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).


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.


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.


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.


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.



James Cagney was a destabilizing force, able to enliven stock scenarios with his grab bag of gestural curlicues, which could snap from playful to menacing in the curl of his lip. A professional boxer on the set of Winner Take All (1932) was impressed with Cagney’s fighting footwork, and asked if he’d ever been trained. Cagney responded, “Tommy, I’m a dancer. Moving around is no problem.” Whether it was the sneering violence of his grapefruit-to-the-face in Public Enemy or the grace in which he spins into a dance hall in Other Men’s Women, the pre-code Warner Brothers films of James Cagney are repositories of the infinite variety of his “moving around.” The enforcement of the production code of 1934 limited the range of Cagney’s expressive possibilities, as evidenced in his first post-code film, the subdued armed forces comedy, Here Comes the Navy (1934), which was duly nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. The Warner Archive has released both Winner Take All and Here Comes the Navy on DVD, lending an opportunity to see how Cagney handled the transition into post-code Hollywood.


Winner Take All was the last of three James Cagney films in 1932, following Taxi! (in which the New York boy famously speaks Yiddish) and Howard Hawks’ race car drama The Crowd Roars. The script was adapted from a 1921 story originally published in Redbook magazine by Gerald Beaumont, “133 at 3″. One of the screenwriters was Wilson “Bill” Mizner, a true American character who was a playwright, opium addict and entrepreneur who was a co-owner of the Brown Derby restaurant. In his autobiography Cagney fondly remembers how story conferences turned into bull sessions. One time Cagney was complaining how the boxing scenes were ruining his hands. Bill responded by showing his, which “looked as if someone had battered them with a sledgehammer.” Cagney said, “In the name of God, Bill, how did you get those?” Mizner responded, “Oh, hitting whores up in Alaska.” Mizner would die soon after in 1933. Winner Take All has the feel of one of Mizner’s tall tales, though with a smidgen less misogyny.


Cagney plays Jim Kane, a punch-drunk boxer in need of a break. His manager Pop (Guy Kibbee) sends him to a Western “health ranch” where he can breathe clean air and stay away from booze and women. A city boy spooked by the great outdoors, especially the howling coyotes, Kane falls into the arms of Peggy (Marian Nixon), a widow whose son is recovering at the same spa. They make promises of starting a life together, which get lost in the fog of parties and money that greet Kane upon his return. Hitting an unbeaten streak inside the ring, he is recruited by socialite Joan Gibson (Virginia Bruce) to act as a kind of lumpen proletariat mascot for her circle of nouveau riche friends. He lends an air of the streets to their penthouses, but Kane doesn’t realized he’s being used. He’s just trying to get into Joan’s pants, enough to get plastic surgery on his broken nose and cauliflower ears. No longer looking the brute, Joan ditches him, and Kane has to justify his self-centered actions to win Peggy back.


It’s a lot to pack into 67 minutes, but director Roy Del Ruth (Blonde Crazy, Taxi!) had become adept at such story compression, and had no qualms about spinning Cagney like a top and letting him go. He’s at his most boyish in this one, his selfish acts borne out of ignorance rather than ill-will, Joan the latest shiny object to distract his attention. Upon arriving at the health ranch, Cagney picks up a bellows and stares at it with wonder, as if it were an alien artifact. When the butler informs of its name he pretends knowledge, but still walks around with it at his groin, perhaps hoping it was some elaborate sex toy. It is in this state that he wanders outside, gets spooked by the howling coyotes, and first glimpses Peggy. She is the first familiar thing he sees, having met her briefly at a NYC nightclub the previous year. In a flashback we see how Cagney was distracted by Peggy, ignoring his huffy date, an exchange of jealous glances that ends with a soda stream to the face.


In the fight scenes Cagney is a windmilling bulldog, attacking with speed if not much precision. After his plastic surgery, he is afraid to sustain damage to his new mug, so he adapts his style into a constant rope-a-dope, avoiding contact but eliciting boos from the crowd. He’s vain and insecure, only returning to Peggy when he discovers that Joan is shacked up on a travel liner with an upper class twit. But he turns on the aw shucks charm and Peggy welcomes him back. There is no indication that he’s learned any lessons, other than he can manipulate his boyishness to seem innocent instead of self-centered.


