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.


On July 13th, 1934 the madcap RKO comedy We’re Rich Again was released, the sixth collaboration between director William A. Seiter and star Marian Nixon.  They married soon after, and five years later they collaborated in the birth of Jessica Seiter (now Jessica Seiter Niblo), whose Movietown Baby Grows Up is a breezily entertaining memoir of her upbringing in Hollywood. Published at an Espresso Book Machine at her local bookstore, it was intended as a gift for her family, but she is also selling it through Facebook for those interested in the careers and personalities of her talented parents.  Seiter Niblo has a warm conversational tone, relating her parents’ romantic foibles and career bumps as if she were flipping the pages of a family album with you over a mug of Irish coffee.

William A. Seiter was the heir to a silver, crystal and china shop in NYC before he found his first wife in bed with another man, whereupon he “flew out the door, onto a train, and headed for Los Angeles to start life anew.”  He paid the bills as a Western stuntman and a Keystone cop in Mack Sennett comedies before working his way up the ladder, directing his first silent feature, The Kentucky Colonel, in 1920. Seiter Niblo relates that “Bill’s private life moved along at a reckless pace, trying marriage again with Jill (I was never informed of her last name) who chased him around their cottage with a meat cleaver.” Maybe that harrowing slapstick experience informed the movies  he would later make with comedy teams Wheeler and Woolsey and Laurel and Hardy.

Following the more amicable split with third wife Laura LaPlante, Seiter tied the knot for an even number with Nixon, who at the time was dubbed “The Nicest Girl in Hollywood”. She was born in Wisconsin “in a year she would never reveal – but most likely 1904″, to a family of poor Finnish immigrants, and showed a talent for dance, taking lessons in ballet and tap. She joined a touring group at a young age, and was abandoned in L.A. when tour director Paisley Noone absconded with “some handsome young man in Hollywood.” Nixon refused to return home, and tried her hand at acting, getting her first break with a casting director noticed her “threading a needle with ‘notable vigor’”. She earned her first leading role in the Buck Jones Western Big Dan (1923) directed by a young William Wellman.nixon

Nixon had her own lovesick blues, with a short-lived marriage to boxer Joe Benjamin, who made the gossip rags by popping two bullets into Nixon’s home after a spat. She climbed the social ladder for her second marriage, to Chicago department store heir Edward Hillman, Jr., who never held down a job, but simply “drinks and plays polo”.  His alcoholism cracks up the marriage, and Seiter and Nixon get hitched mere days after both their divorces are finalized.

This one sticks, and a family sprouts up. Seiter Niblo relays the whirl of being a Hollywood brat, moving from house to house ten times according to the curve of her Dad’s career. As a 2-year-old she sings “Dearly Beloved” to Jerome Kern, and Delmer Daves gives her a book of his calligraphy. Nixon curtails her acting in order to raise a family, but remains fascinated with the business, sending her daughter Mike Connolly’s column from the Hollywood Reporter every week through Jessica’s four years at Stanford. Nixon is essential to maintaining the loose community Seiter created on set, delivering “personal Christmas gifts from my father to his ‘staff’, especially Glen Tryon and Sam Mintz, his right hand men.”

Dave Kehr discusses this communal spirit in his Film Comment essay (Jan/Feb 2012) on William A. Seiter, which is re-printed in the back of the book. He emphasizes that “the thrust of his work is not to dominate his performers but to enframe and enhance them”. He uses Ginger Rogers as an example, as her non-nonsense persona is perfected from Professional Sweetheart (1933) through In Person (1935).  Seiter Niblo has learned to do the same for her family, letting their lives and personality emerge through her tough and loving portrait of two charismatic Hollywood talents.

As she proudly notes, her children have continued the family’s string of success in Hollywood. Ted Griffin is a screenwriter whose worked on everything from the cannibal thriller Ravenous (1999, a personal favorite) to the broad Brett Ratner comedy Tower Heist (2011). He collaborated with his brother Nick on Matchstick Men (2003) and the short-lived but much loved TV drama Terriers. So while the Seiter name has long been absent from silver screens, his family still knows how to entertain.