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Winner Take All


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


Born to Dance


Born to Dance (1936)

     If I were to grade Born to Dance based on its storyline and acting, I’d give it a Dullsville. When considering the dancing alone, however, this flick would be worthy of a Ring a Ding Ding rating. Assuming that my screwy rating system in some way equates to numbers, the math had me conclude an in-between rating of Gasser was appropriate.

     Eleanor Powell was one hell of a dancer. Growing up around tap dancers, I consider myself not easily impressed by the dancing performances of these bygone eras that stand up as mediocre against today’s performers. Powell, however, was top tier among on-screen dancers in the 1930s. In fact Born to Dance, her third film, was used by the dancer as a way to showcase her talent and attract the attention of other Hollywood dancing greats, such as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, who indeed took notice. Powell was a hoofer –or tap dancer by today’s terms– and could move her feet as fast as Astaire. She could also turn better than any other movie musical star of which I can think. On the acting front, however, I find her miserable to watch.

     Powell’s overly toothy smile has less emotion behind it than a smile would suggest. Her facial expressions seem terribly limited and the romantic story she finds herself in here seems utterly lost on the young woman. Her final dance routine in the flick is much more enjoyable if you avoid looking at her face.

     Powell is Nora, a girl who’s been living in New York a short while hoping to land a job as a dancer, if only she could get a break. She ends up rooming with a woman whose sailor husband has been at sea for all four years of their marriage and has no idea he has a daughter. This woman, Jenny (Una Merkel) works as a hotel desk clerk and seems to reside in a room behind the desk.

     So at the same time Nora is dancing around this hotel lobby, a naval ship is docked in New York harbor and Gunny Sacks (Sid Silvers) –that estranged husband– and Ted Barker, played by Jimmy Stewart, are heading to shore. Upon reuniting with her husband, Jenny is unthrilled with her selection of a mate and rejects him. Ted and Nora, however, hit it off immediately. Their romance is complicated, however, when musical theater star Lucy James (Virginia Bruce) looks to date Ted as a publicity stunt before actually falling for him. The drama leads to a break between Nora and Ted and eventually to Nora standing in for Lucy on opening night of her new musical.

     Cole Porter (my favorite song writer) wrote the music for Born to Dance. Although many of the songs would not find life beyond this picture, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “You’d Be So Easy to Love” find a home here as well. Even the unmemorable songs are better than the average musical number found in many of the musicals of the 1930s, but that’s Porter for you. And thanks to Powell, the dance routines are more entertaining than average also, I found. Thankfully they rely less on mass groups of out-of-sync dancers and focus on Powell and a few accompanying dancers. No Busby Berkeley-style productions here.

     Stewart seems entirely out of place in a musical, but he survives alright. His acting makes up for the lack of performance coming from Powell’s face. His singing is rough, but not awful. Originally, another singer recorded the tracks for him, but producers found the singing too smooth and different from Stewart’s singing voice, so they were sacked. No dancing from Stewart in Born to Dance, so he at least saved face on that front.

  • Born to Dance is set for 10:30 a.m. ET July 22 on TCM.

Source: Robert Osborne

Yellow Jack


Yellow Jack (1938)

     Robert Montgomery the soldier is certainly not my favorite incarnation of what has proven to be my favorite classic Hollywood hunk of the moment. I prefer the tuxedo-clad woman-chaser, a hint of which is found in Yellow Jack making it an enjoyable Montgomery flick.

     Montgomery is Sgt. O’Hara, part of the American medical corps stationed in Cuba in 1900 at the close of the Spanish-American war. Troops are being retained on the island as military doctors search for the cause of Yellow Fever, which seems to find a new victim very day. Discovering a particularly curious incident involving one soldier becoming ill after spending 10 days sharing food, water and lodging with a dozen other soldiers who remain well, Maj. Walter Reed (Lewis Stone) begins to suspect an insect bite is to blame. Information from another doctor on the island has the major looking to a particular species of mosquito as the culprit, but must experiment on men to prove it.

     When no soldiers immediately volunteer to take on such a risky job, nurse Francis Blake (Virginia Bruce) decides to take advantage of O’Hara’s fond feelings for her by trying to pursuade him to volunteer while on a romantic outing. O’Hara is offended and angry with the girl, but when he discovers his men are morally inclined to becoming involved but too scared to make a move, he opts to lead the way. An interesting experiment set up has O’Hara in a safe position, but to prove he is not immune to the disease, he must expose himself to the infected mosquitoes. Francis is opposed to the risk, but the soldier goes through and battles with Yellow Fever.

    Montgomery uses a subtle Irish accent for his character that I particularly liked. It made him seem more every-man unlike the wealthy roles he regularly played. He did not seem like a cad in his pursuit of the nurse but humble and genuine. Among his fellow soldier characters was Buddy Ebsen as “Jellybeans” who lent the entirity of comic relief as a redneck goofball.

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