Great Guy (1936)

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!

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James Cagney and Mae Clarke

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.

James Cagney in a dramatic scene from 'Great Guy'

James Cagney in a dramatic scene from 'Great Guy'

Perhaps the most important thing about Johnnie is that he is an ex-boxer – with the emphasis on ex. He tries so hard to keep his fists in his pockets and fight with words instead. Admittedly, he doesn’t always manage to keep that up, with a couple of scenes where he punches it out with the con artists cunningly hiding weights in their flour or strawberries, building up to an inevitable violent climax. But there’s a feeling that he is trying to break away from tough guy methods, just as Cagney himself wanted to get away from those roles .

“Did you break your hand?” asks his colleague in one scene, as Johnnie ruefully looks at his fist after a brief fight. “No – a promise,” comes the answer. In another scene, after being beaten up and left unconscious, instead of going after the attacker himself, he rings police to report the attack and says wearily: “Well, I’ll just leave it up to you. You’re the police department.”

GreatGuy9At little over an hour long, this film is definitely no masterpiece. Indeed, it starts so abruptly, in the middle of the story, that it seems as if part of it might be missing. However, I still find myself warming to the mix of drama and comedy, with plenty of wisecracks, and also to its slightly understated quality.

The movie was directed by John G Blystone, a name I don’t think I’d previously come across. Made to a low budget, and with a cast largely made up of unknowns, apart from Cagney and leading lady Mae Clarke, it seems to have an atmosphere of the Great Depression about it. Everyone is reluctant to spend money or get into debt, while Johnnie and his girlfriend Janet, secretary to a dodgy businessman, are saving up to get married and furnish their first home – another unglamorous storyline which I haven’t come across in many films, though it must have been a reality for many young couples at the time.

In one scene, where he wants to take her to the Ritz for lunch to celebrate a promotion, she refuses to spend that much, and they instead end up in a delightfully awful cafe, queuing up for spinach and mashed potato to be ladled on to their plates. Patrick McGilligan’s book  Cagney: The Actor as Auteur, interestingly suggests that this sequence, with Cagney and Clarke enjoying an everyday meal together, may be a deliberate answer to the grapefruit scene in The Public Enemy – but, whether that’s true or not, it is an enjoyable scene in itself. I enjoy the relationship between Clarke and Cagney’s characters in this film because it seems so established and they are seen working together and talking about things other than romance. Although they bicker and even break up at one stage, there is a feeling that the love between them is deeply rooted and that they are friends as well as lovers.

Cagney and Mae Clarke in the cafe which isn't quite the Ritz

James Burke, Cagney and Mae Clarke in the cafe which isn't the Ritz

“The housewife must not be cheated!” shouts Cagney in one scene – a line which could almost get a laugh at first hearing, because the passion in his voice might seem too much for the prosaic subject matter. However, thinking it over for a minute or two, you realise that in fact this type of everyday cheating would have been a greater problem for many people going to the movies than gangsters shooting it out on street corners.

The film was called Pluck of the Irish for its UK release (I think the word ‘guy’ still mainly meant a Guy Fawkes effigy over here at that time), and it has a lot of gentle Irish humour, much of it centred on Cave’s workmate, Patrick James Aloysius ‘Pat’ Haley (James Burke) and his outrageous tall stories, which tend to slow the action down.

All in all, Great Guy is a very slight offering, not up there with Cagney’s Warner offerings from around the same period such as Ceiling Zero and G-Men – yet I still enjoyed it enormously.  Because it is in the public domain, it’s widely available on a whole range of budget DVDs and also as a free download from assorted websites, but the only prints I’ve seen are terrible – with a grey, shaky picture, breaks in the film and a lot of noise on the soundtrack.

I recently bought one of the DVDs currently available, but then belatedly heard that a remastered edition has been issued in the US. If anyone reading this review has seen this version, I’d be interested to hear how much better the quality is, and whether it actually has any missing footage added back in.

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13 thoughts on “Great Guy (1936)

  1. Judy,

    Great review… it looks like our reviews are nice compliments to each other! I have to admit that nearly all of the Cagney that I am familiar with deals with his “tough guy” persona, so it’s interesting to hear about Cagney’s versatility. I’ve added this one to the Netflix queue and am going to check it out. Excellent work!

