This is my contribution to the Symbiotic Collaborations blogathon, being hosted by CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. Please take a look at the other postings, which all focus on collaborations between a director and star.
Both Raoul Walsh and James Cagney are known for their quality of toughness, so it’s no surprise that two of the four movies they made together are famous gangster films. But both director and actor were also interested in focusing on character and, beyond the action sequences, their films also contain equally powerful scenes bringing out the vulnerability of the heroes/villains played by Cagney. I can’t look at every aspect of all four films here, so am concentrating on this theme. I’ve also put a separate bit about some of the films’ endings at the end, including pictures.
THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939)
Walsh and Cagney’s first film together was one of the greatest gangster classics, made in what is often described as Hollywood’s greatest year. According to a TCM article, Walsh was brought in as director late on to replace Anatole Litvak, There is an elegiac quality to this film, which is very much a period piece even though it begins only 21 years before it was made, at the end of the First World War. A number of montages and glimpsed crowd scenes give a sense of the historical background against which the story of three soldiers turned bootleggers, Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Jeffrey Lynn, unfolds.
Cagney must have wondered if he could bring something different to yet another gangster after playing a whole succession of these roles, including Rocky Sullivan in Angels with Dirty Faces only the previous year. But Eddie is very different from the charismatic Rocky. Of course, he is infused with Cagney’s mercurial quality, which shines through in many action set pieces. But, whenever he puts down his gun, he becomes a more lonely figure and seems less suited to a gangster existence. Eddie originally plans to go back to his job as a garage mechanic after coming home from the war, and only gets into organised crime by mistake, after taking a rap for someone else.
No adoring street kids follow in Eddie’s wake here, and, in what I believe was a first for Cagney on film, the girl he loves isn’t interested. He had almost always played characters who are lucky in love up to this point, but here the young singer he adores and turns into a star, Jean (Priscilla Lane) doesn’t fall for his charms. Eddie’s boasting about his gangster methods turns her off, and instead she loves one of his “Joe College” sidekicks, Lloyd Hart, played by the tall, dark and educated Jeffrey Lynn. Interesting, the posters and lobby cards for the film tend to be misleading on this point, with pictures of Cagney and Lane looking like blissful lovers. A deserted Eddie proceeds to fall apart and hit the bottle, underlining the film’s warnings against the dangers of alcohol, a key Walsh theme. He also loses control of his gangster empire – partly because of the Wall Street Crash.
Being a loser in love is a plot which clearly had a resonance for Walsh, since there is a very similar storyline for Bogart in another gangster great made a couple of years later, High Sierra. Just as Eddie tries to buy Jean’s love, Roy Earle (Bogart) does the same with teenager Velma (Joan Leslie), paying for medical treatment – but he also finds that money can’t buy him love.
Although Jean might not love Eddie, though, tough saloon owner Panama Smith (Gladys George), silently watches over him while taking the role of best friend/mother figure. George was actually a year younger than Cagney, but is clearly supposed to be much older than him here. The pair hold hands in almost every scene they appear in together, even when Eddie is staring adoringly at Jean as she sings, so there are hints of the ‘mama’s boy’ persona which Cagney so famously played in White Heat a decade later.
THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE (1941)
On the face of it, The Strawberry Blonde should have little in common with The Roaring Twenties. Far from being a gangster drama, it’s a romantic period piece laced with comedy, set in turn-of-the-century New York. However, there are some surprising similarities. Lovable would-be dentist Biff Grimes (Cagney) is clearly a vulnerable figure, even though this vulnerability is played for laughs at first, as he repeatedly loses fights and constantly receives comic black eyes.
There’s a striking physical contrast between Cagney and Alan Hale, who plays his father, and Jack Carson, as his best friend, Hugo. The ‘strawberry blonde’ of the title, played by Rita Hayworth, also towers over Biff when they dance together. As with Jean in the previous film, Biff spends his money on Virginia (Hayworth), but she is more interested in the social-climbing Hugo. However, Virginia’s friend, Amy, played with a wonderful sense of mischief by Olivia de Havilland, decides to be Biff’s consolation prize.
The film darkens in its second half as Hugo betrays the sweet, not-very-bright Biff (a rare role for Cagney where he isn’t fast talking and fast thinking), but its main quality is warmth and sweetness. I’ve already written a full piece on this film, which looks at more of its qualities, including the lovingly re-created period detail. Here I’ll just add I was quite surprised to remember that Raoul Walsh directed one of Cagney’s most famous romantic comedies, as well as two of his greatest gangster films.
WHITE HEAT (1949)
Cagney had stayed away from gangster roles for a decade after The Roaring Twenties, but eventually was tempted back to Warner Brothers to play one more after his own film-making company ran out of money. Cody Jarrett turned out to be probably his most famous role of all – and one of the weirdest gangsters ever put on film. This film is sometimes described as a noir, though not everyone agrees, but it certainly has some of the hallmarks of the genre, with characters who are all damaged or nasty in some way, and dark and shadowy black-and-white cinematography.
