people who have wronged him, and Steve’s passive approach to justice, we come to understand just how bad this Rodock is. In a final display of his meanness, the man punishes the three thieves who have temporarily crippled his mares by cutting their hooves too closely by having the men walk barefoot to the nearest town. Steve at first seems pleased by the equitable punishment and Rodocks’ abstention from killing, but as the torture takes a toll on the men, he gets fed up and decides the man is cruel. Steve attempts to leave the ranch with Jocasta, but the woman cannot shake her man, not matter how brutal he is.

     Tribute to a Bad Man is tragically absent of any likeable characters. Although Steve is tolerable, he wanes on the pathetic side in strong contrast to the abject meanness Cagney brings to Rodock. The part was originally planned for Spencer Tracy, who I think would have brought some logic to his cruelty rather than acting on pure animal instinct as Cagney seems to do. The latter’s approach makes it impossible for us to believe the man can ever change to someone soft enough for the woman he loves.

     Dubbins’ performance is adequate as the looker on who relates the story of Jeremy Rodock through his own experiences. The plot is really meant to convey Steve becoming a man through the influence of Rodock and Jocasta, but one has to dig past the story’s muck to find that conclusion.

Something to Sing About

Ring a Ding Ding 

Something to Sing About (1937)

Something to Sing About had a number of things going against it when I sat down with it last weekend. The DVD was one of those cheap three-movies-in-one discs and the picture quality was choppy from the start. I certainly thought to myself at the beginning “this is a bad movie.” I was far from correct, however.

Despite the majority of his fame as gangster and tough-guy types, James Cagney had a background as a song-and-dance man in New York, where he grew up. Besides living in that grand and diverse city, he did not actually have the rough upbringing one would expect of the man who assaults a female character with a grapefruit. Nevertheless, Hollywood liked him best in those tough roles and the public had a hard time accepting him in light-hearted dancing parts. It is often said Yankee Doodle Dandy nearly ended his career.

In Something to Sing About, Cagney plays the singing and dancing leader of a band popular in New York who has been recruited by Hollywood for a one-picture contract. This Terry Rooney proposes to his girl before leaving town and has no grand ambitions about making it big. Once out west, the studio big wigs find he has many shortcomings: his hairline is terrible, his dialect is poor and his wardrobe leaves something to be desired. In the picture Terry is to fight a couple of goons and rehearses the close but fake punches before the film starts rolling. The other actors, apparently, like to have some fun with “greenhorn” actors and so actually sock him. Terry responds as we would expect a Cagney character to and starts throwing punches and breaking all the furniture on the set over the goons. The director keeps the film rolling.

Terry assumes he’s through in Hollywood and so returns to New York where he and Rita (Evelyn Daw) get married and take a honeymoon to South America. While they are on the boat, the Terry Rooney picture becomes a major hit and the studio is set to sign him to a long-term contract, but no one can find the star. The studio puts out a public notice to help track him down, and after being mobbed by fans near a theater, Terry finally returns to his employer.

The contract itself presents a problem, however, as it requires Terry to remain single. Rita and the studio heads agree that if the wife pretends to instead be the star’s secretary, they can remain married. The romance gets complicated, however, because the studio wants Terry to star with –and appear to be romancing– their star actress Stephanie (Mona Barrie).

I thought I had Something to Sing About pegged from the start: Terry would go to Hollywood and become a star and the excessive female attention would have him forget all about the girl back home. That certainly is far from the case. Terry never once suggests he is anything but in love with Rita; the circumstances just make things look bad. Cagney’s character remains appealing to audicnes because being a dancer has not softened his character from the one to which we are accustomed. He still has the fight and gruff of his gangster types, only he’s in a more legitimate racket.

On a more important note, however, is Cagney’s dancing. He opens the picture with a tap number on the stage of a nightclub that would blow your mind. His footwork is more impressive here than I have seen in his other musicals. He is not just tap-dancing, he’s doing jazz and ballet-type moves as well. Cagney’s performance here rivals Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly as far as I am concerned and (as a former dancer myself) is among the best dancing I have seen in classic movies. Cagney allegedly worked off-screen with Astaire to practice some of the routines and his choreographer was one he worked with before getting into movies.

I cannot emphasize enough that any Cagney fan or anyone loving dance or musicals MUST see Something to Sing About. You will not believe what talent this often-gruff actor had.

  • Watch Something to Sing About in its entirity on YouTube.

