CAGNEY THE COMEDIAN: BOY MEETS GIRL (1938)

December 2, 2014

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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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The 1935 stage play by Bella and Samuel Spewack must have appealed to Cagney as a change of pace. Instead of intimidating through violence, here it is only his wits alone that will get him out of Hollywood alive, or at least a decent paycheck. The Spewacks wrote the screenplay adaptation, having to sidestep the Production Code requirements that were then already in force.  The mother could no longer be unwed, and unknown quantities of double entendres hit the cutting room floor. Bella Spewack was a young leftist who started her writing career as a reporter for the socialist New York Call newspaper. Samuel was a stringer for the New York World, and they spent years together as Moscow correspondents at their mutual publications. They eventually married and transitioned to the theater, gaining a reputation, and sizable hits, for their high-wire farces. Their first success was Clear All Wires (1932), a comedy about their time in Moscow that was turned into a Lee Tracy film the following year. Boy Meets Girl opened on Broadway on November 27, 1935, and ran for 669 performances. It introduced the following exchange into American parlance:  “‘Listen’, Benson says. ‘I’ve been writing stories for 11 years. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl.’” They went on to write the book for Kiss Me Kate (1949).

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Boy Meets Girl follows the exploits of screenwriters Robert Law (Cagney) and J.C. Benson (Pat O’Brien), who are assigned to write a feature for the slow-witted cowboy star Larry Toms (Dick Foran). None of their vague, half-baked ideas please producer C. Elliott Friday (Ralph Bellamy), until a sweet, naive waitress enters the room to deliver their lunch. Susie (Marie Wilson) faints from the strain of lugging all of their turkey sandwiches, and she reveals her pregnancy. Benson and Law immediately brainstorm a story about Toms raising a baby in the Wild West, and sign Susie’s unborn child to a contract. As the embryo’s godfathers, they claim power of attorney. The baby, branded Happy, becomes a box office sensation, saving the jobs of everyone on the lot. Toms maneuvers to marry Susie in order to wrest control of Happy – but Benson and Law have a few more tricks up their sleeve (disguises, lies, switcheroos) as everyone desperately tries to hold onto their position.

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The film adaptation of Boy Meets Girl is dangerously fast. Cagney was concerned audiences wouldn’t be able to follow the action it proceeded as such a pace. In his autobiography, Cagney on Cagney he recalls that, “Pat and I were harassed by the producer’s insistence on more speed.” Director Lloyd Bacon was happy to oblige. Bacon was a reliable company man who had developed a rapport with Cagney and his crew. Though not much of a stylist – Boy Meets Girl is a definitively stagebound production — he allowed for much experimentation from his actors. When Bacon got a job, wrote Cagney, he didn’t ask “‘When? Where? What? How?’ Lloyd would just say, ‘Who?’ ‘Who?’ translates to ‘Who have I got?’ and usually who he got was who he wanted to get — his gang, the stock company: Pat O’Brien, Frank McHugh, Cagney, Allen Jenkins, and others of us who worked so well with each other and with him.” This was Cagney’s drinking crew as well, referred to as his “Club” in a 1938 issue of Modern Screen. These were his collaborators and his friends, and the looseness on display is contagious.

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In the early sequences O’Brien and Cagney have something a Marx Brothers mind meld going on, moving in sequence, finishing each other’s sentences, and treating Ralph Bellamy as their Margaret Dumont. They set up a vinyl recording of clacking typewriters to mask their escape to on-set hijinks. As the Busby Berkeley-esque director is about to kick them off the set, Cagney shouts, “Do you believe in the dance as an interpretive force? I do.” Then they stalk off in top hats. Later on they try on costumes from a doomed period piece Young England, donning foppish blonde wigs and castle guard garb. As the music department warbles a ballad in the background, Cagney tosses off his hair and does a little soft shoe. Benson and Law will seemingly do anything to avoid doing their jobs. They are supreme artists of the procrastinating arts, and Cagney’s devilish grin and spastic physicality combine to form the perfect expression of goofing off. When Cagney puts on a foppish disguise (squarish glasses, beret, long scarf) and steamrolls past a young radio announcer (a young, nervous-looking Ronald Reagan) and convinces Rodney to pretend to be Happy’s father, the film reaches a Marxian levels of insanity.

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It’s the appearance of Susie that stirs their dormant creative juices. She is the first real person to appear, who cares not a whit for stories, stars or box office. Marie Wilson uses her saucer eyes and jittering falsetto to create a woman of unflappable sincerity. But she is no simp – she just believes in people over show business. Her pursuit of the struggling English actor Rodney (Bruce Lester) is surprisingly affecting, considering the chaos instigated all around her. She met him briefly, and his unaffected sincerity chimed with her own. Their scene together is one of unforced charm – two working class types somehow shoved together in the executive producer’s office (it’s a long story) and telling each other their dreams of success. Susie’s “secret ambition” is to attend high school, while he tries out his one line from Young England on her. They are the beating heart of a rather savage satire, one in which the entire Hollywood system is revealed to be one long con. Happy the baby is only allowed to be human once his contract runs out.

The film scored with critics but not with audiences, and in 1943 Cagney told Photoplay he wished he had never made it. That stance softened over time, as he had second thoughts while viewing it on television: “It’s the same film, but I sense that the years have done something for it — what, I don’t know.” Whatever it’s doing, the years continue to make Boy Meets Girl look good.

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