When Dan Quigley (James Cagney) loses his job as an usher in a movie theater, he turns to running a dice game in a hotel lobby. While in the hotel one day, he spots the lovely Myra Gale (Mae Clarke) sitting in the lobby and as she gets up to leave, she drops her purse. Dan follows her to return it, but she leaves before he can. He drops by her apartment later that day to return it, and she invites him in for a drink and introduces him to her brother-in-law, who is in the middle of a poker game. Not being able to resist a card game, Dan decides to join the game and he gets taken to the cleaners. As he leaves the apartment, he meets someone else carrying a purse and looking for Myra. Dan quickly realizes that Myra’s purse dropping is only a ruse to lure men into a crooked poker game. Never one to miss a business opportunity, he goes back into the apartment and demands to get in on the action.
With Dan bringing in new people to take advantage of, business is booming. But then the gang sets their sights on a wealthy widow. Dan stages a car accident with the woman and arranges it so that he and another member of the gang can get inside her house. They manage to pull off the robbery, but they start feeling the heat from the police after a butler they knocked unconscious dies. The gang flees for Los Angeles and Dan is arrested before he even leaves the train station. When he calls up Myra and asks her to bail him out, she says she’ll help him, but instead she skips town with his money. The police have to let him go because they don’t have enough evidence to hold him, but they warn him to either get a job in the next 48 hours or get out-of-town.
As luck would have it, Dan is approached by a couple of people in the movie business who offer him some work as an extra. It turns out he’s a natural in front of the camera, so he gets more and more work in the movies and, thanks to some clever self-promotion, he becomes quite a star. He also wins the heart of movie star Lois Underwood (Margaret Lindsay). When he brings Lois by his apartment one night, he’s quite surprised to see Myra there waiting for him. Myra’s there to blackmail him into helping the gang break into the homes of movie stars or she’ll ruin his career by revealing his past. Success hasn’t made Dan completely lose his tough guy behavior though and he grabs Myra by the hair and throws her into the hallway. And people thought the grapefruit scene in The Public Enemy was harsh! But Dan ultimately goes to the gang and offers them $10,000 if they leave town. They take the money, but they don’t run. After they steal some of Lois’ jewelry, Dan catches them and takes the jewelry to return it. But before he can do that, the police nab him, assume he’s responsible for the robbery, and throw him in jail. The gang realizes that Dan could really send them all up the river and decides to bail him out of jail and then kill him. They go to bail Dan out of jail, but little do they know that Dan has a trick up his sleeve.
I love gangster movies and I love comedies, but it seems like the two of those don’t come together terribly often. I can think of Some Like it Hot and Larceny Inc. off-hand, but it’s really a treat to see James Cagney having some fun with the gangster genre. Cagney really had great comedic timing and I loved being able to see him work that into that tough guy part he played so brilliantly. I loved all the in-jokes about The Public Enemy, especially when Mae Clarke is reading from a brochure about Los Angeles and looks concerned when she mentions grapefruits as one of its top crops. It also gets in some great jabs at the film industry, especially the absurdity of having white actors play different races. The scene where Cagney gets his skin sprayed to look like an Indian chief is hilarious! It’s another one of those great movies that manages to pack a whole lot into a short run-time. It’s 75 minutes of pure fun and entertainment.