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  2. Thank you very much, Dave. I’d be interested to hear what you think of this movie – it isn’t by any means one of his greatest and is very slight, as I said in my review, but still interesting to watch. I hope you get a better print than the one I suffered!

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  3. Judy,

    First, you need to get you priorities straight choosing work of film blogging, What are you thinking! LOL

    Seriously, well at least a little more so, this is a great review. I have never heard of this film and it is always good to discover “new” Cagney even if it is not one of his best. Still it has to be kind of fun seeing him and Mae Clarke together considering their well known cinematic history.

    BTW director John Blystone’s career goes back to 1915. He is probably best remembered, is he is at all, today for co-directing with Buster Keaton his film “Our Hospitality” and late in his career he directed two Laurel and Hardy features “Swiss Miss” and “Block-Heads”

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  4. John, thanks, I’ll try to get my priorities right.;) I do like seeing Clarke and Cagney together with no grapefruit in sight – I also like her as an actress, and am keen to see her in the 1931 James Whale version of ‘Waterloo Bridge’, though sadly that one hasn’t been released in the UK, my familiar refrain.

    Thanks for the information about John Blystone – he didn’t ring a bell with me. I have heard of those two Laurel and Hardy films, but don’t think I’ve seen them.

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  5. Judy – I watched “Waterloo Bridge” about a few weeks ago. It was released here as part of the TCM Forbidden Hollywood” series Vol. 1 – Hopefully, you get to see it, Clarke is excellent in it. The film really gives her a chance to shine.

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  6. I don’t know enough about Cagney’s career, except that he was a song-and-dance man originally (before _Public Enemy No 1_) and among his later movies but before 1948 he made the wonderful and memorable _I’m a Yankee Doodle-Dandy_. Perhaps that was the sort of thing he yearned for? We’ve talked about how under his tough guy act is a strain of strong nervousness, vulnerability and sensitivity. Maybe the male roles available at the time had nothing for this kind of presence: he’d find it today though :) The lack of decent back-up and an unknown director and uncertain beginning could also stem from anger over his rebellion.

    In the 1930s Colman fought the studios too. They had allowed a rumor to spread that he had a nervous breakdown or was alcoholic, one which would “back up” in real life in a crude way the vulnerable male type he played in some of the films. In suing (as I recall) he too broke his contract, and he too was able to overcome this in the sense that his career was not ruined — and also the rumors were stopped.

    Ellen

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    • Hello Ellen, yes, I think Cagney did want to make more movies using his song and dance talents – the next one he made for the poverty row studio Grand National was a musical, ‘Something to Sing About’, which satirises the studio system – I hope to review that one here some time too. He had managed to get away from Warner at this time by suing them after they forced him to make six movies in a year when he was only contracted for five, but he had to go back when Grand National went bust, though there were more breaks with Warner to come in the future.

      Cagney did feel Warner kept on giving him typecast roles which concentrated on the “tough guy” angle and didn’t have enough scope for other aspects of his personality and talents. I’m interested to hear that Ronald Colman sued the studios too – I knew Bette Davis did, though she lost and was forced to go on making whatever movies the studio came up with. I do have a book about the history of American movies in the 1930s and 40s which I think will tell me more about the studio system, once I’ve finished all the books I’m reading at the moment!

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  7. Great post, indeed! You really made me interested in seeing this seemingly odd film (thanks for the Cagney and studio trivia, it added a lot to the film).
    This blog is one of my newer findings, and I don’t regret bookmarking it! Keep up the good work, gal.
    Love //Lolita

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  8. Dear Judy,

    To reassure you I’ve read your comment (though neither came to my gmail; I don’t know why, but I can come over here to read).

    Perhaps Colman was unusual for winning. He was intelligent and what he was surreptitiously accused of was an insult to perceived norms of masculinity. Maybe that’s why he won. He got sympathy.

    It’s said though that even winning hurt his career. He had to go it alone and I remember the biographer suggested people in the studio were spiteful. But it could have been he wanted to retire and do less too.

    Ellen

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  9. I am a Weights & Measures official in California and The Great Guy is a cult classic. Comparing Cagney’s approach to our work is entertaining to say the least.

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    • I can imagine you may not take quite the same approach as Cagney does in the film! Glad to hear you enjoy it, though, Jim, and thanks for commenting.

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