Taxi! (1932)

Director: Roy Del Ruth

James Cagney Blogathon

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This post is part of the James Cagney Blogathon hosted by The Movie Projector.

There aren’t many actors with as defined and recognizable a screen persona as James Cagney. From his eccentric dancing in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) to his maniacal boast “Made it, Ma. Top of the world,” from White Heat (1949) and his star-making turn as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1930), which contained his most indelible moment—shoving half a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s kisser—Cagney stands out like the genius performer he was to even the most casual film fan. Many people are familiar with the line “You dirty rat,” a stand-by for impressionists doing their best to imitate Cagney. That line, always misquoted, was actually “You dirty, yellow-bellied rat,” and it came from the film under consideration here, Taxi! The film is fairly typical fare from Warner Bros.: action-packed, urban, socially conscious, a scrappy central love affair between the lead performers, a comic secondary love affair between two character actors. Yet it has some interesting characteristics well worth closer examination: the toolbox of acting techniques Cagney developed from real life, the Irish-Jewish connection so common in the early decades of cinematic history, and scenes that harken back to the days before moving pictures talked.

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The story of Taxi! borrows from Harold Lloyd’s Speedy (1928), but instead of the consolidation of New York’s street cars, Taxi! concerns itself with the attempt of a taxicab company to drive independent cabbies out of business. As befits the pre-Code 1930s, Taxi! is more violent. In Speedy, the streetcar company merely tries to make Pop Dillon break his city contract by missing a day’s run, whereas Consolidated Cab, under orders from strong-arm boss Buck Gerard (David Landau), actually wrecks rival cabs—the film’s opening scene shows a metal worker fitting a Consolidated cab with steel beams under the wheel fenders to use as battering rams. Taxi! is also more topical, with Cagney’s character Matt Nolan preaching violent retaliation to an assembly of independent cabbies against the pleas to negotiate union-style terms by Sue Riley (Loretta Young), the daughter of a cabbie (Guy Kibbee) who went to prison for shooting the man who wrecked his cab. The fireworks of disagreement fan the attraction between Sue and Matt, and the two eventually marry.

What is so interesting about Taxi! is that it presents the complete Cagney: the tough guy, the lover, the dancer, and the mime. The latter isn’t something one necessarily thinks of when reviewing Cagney’s career, but his dancer’s background makes him a great physical actor. Director Roy Del Ruth, a silent film veteran, enjoys focusing on the wordless chemistry between Matt and Sue. Early on, Sue runs up the steep stairway to the elevated train, away from Matt, his friend Skeets (George E. Stone), and his brother Danny (Ray Cooke). The camera focuses on the backs of her legs, her stocking seams pointing toward parts more interesting, until Skeets finally says what our eyes have told us, “She’s got a great set of pins!”

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When Sue and Matt have a fight, a pantomime routine brings them back together. Matt throws his hat through Sue’s open door. She looks at the name in the hat band and signals to her friend Ruby (Leila Bennett) with just a nod that she will see him. Matt comes in. Sue turns away, as Matt silently cajoles. When they break their silence, Sue says something rude to Matt. He grabs her by the neck, puts a fist near her face and say, “If I thought you meant it,” and then kisses her. The last gesture was taken straight from Cagney’s father, one of many appropriations the actor would make from people he observed.

Perhaps to contrast the elegant simplicity of these gestures, Ruby is a chatterbox with one of the world’s most annoying voices. Methinks Del Ruth was making a bit of a comment on the annoyance of shooting with sound. Nonetheless, the director knew how to use sound economically to great effect. In a scene of two cars motoring urgently toward the hideout of Gerard—one bearing Matt to kill him for murdering Danny and the other carrying Sue, racing to try to prevent it—all we hear are the different pitches of the car engines in quick cross-cutting that builds to the film’s climax.

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Del Ruth had a sophisticated approach to his material that favored realism even while giving audiences what they wanted. He knew how to position the camera to show Cagney in all his fury, shooting him straight on with the pitiless look in his eyes the public craved. He shot a musical number, but avoided the usual production number obviousness that might have come from fellow director Mervyn LeRoy by making it a nightclub act and cross-cutting with Matt and Sue canoodling at a table as they celebrate their marriage earlier in the day. He also inserts a dance contest where Sue and Matt lose to a young woman and her dance partner (George Raft, in his screen debut), offering a bit of music while establishing Matt’s hot temper, which will drive a wedge between him and Sue and lead to tragedy.

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In an unusual tip of the hat to realism, an early scene has Matt listening to a Jew speak in Yiddish to an uncomprehending Irish cop. Cagney went to school with Jews and was fluent in the language. When he cuts in to the conversation and susses out what the man wants, he says to the man in Yiddish, “Did you think I was a gentile?” and replies to the cop’s skeptical question, “Nolan! What part of Ireland did you come from?” with a Yiddish-inflected, “Delancey Street,” a street Jews settled when they came to New York. At the time this film was made, Jews and Irish shared a similar experience as working-class immigrants who were near the lowest rung of American society, and as such, they were often paired in movies to suggest a social milieu audiences would identify immediately. With a plot built around the plight of the independent worker in a society that was fixed to favor big business, this suggestion of working-class solidarity would have driven home the social message with the subtlety that distinguishes this film and makes it relevant today. There is even a divorce to wrestle with.