Cagney had played mama’s boys all through his career, including Tom Powers in The Public Enemy, but this character trait reaches new heights in White Heat, where Cody famously sits on Ma’s lap while she smooths his brow to soothe away a headache. Cagney had already sat on his screen mother’s lap in his very first film, Sinners’ Holiday, but that scene doesn’t have quite the incestuous impact of this one, where the actor was 50 and looked it.
Margaret Wycherley is superbly cruel and domineering as Ma, and she and Cagney both give great performances. If Cagney was vulnerable in The Roaring Twenties, he’s far more so here, but he’s also terrifying. Cody is violently unstable and can easily swing from being your friend to your murderer in an instant, as his terrified gang members realise all too well. His marriage to Verna (Virginia Mayo) is another unsuccessful relationship, since, just like Jean in the earlier gangster film, she doesn’t love him and wants to go off with one of his gang members. However, that’s just about the only similarity between sweet Jean and sleazy, selfish Verna, who pops chewing gum out of her mouth to be kissed. Edmond O’Brien, an actor closely associated with noir, also gives a fine performance as the detective ordered to befriend Cody in jail.
This is a film I can revisit endlessly, for its sharp, witty dialogue, its character portrayals and its astonishing set pieces, like the scene where Cody gets up on the prison canteen table and screams after hearing a piece of tragic news. Nobody could scream and cry on film like Cagney – and this is one of his most famous and devastating crying scenes.
A LION IS IN THE STREETS (1953)
After making three great black-and-white films together, Walsh and Cagney were reunited one last time for a Technicolor drama, adapted from the book by Adria Locke Langley and loosely based on the life of Louisiana governor Huey Long. Sadly, this time the film was a disappointment and is largely forgotten – but then, three out of four isn’t bad.
The plot revolves round a huckster, Hank Martin (Cagney), who starts a crusade against a mill owner who he claims is paying short weight to the poor cotton farmers bringing in supplies. But, as Hank’s dismayed wife, Verity (Barbara Hale) gradually realises, her husband’s main aim is to manipulate other people, and all he really cares about is his own ambition.
On the face of it, this should be right up Walsh’s street. Set among the Southern bayous, it has an almost Western feeling to it, with sweeping landscapes and many of the crowd scenes he did so well. Fast-talking Cagney should also have relished the role of Hank, who starts off by driving around in a ramshackle van bearing the sign ‘You want it, I got it’ and goes on to fight for the governorship.
But, somehow, it doesn’t gel. Part of the problem seems to be that this time Hank is a caricature rather than a character. There are plenty of scenes where he wins over crowds, and shouts down anybody daring to disagree with his claims. But there are not enough glimpses of him behind the scenes, so he doesn’t have the inner vulnerability that Cagney’s characters in all the previous Walsh films did. I also found the character of Flamingo (Anne Francis), a young girl who throws herself at the 50-something Hank, totally unbelievable, and a scene involving crocodiles is just ridiculous.One plus point of this film, though, is that Cagney’s sister, Jeanne, has a good part and confronts her brother on screen in a key moment.
This section contains spoilers for The Roaring Twenties, White Heat and A Lion Is in the Streets.
One of the most famous things about both the gangster films that Walsh and Cagney made together is their endings – with two of Cagney’s greatest ever death scenes. At the end of The Roaring Twenties, after being shot, Eddie staggers through the streets and collapses on the steps of a church. The woman who has loved him all through the film with no return, Panama (Gladys George), cradles him in her arms and tells a policeman who asks who he was: “He used to be a big shot”.
Then White Heat ends with the if anything even more famous scene where Cody stands on the burning oil refinery, calling to his long-dead mother “Made it, Ma – top of the world!” A couple of other characters repeat the line in case we didn’t get it the first time, but that is the ending everyone remembers.
Cagney should have had yet another great death scene in A Lion Is in the Streets, where he is shot by the wife of a friend he betrayed (this character, Jennie, is played by his real-life sister Jeanne Cagney, who has a flash of his own intensity). As he falls to the ground and his wife comes to his rescue, he whispers ‘You told on me, Sweetface’. (his nickname for her all through the film.) This is one of those lines where the tough guy suddenly sounds like a kid – something Cagney also does in other films, like The Public Enemy where he is in hospital with Ma at his bedside. But, unfortunately, he says the line twice, which takes away its impact. Also, in this film it’s hard to believe in Hank, and so it’s also hard to be moved by his death.
All in all, though, this great director and actor did some of their most memorable work together – and each helped the other to create the image by which he is remembered today.