Source: Legends: James Cagney by Richard Schickel, TCM.com

The Fighting 69th

Gasser

The Fighting 69th (1940)

     One of the reasons I started blogging about the classic movies I am constantly watching is because I tend to forget what I have seen. Often movie titles reveal little about a movie’s actual plot and many of the scenarios blend together to the point that I found myself getting 15 minutes into Sinatra‘s Higher and Higher more than once before realizing I had already endured it. The same is true of James Cagney in The Fighting 69th. I sat through this entire movie the other day and eventually concluded that, indeed, I had seen it before yet had entirely forgotten it. And as the days passed since watching it last week I found again that it was becoming forgettable.

     I am not sure what makes a movie flee one’s memory banks. I’m sure the pedestrian nature of some stories or the unimpactful story of others makes a movie not worth remembering, but The Fighting 69th is not a story or a performance worth mentally abandoning. Cagney not only gives a great performance of an arrogant, if not obnoxious soldier, but it is one of only two movies I can think of that depict American war cowards (the other be For Me and My Gal). The ratio of war-hero to war-coward movies must be in the range of thousands to one and yet The Fighting 69th leaves only a fleeting impression on me.

     Cagney plays Jerry Plunkett who has joined up with an all-Irish New York military outfit that during the Civil War was known as the Fighting 69th. They maintain that title in World War I. During training stateside, all Jerry can do is complain about how he wants to see some action and slur sass at his superior officers, including Father Duffey, played by common Cagney costar Pat O’Brien.

     Even when the troop gets to Europe, Jerry tries to show his mettle by carrying multiple loads while the other men struggle to endure the endless walks in the mud. When the bullets finally start flying, however, Jerry becomes a royal screw up. He sends up a flare from the trenches one night that signals to the enemy their location, and the shell fire results in an underground cave in that kills many soldiers. Jerry continues to make spineless mistakes that result in the death of others to the point that he is imprisoned and set for execution. The man will thankfully redeem himself before his end.

     Cagney does a great job in this role that although it separated him from his gangster persona, still rings of a low life. The story is poignant in that it connects us with three brothers among the Fighting 69th of varying rank (Alan Hale, Dick Foran, William Lundigan). When one dies our hearts break as they do when the poet we’ve gotten to know also meets his fate. Although the reaction might vary by viewer, I did not feel remorse for Jerry’s loss as it became a necessary means to an end and solution that could pardon him from his past sins.

Winner Take All

Dullsville

Winner Take All (1932)

     I do not think there is any denying that James Cagney was a splendid actor. The trouble with parts of his career, however, was that the studio did not treat him very well and often type cast him into gangster and tough-guy roles. Winner Takes All was his first comedy that also puts the actor in a rough role, and despite being a rather lousy picture, it was highly successful, thus proving to Warner Bros. that the best formula for a Cagney picture was a combination of a bully personality combined with light-hearted subject matter.

     The only reason to watch Winner Takes All is Cagney’s performance in it; the plot and the acting of our main ladies really drag the show down. Our hero is Jim Kane, a boxer who at the film’s opening announces he needs a rest –and the cash to finance it– and receives a shower of money from a large boxing match audience. He takes off for a desert resort where he immediately meets young widow Peggy (Marian Nixon) and her son Dickie (Dickie Moore) and falls for her. He also anonymously pays for her stay at the resort where her son is recuperating. To get the dough, however, he had to enter a local boxing match and win, thus precipitating rumors he would be permanently returning to the ring.

     Before leaving for Chicago to restart his career, Jim promises to marry Peggy, but after his first match he is approached by a blonde society girl Joan, played by Virginia Bruce. From here on out it is as if Peggy never existed as the beat-up Jim tries continuously to get affection from Joan, who, along with her friends, see the man as a mere amusement. Jim so blindly runs after Joan’s skirts, up to completing a match swiftly to prevent the gal from leaving on a boat, that he does not see he’s been played for a chump. Not until another man wanders into Joan’s cabin on the ship does he finally realize the effort is fruitless and returns to Peggy.

     My largest complaint about the plot is that despite having some real emotional tie with good-girl Peggy, Jim convinces himself that he wants Joan and will marry her up until he finally realizes he’s been cast aside. Only then does he return to the previous girl and tell her his interest in another was a mere joke. Most stories with such a plot would have the protagonist realize the former girl is better than the latter, but here she is merely a consolation prize.