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Cagney and Young are a very attractive couple who run hot and cold with believable intensity. Any actress who can hold her own with Cagney has my respect, but in fact, Young was making pictures before Cagney ever set foot on a sound stage (she has a cameo in Her Wild Oat [1927]). Some of my favorite character actors, like Guy Kibbee and David Landau, turn in affecting performances, and there is even a treat for fans of The Public Enemy. Matt and Sue double-date with Ruby and Skeets to see “Her Hour of Love,” a dummy film starring Donald Cook, who lost the part of Tom Powers to Cagney, settling for the part of Tom’s brother instead. When Sue praises Cook’s romantic technique, Cagney bests him again by giving Sue a passionate kiss that would curl anyone’s toes. The whole scene is a bit of a commercial for Warner Bros. (they also advertise John Barrymore’s The Mad Genius [1932] with a poster and a bit of dialogue) and a vintage bit of insider referencing for cinephiles that I adored.

James Cagney has a huge body of work, but for me, his work in the ’30s is unparalleled. The roiling social conditions, the frontier aspects of working with sound for the first time, and the pre-Code freedom filmmakers took full advantage of make many ’30s films unique treasures. Taxi! is one of them.

  • Karen spoke:
    9th/04/2013 to 8:37 am

    A lovely tribute. This film sits permanently on my DVR, until such time as it comes out on DVD.

    If I recall correctly, in Cagney’s autobiography he mentions that the dance he performs during the contest with Raft was a specific style that he was known for in his hoofer days.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/04/2013 to 8:46 am

    Karen – The dance was the Peabody. According to Robert Osborne, they couldn’t find anyone who could do the dance, so Cagney called up Raft, who knew it, and give him his break into pictures.

  • Patricia Nolan-Hall (Caftan Woman) spoke:
    9th/04/2013 to 9:19 am

    Your appreciation of “Taxi!” touched on so many things that make Cagney at Warner’s such an integral part of classic films and how we view the 1930s. Well done.

    Sometimes I think of this line from the movie: “I wouldn’t go with that dame if she was the last woman on earth, and I just got out of the Navy.” and I’m giggling for the rest of the day.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/04/2013 to 12:26 pm

    Patricia – Thanks for the compliment and welcome to the site. That line is a doozy all right. We laugh every time, and knowing that they are going to fall hard for each other only makes it that much more delicious.

  • John Greco spoke:
    9th/04/2013 to 12:26 pm

    Hearing Cagney speak Yiddish is so unexpected the first time you watch this film, but if one thinks back to the times and the neighborhood the film takes place in, it’s right on target. Warner Brothers was always in synch with the common man. Del Ruth was at his peak during the early 1930’s/pre-code days and seemed to at his best when he worked for WB. His later films were rather weak.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/04/2013 to 12:36 pm

    John – I heard Cagney speak Yiddish, from this film, long before I ever saw Taxi!. The Richard Schickel special on Cagney was the source, and I still consider it must-viewing for Cagney fans.

  • KimWilson spoke:
    9th/04/2013 to 1:19 pm

    Cagney and Young make a striking pair. I’ve never seen Taxi, but there hot & cold relationship sounds tempting. You are right about Cagney’s 1930s work being good, but I’m a fan of some of his later work, too.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/04/2013 to 3:57 pm

    Me, too, Kim. He was great throughout his career, I just happen to like the kinds of films he made earlier in his career. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Judy spoke:
    9th/04/2013 to 4:03 pm

    Marilyn, a wonderful review – I love your point about the use of silent gestures to express Cagney and Young’s relationship, and how Ruby’s endless droning on possibly expresses Roy del Ruth’s frustration at working with sound – I do find her character quite amusing, but she is certainly infuriating. You have included a lot of fascinating background information – I love that scene in the cinema and was amused that in 1932 they are already mocking an earlier style of talkie! I had remembered that they joke about John Barrymore but hadn’t taken in that it was a plug for ‘The Mad Genius’, one of the films of his I still need to track down.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/04/2013 to 4:22 pm

    Judy – It is really a funny scene (and Cook’s character was named “Ferdinand”!), and Ruby’s declaration that Barrymore is her favorite except for Joe E. Brown is hilarious. I wonder how many people remember what he looks like, but if you do, it’s a riot.

