James Cagney

Pre-Code Essentials: Footlight Parade (1933)

Footlight Parade By a Waterfall

Plot

When talkie pictures come into popularity, it starts cutting into business for Broadway musical producer Chester Kent (James Cagney). He’s in dire need of a hit show, but everyone keeps flocking to these newfangled talking pictures instead. He’s convinced this is just a fad, but when his business partners take him to the theater to see one for himself, he becomes fascinated with the musical stage show the theater puts on before each movie. Chester decides he needs to get into the prologue game and convinces his business partners what a brilliant plan it is.

Chester gets right to work on his prologues with help from his faithful secretary Nan (Joan Blondell). Nan is deeply in love with Chester, but Chester is so busy, he doesn’t even realize it. He’s got all these prologues to produce, which is anything but a smooth process. He’s going through a divorce and now finds himself getting caught up with gold diggers. Everything that can go wrong does, but when a huge opportunity comes along, he has no other choice but to pull himself and his team together and get three prologues ready to perform in three days.


My Thoughts

Sometimes, an actor or director gets on a big streak of hit movies that when we look back, we say, “Wow, that was a great year for them!” For Busby Berkeley, that year was 1933. In 1933, his distinct brand of choreography made 42nd Street a huge hit, and then he topped himself by following it up with Gold Diggers of 1933. Last, but certainly not least, he one-upped himself again with Footlight Parade. These three movies are some of the most iconic movie musicals ever produced and the fact that they all came out in the same year is absolutely astonishing. With Footlight Parade, Berkeley really pushed himself and came up with some of the most imaginative and whimsical numbers of his career. (For years before I’d even seen any Busby Berkeley musical, I’d see pictures of the chorus girls standing on that fountain as part of the “By a Waterfall” number and know it was a Busby Berkeley scene. That’s how emblematic that scene is for Busby Berkeley.) By this point, he was pretty much done even pretending that these musical numbers could ever be produced on a real stage. But they are so witty, clever, saucy, and imaginative, it’s really easy to just go along with it.

For me, Footlight Parade is also one of James Cagney’s best movies. He is truly a force of nature in it; he truly leaves me in awe. Actors who can do gangster movies and musicals equally well are a rare breed and Cagney certainly falls into that category. He absolutely nails its rapid-fire dialogue and excels at working in such a fast-paced environment. And his dancing…oh, my.  Some of the dance moves he does in this movie look like early precursors to some of Michael Jackson’s dance moves. And like Michael Jackson, he makes all that dancing look so incredibly easy and effortless. But if you ever try some of those moves yourself, you’ll quickly realize how hard it really is.

However, out of Berkeley’s big three hits of 1933, Footlight Parade is the one whose plot now seems the most dated. 42nd Street is the classic backstage musical and people have no problem understanding Gold Diggers of 1933 deals heavily with the Great Depression.  But the fact that many movie theaters used to put on these musical prologues before movies during the early talkie era is now largely forgotten, except by film history buffs.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

All of the musical numbers.

“Outside, Countess! As long as they’ve got sidewalks, you’ve got a job!”


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Each of Busby Berkeley’s three big musical hits of 1933 are full of pre-code material, but Footlight Parade easily tops them all. Innuendo, adultery, references to prostitution, tons and tons of chorus girls in skimpy outfits, bawdy musical numbers…Footlight Parade spends many of its 104 minutes openly thumbing its nose at censors. I love how there are several instances of Chester being told that censors either will or do object to content in his prologues. These are clearly jabs at movie censorship boards and the movie is essentially acknowledging and making fun of its own pre-code-ness, which is something I have never seen happen in any other pre-code movie.

Pre-Code Essentials: The Public Enemy (1931)

The Public Enemy 1931

Plot

Even from a young age, it was abundantly clear that Tom Powers (James Cageny) wasn’t on the path to being a law-abiding citizen. Along with his best friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), they grow from being young punks to real gangsters under the guidance of “Putty Nose” (Murray Kinnell). But when Putty Nose betrays Tom and Matt, they get in close with “Nails” Nathan (Leslie Fenton) and move into the bootlegging syndicate. Meanwhile, Tom’s brother Mike (Donald Cook) has taken a completely different path in life. While his brother is getting rich by breaking the law, Mike enlists in the military to serve in WWI and works hard to earn an honest living when he returns. Mike deeply resents how his brother is getting rich by breaking the law while he tries so hard to lead an honest life and gets nothing in return.