     What makes Winner Take All tolerable, however, is the great character Cagney creates. From the very start we see the mug talking through a crooked mouth as his profession has created a damaged man. As he gets back into the game, Cagney’s makeup worsens his face with a crooked and mashed up nose and bloated ear with duck lips to boot. He talks as though he has cotton in his mouth and we see the downside of such a career. Most prize-fighting pictures up to this point shielded audiences from this reality but Cagney took it on with aplomb. He also makes a good show when acting in the ring. His dancer background allowed him to easily take on the fast footwork of a boxer, and the man studied how to take and give pulled punches, which results in a highly authentic-looking performance. I would recommend Winner Take All on Cagney’s merits but warn that one should not have high hopes for the plot or peripheral performances.

Source: James Cagney (Applause Legends) by Richard Scickel

Picture Snatcher

Ring a Ding Ding

Picture Snatcher (1933)

     In an era of tough guy, gangster James Cagney characters, the actor took a reprieve from his criminal work that became a signature for Warner Bros. during the 1930s and played a legitimate working man in Picture Snatcher, at least partially.

     Cagney manages to live a life only a stone’s throw away from the hoodlum audiences knew him as when playing Danny Kean (although WB would also release Footlight Parade this same year that showed off Cagney’s song and dance background). At the film’s opening, Danny is released from prison, picked up by his gangster pals, offered a woman, fitted for new duds, and given his “salary” for the three years he spent “in stir”. Danny no longer desires to live the criminal life, however, and tells his boys he will be taking a job as a reporter, having been offered a position by a gent while in prison.

     Ralph Bellamy is that gracious fellow, city editor of the Graphic News Mr. McClean. The paper is considered a gossip rag and poorly regarded, and McClean is not sure the ex-con is cut out for the work, but gives him a chance on a tough assignment. No photographer has been able to get a picture of a firefighter whose wife and her lover burned to death in their home while he was out. Danny, unafraid of the gun the rescue worker is pointing at reporters, sneaks into the building and poses as an insurance claims adjuster. He manages to snatch a photo of the couple off the wall and make a clean getaway. Danny now has the job and is earning an ever-increasing salary as he proves capable of getting photos others cannot. He is also courting Patricia Nolan (Patricia Ellis) who is the daughter of the copper who put Danny in prison to begin with. Once proving himself on the level and managing to get the man promoted through positive press, Officer Nolan (Robert E. O’Connor) permits the relationship.

     Danny is preparing to propose to Patricia once he earns a decent enough salary and he thinks he has the assignment to do it: He must photograph the execution of a woman. Although the Graphic News has not been invited to the execution, Danny gets himself in anyway and snaps a shot from a camera hidden at his ankle. The other reporters find out, however, and a chase to stop print of the insensitive material is underway by both police and reporters –who do not want their prison news privileges revoked. The incident also risks Officer Nolan’s demotion because he was in charge of reporters at the event. Later, Danny tries to redeem himself by tracking down his former criminal crony who has shot two police officers.

     I found Picture Snatcher to be quite riveting. Although he’s gone legit, Cagney’s character still has the rough edges of a criminal as he gruffly maneuvers through the sleazy subjects his paper covers. Cagney also follows up on the grapefruit-in-the-face incident in 1931’s The Public Enemy by smacking/pushing a sexually aggressive dame in the face, knocking her into a chair. Later he dumps a brandy down a woman’s plunging neckline.

     The movie is flush with sexually aggressive females. A fellow reporter makes eyes at Danny from their first encounter and despite being involved with McClean, very strongly smooches a reclining Danny while the man physically struggle to remove her. Another woman who was angling to get with Danny on his release from prison talks much about going to bed, so Danny eventually scoops her up, puts her on the bed and locks her in her room. For a moment there, we are all convinced the protagonist will go to bed with the gal for the cause. These are clearly pre-Production Code aspects of the film that would never have flown in the coming years.

Trouble in Paradise

Wowza!

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

When Trouble in Paradise sought to be re-issued three years after its 1932 release, the Hayes Office said: No way. The film that had been alright for release upon completion, if not without some minor, ignored objections, was far too scandalous for 1935 when the Production Code was in full swing. What was Director Ernst Lubitsch‘s crime with his first talking romantic comedy? Obvious sexual innuendos and a couple of thieves who get off scott free.

