Category Archives: James Cagney

Busby Berkeley musicals

Joan Blondell and James Cagney in Footlight Parade

Joan Blondell and James Cagney in Footlight Parade

Hi to all those visiting my blog! I haven’t been around here much lately, and I’m afraid my projected themes fell by the wayside… though I might still resurrect them. But, anyway, I intend to get the show back on the road with some postings about musicals and then see where the spirit takes me. I’ve been enjoying the great Busby Berkeley movies in recent months, especially as I had the opportunity to see Footlight Parade during the pre-Code festival at the BFI in London earlier this year. This was also the first opportunity I’ve ever had to see a James Cagney film on the big screen – I’ve seen just about all his films, bar a couple of TV productions. but only on the small screen ( in many cases on Youtube). It was a revelation to see those spectacular Berkeley numbers as they should be seen – and I have more big-screen joy coming up next month, when Ipswich Film Society plans a screening of Gold Diggers of 1933. 

In the meantime, I’ve been lucky enough to get my hands on an imported TCM mini set in their Greatest Classic Films series, thanks to my daughter who gave it to me for my birthday. On two double-sided discs, it contains the aforementioned Footlight Parade, 42nd Street, and two lesser-known Berkeley films, Dames and Gold Diggers of 1937.  Some films in this TCM series are coded for region 1 only, while others are region free - but luckily, although I’m in the UK, I do have the ability to watch multi-region. A big bonus is that these DVDs have lots of special features, including trailers and featurettes. too. Just wondering, what are anyone’s favourite Berkeley musicals? I especially love 42nd Street, but am looking forward to discovering some of his lesser-known offerings. Watch this space for a review of Gold Diggers of 1937 coming up in the next couple of days.

A little rarity for Cagney fans!

Just came across this amazing rarity on Youtube – a screen test for Laurette Luez for A Lion is in the Streets, playing opposite James Cagney as his character’s much younger mistress. In the film, the part went to Anne Francis, who is good – at 23, she was a couple of years younger than Luez and looked younger still, so maybe the studio wanted to emphasise the age gap between her and Cagney, who was 53, although he looks much younger here in black and white. (The film’s Technicolor is less forgiving.) But I think Luez is very good in this clip, anyway. Cagney really goes for it, too, although he is largely standing with his back to the camera. I’ve seen all of Cagney’s films except for a few TV productions, so it was a thrill suddenly to spot this piece of footage.

The Strawberry Blonde (Raoul Walsh, 1941)

strawberry blonde 14This is my contribution to the James Cagney blogathon being organised by R.D. Finch at The Movie Projector. Please do visit and read the other postings. There is also the chance to win a two-DVD special set of ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ – scroll down to the bottom of the Movie Projector blogathon page for details of how to enter.

Both James Cagney and director Raoul Walsh are best-known for their tough-guy dramas – and they made two great ones together, gangster classics The Roaring Twenties and White Heat. Yet this pair also teamed up to make one of the sweetest of romantic comedy-dramas, a period piece suffused with charm and nostalgia. With not one but two great leading ladies, Rita Hayworth and Olivia de Havilland, a sparkling script and an irresistible musical soundtrack,  The Strawberry Blonde is a film which deserves to be much better known. Sadly this title has never had a full DVD release, and old VHS videos  used to change hands at scarily high prices – but now it has been brought out on Warner Archive in region 1, and it has also been shown in a fine print on the UK TCM in the last few years.

Most of the film unfolds in flashback, so we know from the start that young dentist Biff Grimes (Cagney) has been disappointed in love and spent time in prison after somehow being framed by a friend. The film then shows how it all happened – before we finally discover whether Biff will be tempted to take his revenge on the friend in question, Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson), when he finally turns up in his surgery as a patient.

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My favourite actors

Making a list of my top ten favourite male actors was even harder than listing my favourite actresses, because there is a temptation to put all those I find the most handsome top of the list, and that isn’t really what it’s about. I’m uneasily aware that most of my top ten are, nonetheless, very attractive, but I’ve tried to go more on acting talent and screen personality! As with my list of favourite actresses, I have not included any current actors. This list would be likely to change on another day, or after I’ve seen more films… and there are many others I longed to include. I’ve once again written something about my top three choices and just listed the names of the others. I’d be interested to hear other people’s favourites and thoughts.