Tom and Matt become quite well known in the criminal underworld and Tom is particularly ruthless. Given the opportunity, he kills his old mentor Putty Nose. Tom is also awful to the women in his life. When he gets tired of seeing Kitty (Mae Clarke), he ends it by shoving a grapefruit in her face and starts taking up with Gwen (Jean Harlow) instead. After Nails Nathan dies in an accident, Tom gets even more aggressive and gets involved in a nasty mob war that ends up being his downfall.


My Thoughts

Not only is The Public Enemy one of my favorite pre-codes, it’s one of my favorite movies in general. When I saw it for the first time, I wasn’t terribly interested in gangster movies, but I picked up a copy of it because I’d heard it was good and because I like Jean Harlow. The Public Enemy isn’t Jean Harlow’s finest moment, but this is the movie that made me a fan of the gangster genre. With Cagney’s tour de force performance, its well-written script, and fast pace, how could I not be pulled in by it? The Public Enemy is a prime example of why I adore the early 1930s style of film making so much. It clocks in at just 83 minutes, but has a very complex, layered story that is fast paced, but never feels rushed. There’s a very fine line between “fast paced” and “rushed,” but The Public Enemy walks that line flawlessly. And then there’s Cagney. I just can’t say enough about how much I adore his performance as Tom Powers.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

Tom’s gay tailor.

Tom’s derogatory behavior towards women, most infamously when Mae Clarke gets the grapefruit in the face.

All of Tom’s criminal activities.

Tom being raped by Paddy Ryan’s girlfriend:


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

You know a movie is tough when they have to add an introduction explaining that the movie you’re about to see isn’t meant to glorify this behavior. Gangster movies had their first real golden age during the pre-code era. Not only was there The Public Enemy, there was also Little Caesar and Scarface. There were certainly gangster movies that came after the production codes were being enforced, but the pre-code era allowed them to be more violent and be a bit more ruthless and sinister. A lot of the more violent scenes were edited out when The Public Enemy was re-released under the influence of the production codes.

In one noteworthy scene, Tom goes to a tailor to be measured for a suit and the tailor is meant to be a flamboyantly gay man. When the movie was re-released, the bit where the tailor comments on Tom’s arm muscles ended up on the cutting room floor along with some of the movie’s more violent moments.

Pre-Code Essentials: Blonde Crazy (1931)

Blonde Crazy Cagney Blondell

Plot

Bert Harris (James Cagney) is a hotel bellhop by day and runs gambling and bootlegging rackets by night. When Anne Roberts (Joan Blondell) shows up at the hotel looking for work, Bert knows Anne is exactly the kind of gal he needs working with him and manages to get her a job at the hotel even though the job has already been filled. He tries his best to win her over and she resists for a while, but eventually gets her to join his racket.

After the first time she helps him extort some money from a hotel guest, they go out to celebrate and Bert meets fellow con-artist Dan Barker (Louis Calhern). Dan and Bert start conspiring on a scam together, but it’s all a rouse to con Bert and Anne. When Bert realizes they’ve been ripped off, he and Anne go on a train to go after him, but Anne ends up meeting and falling in love with Joe Reynolds (Ray Milland). Bert has been head-over-heels in love with Anne since the day he met her, but Anne just isn’t as into the criminal lifestyle and thinks Joe is everything Bert isn’t. But after marrying Joe, Anne finds out he’s a lot more like Bert than she realized. Joe’s gotten himself into some serious trouble and the only person Anne can turn to for help is Bert.


My Thoughts

I absolutely love Blonde Crazy. Cagney and Blondell are two of my favorite stars of the pre-code era and this is a perfect vehicle for them to do what they did best. They had the perfect energy for this kind of fast-paced movie with snappy banter.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

When Bert goes looking for money in Anne’s brassiere.

