This 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Most of the early William A Wellman movies I’ve written about here are little-known – and the same goes for a lot of the James Cagney movies I’ve written about up to now. I often find it’s easier to find things to say about films which haven’t already been discussed endlessly. By contrast, The Public Enemy is one of the most celebrated of 1930s films – Wellman’s gangster masterpiece, and the film which made Cagney a star. It’s also the film which got me interested in both its star and director. Since I first saw this movie, I’ve watched it repeatedly and also gone on to see almost all of Cagney’s other movies, plus as many of Wellman’s silent and pre-Code films as I can get my hands on.
I hoped that after doing all this I would have something new to say about this film, yet I am still daunted, and can really only come up with some rambling comments rather than a full review. Anyway, I agree with everybody else that it is a masterpiece, and a film where you can find something new every time you watch it. In case anybody reading this hasn’t seen the movie, I will be talking about the whole film, including the famous ending.
I originally wrote this posting a while ago, but have now rewritten it as part of my William Wellman season here. I first watched Other Men’s Women on a dodgy bootleg copy, which was the only way of seeing it at the time, but am now delighted to have a beautifully remastered official DVD, issued as part of the Forbidden Hollywood 3 box set.
This is a fast-moving film which really appealed to me because I am a fan of both melodrama and gritty early Warner films focusing on people’s working lives. The fact that it also features an early performance by James Cagney, though in a very small part, is another attraction. It has some dramatic, dark and grainy footage of trains in rainstorms – Wellman very often uses rain in his films, partly to give a feeling of his characters being up against it and facing a hostile world, as in the famous scene with Cagney in the rain near the end of The Public Enemy, made in the same year. I gather some of the train scenes were done with miniatures, but they still look convincing to me.
Just a short review today as I don’t have time for one of my epics, you may be relieved to hear! In all honesty, I also don’t have all that much to say about Devil Dogs of the Air, which is a light comedy-drama, though it does feature some spectacular aviation footage. However, I thought I’d write something about it before it fades in my mind.
On the face of it, there are quite a few similarities between this movie , directed by Lloyd Bacon, and one of my favourite James Cagney films, Howard Hawks’ Ceiling Zero, made later in the same year. Both see Cagney playing a daredevil pilot, and both team him with Pat O’Brien as a long-suffering old friend in a position of command. (They are mail pilots in Ceiling Zero, fleet marine force aviators here.) Cagney even makes almost the same entrance in both films. In each case his character has had quite a build-up before he appears, and is first seen in a plane doing daring aerobatics, before cheekily throwing himself into a dismayed O’Brien’s arms on landing.
Yet the two movies feel very different to watch – partly of course because Devil Dogs is mainly comedy and Ceiling Zero mainly drama, but also, I think, because Hawks’ film gives so much more complexity to the characters. In Ceiling Zero Cagney’s character, “Dizzy” Davis is in his mid-30s (with a thin moustache to make him look a little older and more dashing), getting rather old to fly and also finding his life of womanising starting to wear thin.
This is my second – last-minute! – contribution to the Robert Wise blog-athon, being hosted at the Octopus Cinema website. I’ve just re-watched this Western starring my favourite actor, James Cagney, which is the tale of a tough, driven owner of a horse ranch in Wyoming, and wanted to write down a few thoughts about it.
This is a lavishly-produced film, in Cinemascope and Technicolor, with beautifully colourful, wide shots of the rolling grass prairies that almost take your breath away. The dazzling scenery does become disconcerting at times in the movie, as sometimes violent and disturbing events unfold against a backdrop almost as lovely as the Alps in Wise’s The Sound of Music (of course, bad things are happening inside the houses there too.) I suppose the contrast between the scenery and the events must be part of the point, but I’m not sure it always works all that well – sometimes I found myself wishing the lighting would be just a little less bright.
In the opening scene, young stranger Steve Miller (Don Dubbins) wanders into Jeremy Rodock’s valley, and almost immediately meets ranch owner Rodock (Cagney) himself, who is shot in a gunfight with horse thieves. Despite his wound, Rodock is determined to avenge himself on the thieves and insists on continuing to ride his horse until he faints in the saddle. He then insists that Steve must cut the bullet out of his back to save his life. There’s a moment of dark comedy afterwards when Rodock – the one who has just undergone the operation without anaesthetic! - asks a half-fainting Steve: “How do you feel?”
First of all, I’m sorry not to have posted here for ages – my working life has been busy and I’ve let blogging slip as a result. I’ll try to do better!
James Cagney walked out on Warner Brothers in the mid-1930s partly because he was fed up with being typecast as a tough guy. So it comes as a surprise that his starring role in Great Guy – the first of two movies he made with Grand National, a poverty row studio – seems such a typical role for him.
Typical at first glance, anyway. His character, Johnnie Cave (the hero of stories by James Edward Grant published in the Saturday Evening Post) is an ex-boxer, now fearlessly enforcing the law for New York’s Department of Weights and Measures. However, the very fact that he is working for such an unglamorous department suggests a certain distance between this character and the gangsters, G-Men and dashing pilots Cagney had played in his recent films.