Come Fill the Cup (1951)

This tale of a drunken journalist has long been one of James Cagney’s rarest films, never released on video or DVD. It seems to be available only on the “grey market”. I do hope this film will get an official release, as there is clearly a demand for it. When I first posted this review, it was available on Youtube, but it was later taken down.

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.

Cagney at his typewriter

Cagney at his typewriter

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.

25 thoughts on “Come Fill the Cup (1951)

  1. Nice review Judy! Warner Brothers needs to give this film an offical release. I have neve seen it but you have whetted my appetite. I hate watching films on you-tube, however currently that seems to be the only way so it certainly better than nothing.

    Director Gordon Douglas had a long if not distinguished career. He neve made a truly great film but managed to make films that ranged fom decent (Rio Conchos, Up Periscope, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye) to awful (Call Me Bwana, Harlow, Way…Way Out, the 1966 verison Stagecoach). In later years he was a favorite director of Frank Sinatra (The Detective, Tony Rome, Lady in Cement) only because Frank liked to do only one or two takes and move on. Also, in his early days Douglas, who started out as an actor, before he moved on to directing made many of the Our Gang (Litte Rascal) shorts of the 1930’s including the Oscar winner “Bored of Education.”


  2. Thank you! I’m not a great fan of watching old films online (what I’d really like is to see them on the big screen), but, watching full screen and in high quality, I find if it’s a good film I can still get hooked. Also it does give me access to some films which haven’t been released in the UK, or at all.

    Thanks for the information about Gordon Douglas – must admit I didn’t know anything about him. It sounds as if it will pay to pick which films of his I see with care! I haven’t seen all that many of Frank Sinatra’s acting performances, but liked him in ‘From Here to Eternity.’


  3. Sinatra was great as Maggio in “From Here to Eternity” Certainly one of his best dramatic performanaces. If you have not seen “The Man With the Golden Arm” (with Kim Novak)and “The Manchurian Candidate” (Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh)these are must films in his filmography. i also personally like “The Joker is Wild” and “Suddenly.”


  4. Thanks again, John – I’ll add these to the ever-lengthening list of films I want to see! Up to now I’ve mainly seen Sinatra singing – ‘Guys and Dolls’ is a favourite of mine – but will hope to catch up on some of his acting roles too.


  5. Dear Judy,

    I managed to watch the first 8 minutes. I have trouble downloading UTube movies: they keep stopping and then I get a little bit of movie and then UTube stops again. I did get something of the feel of these old movies: it reminded me of the movies I once watched and even in the 8 minutes I recognized some actors. I’ve seen that switchboard operator and the boss who fires our hero many times. I recognized Gleason (if that’s him) from your still: I’ve seen that man before. The long-suffering girlfriend at the bar seemed to me hopelessly stereotype, and the sorrow of others at the man’s having been fired movie stuff.

    But Cagney’s performance does transcend these older character types. He looks like he did in _White Heat_ — made in the same decade. I can’t remember seeing a movie which dealt with alcoholism since _Days of Wine and Roses_ and can’t remember that very well. The realism appealed to leaves itself open to asking if the assertions are true: my feeling is the person who drinks doesn’t seek a reason, but then I am not in the minds of others. One drinks because one drinks: it’s irresistible, you like it, period.

    It did remind me of other movies from this pre-1960 period and make me wonder why film-makers moved away from this kind of melodrama. The newer movies project indifference, anomie, not this we all feel for one another and are together in it. I’m glad to have seen this 8 minutes. Thank you, Ellen


  6. Hi Ellen, thanks for commenting. I’ve found watching movies on Youtube works ok for me now, but much prefer getting hold of a proper DVD! It’s Gig Young, not Gleason, in the still – I tried to add a caption several times but for some reason it didn’t work and I had to give up, some glitch with WordPress software, I suppose.

    I agree the little speech at the bar is quite stagey, but I like it – it is also a contrast with the second drinking scene where he has almost lost the ability to speak and is just saying “bourbon” to the bartender.