After completing Winner Take All, Cagney went on strike with Warner Brothers over his wages, his second in over a year. The first time he went on strike, after the huge success of The Public Enemy, he received a raise from $400 to around $1,400. Now he wanted $3,000 a month. It was not just a matter of fairness, but Cagney’s recognition that fame was fleeting. He thought that there were “only so many successful pictures in a personality…when you are washed up in pictures you are really through. You can’t get a bit, let alone a decent part.” It was a matter of securing an uncertain future. He received a bump in pay to $1,750 a week. Part of this uncertainty was the enforcement of the production code. It existed as a widely ignored suggestion in 1930, but in 1934 the Production Code Administration was formed, requiring that each film receive a certificate of approval before release. The head of the PCA, Joseph Breen, would be doing the approving, clamping down on the frank depictions of sex and violence in the pre-code era. All films released after July 1st, 1934 required a certificate. Here Comes the Navy, directed by Lloyd Bacon, was released on July 21st.


A knockabout armed forces comedy in the vein of Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory (1926) it pairs Cagney and Pat O’Brien for the first time as a feuding iron worker and Navy officer. In Walsh’s film the two U.S. Marines battle women as they are stationed around the world. In the post-code era, this sexual licentiousness wouldn’t fly, so instead O’Brien fumes at Cagney for dating his sister. Their rivalry starts on land, as Chesty O’ Conner (Cagney), a union welder on a Navy project, harasses Biff Martin (O’Brien) as he walks by with the other officer brass. They keep running afoul of each other in town, with Biff flirting with Chesty’s girl at the Iron Workers’ dance. Chesty plots revenge by joining the Navy, hoping to find Biff and light him up. The love triangle plot strand is dropped, and Biff’s virginal sister Dorothy (Gloria Stuart), emerges as the main love interest instead. She rejects Chesty’s advances on their first date, one that would have ended with a wink and a tumble if made only a few months earlier.


The film is split in two, between the love triangle opening, filled with brawling and Cagney’s anti-authoritarian swagger, as he thumbs his nose at the entire Navy establishment, only joining for a cockeyed chance at revenge. But once the joins the Navy, the film swiftly turns into a recruitment film (made with the cooperation of the U.S. Navy), with long sequences of military maneuvers and Chesty’s slow conversion into a disciplined soldier. Any hint of sex or subversion is leached out of the film, although the code deemed a Cagney-in-blackface scene to be more than acceptable. The end of the film finds Cagney in an unlikely action hero mode, rescuing Biff from a dangling dirigible and parachuting to safety. Cagney seems stifled in this first entry, which the New York Times lauded. They considered it “beyond censorial reproach”, and praised how the “restraining hand of the producer, writer, director (or all three), never is relinquished.”  Cagney would later find a way to smuggle in his art through the lens of Raoul Walsh, ripping off furious performances in The Roaring Twenties (1939) and White Heat (1949), while reclaiming some his graceful, dancers movement in The Strawberry Blonde (1941). In the pre-codes it didn’t matter who the director was or what the story entailed, the films bent to his will. He was a genre unto himself.


July 24, 2012

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This astounding publicity shot of a screwfaced James Cagney reluctantly probing the shoulder of a coolly admiring Claire Dodd should sell anyone on the value of Hard To Handle (1933), or of the two new volumes of WB’s Forbidden Hollywood DVD series that is releasing it. The way Cagney separates his left ring and pinky fingers – as if he couldn’t bear to put the effort into using all five digits – exemplifies his casual mastery (even in PR shoots!) in fleshing out the con-artist cads he played throughout this period. And this is only one of the pleasures found within volumes 4 and 5 of the series, which includes a trio of treats from director William Dieterle, and snappy banter from the likes of Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell. The last edition appeared in 2009, containing a bevy of depression-scarred William Wellman films, but as DVD sales have continued to crater, so has the prominence of this series, with the new editions being released on WB’s movies-on-demand line, the Warner Archive.

