Friday, November 27, 2015

Top of the World

James Cagney was the Hollywood everyman, he played both dramatic and comedic roles, he was an excellent dancer, and could even sing.  Although he is most remembered for his gangster and tough guy roles, his highest acclaim came playing George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy for which he was awarded an Oscar.

I first saw Cagney on Saturday afternoon movies, when the local TV station would run old movies.  It was where I saw the old Universal monsters, and where I watched guys like Humphey Bogart, George Raft and Cagney burn up the screen with tough guy roles like Sam Spade, "Hood" Stacey, and Tom Powers.

Cagney was always great because he had that grin that was at times either enchanting and disarming, or volatile and malevolent.  Which is why he could play both George M. Cohan and Cody Jarrett equally believably.

The Public Enemy (1931)

This movie is a chronological look at the rise and ultimate fall of a gangster from a kid to an adult in the Prohibition era.  Tom Powers and Matt Doyle (played here by younger counterparts) present a fence/hood by the name of Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell) with some stolen watches.  You get an idea of how weaselly Putty Nose is early on when he tries to bilk and short change the pair on their ill-gotten gains, but promises to look out for them when something big comes up.

A few years later, the pair are invited to participate in a robbery of a fur storehouse (now being played by Cagney and Edward Woods).   Putty Nose presents them with guns for use in the heist.  But things go wrong, and a policeman shows up.  The policeman is killed, and the two have now graduated to harder criminal activity.  But Putty Nose's promise to help them out turns to dust, when he has taken it on the lam and leaves them high and dry.

Meanwhile Tom has problems on the home front.  He's got a big brother Mike (Donald Cook), who is sure his little brother is involved in the crime world and begs him to turn over a new leaf.  He's got a mother (Beryl Mercer) who is blissfully unaware he is a in the crime syndicate.

 And he's got a girlfriend (Mae Clarke) who is just a bit on the sassy side.  The girlfriend is on the receiving side of one of the most infamous images from the early days of movies, the grapefruit to the face.

 Tom and Matt eventually team up with a bootlegger friend, Paddy Ryan  (Robert Emmett O'Connor) and become enforcers for his mob.  Ryan allies with "Nails" Nathan (Leslie Fenton) who is a bigger boss in the mob.

 He starts bringing in big money, which he tries to give to Mom, but big brother confronts him and rejects his blood money. Familial matters don't improve much after that, although Mom still thinks her son is a saint.

At this point there is what was probably not meant as funny, but a scene which elicited snickers from me, nonetheless.  The boys' boss, "Nails" Nathan is killed.  He was thrown from a horse.  The boys go to the stable and (off screen) execute the horse.

Needless to say all this underworld hijinks  puts Tom in bad straits.  The ultimate ending is just how Hollywood would have been forced to end it, by pressure from the censors.  But this being a so-called pre-Code picture, you still get a feel of a genuinely moral-less man trying to make a name and big money.

An interesting side-note.  Cagney and Woods were originally cast as the opposite roles, with Woods to be Tom Powers and Cagney to be Matt Doyle.  But the producers and director saw Cagney in a previous film called The Millionaire.  Cagney was just a supporting character in it, but he stole the show.  The powers in charge knew they had something and switched the parts.

Cagney became typecast as tough guy/gangster for a while because of this movie.  But it was after a string of non-gangster roles that he gave what was his bravura performance in...

White Heat (1949)

Cagney played Cody Jarrett with maniacal glee.   Jarrett makes Tom Powers look like a pantywaist, in my opinion.  He takes a kind of euphoric ecstasy out of killing and hurting people.  And behind every man is a "good" woman, in this case "Ma" Jarrett.  Cody suffers intermittently from headaches, probably brought on and encouraged by Ma as a way of controlling him.

The movie starts with a train robbery.  Cody and his men get away with a large bundle of cash, after killing several people on the train,  but one of Cody's men gets his face burned by steam from the locomotive.  Later while hiding out, we meet Ma, the driving force behind Jarrett, and a polar opposite of the Mom in The Public Enemy.  This Ma (played by Margaret Wycherly) is as equally evil as her son.  When the gang are escaping, Ma suggests to Cody that they kill Zuckie, the injured man, rather than leave him and send help.

While hiding out in a motel, a policeman figures out that they are there, but is gunned down by Cody.  Because he is a prime suspect in the train robbery, he and Ma hatch a plan where he will confess to a robbery in another state (where no one was killed, so the sentence will be light).  In the meantime, the officer in charge of the investigation of the train robbery is convinced that Cody and his gang were at the heist and doesn't believe a word of the "confession"  But he allows the conviction to go through so he can put a man under cover in the prison to find out the truth.

Hank (Edmond O'Brien) goes under cover as Vic Pardo and is jailed in the same cell as Cody, where he works hard to get on Cody's good side, even managing to save him from being killed by falling metal bin.  An event engineered by Cody's second man in his gang who wants not only Cody's job, but his girl (played by Virginia Mayo).  Ma visits him in prison and tells him about the whole affair and says she'll take care of it.

Hank plans an escape from prison in an effort to get on Cody's good side, but fate throws a monkey wrench in the works when Cody finds out Ma has died, and goes berserk.  He is put in the infirmary and plans are made to move him to a mental institution.  Hank engineers a different escape.  After exacting revenge on his former second man, Cody plans a new heist at a chemical plant. The plan goes awry when the police get wind of it and surround the plant.  But Cody ends up "Top of the world" just like his Ma had promised, and Cody goes out in a blaze of glory.

Cagney was Academy Award material for this role.  I'm sure his being left out had something to do with the prevailing censorship and sentiment of the time.  It wouldn't have done to give an Oscar for a character who had no redeeming social values and was a psychopathic character like Cody Jarrett.  20 years later, maybe, but in 1949 the Production Code still held sway.  The same goes for the conspicuous lake of a nod to Wycherly for Supporting Actress.  In fact, the only nom garnered by the movie was Virginia Kellogg for Best Story (which she lost to Douglas Morrow for The Stratton Story)

That's it for this show, kiddies.  Be sure to buckle up and drive safe.


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