Other Men’s Women (1931)

I originally wrote this posting a while ago, but have now rewritten it  as part of my William Wellman season here. I first watched Other Men’s Women on a dodgy bootleg copy, which was the only way of seeing it at the time, but am now delighted to have a beautifully remastered official DVD, issued as part of the Forbidden Hollywood 3 box set.

Mary Astor and Regis Toomey

This is a fast-moving film which really appealed to me because I am a fan of both melodrama and gritty early Warner films focusing on people’s working lives. The fact that it also features an early performance by James Cagney, though in a very small part, is another attraction.  It has some dramatic, dark and grainy footage of trains in rainstorms – Wellman very often uses rain in his films, partly  to give a feeling of his characters being up against it and facing a hostile world, as in the famous scene with Cagney in the rain near the end of The Public Enemy, made in the same year. I gather some of the train scenes were done with miniatures, but they still look convincing to me.

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Sinners’ Holiday (1930)

The movie which made James Cagney’s name was The Public Enemy, where he played snarling gangster Tom Powers. Yet his first screen role was in this little-known film, where his character is anything but a tough guy.
James Cagney and Joan Blondell

James Cagney and Joan Blondell

The movie is a melodrama set in a fairground at (or near) Coney Island, during the era of prohibition, where the indomitable widow Ma Delano (Lucille LaVerne) runs her family’s penny arcade. She is helped by older son Joe and daughter Jennie, and hindered by weak younger son Harry (Cagney), who is unemployed and drifts into running booze. The film has that gritty early Warner Brothers feel to it and packs an awful lot of dialogue and action into a running time of less than an hour.
I was impressed by how strong Cagney’s screen presence is even in this early film. He is third-billed, below Grant Withers and Evalyn Knapp, but dominates every time he is on screen – rivalled only by a fiercely protective LaVerne as the first of his screen mothers.
One possible sign of his inexperience on camera is that Cagney’s voice isn’t quite as expressive here as it later became. It’s very high-pitched and so breathlessly fast, even for him, that I found one or two lines impossible to make out, though that could have been partly due to the quality of the recording from TV I was watching. (If only Warner Brothers would release more of these old movies!) However, the tremulous voice goes well with the weakness of the character, so it could have been deliberate.

(The part of this review behind the cut includes spoilers)

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