Volume 4 includes Jewel Robbery (1932), Lawyer Man (1932), Man Wanted (1932) and They Call It Sin (1932). The first three were directed by William Dieterle in his first flurry of creativity after arriving from Germany in 1931. I have enthused about Jewel Robbery in this space before, but it is truly a marvel, an effervescent sex (and drugs) comedy that is also one of Hollywood’s rare explorations of female desire. Kay Francis wishes for adventure, and in swoops the slick-haired and slicker-tongued thief William Powell, waiting to sweep her away. Lawyer Man (shot in 21 days) finds Powell back as a smooth talker, this time as an idealistic New York City lawyer brought low by the corruption in the system and in his loins. His sole connection to his former straight life is his ever-loyal and plucky secretary Lola, played with usual verve by Joan Blondell.

Blondell is the star of Miss Pinkerton (1932), part of Volume 5, which also includes Hard To Handle (’33), Ladies They Talk About (’33) and The Mind Reader (’33). As with Kay Francis in Jewel Robbery, Blondell plays a gal eager for adventure, although instead of a society dame, she’s a gum-smacking nurse. While dressing down to her negligee in the employee lounge, she dreams of an escape from routine and the smell of chloroform. Then she is plucked to minister to a sick old crone in an old dark house. It turns out the crone’s nephew may have been murdered there, and the detective in charge (George Brent) has tapped Blondell to glean any info she can from its nervous inhabitants. The story is a third-rate whodunit, but it’s directed by the prolific pro Lloyd Bacon with speed and plenty of comically looming shadows, and Blondell is as charming as ever, blazing through the dusty plot mechanics with a brassy bravado.

Then there’s Hard To Handle, a breezy comedy about an endearing shyster. Cagney is loose and playful as Lefty Merrill, a two-bit scam artist who goes from promoting a phony “treasure hunt” (which causes a riot) to becoming the CEO of his own giant PR firm. The art of the con is essential knowledge for the advertising biz, as Cagney lies his way up the ladder. His rise is paralleled with his gal pal Ruth (Mary Brian), an aspiring model whose scheming mother Lil (Ruth Donnelly) plans to marry her to the richest husband possible. As Lefty’s fortune’s rise and fall and rise again, so does Lil’s interest. Everyone has an angle, but this is no cynical satire, but rather a bubbly romantic comedy. Director Mervyn LeRoy simply lets Cagney spin like a top, his machine-gunning speech patterns timed to nimble half-pirouettes, a man in constant motion, forever searching for a score. Scrounging for money was simply a fact of life, with no moral qualms attached.

Ladies They Talk About is saddled with moralizing speeches, by radio pedagogue David Slade (Preston Foster). A non-denominational preacher, he gains fame (and one assumes) fortune from railing against the vices pre-code Warner Brothers capitalized so heartily on. But while Slade wins in the end, there is plenty of titillation in between his hollow victory. The focus of his efforts is Nan Taylor (a particularly slinky Barbara Stanwyck), who got arrested for acting as a decoy for a gang of bank robbers. Initially posing as innocent, Slade sets up a PR assault to set her free, until she offhandedly admits her guilt, and Slade lets her go to jail. One of the earliest women-in-prison movies, Ladies They Talk About excels in scenes of female camaraderie, as Stanywck strikes up an instant friendship with another tough broad played by Lillian Roth. She takes her on a tour of the cell block, a hard-bitten crew of murderers and thieves given a roll-call in close-up, no innocents here. Directors Howard Bretherton and William Keighley give a sense of their daily routine in an impressive tracking shot across multiple cells. A particularly grim vision of femininity as imprisonment, Nan’s union with Slade retrospectively looks like she’s trading one cell for another.

Warren William’s characters, however, thoroughly enjoy the patriarchy and wring every advantage possible out of it. In The Mind Reader (shot in 22 days), William plays another con-artist of the carny kind, pulling teeth “painlessly” at a county fair, selling hair tonic on the road, and finally hitting the jackpot in the fortune telling business. He slaps a towel on his head, calls himself “Chandra”, and William has women pledging their bank accounts to him. Busy milking the rubes, he also finds time to fall in love with boring good-girl Sylvia (Constance Cummings), who only marries him if he promises to quit the con game. He agrees, and pathetically goes door-to-door selling wire brushes.  William tells a friend, “I’m on the straight and narrow…you know…the wife.” Bored and broken, William realizes he’s a cheat at heart, and returns to soothsaying even though he knows it could destroy his life. In the shattering penultimate sequence, William is shown drunk in Tijuana, the perfectly oiled William coiffure mussed into a mess. Overcome by self-loathing, he re-directs it toward the crowd, berating them for believing his lies of their future, believing that his own had all but run out.