Anne doing a glorious job of shutting down a lecherous hotel guest.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

It would be easier to list what isn’t pre-code about Blonde Crazy; it’s pretty much 79 minutes of non-stop pre-code action. Not only is it chock full of saucy and full of suggestive stuff, it does a great job of making Bert and Anne into characters you find yourself oddly rooting for and hoping they end up together despite the fact that they’re a con artist and an accomplice. Under the production code, it was a big deal that the audience wasn’t supposed to be able to root for criminals. Anne’s a little more conventionally sympathetic since she’s not as interested in the criminal lifestyle, but Bert is completely invested in it. Cagney brought so much energy and charisma to Bert (not to say that Blondell didn’t do the same for Anne), that it’s really hard to not to get wrapped up in all of that. He made it easy to forget you’re hoping a criminal gets the girl in the end.

What’s on TCM: July 2014

Maureen O'HaraHappy July, everyone!  With summer now in full swing, TCM has plenty of great movies to watch on hot summer nights.  Maureen O’Hara is July’s Star of the Month and will be featured every Tuesday night this month.  TCM will also be commemorating the hundredth anniversary of World War I every Friday by showing some of the best WWI movies, including The Big ParadeSergeant YorkGrand Illusion, and All Quiet on the Western Front, just to name a few.

The night I am most looking forward to this month is July 10th.  TCM will be featuring six classic documentaries such as Salesman, Harlan County USA, and Sans Soleil. I really like documentaries and that night’s movies is a nice mix of things I’m looking forward to re-watching and ones I’ve been wanting to see.

Now, on to the rest of the schedule…

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Blonde Crazy (1931)

Blonde Crazy PosterWhen Anne Roberts (Joan Blondell) tries to get a job as a hotel housekeeper, bellhop Bert Harris (James Cagney) takes one look at her and knows he wants her to work at the hotel.  The position has already been filled, but Bert fixes it so that Anne gets the job.  Even though Bert is a bellhop by day, he’s got gambling and bootleg alcohol rackets going on the side and he wants Anne to be his partner in crime.

After catching hotel guest A. Rupert Johnson, Jr. (Guy Kibbee) in a compromising situation, Johnson gives Bert quite a bit of money to keep his mouth shut.  Bert and Anne go to a fancy hotel in another city to celebrate and end up meeting fellow con artist Dan Barker (Louis Calhern).  Dan and Bert plan a scam to pull together, but in the end, it’s Bert and Anne are the ones who get ripped off.  They hop on a train to try to find Dan, but on the way, Anne meets and falls in love with Joe Reynolds (Ray Milland).  Joe is more sophisticated and cultured than Bert and Anne can’t resist that.  Even though Bert confesses his feelings toward her, Anne decides marries Joe instead.

A year passes and turns out Joe is much more like Bert than Anne realized.  He’s stolen $30,000 from the company he works for and is facing a prison sentence.  Anne knows the only person who can possibly get him out of this mess is Bert, so she turns to him for help.  Bert comes up with a plan, but it backfires and Bert is the one who ends up in prison.  When Anne comes to visit him, she tells Bert that she loved him all along.

What a duo James Cagney and Joan Blondell were!  I’ve seen nearly all of the movies they made together and I’d say Blonde Crazy is one of their best, second only to Footlight Parade.  Blonde Crazy is practically tailor-made for Cagney and Blondell — snappy dialogue, pre-code antics, and plenty of chances for Blondell to be sassy and for Cagney to be his high-energy self.  They make it an absolutely irresistible movie.  Whether you’re a fan of Cagney, Blondell, or pre-codes in general, you will have a lot of fun with Blonde Crazy.

Sinners’ Holiday (1930)

Sinners' Holiday Running a penny arcade is a family affair for Ma Delano (Lucille LaVerne) and her grown children Jennie (Evalyn Knapp), Joe (Ray Gallagher), and Harry (James Cagney).  Mitch (Warren Hymer) runs a sideshow near the Delano’s arcade, but it’s actually a front for his bootlegging operation.  Ma Delano despises alcohol and wishes Mitch would just go away, but she has more ties to it than she’d like.  Her daughter Jennie is dating Angel Harrigan (Grant Withers), Mitch’s former sideshow barker.  And unbeknownst to her, Harry has gotten involved in Mitch’s racket.

