I was keen to see this movie because I’m trying to see all of Cagney’s films – and, as this came next after The Crowd Roars, which is one of my favourites, I may have been expecting too much. To me this boxing movie, directed by Roy Del Ruth, feels a bit rushed and ragged round the edges, and it’s easy to see why around this time Cagney was getting fed up with Warner forcing him to make one quick movie after another, and repeatedly casting him as a hoodlum. In this movie they even give his character the name “Jimmy” (something they did again in the gangster comedy Jimmy the Gent), which can’t have helped him to avoid typecasting.
Spoilers below cut – and more pictures
To be honest, I’d have to say this may be the weakest film starring Cagney that I’ve seen so far – it’s wildly uneven and his character changes completely about halfway through, from a sweet-natured rough diamond to a heartless two-timer. But, having said that, it certainly isn’t boring, and, as with so many early 1930s dramas, moves at a fast pace. It seems to lurch clumsily from drama to comedy and back again.
In the opening scenes, Cagney’s character, boxer Jim Kane, seems to be having some kind of health problem, apparently related to too many fights in a short time combined with boozing and late nights. He’s pulled into the ring by his manager (Guy Kibbee) not to fight, but so that the crowd can donate money for him to go to a spa and rest. The adoring fans duly shower him with enough coins to fund a trip to New Mexico. This whole scene seems very much to be something which could only be set during the Great Depression – with the boxer who has to go on fighting, even if it takes a toll on his health, summing up what people in the audience are going through too. But, from reviews I’d read before watching the movie, I was expecting this scene to be more poignant than it actually is. To me Cagney at this point just looks slightly embarrassed and not ill at all. He does often give the impression all through the movie of being punch-drunk, through his movements and his thickened voice - but somehow this scene doesn’t really work.
I’m not really clear about what the place is where Jim goes to stay, described as a health ranch – is it some kind of rehab? Despite a few vague mentions of booze, there’s no hint of Kane having any real problem in giving up drinking – just that he is bored and lonely.
Jim quickly takes up with a young widowed mother, Peggy (Marian Nixon), a former nightclub table singer, who is also staying at the ranch. When she desperately needs money for her sickly son, he goes back into the ring, agreeing to a “winner takes all” fight – and fighting on even when he is battered and exhausted. I’m not a fan of boxing in real life but sometimes find it strangely compelling in movies and for me this is probably the best scene in the film – with the meeting between Jim and Peggy afterwards where she tries to kiss him, but he doesn’t want her touching his broken nose. I noticed that in this scene he tells her “Don’t be sloppy – I cry easy!” and wondered if this is a lighthearted reference to the powerful crying scenes in Cagney’s two previous movies, Taxi! and The Crowd Roars. It must have been a relief to fans that he didn’t put them through the emotional wringer this time.
Unfortunately, at this point the movie – and Jim’s character – both undergo an abrupt change. On arrival back in New York, he instantly forgets Peggy, even though they are engaged, and falls for a blonde “society dame” , Joan (Virginia Bruce). Most of the scenes between them are cringe-making, as she is so obviously contemptuous of him, just regarding him as a bit of rough, and he doesn’t see it – in fact he almost turns into a stalker, determined to keep their relationship going when she wants to end it. He even rushes off to a plastic surgeon and has a nose job when she objects to the look of his nose – then refuses to fight properly because he doesn’t want to damage his new face. I found it quite weird and almost surreal to see Cagney with a succession of fake noses in large chunks of this film, and the altered face doesn’t help his acting, which relies so much on his expressive features.
It’s hard to believe that the same man we have just seen risking his health and maybe even his life for Peggy could now heartlessly forget all about her and fall for someone else. There’s quite a lot of class comedy/satire of the uncaring, rich society people in these scenes, as Joan and her friends seem only to be interested in seeking the next sensation and not in building up any real relationships. However, it is hard to know who is being satirised more when Cagney has to play working-class hero Kane as incredibly stupid and big-headed. Also, he is being just as fickle as Joan is. The film twists round again to see him realise the error of his ways, fight properly and go back to Peggy – but the happy ending doesn’t carry much conviction.
I think both Nixon and Bruce give fine performances as the “good” and “bad” girls – interestingly, in this pre-code world, the “good” girl is a former waitress at a speakeasy, and the “bad” one is a society woman who won’t sleep with the hero. I especially enjoyed the fact that Peggy (Nixon) is allowed to stand up for herself and doesn’t just wait and suffer, even though she is more forgiving than her cheating boyfriend deserves! As a pre-code movie, this does have some suggestive moments, including a flashback to the first meeting between Jim and Peggy, at the famous Texas Guinan’s speakeasy, where she dances right up close to him and seems about to strip off – I’ve read that there are few portrayals of this speakeasy in movies, so some people look this film out just for this scene.