James Cagney in 'Other Men's Women'

James Cagney in ‘Other Men’s Women’

1. James Cagney. It’s predictable that I would give Cagney my number one spot, since he has been my favourite for years now and I spent a lot of time tracking down all his films. Why do I love him? I think it is that he seems to give everything to every role, with a blend of humour, energy, intelligence and danger, and an underlying vulnerability. I do think the films he starred in are more uneven in quality than for some of the others on my list, basically because he was tied to the studio and often forced to appear in movies which didn’t really match his quality as an actor – but, even when it is a poor film, his talent and unique screen personality shine through. My favourite performances of his range from his big four gangster films, The Public Enemy, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties and White Heat, to his song-and-dance films like Yankee Doodle Dandy and Footlight Parade, but there are also many more wonderful performances, ranging from his very first film, Sinners’ Holiday, right through to later offerings like the biopic Man of a Thousand Faces, and in an earlier posting I listed some of my favourites. I’m just slightly sorry that I’ve seen just about all his films and so will never again have the delight of seeing them for the first time, but they are well worth revisiting – and there are some, like White Heat, that I’ve watched many times. I’m looking forward to the blogathon on Cagney which R.D. Finch at The Movie Projector is organising in April.

John Barrymore and Helen Twelvetrees

John Barrymore and Helen Twelvetrees

2. John Barrymore. It’s hard to believe that this great actor never received even a single nomination for an Oscar – or any film award at all. There are still a lot of his films I haven’t managed to see as yet, and quite a lot that have been lost so there will never be the chance – but his range is astonishing in the work which does survive. Barrymore was equally powerful in silent films like Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Beloved Rogue and Don Juan and in the large number of pre-Code talkies he made, including Wyler’s Counsellor at Law and two celebrated films with all-star casts (on each occasion including his brother Lionel), Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight.  Sadly, he only ever played one Shakespeare role on film, an endearing yet violent Mercutio in George Cukor’s Romeo and Juliet. But there is a screen test for a film of  Hamlet which was never made, and a brief clip of him as Richard, Duke of Gloucester/Richard III  in a scene from Henry VI Part III included in The Show of Shows, to give a taste of what he was like on stage.  Barrymore is probably as well-known for his turbulent private life and drink problem as for his acting, and often his great roles draw on these elements, so that his larger-than-life personality, veering from comedy to tragedy and back again, is inextricably linked with his acting. But it’s a shame if appreciation of his work is lost in anecdotes about drunken escapades.

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

3. Laurence Olivier. Olivier definitely seems to be the favourite actor among those who come across my blog, and my brief review of his Hamlet (1948) is by far my most popular posting ever. I’d like to review more of his Shakespearean films in future, as well as other work he did for both cinema and TV. However, it’s not just Olivier’s unforgettable interpretations of Shakespeare’s poetry which made him a fine film actor. He also brings the same intensity to other classic adaptations like Wyler’s Wuthering Heights and Carrie, and is perhaps best of all in the unlikely role of a failed comedian in The Entertainer.  And he stayed great in later roles like a TV King Lear and as Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited, which also starred his great Shakespearean contemporary, John Gielgud.

4. Humphrey Bogart

5. Jean Gabin

6. Cary Grant

7. John Garfield

8. Spencer Tracy

9. Errol Flynn

10. Paul Newman

I’m sorry to leave out, in no particular order, Richard Barthelmess, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Gary Cooper, John Gielgud, Fredric March, James Stewart, Clark Gable, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, Edward G Robinson, Warner Baxter, Bing Crosby, William Powell, Herbert Morrison, Warren William, Sidney Poitier, Lionel Barrymore, Orson Welles, Gene Kelly, Henry Fonda, Clark Gable, Robert Donat, Ray Milland, James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Joseph Cotten, Claude Rains, Charlie Chaplin, Charles Laughton, Peter Lorre, Dana Andrews, Dan Duryea, Gregory Peck, Basil Rathbone, Charles Laughton, Thomas Mitchell… and doubtless many more.

Take Five: Films About Films

Carrying on with my series where I pick five films which have some kind of loose thematic connection – not necessarily the best or even my favourites, but five which interest me. Anyway, films about films seem to be my theme of the moment, as I’ve recently written postings about The Artist and My Week with Marilyn. So here are another five self-regarding movies. Be warned, there are spoilers in my first choice for anyone who doesn’t know what happens in the various versions of A Star Is Born.

Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman

What Price Hollywood (1932): This melodrama directed by George Cukor was the first version of the A Star Is Born story (as far as I know, anyway). It gives a very bitter picture of a Hollywood which chews people up and casts them aside. Lowell Sherman is absolutely stunning as the washed-up drunken film director Max Carey, dominating the film and drawing on his own real-life drink problem. Constance Bennett is also excellent as ambitious waitress turned rising star Mary Evans, but her romance with millionaire Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton) doesn’t really ring true and is a weak spot in a powerful film. I also love William A Wellman’s A Star Is Born (1937), which is very much a reworking of the same story, with great performances by Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, and the George Cukor remake, with Judy Garland and James Mason – just a shame that the complete version of that one is lost. But, anyway, Cukor’s pre-Code version has a witty toughness all of its own. And the suicide scene is unforgettable, focusing on the agony of the man whose life is over, and not seen as some kind of noble gesture to the rising star he loves, as in the remakes.

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James Cagney

I’ve been thinking about James Cagney a lot today, because I realised it was the 25th anniversary of his death. There are many classic actors that I love and admire, but he has to be at the top of my list, as anyone who reads this blog probably realises already!  I think it’s a combination of qualities – his greatness as an actor even in a weak film, with all that nervous energy and willingness to take risks, the humour, the vulnerability and above all that expressive voice. And, yes, his looks have something to do with it too.

When I first set up this blog I was intending to review all of Cagney’s films, but for various reasons it didn’t happen, as I spread my wings a bit and started to develop my interest in other actors and directors. I do still want to review more of his works, but probably won’t get to all of them!  However, I have seen all 60 or so of Cagney’s films at least once each (except for two TV plays and his rare final TV film, Terrible Joe Moran) and thought it might be fun to list my personal top 20 favourites (not necessarily the 20 greatest, but the ones which appeal the most to me). I’ve put them in chronological order as I’d find it impossible to decide which is my absolute favourite… and would be interested to hear what other people’s favourite performances by him are.

Sinners’ Holiday  (1930)
The Public Enemy (1931)
The Crowd Roars (1932)
The Mayor of Hell (1933)
Footlight Parade (1933)
”G’ Men (1935)
Ceiling Zero (1936)
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
The Oklahoma Kid (1939)
Each Dawn I Die (1939)
The Roaring Twenties (1939)
City for Conquest (1940)
The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
Captains of the Clouds (1942)
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
White Heat (1949)
Come Fill the Cup (1951)
Run For Cover (1955)
Mister Roberts (1955)
Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)

The photo below is a signed one I bought via Ebay, which was sent out by Warner to a fan. I understand that most of the autographed photos of film stars sent out by studios were forged by people who worked there – but he could have signed it, and, anyway, it’s nice to have.

Howard Hawks season coming up at the BFI

Ceiling Zero is among the films in the BFI Howard Hawks season

I was excited today to discover that the British Film Institute in London has a comprehensive-looking Howard Hawks season coming up in January. The list of movies is on their site with an introduction by David Thomson. It will include Hawks’ earliest surviving film, Fig Leaves (1926), and other silent rarities, as well as early talkies like The Criminal Code (1931) and many better-known films from the rest of his career. As well as the silents, I’m also extremely tempted by the thought of seeing my favourites like The Crowd Roars (1932) and Ceiling Zero (1935), both starring James Cagney, as a troubled racing driver and womanising pilot, or Twentieth Century (1934), with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard – or The Dawn Patrol (1930), starring Richard Barthelmess, on the big screen. Realistically, as it is a long way to London, I’m not likely to be able to see more than one or two of the wonderful array of films, but will report back on this blog on whatever I do manage to see, anyway!

The BFI has also got what sounds like a great  Frank Capra season running at the moment. On top of its programme of showings, it has ongoing appeals to restore nine rare early Alfred Hitchcock silent films and to find 75 “most wanted” lost British films – including missing features starring Errol Flynn, Laurence Olivier, Dorothy Gish, Peter Lorre, James Mason, Phyllis Calvert and many more famous actors, and also including work by directors such as Hitchcock, again, and Michael Powell. I don’t know if they have had any luck in digging up copies of any of these missing treasures, but here’s hoping.