9th 04 - 2013 | 23 comments »

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 says, “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.


20th 01 - 2009 | 18 comments »

Early Hawks Blog-A-Thon: Ceiling Zero (1936)

Director: Howard Hawks

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This is part of the Early Hawks’ Blog-A-Thon hosted by Ed Howard at Only the Cinema.

Richard Schickel reports in his book, James Cagney: A Celebration, that he was lolling around the set of Ragtime helping Pat O’Brien and Cagney pass the time between calls. Idly, Schickel asked them what they thought was the best of the nine pictures they did together. “O’Brien unhesitatingly named Angels with Dirty Faces, a logical choice, given the intensity and range of emotions it offered them, and the brooding quality of director Michael Curtiz’s striking mise en scène. Cagney, surprisingly, named Ceiling Zero, which I have always thought of as one of Howard Hawks’ lesser works, stagebound and talky. But, as it turned out, that is precisely what Cagney liked about it.”

It was based on a hit Broadway play penned by Frank “Spig” Wead, a crippled flyer who became a beloved writer of authentically detailed aviation screenplays in Hollywood. Cagney admired the writer, the play’s success, and Osgood Perkins, the actor who originated the part he was to play in the film. It was Howard Hawks’ idea for Cosmopolitan/Warner Bros to acquire the script for Cagney. As a story of the friendship between two pilots whose lives are heading in divergent paths, it was a natural for Hawks and for the team of Cagney and O’Brien. It would form something of a template for the acting pair’s future collaborations that would cast O’Brien as the angel and Cagney as the angel with a dirty face. Ceiling Zero also proved to be a warm-up for Hawks’ similarly plotted triumph, Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Indeed, Hawks learned to fly in the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I and could identify with his leading characters, Dizzy Davis (Cagney), Jake Lee (O’Brien), and Texas Clark (Stuart Erwin)—three war veterans who flew together, by the seat of their pants, when flying was still relatively new.

Jake is the head of the Newark branch of Federal Airlines. Dizzy and Texas work for him as pilots, forming a sort of Three Musketeers, as does Mike Owens (Garry Owen), another war buddy who has been mentally disabled by a plane crash and who works as a janitor around the airport offices. Aside from Davis, all three men are married, though we never meet Mike’s wife. Jake’s wife Mary (Martha Tibbetts) was in love with Dizzy before he threw her over. Texas’ wife Lou (Isabel Jewell) henpecks her husband in part to domesticate him and also out of worry for his safety.

The district manager of Federal is constantly on Jake’s back to play by corporate rules. One rule Jake refuses to heed is to keep Dizzy Davis off the Federal Airlines payroll. Despite Dizzy’s lack of discipline, his lies, his inveterate womanizing, and his risky flying, friendship and history count more for Jake than anything the front office has to say. Dizzy makes his entrance into the film in his usual fashion—stunt flying upside down.

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Impressed by Dizzy is Tommy Thomas (June Travis) a 19-year-old novice flyer who has just completed her first solo flight. Although she is seeing a young pilot, Tay Lawson (Henry Wadsworth), she is bowled over by the 34-year-old Dizzy, who dodges a call from one of his seemingly endless stream of women to be free to put the moves on Tommy.

The pair goes out for drinks, and the following day, Dizzy decides to spend some quality time with Tommy by taking her out for a private flying lesson. To ditch his mail run to Cleveland he feigns heart trouble to Texas, who volunteers to take his place. On his way back to Newark, a ceiling zero fog and a faulty radio make it impossible for Texas to see the runway to land or use his instruments to navigate using instructions from the ground crew. He flies into electric wires and crashes into a hangar in a burning ball of steel. Dizzy not only has to deal with the guilt he feels, but also has his license to fly revoked because of repeated complaints.

Although he and Tommy have fallen for each other, Dizzy feels he has little to offer her, having lost his identity as a pilot and feeling “over the hill.” The weather worsens, but Lawson is scheduled to fly a mail run to Cleveland and plans to check out a new deicing system on the plane. Dizzy punches his lights out and takes over the run, a suicide mission if the deicer fails to work. He radios back to a furious Jake how the deicer is functioning—not well—takes on an inch of ice and crashes. In symbolic fashion, the disembodied voice of radio operator in Cleveland says that the weather is improving, and signs off with his standard, “That is all.”

Ceiling Zero is as typical a Hawks film as any he ever made—a buddy film with unusual depth. Despite its studio sets, intercut briefly with stock footage of stunt flying, that make the film feel stagy, the performances of Cagney and O’Brien are the most personal and natural I have ever seen them turn in as a team. Hawks manages to tame O’Brien’s blustery shouting about 80 percent of the time, allowing Jake’s thoughtfulness and quiet affection for his comrades, especially Dizzy, to balance with his more rigid, duty-bound, mature self.