A cornucopia of deviant money-grubbing borne out of the Great Depression, volumes 4 and 5 of Forbidden Hollywood are ideal viewing for our never-ending Great Recession, with the added value of sublime performances from Kay Francis, James Cagney, Joan Blondell and Barbara Stanwyck. There is no finer way to spend an economic apocalypse than in their company.


August 23, 2011

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Joan Blondell made herself at home in the cinema. Regardless of the plot or set decoration, Blondell would adjust her sheer stockings and plop into a seat as if she was at a cuckolded boyfriend’s pad. This Warner Brothers working class goddess buckled knees with this studied insouciance,  a glamour of gum-smacking nonchalance. Our blog-a-thon has been counting down the days until the Blondell-bonanza on August 24th, her day on TCM’s Summer Under the Stars. Earlier this week Jeff discussed the James Cagney-Blondell pairing Blonde Crazy (1931), and today I’ll take a look at their subsequent film together, Howard Hawks’ The Crowd Roars (1932).

Hawks had just completed work on Scarface (1931), his large-scale gangster film for producer Howard Hughes, and as the film was encountering censorship battles across the country, the director was busy with his next project. He took the conflict of the 1917 play, “The Barker: A Play of Carnival Life”, by Kenyon Nicholson, and adapted it to one of his hobbies, auto-racing. Nicholson’s story concerns a carnival barker who lives with a young mistress. His brother is coming to visit, and he wants to hide the affair. So he has his girlfriend sic one of her cohorts on his sibling to seduce and distract him. With a few tweaks, Hawks and his horde of screenwriters John Bright, Niven Busch, Kubec Glasmon and Seton I. Miller transplanted the tale to the race track. Production lasted from December 1931 – February 1932, and was released on April 16th 1932.

The Crowd Roars stars James Cagney as championship driver Joe Greer, a four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 and sometime lover of Lee Merrick (Ann Dvorak, also fresh off of Scarface), who grows impatient with his immaturity. When Joe starts mentoring his racing-hopeful brother Eddie (Eric Linden), Joe cuts Lee out of his life, not wanting to be distracted from the training. In a fit of pique, Lee encourages her friend Anne (Joan Blondell) to flash her wares to Eddie, so Joe can experience how it feels to be separated from a loved one.

When shooting was slated to begin Ann Dvorak was cast as the vampy Anne and Blondell was to portray the long-suffering Lee. However, as Todd McCarthy wrote in his fabulous biography, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood:

Once they got down to work, however, Blondell announced, “I can’t play a neurotic,” and Dvorak decided, “I can’t play an ingenue,” so, with Hawks’s agreement, they swapped roles without even telling the studios.

In retrospect this seems like an obvious switch to make, although it meant Blondell was willingly taking on a lesser role, as Anne has roughly half the screen-time as Lee. This indicates a striking self-awareness on Blondell’s behalf, knowing that she can make a bigger impact in the smaller part better suited to her talents. She was managing a persona that was already well established, having cranked out 10 films in 1931, her wide-eyed and acid tongued striver a familiar and welcome sight for Depression-scarred audiences. Blondell was given second-billing behind Cagney despite her diminished presence in the film (in the trailer below, she’s “The Peppiest Blonde Who Ever Broke a Heart”), since Dvorak was still breaking in as a lead (Scarface was her first) and Blondell had already garnered box office success with Cagney on Blonde Crazy.

The Crowd Roars is a classic Hawksian scenario of male camaraderie and competition, with self-worth won on the job. The setting here is the race track, instead of the airport of Ceiling Zero (1936) or fishing boats of Tiger Shark (1932). While the film has stunning racing photography by Sid Hickox (shot at real Indianapolis, Ventura and Ascot tracks), Eric Linden’s limp turn as Eddie leeches the central conflict of tension, and the female characters are not as fully developed as Dvorak was in Scarface, or Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century (1934) a few years later. Lee is present to be hysterically in love with Joe, and Anne ultimately ends up married and neutered to Eddie. There are hints of the past and present Hawksian women to come though, in Anne and Lee’s banter about Joe, privileging a female perspective on the male lead in a few scenes. Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, in her essay on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, does note it for giving Dvorak and Blondell “enough screen time and dialogue together to establish a real friendship which only later, as the story spirals out of control, becomes overtaken be plot points.”

