I’ve become increasingly interested in seeing movies made during the Great Depression (all too topical these days) – and, from the very opening scene of this pre-Code Warner Brothers comedy, you’re right there. It begins with a dance marathon, similar to the one featured in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (I haven’t seen that yet but definitely want to now.) It shows exhausted couples staggering round the floor for the chance to win a thousand dollars, urged on by master of ceremonies Lefty Merrill (James Cagney).
I was astonished to hear Lefty say in the opening scene that the dance marathon had been going on for 1,400 hours, or two months, and thought that must be an exaggeration for comic purposes – but, looking up information on the net, discovered that some marathons are really said to have gone on for that long. Apparently people had 15 minutes break in every hour and each member of a couple took it in turn to sleep on their feet while the other dancer held them up, with the prize going to the last couple standing.
Unfortunately, on this occasion, there isn’t any money for the last couple standing, because Merrill’s shifty partner has run off with the cash – so Merrill’s girlfriend Ruth (Mary Brian) and her dancing partner Joe have danced themselves almost to death for nothing.
All this sounds more like the opening scene for a tragedy than a frothy comedy – and some of the laughs at the start are quite sharp in tone, such as a woman in the audience turning to a friend and snapping: “You have to wait a long time for anyone to drop dead around here!” However, the film as a whole is very funny, without skating over the suffering being portrayed – a difficult balancing act which must be a tribute to director Mervyn LeRoy.
The other Depression era films directed by LeRoy which I’ve seen are dark and gritty offerings. In the year before this movie was released, he made two disturbing masterpieces, Three on a Match, with Ann Dvorak sinking into drug addiction, and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, with Paul Muni facing utter destitution and despair. This is a much lighter movie, and not a masterpiece on that sort of scale, but still full of the same social consciousness.
I think the key is that you often find yourself laughing with the characters rather than at them, and enjoying their cleverness and resourcefulness – even when these involve stepping on to the wrong side of the law, for instance Merrill organising a treasure hunt without the treasure, or Ruth and her mother selling their landlady’s furniture to fund a moonlight flit from California to New York.
One of the funniest and yet at the same time most poignant sections comes when Merrill follows the two women to New York, and persists in talking big and presenting himself as a successful businessman despite the fact that he is penniless. So there’s a scene of him sitting in his underwear at the tailor’s while his one suit is pressed, ignoring the fact that the soles of his shoes are worn through and eagerly reading the paper in search of moneymaking opportunities.
A few minutes later, he grandly offers to take Ruth and her new boss for lunch at the Ritz, but then remembers another appointment – which turns out to be spending his last 30 cents on a plate of chips and beans. Cagney plays all this with a fast-talking swagger and a wicked glint in his eye, so you have to marvel and laugh at his sheer cheek – but the poignancy of it all still comes through.
About halfway through the movie, Merrill’s fortunes change dramatically when he turns out to be a PR genius and starts coining it in with a host of madcap schemes – among other things, by promoting an 18-day grapefruit diet, which is the cue for a lot of in-jokes for Cagney fans. This means Ruth’s mother, Lil (Ruth Donnelly) suddenly sees him as a desirable son-in-law – but Ruth isn’t so sure she is interested in a successful businessman when she fell in love with a down-at-heel conman!
The relationship between mother and daughter is an enjoyable aspect of this film, with a lot of wisecracking dialogue between them, plus the fact that Lil keeps on grandly referring to her daughter as “we” – saying “We are going to get engaged”, or “We don’t love him, we love you!” The casting is rather peculiar in terms of age, because Donnelly was only ten years older than her supposed daughter, Mary Brian, and Cagney was slightly nearer in age to Donnelly – but, as it’s a black and white movie, they just about get away with it.
This is yet another movie which isn’t yet available on DVD or even VHS – but I’m wondering if Warner may plan to release it soon, as I’ve read that they have included the trailer for it in their Gangsters Collection volume 4 box set. Incidentally, the trailer, which is also available at the main TCM website, includes a moment which was cut out of the film, where Donnelly kisses Cagney on the cheek and he makes a joke. A whole scene on the beach with loads of extras was also cut out of the film – it would be great to see this footage if it ever resurfaces.