The movie is a melodrama set in a fairground at (or near) Coney Island, during the era of prohibition, where the indomitable widow Ma Delano (Lucille LaVerne) runs her family’s penny arcade. She is helped by older son Joe and daughter Jennie, and hindered by weak younger son Harry (Cagney), who is unemployed and drifts into running booze. The film has that gritty early Warner Brothers feel to it and packs an awful lot of dialogue and action into a running time of less than an hour.
I was impressed by how strong Cagney’s screen presence is even in this early film. He is third-billed, below Grant Withers and Evalyn Knapp, but dominates every time he is on screen – rivalled only by a fiercely protective LaVerne as the first of his screen mothers.
One possible sign of his inexperience on camera is that Cagney’s voice isn’t quite as expressive here as it later became. It’s very high-pitched and so breathlessly fast, even for him, that I found one or two lines impossible to make out, though that could have been partly due to the quality of the recording from TV I was watching. (If only Warner Brothers would release more of these old movies!) However, the tremulous voice goes well with the weakness of the character, so it could have been deliberate.
(The part of this review behind the cut includes spoilers)
Although I really wanted to see the film for Cagney, LaVerne’s character is also very interesting, as a woman running her own business and determined to keep ahead of her male rivals. She is a widow who inherited the business after her husband drank himself to death – a cue for prohibition era warnings about the evils of drink, as in The Public Enemy. Here it seems that her husband’s drunkenness has somehow blighted Harry even before he was born, though oddly it hasn’t had the same effect on her other two children.
Ma is shown as having a good grasp of what is going on around her, except for her blind spot when it comes to her favourite son. (She’s the only one who doesn’t know he is running booze.) When a crime investigation is going on, her main concern is not the fact that someone has been murdered, but the fear that it will stop punters from coming in to spend their money. I’ve been trying to find more early films which show women’s working lives, and this is one quite surprising example. (I haven’t seen LaVerne in much else, but did recently see her as “the Vengeance” in the 1930s version of A Tale of Two Cities – and she was also the voice of the wicked queen in the Disney Snow White.)
Withers still has all the mannerisms of a silent film star in his role as ex-con Angel Harrigan, who woos Jennie (Knapp), and these two together seem rather hammy. Strikes me it might have been harder in some ways for silent film stars making the transition to talkies than for someone coming in from the stage. It’s a pity this couple aren’t more convincing in their roles, because they do have one very sexy pre-code scene, where they are flirting together on the beach at night, and then in the changing rooms afterwards – this sequence could have been dynamite with different actors.
As they are cuddling on the beach, Jennie tells Angel that she wants children – she does also say she wants to be married, but this still struck me as quite an unusual line for an unmarried girl in a movie. I bet she wouldn’t have said it after the code came in. Their characters also have other striking lines, including a great moment where Angel explains that his name was given to him by his father because he came off the booze when he was born (another character showing the evil of drink), and so felt his son was the “angel” who had saved him. Even so, I found it hard to work up much interest in either of these characters. It’s even hard to care about Angel when Ma and Harry have framed him for murder and he is about to be carted off to jail.
The film was adapted from Marie Baumer’s Broadway play, Penny Arcade, and, as a result, has some strong dialogue – although it doesn’t feel as talk-heavy as some other pre-code movies adapted from stage plays. The play folded after just 24 performances, but, famously, actor Al Jolson saw one of those performances, bought the film rights and sold them to Warner Brothers, with the proviso that they must use stage actors Cagney and Joan Blondell in the movie. Both did a great job, though a dark-haired Blondell’s part is fairly small – and both went on to become stars. There’s a lot of chemistry between them in the scenes they have together, and of course they were great friends in real life.
One of the fascinations of this movie for a fan of Cagney is that this is the nearest we can get to seeing his work on stage. With all the other roles he played before going to Hollywood, all we have are the descriptions – but here we have a part he played in the theatre, and where he probably did a lot of the same things. I wondered if it would be possible to find any reviews of the stage play online, but have so far drawn a blank. In particular, I’d love to know if Cagney sat on his mother’s lap on stage, as he does in one scene in the film – made 20 years before the similar moment in White Heat. There is a great deal of “mama’s boy” stuff in this movie – maybe more even than in White Heat, which I’ve just re-watched. At one point, rather surreally, he has to sneak out to meet a fellow gangster late at night, because Ma has just ordered him to go to bed!
In another long scene near the end of the movie, he confesses to a killing, carried out in self-defence, and goes down on his knees to his mother, sobbing hysterically and clinging to her as he pleads with her to help him, which she at first refuses to do. This crying scene is also included in the original trailer for the movie, which is online at the TCM website, but there’s a striking difference between the two. At the very end of the trailer, Harry sobs: “I’m scared, Ma – I’m still your baby, ain’t I? – help me, help me!” and she then relents and puts her arm round him as the scene fades out. The scene included in the film is the same take, but the line “I’m still your baby, ain’t I?” has been cut out. Instead, there’s a shot of Ma silently mouthing the words “My baby!” before the film cuts back to Harry.
One of the books I’ve read about Cagney (I think it was Richard Schickel’s book, though I have returned it to the library so can’t check) says he refused to say the “baby” line and got it cut out of the script. This story is also repeated in an article about the movie on the TCM site, but the footage in the trailer shows that he did say it – and then presumably got it cut out later. Maybe he felt it was just a bit too much – although he does dully whisper a similar line, “Yeah, I’m your baby”, to his screen mother in the hospital scene near the end of The Public Enemy.
Although I like the movie, there are a few problems with it – one of which is the ending. After Harry has been arrested and marched away by the police, Ma promptly reopens the arcade, smiling merrily to the waiting punters, and seems to forget all about him. OK, the show must go on and the family needs to make a living, but her attitude here seems rather unlikely given her character in the rest of the movie. More bizarrely still, Angel and Jennie are seen cheerfully working for Ma – despite the fact that she has just tried to frame Angel for murder! I suppose a problem with the short running time for a movie like this was that everything had to be wrapped up so quickly.