  • R. D. Finch spoke:
    9th/04/2013 to 6:35 pm

    Marilyn, a great post that shows there’s a lot more to this movie than a casual viewing might reveal. I especially liked it when you wrote that ” it presents the complete Cagney: the tough guy, the lover, the dancer, and the mime” then showed exactly how the film accomplished this. I also liked your discussion of the “wordless chemistry” between Cagney and Loretta Young in the film. I’ve always liked Cagney, but for me this hasn’t always been the case with Young. It’s her films from the early 30s that made me reconsider her. She and Cagney sound like an unlikely screen pairing, but I thought his toughness and hot temper (at some points quite extreme here) and her softness and reasonableness complement each other nicely. Of all the pre-Code movies, I find the ones from Warners the most consistently entertaining, with their speedy pacing, punchy dialogue, and topicality that gives them a realism that has kept them relevant even after all these years. Finally, kudos for explaining so clearly the scene where Cagney breaks into Yiddish.

  • FlickChick spoke:
    9th/04/2013 to 7:17 pm

    I love this film! You did a wonderful and entertaining job and really make me want to rush right out and see this again. I agree that the Cagney of the 1930s is untouchable for charisma and star power.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/04/2013 to 7:33 pm

    R.D. – Thanks for throwing this party. Cagney is my favorite actor, and I have written about quite a few of his films. Taxi! was one that eluded me for a long time, but having a chance to see it rewarded my patience. It’s full to bursting with vitality and those period details I love – like a match safe like the one my mother probably brought to our home from her mother’s – yet contemporary in its themes.

    FlickChick – I understand how you feel. Thanks for the praise and welcome to the blog!

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    9th/04/2013 to 9:40 pm

    An ever-insightful examination of a film that may be overshadowed by the great acting icon’s more celebrated works, but certainly deserves the kind of exceptional treatment you give it here Marilyn. Ever-cognizant of the reason why this blogothon was proposed in the first place you take the bull by the horns–and this is quite a bull here–and breathe life into a neglected gem. For me it’s a close call between Brando and Cagney for the top spot, but there are few as prolific nor as versatile as this acting force of nature. Like the discussion that brings in the comparison with SPEEDY, which I just recently saw at the Film Forum. Great contribution here!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/04/2013 to 10:14 pm

    Sam – The unavailability until recently of Taxi! has as much to do with its neglect as anything. For my money, it stacks up beautifully with the best of Cagney’s output, and has a breathtaking complexity for all its economy of presentation. I’d pick Cagney over Brando, myself, because he brought himself to every role but also opened his eyes to the world around him to borrow from other people’s experiences. It just seems more generous somehow.

  • Cliff Aliperti spoke:
    11th/04/2013 to 10:53 am

    And to think I was just commenting on another Blogathon post that I never think of Cagney and romance … thanks for the reminder!

    Love the reply, “Delancey Street” as much as I do the bit of Yiddish itself. And you’re right, that’s a great documentary too (also where I first saw it).

    Nice mention of the under appreciated Del Ruth, whose pre-Code Warner-First National output is like a roll call of period favorites.

    Great stuff that makes me want to dust my copy off.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/04/2013 to 1:34 pm

    Thanks, Cliff. I read your entry, too, and enjoyed your insights. The most romantic Cagney has to be The Strawberry Blonde, one of my all-time favorite movies. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Classicfilmboy spoke:
    11th/04/2013 to 6:16 pm

    I am not familiar with this film, plus I’ve been on a Loretta Young lovefest lately, so I’ll have to seek it out. Thanks for choosing this one!

  • Ken Anderson spoke:
    12th/04/2013 to 12:18 am

    Wow! You really make me want to check this film out. It’s a Cagney effort largely unknown to me, but your description and great photos (he looks remarkably sexy!) makes it a must-see from this point on.
    A breezy, informative, very well-written piece!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/04/2013 to 7:52 am

    Ken – Thanks. Cagney was always my heart throb. When paired with the knock-out Loretta Young, he set the screen on fire.

  • The Lady Eve spoke:
    13th/04/2013 to 10:35 pm

    Except for the scene that contains the “you dirty, yellow-bellied rat” line, I haven’t seen “Taxi!” But the storyline, the pairing of Cagney with Loretta Young and other elements you describe have a lot of appeal. The scene you mention in which Cagney puts his fist in Young’s face, the behavior he lifted directly from his dad, reminded me of something I recently read. Cagney wrote that the first time he saw Jackie Gleason he was instantly and completely reminded of his father – and the scene you described was a bit reminiscent of Gleason’s Ralph Kramden and his “pow-zoom-to-the-moon” schtick. Thanks for a thoroughly enjoyable post on a film I’ll be looking for.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    14th/04/2013 to 8:53 pm

    Lady Eve – Thanks so much for stopping by. I see the Gleason connection, of course. I hope you find the film and enjoy it as much as I did.

  • Karen spoke:
    16th/04/2013 to 1:52 pm

    I greatly enjoyed your review of yet another Cagney film that I’ve only seen in bits and pieces. I will be hunting this one down, but quick.

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