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!
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.
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.”
At 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.
“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.