Watching Crowd Roars now, it’s hard to conceive Blondell as the rather shrill wilting lily Lee. Anne, as thinly sketched as she is, dominates every scene she’s in, a sexual dynamo until the third act unconvincingly turns her into a housewife. Although they share only a few scenes together, Cagney and Blondell maintain the sparks they lit on Blonde Crazy. Cagney is a marvel, as usual, swatting Joe Greer’s problems away with jittery flits of his hand, while Blondell is constantly fidgeting with her stockings and urging Dvorak to dump him. Hawks told Joseph McBride about working with Cagney:

“Cagney was so much fun to work with because you never know what Cagney was going to do. When I work with Cary Grant, I can go home and write a scene for Cary and know how he’s gonna to handle it the next day, but Cagney had these funny little attitudes, you know, the way he held his hands, and things like that.”

You first see Cagney playing with Dvorak’s hands, mocking her for wanting a wedding ring, and then throughout the film he uses a flat-palmed Queen’s wave as kiss-off, a curious, electrifying gesture of contempt. Hawks doesn’t discuss Blondell, but she’s equally resourceful in her few scenes.

She is introduced after a close-up of a telegram from Joe, informing Lee that he’ll be delaying his return in order to train Eddie. Lee crumples the note and throws it in the trash. Blondell is splayed out on a divan in the background, and sashays slowly to the foreground, implanting a hand on her hip. She grabs the note dismissively and strides right, bobbing her head to snap off her complaints like, “playing nursemaid to a kid, huh?”. She sits down on the bed, and crosses her legs, her feet resting on an ottoman, to continue her harangue. Angrily throwing back the note, she walks to the middle of the frame, bends over, and adjusts her stockings before snapping, “You can take those hard-drinking, hard-riding men and put them in a truck and shove them over a cliff, as far as I’m concerned.” It’s a play of anger and self-regard that rivals Cagney’s regal kiss-off to Lee. Blondell continues these moves later in the film, propping her gams up on a table, and pulling up her hose, in order to entrance Eddie. This time her primping is an act, although one Blondell has established that Anne is happy to perform.

Blondell’s performance is one of constant small surprises, matching Cagney’s bantam rooster routine gyration for gyration. While The Crowd Roars is a second-tier Hawks film, the director’s openness to improvisation makes it a particularly riveting one, and reveals Blondell to be a wonderfully inventive actress as well as an indelible personality.


March 31, 2009


Last Monday night, TCM aired all six films from Warner Bros. new box set of early William Wellman talkies, Forbidden Hollywood, vol. 3. I’m still picking my way through, but 1931′s Other Men’s Women is an obvious highlight. Possessing speed and clarity in equal measure, and blessed by energetic supporting turns by James Cagney and Joan Blondell, it’s overflowing with minor pleasures. With the railroad as its working class milieu (the original title, “The Steel Highway”, was changed shortly before it’s premiere), the film builds its rhythm from the steady hum of the locomotive, it’s whistle cooing over the lead credits. In the opening sequence, Bill White (Grant Withers) slinks into a hash shop, his wise-ass cracks clearly impressing the brassy counter girl. In between his razzes he counts out a rhythm on the table top, keeping track of some internal beat in his head. After shoveling in his eggs and coffee and telling the gal to “have a little chew on me”,  he sprints off to catch the last train that had been rumbling by in the background the whole sequence – he had been counting off its cars. Tempo is emphasized straight off, and neither Wellman nor his collaborators apply the brakes for the duration of its 70 minutes.