    • Thanks, Andrew – I wish Warner would release it on DVD. I suppose they might eventually include it in their pricey new Warner Archives series…


  7. Thanx for the reviews of this great movie which, I believe, should be one of Cagney’s top ten best. I agree that the melodrama saps some of the movies’ strength, but, is required in order to allow all of the actors’ fine performances. The one scene that demonstrates this is the point where Gleason’s character is helping the Gig Young character (in much the same way as he helped Cagney’s character earlier)and Gleason is killed in a car accident while Young was driving. The Cagney character is explosive as he dishes out retribution at the road side to Gig Young. A scene required to BE seen to appreciate. Love the movie. Looking to add it to my collection somehow. RLK


  8. Thanks for visiting and commenting, Ray. I agree it is up there with his best performances, and I also like the scene after the crash – Cagney is always very powerful in scenes where he has to break down as he does here, and it’s if anything all the more moving in a film where up to that point his character has been holding himself in so much. I do wonder if Warner will release it in some shape or form – let’s hope so.


  9. I saw the film years ago on UK TV during a Cagney season and I remember it vividly. A true classic which will hopefully be re-released some time soon.


    • Thanks, Joe – I agree it is a true classic and would love to see it released, or even just shown on TV so I can record it on a DVD!


  10. I would very much like to see “Come Fill the Cup” with James Cagney released in DVD or Blueray formats for purchase. I would appreciate any information about where I could obtain a copy.

    Thank you!



  11. As a journalist myself I saw this movie many years ago – just once – before the internet days. I feel I am sure that Cagney repeats ths famous line: “Don’t you see? I am home.” at the end of the film when he returns late to write up the story about the dealing with gangsters. The editor asks the same question, about him having a home to go to, and Cagney replies: “Don’t you see? I am home.” before the shot fades.


  12. This movie was shown on AMC’s “Matinee Classics” about eight or 10 years ago, hosted by Nick Clooney; I videotaped it and still watch it. This is a very underrated film. Not only are Cagney and Gig Young great but it’s a fascinating performance by Sheldon Leonard, who of course went on to become a great producer of hit TV shows (Danny Thomas, Andy Griffith). I have always wondered what was the locale for the gritty street scenes in this film; there’s a brief scene of a place called the “Buckeye Tap,” which makes me think Ohio, perhaps?


  13. I need to have this movie for my addiction friends. The movie is timeless for the message still
    remains true. Cagney being Cagney makes it top notch.


    • William – It has been on TV. I saw it either on TCM Turner Classics or in Australia. It is a classic for sure for those in the business. His closing lines of being at his type writer because that was the place he was meant to be, are wonderful. But another of Cagney’s romance movies where he misses out on the girl.


    • The last line if I recall,”Why don’t you go home” ? “Can’t you see, I am home.”


  14. Pingback: COME FILL THE CUP. 1951 | Vienna's Classic Hollywood

  15. Pingback: Come Fill the Cup (1951) | timneath

    • There is no official DVD release available, I’m afraid – here’s hoping Warner Archive releases it soon. I don’t allow details of unofficial DVDs on this site because of copyright issues.


  16. Wonderful film. wonderful Cagney. I didn’t know that this great [ if a little flawed] film existed! Cagney’s performance beyond praise. God. where has this film been all these years? Warners should be ashamed of themselves! Sean Oliver, Dublin, Ireland

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Great Film has Cagney at his best & very deliberate. Well done, especially scenes with James Gleason & Sheldon Leonard, Cagney & Gig Young. “Bottoms Up”. Great scene turns the whole film around to a satisfying finish. Well done. I recommend this film for all former alcoholics and those still in a hopeless rut without hope. Last saw this motion picture in 1991 in San Marcos hotel room. RMA;Bakersfield, CA…P.S. James Cagney has a beautiful & up-lifting attitude. He carries the story onward superbly…..


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