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Stuart Erwin is winning as a drawling man who fears his wife but is in complete command when he’s in the air. The lengthy middle of the film in which we experience every stage of Texas’ plight is a real nail biter, hearing the Newark ground crew trying desperately to get through to Texas, marshalling airports along his route to track his progress and make their own attempts to contact him. Dramatically, though somewhat implausibly, Texas’ radio messages start to come through even as Newark ground remains mute. Texas’ final moments in the air are sadly reminiscent of many final moments to come with the advent of cellphones.

Cagney’s performance as Dizzy is nothing less than amazing. His silly pencil moustache makes him look like a kid trying to play dashing flying ace. He rambles through the world picking up nothing that would weigh him down, knowing he will always be able to go back to Jake, who will enable his failure to launch, and throw a mischievous monkey wrench into Texas’ domestic life in Dizzy’s attempts to lure him back into their men-only club. In a scene that could have come from the Andy Hardy series, Jake says that although he knows Dizzy lies to other, he always thought Dizzy would be on the level with him. He asks Dizzy point blank if there was anything serious between Dizzy and Mary. Like a son, Dizzy lies to Jake, embellishing the lie with a half-truth, “I’d cut my heart out for you” and finishing it with a child’s plea, “Please don’t be mad at me.” Dizzy is not exactly sparing Jake’s feelings, or even Mary’s, but rather is making an attempt to stay in his “father’s” good graces.

There’s another telling scene that shows Dizzy just doesn’t quite get it. At the hospital where Texas has been rushed, Lou confronts Dizzy. Lou understands that Dizzy didn’t mean any harm—his deception to get out of the Cleveland run having been confessed—but that “you’re no good. You’ll never be any good.” Cagney assumes a sheepish look, but he seems not to hear the words completely. He’s basically a narcissist who can see what havoc he wrecks, but generally delights in it. Even though he does the noble thing by giving Tommy up—much as John Barrymore’s Larry Renault sends Madge Evan’s Paula Jordan away in Dinner at Eight, and with much the same results—we get the sense that he is still acting in his own self-interest so that his suicide will be seen heroically by Tommy, instead of cowardly.

Like many of Hawks’ films, Ceiling Zero romanticizes the rebel, the elemental man. The business of flying is shown to be corrupt and petty—how could the government and Federal Airlines ground a daring and skilled flyer like Dizzy; how could a businessman try to sell Jake some second-rate airplanes? It is the experience of really being alive—being the flyer instead of the front man—that has Hawks’ sympathy, even though the impulse can cause so much unhappiness for other people just trying to live the way they want or know how.

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The character of Tommy is an interesting one. I remember telling my ex that a cycling buddy of his would fall for a female cyclist who was starting to ride with his club. Of course, I was right. Rather than having to join her world and compromise his male pursuits, he found a woman whom he could consider an honorary man. Tommy, in becoming a flyer, in espousing the joy she feels in flying (being alive by being free), has earned her male nickname. Like Wendy, she has been invited to join Dizzy’s Neverland as the only kind of woman he could really fall for—an honorary man. Lou, by contrast, is almost a copy of Tom Powers’ mother in The Public Enemy, her “you’re no good” as scornful as Ma Powers’ “Murderer!” Dizzy is not as willfully malevolent nor as unrepentant as Tom, but he’s just as self-centered and looking to his “family” time and again to bail him out.

In the end, Jake gives Lawson a dressing down to remember the guy who made flying safer for him and enters, once and for all, the adult world. The film aims for a sense of loss over the innocence of youth and adventure, which Jake will have to endure alone.


18th 01 - 2006 | 1 comment »

The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

Director: Raoul Walsh

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

It is such a pleasure to talk about one of the most charming films ever made, The Strawberry Blonde. The deliriously happy marriage of a cast oozing with chemistry and giving pitch-perfect performances, delicate direction even during the more melodramatic moments, a mise en scene that is at once nostalgic and riotously lively, and some home truths in a smart script make for a very uncomplicated good time that lingers and begs to be repeated.

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched this film. It used to be a staple on broadcast television, and as a young girl with a big crush on James Cagney, I’d set my alarm clock to wake me in the wee hours of the morning if it was being broadcast. (Those were the days before home video, if you younger readers can imagine that, and a film buff had to be more persistent.) It has become one of my all-time favorites, a feel-good film with staying power.

