If you ask around among James Cagney fans about which of his movies they’d most like to see get a DVD release, this pre-code film will be near the top of the list. It was a huge box office success at the time, and is memorable in his career for several reasons.
It’s the film where Cagney has his first extended dance scene (there is a brief dance scene in the earlier Other Men’s Women, but you see more of his footwork here) – and the film with his first, and longest , scene speaking Yiddish. Most famously, it’s also the movie where he (almost) says “You dirty rat” – though the actual wording is “Come out and take it, you dirty yellow-bellied rat.”
The movie also features another major star, Loretta Young, who is at her luminous pre-code best here. It’s full of the trademark Warner grittiness, and packs a breathtaking amount of comedy, quickfire dialogue, action and melodrama into just under 70 minutes. Yet this movie has never been released on VHS, let alone DVD – and in the UK it is never even shown on TCM. Surely Warner Brothers should come up with a lovely remastered print soon in one of their box sets!
Having said all this, I don’t think Taxi!, directed by Roy del Ruth, is by any means a masterpiece. It seems to keep changing pace and direction, moving from melodrama to comedy and back again – and there are all sorts of puzzling plot twists which make no sense as soon as you stop to think about them. The first time I saw the movie, I kept brooding over the gaping holes in the story, but, for some reason, when I watched it a second time today, they didn’t bother me so much. Maybe I’m just in a more mellow mood – but, anyway, I found the performances by Cagney, Young and the other lead actors were so enjoyable that I was able to concentrate on these.
The film starts off by focusing on a taxi war in New York, with a scene where hot-tempted cabbie Matt Nolan (Cagney) is hemmed in by two members of a rival firm. Soon afterwards, the elderly Pop Riley (Guy Kibbee) is warned by a menacing cabbie-cum-gangster that ‘Consolidated’ is taking over his patch and he had better move on. When he refuses, a lorry arrives and drives straight into his taxi. Wild with rage and grief, Riley shoots the lorry driver dead, and lands up in Sing Sing prison, where he dies a week later.
Pop’s daughter, Sue (Young) falls out with Nolan over the best way to act next. Matt is all for fighting back against Consolidated, but Sue thinks there has already been enough violence. The pair argue bitterly at a public meeting and later fall out again in the street – the scene ending with Matt’s comment: “I wouldn’t go with that dame if she was the last woman on earth, and I just got out of the Navy.” But, in the very next scene, the two of them are on a date at the cinema , and he is full of warmth and charm. I don’t actually think this is a plot hole, more a demonstration of how inconsistent Matt can be, and how the two sides of his nature are constantly at war.
However, this plot turn is a jolt in the movie, as up to this point it has mainly been a melodrama, and suddenly it turns into a rough-edged romantic comedy. The start of the romantic storyline also marks a point where the film suddenly moves away from the whole issue of the taxi war and how workers should protect their right to make a living, and never really goes back to it again. I’ve noticed that quite often 1930s movies seem to raise contemporary issues at the start and then abandon them fairly quickly.
Nonetheless, the cinema scene is highly enjoyable, as Cagney and Young watch a scene from an invented movie, Her Hour of Love, starring Donald Cook, who played Cagney’s brother in The Public Enemy, and Evalyn Knapp, who starred with Cagney in both Sinners’ Holiday and Smart Money. This “movie within a movie” looks wildly romantic, in a stilted and already dated way, and Sue sighs over it – but Matt decides to demonstrate that he can come up with a clinch to rival any movie leading man. Only three years into talkies, and already Warner was mocking a slightly earlier style of acting.
Another in-joke included in this scene comes when Sue’s friend and workmate Ruby (Leila Bennett) looks at a poster with a picture of John Barrymore, advertising his 1931 movie The Mad Genius and comments : “I think John Barrymore is copying Fredric March more every day!” In fact, it was the other way round and Fredric March had famously sent up Barrymore in The Royal Family of Broadway – yet another movie which isn’t on DVD and which I’d love to see.
