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.