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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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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They Drive By Night (1940)

I first saw the Raoul Walsh movie They Drive By Night about 30 years ago. At the time, I remember being slightly startled that long-distance drivers are presented in such an heroic light, and finding it faintly ridiculous when they are shown driving along roads at night accompanied by the sort of insistent, doom-ridden music which might usually mean a battle is about to break out. Watching again after all these years, I don’t find it ridiculous at all, but poignant.  I’m now a big fan of early, gritty Warners movies, with their focus on working lives, and am impressed the way that this film shows just how hard  it was for lorry drivers to make ends meet. 

I was struck now by how much it is a film of two halves. For me, the first half is brilliant – a powerful depiction of the tough conditions facing truckers – while the second  half is a rather weak film noir with a far-fetched crime plot. However, I am aware some critics think just the opposite and love the noir part.

GRITTY DRAMA: Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan and George Raft

Spoilers behind cut