A lot of the people who have commented on this movie at the imdb are annoyed by Leila Bennett as Ruby, a waitress working with Sue at a cafe. Ruby talks non-stop, in a whining monotone, and rarely lets anyone else get a word in edgeways. I’m sure she would drive me mad in real life, but I have to say I find her quite funny on screen. I like the friendship between her and Sue – and the fact that this is a movie which shows women working for their living in an everyday job. Ruby is also a refreshing presence in the movie because she is a down-to-earth, non-glamorous looking woman who nevertheless has a devoted boyfriend, Matt’s best friend Skeets (George E Stone) – and a long list of ex-lovers, whom she is constantly keen to mention.
Although Sue and Matt are soon going steady, they constantly argue over his fiery temper. He promises to control himself, but can’t – and is soon lashing out at anyone who gets in his way. For instance, a fat man who stands on his foot in a lift, or a rival dancer – a pre-stardom George Raft! – in a ballroom dancing contest. After his displays of temper, Sue repeatedly tells him it’s all over, but he always apologises, promises to reform and manages to win her over.
A couple of times Cagney uses a little gesture where he brings a clenched fist up to Young’s face but turns it into a caress, whispering “Ah, if I thought you meant it!” I’ve read that this was something his father used to do and he included it in the film as a tribute to him – but I think it also again sums up the conflict within Matt between violence and tenderness. Cagney often tended to come up with hand gestures which express elements of a character’s nature, as he does here. However, the gesture is disturbing because it suggests domestic violence, and there is a scene later where Matt slaps Sue in the face, after discovering what he sees as a betrayal, which also leaves a bad taste. Cagney felt that scriptwriters used to put scenes where he had to be violent to women in films on purpose after the success of the grapefruit scene in The Public Enemy, and he was bitter about it, saying they were making him “do their dirty work.” (A gossip column article about this, first published in the 1930s, has just been put online at the Hollywood Heyday blog.)
Matt’s violent streak flares up disastrously on his wedding day, when he and Sue are at a club where he is goaded by the man behind her father’s tragedy, Buck Gerard (David Landau). Matt tries to stay calm, but, as usual, can’t quite manage it and bursts out into violence – leading to tragedy when his younger brother, Danny (Ray Cooke) steps in and is knifed in the back by Buck.
Danny dies in hospital, and Matt weeps in Sue’s arms – one of the powerful crying scenes which were often included in Cagney movies right through his career. It’s odd in a way, since he was known as a tough guy, that there are so many scenes where he breaks down in tears, but, then, you often feel as if his “tough” characters are living on nervous energy and could snap at any time.
Sue is actually tougher than Matt in some ways – she never breaks down, and she is determined to see them both through everything. I’ve liked Young in all the pre-code films of hers that I’ve seen, especially Man’s Castle with Spencer Tracy, and am impressed by how, despite her beauty, she tends to give her characters a forthright, down-to-earth quality.
Sue certainly has this. It’s just a pity that, towards the end of the film, she is caught up in a series of plot twists which make little sense, when the girlfriend of murderer Buck calls round to see her and asks for money to get him abroad, so that Matt won’t be able to find him and kill him and land up in prison. Sue gives Buck’s girlfriend the 100 dollars which Matt has saved up to buy a headstone for Danny’s grave – something which I think is really piling on the agony rather shamelessly. And, of course, it doesn’t stop the inevitable violent climax. Why on earth doesn’t she ring up the police and save her money?
That’s just one of the film’s plot holes – but, despite the sometimes shaky storyline, I definitely think Taxi! is worth watching, and not just if you are a Cagney fanatic like me. To me, though admittedly I’ve never been out of Europe, it seems to have a strong flavour of New York, with snappy dialogue and enjoyable scenes in streets and restaurants, and with hard-pressed, sometimes desperate working-class characters at the centre. I think it stands up pretty well as a movie from what I fear we could soon be calling the First Great Depression.