Maude Fulton adapted her own story for the screen, and William K. Wells is credited with  the dialogue. Fulton, unknown today, had established herself as a vaudevillian and playwright before she started contributing to film. In a fascinating 1917 profile in the NY Times, written after the success of her play, “The Brat” (which John Ford brought to the screen in 1931), her circuitous path to Broadway is outlined. Raised in the Kansas newspaper biz by her Dad, the editor of the local daily, she wrote a novel by the age of 15, “whose theme was ‘The Curse of Rum’”.  She bounced from job to job, including singing pop songs at a department store, until she learned stenography and was hired by a railway office, where she likely soaked in the bravado of the train engineers that suffuses Other Men’s Women. Bored with office work, she soon lit out for the stage in NYC. She was performing in Mam’zelle Champagne on the roof of Madison Square Garden in 1906, when the millionaire Henry K. Thaw shot and killed architect Stanford White for fooling around with his young wife, Evelyn Nesbit (who was also romanced by John Barrymore). Thaw’s trial was the first to be dubbed “The Trial of the Century.”

Before this brush with infamy, she had teamed up with dancer William Rock. “Rock and Fulton” became a minor vaudeville success from 1900-1912, their 20-minute routine playing some of the better houses in town, according to the reference book Vaudeville, Old & New. By the time she was 30, Fulton began to suffer from rheumatism and had to shift into writing full time. In the Times piece, just beginning her playwriting career, Fulton displays a disarming humility:

“I know that I have no great intellectual gifts and that I have no great talents, but I will say this for myself: I am an indefagitable worker and I aim high. If this [The Brat] is not a great play – and it isn’t – remember that it is my first, and I am not through yet.”

She never equalled The Brat’s success on stage, with her follow-up, The Humming Bird (1923) failing to make much of an impression. But both were made into silent films, and her career behind the camera began. But I digress…

Fulton’s scenario for Other Men’s Women is a basic love triangle. Jack Kulper (Regis Toomey) and Bill White are best friends and railroad engineers, but both also happen to be in love with Kulper’s wife, Lily (Mary Astor). Tensions rise  and tragedies mount until a spectacular bridge collapse caps the doom-laden tale. With the train whistle’s metronome setting the pace, Wellman wastes no time in setting up the central conflict. Jack invites Bill to stay for a few days and dry out, after his stuttering landlady kicked him to the curb. The childlike idyll of the first few days, mock-fighting and chases ’round the yard, are quickly unmasked for their flirtatiousness. Wellman utilizes an audio motif to mark the shift in atmosphere. When Jack first arrives home, he whistles to announce his arrival. The second time we hear the whistle, Bill has professed his love and Jack’s world is about to collapse. This simple inversion carries a great emotional wallop, his lilting tune turned tragic in the space of ten minutes.

Wellman is adept at this kind of repetition – eliciting slightly different tones from each one. Take Grant Withers’ catch phrase, “have a little chew on me”. Used in the opening scene with a sneer and a hint of sexuality, the next time he says it, to old pal Cagney on top of a train, it’s with complete sincerity. Later, after dismissing Blondell’s marriage proposal, she cuts him off with, “if you offer me a chew of gum I’ll knock your block off.”  For each context, the phrase works differently, and the cumulative effect makes Blondell’s retort all that funnier.  It’s even flexible enough to play a pivotal role in the final, storm swept finale.

Other Men’s Women is remembered, if at all, for being the film Cagney appeared in before The Public Enemy (also directed by Wellman) which launched him to stardom. As Bill’s close friend Ed Bailey, he’s already irrepressibly physical. In one magical scene in a club’s lobby, he’s shown stripping out of work clothes, revealing a tux underneath, and soft-shoeing laterally to the dance-floor. It’s a privileged moment for a character only present in three sequences – and he nearly taps away with the picture.It was his second film with Blondell, after they both reprised their roles from the play “Penny Arcade” in Sinner’s Holiday (1930). Ms. Blondell gets a few zingers in, including her tart: “I’m A.P.O…Ain’t puttin’ out.”

Wellman pairs the train whistle from the opening to the climactic struggle, as Jack and Bill throw hay-makers in the engine room. There is a cut to a close-up as Jack’s right cross pulls down the whistle rope, their battle now syncopated to the music of their transport. Violence and disfigurement follow, as death haunts the two friends the rest of the film,with Wellman and cinematographer Barney McGill darkening the palette until the train’s final run takes place in manic silhouettes and dense fog. As emotions and steel are wrenched apart, the crux of Wellman’s directorial personality become clear. As Dave Kehr noted in the comments section of his blog (where the best auteurist criticism is appearing these days): “His was a style based on speed, fragmentation, and violent collision — he’s on the path that leads to Sam Fuller, not Howard Hawks.”