Cagney is at his affectionate best playing Biff Grimes, a scrappy young man trying to find his way in the world at the turn of the 20th century. He spends time taking correspondence course after correspondence course, landing and losing jobs in a single day, and mooning along with half the town’s eligible young men after the lovely Virginia Brush, the strawberry blonde of the title. Rita Hayworth is as dishy and adorable in her puffy-sleeved crinoline as she was heart-poundingly sexy in her “Put the Blame on Mame” production number in Gilda. She knows just how to flash her smile, tilt her chin, and swing her skirts to get all heads turning.

Biff’s friend Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson) has his eye on Virginia, too, but he’s too much a man of the world to pant at her heels. He’s brash enough to speak to her and set up a date in the park. Virginia insists on bringing a friend to keep the meeting on the up-and-up, and Hugo drags Biff along to play nice with Virginia’s friend, falsely luring Biff with the promise that Virginia is to be his date. This will not be the last or most serious lie Hugo tells Biff, but in a way, it is one of the luckiest lies Biff will ever hear.

Hugo and Biff set out for the park in their hired buggy, where they “happen” to run into Virginia and her friend Amy Lind (Olivia de Havilland). Hugo and Virginia go dancing about politely, “Aren’t you the girl I saw in town today?” “Why I believe I am,” until Amy cuts in with “Let’s stop all this nonsense. This is a prearranged date, and we all know it. I have to be back at work in an hour, so let’s get on with it.” Biff leans over to Hugo and whispers, “She’s fast.” An awkward moment occurs, the horse tries to eat the fake flowers on Virginia’s hat, and Hugo spirits Virginia away, much to Biff’s consternation. He doesn’t like the forward, women’s rights advocate that Amy presents herself to be. She implies that her grandmother was one of the original Bloomer Girls and that premarital sex is really no big deal. Thoroughly frightened, Biff runs off, shouting, “Oh, Hugo. HUGO!”

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Biff continues his pursuit of Virginia who, to get him off her back, promises him a date in six weeks’ time. When Biff arrives punctually for that date, Virginia, of course, has completely forgotten and tells him she must tend to her sick aunt. He is disappointed, planning as he has an evening of vaudeville and dinner at Tony Pastor’s. Enticed by the lavish evening, Virginia boldly declares that she made a promise and will keep her word. Biff is on cloud nine as he escorts the beautiful Virginia all over town. Parting with all his money is painful, but then he has her in his arms as they dance to “And The Band Played On.” A wink to the conductor changes the lyrics to “Biff Grimes would waltz with the strawberry blonde, and the band played on.” Impressed by Biff’s being “well-known,” Virginia gives him a peck on the cheek. Biff falls head over heels in love on the spot.

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Of course, Biff never had a chance. When he waits for Virginia at a prearranged location a short time later, Amy shows up instead. He’s annoyed to see her, but crestfallen when he learns that Virginia has eloped with Hugo that afternoon. In an earlier meeting, Biff had tried to take advantage of Amy’s professed easy morals by trying to kiss her. Amy was shocked and insulted, revealing her bold act to be a fraud. This revelation softened Biff toward her. When she tries to console Biff over the loss of Virginia, he asks if he might call on her sometime. Thus begins a genuine relationship between the two.

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Hugo and Biff go into a construction business together, and Biff’s sole job is to sign papers for a lot of shady dealings he knows nothing about. When inferior materials Hugo has been buying cause a building collapse, the law comes down hard on the business. Biff, who signed all the contracts, takes the fall and goes to prison. While in prison, he studies—by correspondence—to become a dentist and sets up a practice when he is released. Coincidentally, one Hugo Barnstead, suffering with a horrible toothache, interrupts his former partner on a Sunday for emergency dental work, not knowing it is Biff he is to see. The temptation to pay back his betrayer with a lethal dose of anesthetic faces Biff when they meet again.

The film is told in flashback, with the phone call to Biff’s dental practice beginning the film. It is then we get to see all of the events I have described that lead up to this fateful meeting. Hugo and Virginia, greedy social climbers, were made for each other and play out their transaction of a relationship throughout the film, as Hugo becomes more whiny, pretentious, and ineffectual, and Virginia becomes more demanding, bitter, and shrewish. Amy’s veneer of the independent woman melts swiftly, which always saddened me a bit, but she learns to become as genuine as Biff always has been through her love for him. As he is taken to jail in a gentlemanly fashion by his policeman friends, one look to her and a “Wait for me,” communicates the world about what a touching and carefully modulated film this is. It goes from comedy to tragedy almost in the blink of an eye, but never without proper motivation having been built in beforehand. Great supporting performances by Alan Hale as Biff’s father and George Tobias as Biff’s friend Nick provide strong timber to a structurally tight and true film.


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