This tale of a drunken journalist is one of James Cagney’s rarest films, never released on video or DVD and apparently never shown on TV. It seems to be available only on the “grey market”. I was lucky enough to see it in brief segments on Youtube, but am editing (July 2009) to say that, sadly, it has now been removed. Since it’s so little-known, I wondered how good it could be, and was surprised at just how powerful it is. Another re-edit (April 2013) – a commenter had kindly left details of a site which had an unofficial DVD available, but this is now no longer available, so I have removed the comments to avoid confusion. I do hope this film will get an official release, as there is clearly a demand for it.
The opening 20 minutes or so, in particular, for me are Cagney at his best – almost as compelling as his performance in White Heat, made just a couple of years earlier. The rest of the movie doesn’t keep to quite that pitch, but it’s still well worth watching, with excellent performances by Gig Young and James Gleason and sharp, memorable dialogue. It was directed by Gordon Douglas, who also directed Cagney in the gangster thriller Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, but for me this is probably the stronger movie of the two.
However, the problem with this film is in a way the same as with the much better-known Bogart and Raft movie They Drive By Night – that it starts off by giving a dramatic treatment of reality, showing a real issue facing the hero, but then spins away from the issue it’s just raised to come up with a far-fetched melodramatic plot. They Drive By Night begins with the exhausting workload of long-distance truckers, and ends with a film noir murder plot. Come Fill the Cup begins with a look at one man’s struggle against alcoholism, but turns into an also-ran gangster movie. Cagney himself was bitterly disappointed by this change of focus and the way gangsters had been worked in, just as he was trying to beat his typecasting. I’m wondering, though, if this plot was in the original book, by Harlan Ware – I can’t find a summary of its story anywhere, but did find the cover of a paperback edition on the net (unfortunately I seem to have lost the link), and it seems to feature the dancing girl Maria, who is involved in the film’s gangster plot.
After a powerful titles sequence showing a glass of whisky, followed by a glowing bar-room sign (“Seven Dwarves Bourbon”), the opening of the film itself is set in a busy newsroom. As the film begins, the editor has been ordered to fire hopeless drunk Lew Marsh (Cagney). There’s a touching scene where Marsh walks into the office after disappearing on a five-day blackout, weaves his way delicately through the furniture, sits at his typewriter and starts to write up the story of an air crash. He only manages five words (“All the dead were strangers” ) before the editor comes and rips his copy paper out of the typewriter, telling him tersely that the story is dead. All the rest of the staff, knowing he is to be sacked, have just been looking at him wordlessly as if he’s dead, too. It only takes a couple of minutes to establish both Marsh’s brilliance and the fact that he’s thrown it all away.
Two drinking scenes follow, with the mood steadily darkening. In the first one, Marsh drives away his long-suffering girlfriend, woman’s page editor Paula (Phyllis Thaxter), telling her when she offers to take him home from a bar: “Don’t you see? I am home.” The scene fades out with an image of a bottle turning over and over – and it’s unclear how much time has passed by the next scene, which sees an unshaven, pale and shaking Lew crawling to the same bar at opening time, and emptying out his pockets to buy just one drink. Thrown out by the bartender, he resorts to begging from a stranger, then, with a coin clutched in his hand, turns to cross the road.
At this point, there’s more experimental camerawork, like the turning bottle earlier. Here, the scene dips in and out of focus, with just the bar-room sign shining brightly, if blurred – the only thing Marsh is really seeing. It all ends with him collapsing in the street, just missed by a vehicle – then being carted off by ambulance to a hospital “drunk tank”.
Cagney gives a heart-rending performance all through this opening section. For the rest of the film, as his character recovers and resumes his newspaper career, his acting is quieter and more restrained, but you can still feel all that nervous energy simmering under the surface, and there is a grief-stricken moment later in the film where it all bursts out again.
Although the film doesn’t feature any organised group such as Alcoholics Anonymous, it does show ex-drinkers supporting one another and being there for each other. Marsh moves in with the man he begged from in the street, Charley Dolan (James Gleason), himself a former drinker. There’s some enjoyable banter between the two of them, including a recurring scene where Charley hopefully serves up his attempt at mixing a non-alcoholic drink which really has a taste – only for the two of them to agree that it’s “still tomato juice.” (I’ve got to say that I really love Gleason’s performance in this movie – his dry voice alone is wonderful – and would now like to see any of his other films that I can beg, borrow or steal.)
Back at work as city editor after his time in hospital, Marsh takes on several other reformed drunks on his staff – as the real journalist who inspired the character, Jim Richardson, did in real life. (I found an interesting article about Richardson from 1957 in Time magazine’s online archives, and there’s a description in Patrick McGilligan’s Cagney: The Actor as Auteur of how Cagney went to see him to prepare for the role.)
Later in the film, both Dolan and Marsh try to help a younger drinker, would-be composer Boyd Copeland (Gig Young), who just happens to be the nephew of Marsh’s boss at the newspaper. Also, in a twist designed to pile on the agony, he’s married to Marsh’s old flame, Paula. The first time I watched the movie I found Young’s character quite annoying in his complete self-absorption. Second time around, I was more struck by his lazy charm, as he reels around accompanied by a dog he calls “Nameless”, lacing his sentences with Spanish phrases. His style is very different to Cagney’s – he seems to move and speak at half the speed, and they play off each other well. It’s a fine performance by Young, anyway, and I can see why he was nominated for an Oscar for this role, though I like Gleason’s performance even better. Sadly, I haven’t managed to find any pictures of Gleason in this film.
Much of the publicity material for this movie seems to focus on the relationship between Cagney and Thaxter’s characters, suggesting that the love triangle is central. Must admit I didn’t think it was as important as the posters try to make out, though there is the occasional poignant moment between them. However, Thaxter does well with a rather underwritten role, as a loyal wife who nevertheless refuses to be a doormat and threatens to divorce Boyd if he doesn’t change his ways – and who is still concerned for her former lover. I did wonder that she doesn’t seem at all surprised that both the men in her life are alcoholics, but, of course, it was a hard-drinking age. (Isn’t every age?)
Boyd’s arrival in the movie brings in the gangster plot, as he is involved with a dancing girl who is the mistress of a rather thick local crime boss. I can’t be bothered to say much about this plot, rather than that it really isn’t necessary – there’s plenty of human drama here without the need for manufactured plot twists. Just about the only good thing about the film taking this turn is that it does give the opportunity to show Marsh at work as a journalist on a big story. As well as being about alcoholism, this is also a film about newspapers, which was an added attraction for me as I have a journalistic background. It’s full of scenes in the corridors of the newspaper office where Marsh works and little bits of shop talk which sound authentic to me.
A particular pleasure was the scenes with Marsh facing up to the autocratic newspaper owner John Ives (shades of Hearst), who at one point tells him loftily: “I am the Herald Examiner.” I also loved a scene where Marsh phones in a splash story to the rewrite desk (I’ve never come across one of those in England) – he basically gives them two sentences of information, one of which is a lie, and then says “Write it up strong, Don!” I think Don might need more than that to go on.