Raoul Walsh and James Cagney’s 4 Films Together

Raoul Walsh and James Cagney

Raoul Walsh and James Cagney

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.

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It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934)

It Happened 1It was a film made in just four weeks, and on a shoestring. Clark Gable was forced to star in it as a punishment, according to some accounts, and turned up drunk and angry to meet director Frank Capra.  At the end of filming, Claudette Colbert said “I just finished the worst picture in the world.”  Yet, somehow, It Happened One Night, the tale of a runaway heiress who joins forces with an unemployed journalist on a long-distance bus trip,  ended up as a smash hit and multi-Oscar winner. It touched a nerve in the Great Depression – and still does so now, in our own hard times nearly 80 years on. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen during a rerelease in the UK, and the audience’s reaction showed just how well this early screwball tale of a couple travelling on a late-night bus has worn.

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The Strawberry Blonde (Raoul Walsh, 1941)

strawberry blonde 14This is my contribution to the James Cagney blogathon being organised by R.D. Finch at The Movie Projector. Please do visit and read the other postings. There is also the chance to win a two-DVD special set of ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ – scroll down to the bottom of the Movie Projector blogathon page for details of how to enter.

Both James Cagney and director Raoul Walsh are best-known for their tough-guy dramas – and they made two great ones together, gangster classics The Roaring Twenties and White Heat. Yet this pair also teamed up to make one of the sweetest of romantic comedy-dramas, a period piece suffused with charm and nostalgia. With not one but two great leading ladies, Rita Hayworth and Olivia de Havilland, a sparkling script and an irresistible musical soundtrack,  The Strawberry Blonde is a film which deserves to be much better known. Sadly this title has never had a full DVD release, and old VHS videos  used to change hands at scarily high prices – but now it has been brought out on Warner Archive in region 1, and it has also been shown in a fine print on the UK TCM in the last few years.

Most of the film unfolds in flashback, so we know from the start that young dentist Biff Grimes (Cagney) has been disappointed in love and spent time in prison after somehow being framed by a friend. The film then shows how it all happened – before we finally discover whether Biff will be tempted to take his revenge on the friend in question, Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson), when he finally turns up in his surgery as a patient.

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BFI’s taster for silent Dickens – and lamentations over lost films

Thanks so much to everyone who has shown an interest in my Dickens in December series of postings. I’m getting the impression that quite a few people are particularly fascinated by the silent adaptations – it is amazing to realise that there were around 100 silent films of his works during that era, though many have sadly been lost.

I don’t have all that much time tonight, but thought I’d share a link to the BFI’s taster for the surviving Dickens silent films. This has left me very keen to see the adaptation of  David Copperfield made in 1913 by Thomas Bentley, which is said to be the second oldest feature-length British film (I don’t know what the very oldest was!)  There are a few minutes of footage included on the Dickens Before Sound DVD, but I now really want to see the whole thing.

Luckily, the 1913 British film of David Copperfield does survive complete, although it hasn’t been released on DVD, so I should hopefully be able to get hold of it at some time.

However, there are many other lost or unavailable silents which I would love to see. For instance, a 1914 two-reel version of Martin Chuzzlewit with Alan Hale, so great as a supporting actor in many 1930s Warner films, playing the young Martin – this is said to survive in George Eastman House’s collection, so it may emerge at some time, but it may remain as just a tempting thought. There were also two versions of The Chimes made the same year, now lost, as well as a Hard Times in 1915, a Great Expectations in 1917 – and the list goes on. Another one I’m especially sorry not to get a chance to see is A Tale of Two Cities from 1922, starring Clive Brook as Sydney Carton.  There are plenty of Dickens adaptations which are available and which will keep me busy for ages, but it is sad to think how much has been lost. I’ll once again link to the excellent page at The Bioscope blog which lists all the silent Dickens productions that were made, both those which still exist and those which are gone forever.

So Big! (1932)

Barbara Stanwyck in So Big!

After thoroughly enjoying William Wellman’s pre-Code comedy-drama The Purchase Price,  I was delighted to get the chance to watch So Big!, another film he made the same year, just a couple of months earlier, also starring Barbara Stanwyck as a farmer’s wife. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Edna Ferber, this is an even bleaker portrayal of rural life than the one given in The Purchase Price, portraying a back-breaking existence which makes the people living on farms old and exhausted before their time – although there is still a lot of humour mixed up with the melodramatic elements.  This book was filmed three times, first as a silent with Colleen Moore and then again in the 1950s starring Jane Wyman, but this middle version is the only one I’ve seen.

I enjoyed this film, but, at just 81 minutes, it is very short for the large span of time it tries to cover, and there are some abrupt jumps. It looks from the list of characters at the imdb, which includes several who are not in the finished film, as if some of the story must have been deleted – I’d love to see the sections which were cut out before release and find out if they would have made the film flow any better.

Stanwyck has a luminous, indomitable quality in this film, just as she does in The Purchase Price and the other films she made with Wellman – he seemed to like casting her as someone who can’t be defeated, however dire her situation might seem, but carries on working tirelessly and hoping against hope.  She also has another self-sacrificing role in this film, as in The Great Man’s Lady, a later film she made with Wellman, which I hope to write about here soon (I have a terrible backlog of films I’ve watched but haven’t written about!)

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