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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Dante’s Inferno (1935)

I was originally attracted by this film because it stars Spencer Tracy – and I’m fascinated by his early work after seeing movies like 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, which I’ve reviewed here in the past, and Man’s Castle and Riff Raff, both of which I hope to review in the future.

Spencer Tracy and Henry B Walthall

Spencer Tracy and Henry B Walthall

In this movie, directed by Harry Lachman, Tracy once again plays a tough, arrogant character who is nonetheless  more vulnerable than he at first appears. This time he is cast as a ruthless fairground worker who won’t let anyone or anything get in his way, as he rises to wealth by taking over and massively expanding a hi-tech attraction based on, you guessed it, Dante’s Inferno.

However, Tracy has nothing to do with the most striking scene in this movie – an amazing eight-minute vision of hell based on Gustav Doré’s famous illustrations to the great poem, showing the torments of the damned as they writhe in lakes of fire. I have read the poem (in translation!), and this section of the film does recall it, though the rest of the movie has little or nothing to do with Dante. It’s a stunning sequence and I find hard to imagine quite how it could have been made.   Unfortunately, it seems to be difficult to find out exactly who did make it and when.

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Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

After  seeing two earlier Howard Hawks movies about flying, The Dawn Patrol and Ceiling Zero, I couldn’t resist watching his most famous airborne drama. Not surprisingly, I loved this one too. I’ve now watched it twice and am sure I’ll be returning to it in the future.

Cary Grant

Cary Grant

Hawks wrote the original story which was the basis for the Jules Furthman screenplay of Only Angels Have Wings, and set it in the same world as Ceiling Zero. Again he focuses on a small close-knit group of mail pilots who are determined to make sure the letters get through on time, whatever the weather, even at the cost of their lives.  The sheer number of dead and injured by the end of the film makes it feel almost like a drama set in a war zone – except that here the enemies are fog, hills, trees and passing birds. 

However,  intertwined with all the melodrama, there is also a strong element of humorous romance, making it hugely entertaining to watch.  At times the quickfire dialogue between Cary Grant and Jean Arthur almost seems to be taken from a screwball comedy like Hawks’ His Girl Friday. The blend of deadly danger and love works brilliantly, even if at times the plot twists seem a little unlikely.

Jean Arthur’s character, travelling piano player Bonnie Lee, doesn’t know quite what she is getting into when she gets off the boat in a small South American town. She is chatted up by two handsome young pilots, who offer to buy her a drink – but, next thing she knows, they are both being packed off to work, and their boss, Geoff  ‘Pop’ Carter (Grant) is the one turning his charm in her direction.
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