The subject that most comes up in discussions of the Production Code is sex. Before the code, women could have multiple partners, couples could have extramarital affairs, and the camera, dialogue or action could clearly indicate that a sexual act had just occurred. Another subject that fell under the Hayes Office’s purview, however, were criminal sorts. Individuals found as outright thieves or murders had to be punished –either by the legal system, suicide or other killing. You see this in many of the popular gangster movies of the 1930s and 1940s where our beloved hoodlum James Cagney or whomever gets it in the end. I suppose the message from the powers that be was understandable enough: Do not encourage crime. But those gangster films and Trouble in Paradise with them still glorify and make sexy the criminal aspect, so the restriction seems a moot one.

It was because of the Code’s distaste for Trouble in Paradise years later, which prevented anyone seeing it again until 1968 (with it unavailable on video or DVD until 2003), that this film has gone largely forgotten despite being among Lubitsch’s greatest work and a standout in film history. Herbert Marshall is Gaston who in his Venice hotel room eagerly accepts a visit from Lily, embodied by Miriam Hopkins, a woman claiming to be a countess. A man in another room has just been robbed of a large sum of money by a man posing as a doctor and seeking to examine his tonsils. During their dinner, Lily and Gaston intermingle romantic sentiments and the woman declares that Gaston is the man who robbed the neighboring Francois Fileba (Edward Everett Horton). As you can see in the video below, this wonderfully romantic and comedic scene –flush with “the Lubitsch touch”– continues as Gaston reveals that Lily has stolen the stolen wallet from him. Also pick-pocketed from the couple by each other are Lily’s pin, Gaston’s watch and Lily’s garter –but she is not getting that back. As an audience, we instantly decide that this pairing is perfect and the two will have an adventuresome future we can all enjoy.

While in Paris some time later, Gaston and Lily plot the thievery of an expensive purse from Mlle. Colet, played by Kay Francis while she is at the opera. To their fortune, the woman puts a notice of a reward for the bag that would exceed the amount the robbers could get if they sold it. Gaston returns the purse but during his visit with Ms. Colet, manages to woo her and she hires him as her secretary, in charge of all her financial affairs. Ms. Colet is the head of a major perfume company –by inheritance– and has a board of directors running things who now takes orders from Gaston. Colet also has “boyfriends” in none other than Mr. Fileba, the tonsil victim, and “The Major” (Charlie Ruggles). With Gaston in her life, however, she loses even more interest in the two feuding beaux. Gaston has brought Lily in to help him with his new duties and the two plan to rob Mlle. Colet’s safe once more cash has been deposited there, via Gaston’s new financial orders. Lily begins to get jealous, however, when it becomes apparent Mlle. Colet wants alone time with the secretary. It is unclear how much of an affair is conducted between Gaston and Colet, although they spend late nights together.

Mr. Fileba has yet to identify Gaston as the man who robbed him, and it is quite amusing to watch this fabulous character actor try to pull from his memory whether or not he has met the man previously. Eventually, The Major says at first he mistook Gaston for a doctor, and click Mr. Fileba has solved the mystery. Realizing this, Gaston and Lily plan to get out of town fast with the little money they can take from the safe at present. Lily is home packing but Gaston is getting tied up in Colet’s embraces as they visit each others’ bedrooms in a highly suggestive but funny number of scenes. What concludes the film are questions of: will they steal the money, will Mlle. Colet find out, and with whom will Gaston choose to stay, but I will not give that away.

I mentioned the highly risqué feel to this film, so here are a few examples. The opening title reads “Trouble in”, an image of a bed appears, and then the word “Paradise” shows up. Thank you, Lubitsch for explaining this movie is about trouble in bed. Besides Gaston and Colet responding to knocks at their bedroom doors by opening the door of the other, the end includes an embrace between those two that is filmed through a mirror above the woman’s bed so we can connect their embrace with that piece of furniture. Several edits using different angles also inserts a perfect shadowed silhouette of the kissing couple on the bed itself. Bullseye.

The sexy suggestions are not why one should watch Trouble in Paradise, however, but instead the snappy Lubitsch dialogue that had me laughing out loud throughout. The film is ripe with quick banter among the characters delivered in the most sophisticated manner that makes slapstick look utterly primitive. Apparently, Lubitsch throughout his career would act out every part in a movie to show the actors how to deliver the lines and move their bodies. He had started as an actor in Germany before entering directing there and finishing out the silent era in America, coming here at the bequest of Mary Pickford. Peter Bogdanovich has said that Lubitsch managed to get performances out of his actors that they did not convey in other films, which was likely the result of this control he exerted on the actual acting.

Sources: Peter Bogdanovich introduction on Criterion Collection DVD, TCM.com

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