After Mitch gets picked up by the cops, Harry starts running the bootlegging business himself and helping himself to the profits.  When Mitch gets out of jail and finds out how Harry has been running things, he’s out for blood.  Mitch confronts Harry, but Harry shoots and kills Mitch.  Harry tries to get his girlfriend Myrtle (Joan Blondell) to cover for him with the police.  However, he tells the truth to his mother and she tries to frame Harrigan for the whole thing.  But what they don’t realize is that Jennie witnessed the confrontation between Harry and Mitch.

Sinners’ Holiday isn’t a terrible movie, but there are plenty of far better movies out there about bootleggers.  However, Sinners’ Holiday is very noteworthy for being the film debut of James Cagney.  Sinners’ Holiday was based on a play called “Penny Arcade,” which had a brief run on Broadway.  Cagney and Blondell were in the play together and even though the critics didn’t care for the show, they did like Cagney and Blondell.  As fate would have it, one of their admirers happened to be Al Jolson.  Jolson thought the story might work well as a movie so he bought the rights and sold them to Warner Brothers with the stipulation that Cagney and Blondell play the same roles they had in the stage version.

Even though the movie isn’t particularly great, it’s easy to see why Jolson made sure to insist on Cagney being included in the film version.  He is by far the biggest reason to watch Sinners’ Holiday.  If I didn’t know better, I wouldn’t have even guessed that this was his film debut.  Not only does he get an extremely generous amount of screen time for someone who had never made a movie before, he plays the part as though he’d already been playing gangster types for years.  Not a bad way to get a start a movie career.

My Favorite Pre-Code Journalists

As you will see with this weekend’s Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon (hosted by Comet Over Hollywood and Lindsay’s Movie Musings), there are plenty of great movies that feature memorable journalists.  Citizen Kane, His Girl Friday, All the President’s Men, just to name a few.  But for me, my favorite reporters in movies were all from the pre-code era.

Clark Gable It Happened One NightClark Gable as Peter Warne in It Happened One Night

Now Peter Warne is a reporter who will go to any length to get a good story.  And you gotta admit, he put up with a lot of nonsense from Ellie on their trip together.  But when it comes down to it, Peter isn’t a greedy man.  After falling in love with Ellie, he just wants to publish his story so he can have the money to marry her.  And even when it looks like she’s left him to go back to Westley, he still doesn’t care about the huge reward.  All he wants cares about is getting his expenses reimbursed.

Joan Crawford in Dance, Fools, DanceJoan Crawford as Bonnie Jordan in Dance, Fools, Dance

Bonnie Jordan may be just a rookie reporter, but she also goes the extra mile for her job.  When one of her fellow reporters is killed while investigating gangster Jake Luva (played by Clark Gable), her editor sends her to find out who is responsible for his death.  So Bonnie takes a job dancing in Jake’s nightclub so she can get close to him.  Of course, she ends up biting more than she can chew and even though she gets her story, she decides being a reporter just isn’t right for her after all.  But you’ve certainly got to give her credit for giving it her all.

Glenda Farrell in Mystery of the Wax MuseumGlenda Farrell as Florence Dempsey in Mystery of the Wax Museum

You can always count on Glenda Farrell to bring plenty of sass to her characters and Mystery of the Wax Museum is no exception.  Not only is Florence sassy, she can dig up stories on slow news days and is smart enough to figure out what’s really happening at the wax museum.  Every newspaper needs a Florence Dempsey type on their staff.

James Cagney in Picture SnatcherJames Cagney as Danny Keane in Picture Snatcher

Gotta love Danny Keane.  After giving up being a gangster, he decides to pursue his lifelong dream of being a newspaper reporter.  He doesn’t work at the best paper in town, but he makes the most of the opportunity.  Danny is clever, resourceful, and not afraid to break the rules, so he excels at getting some hard-to-get pictures for the paper.  Even though he’s not the most ethical journalist, he’s not cold and ruthless, either.  When he goes too far on the job and ends up hurting the girl he’s fallen in love with, he feels just awful about it.

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For more contributions to the Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon, head on over to Comet Over Hollywood or Lindsay’s Movie Musings.