Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Great Screen Matches: James Cagney and Joan Blondell

Joan Blondell and James Cagney in He Was Her Man (1934).

This is the third in an ongoing series of discussions of classic pairings of screen performers who collaborated on several movies.  Steve Vineberg has also written about Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray and about James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.

They were both made for Warner Brothers. In the big-studio era, before Truman broke up the motion picture monopolies following the Second World War, the studios owned theatres across the country, and their individual styles were linked to the kinds of audiences they attracted – that is, to the neighborhoods their movie houses served. Warners catered to working-class and lower-middle-class audiences, so they specialized in gritty films with proletarian heroes and heroines like gangster melodramas and social-problem pictures. Their roster of actors included Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Sylvia Sidney – and James Cagney and Joan Blondell. When Cagney played a tough, cocky gangster in William Wellman’s terrific The Public Enemy, he wound up a star. Blondell played leading roles some of the time but never quite made the leap to movie-star status. But she was fantastically likable and she had a long career, first in movies and then in TV: in 1979, the year she died at seventy-three, she made two movies and one TV movie and appeared in two series. Her last picture came out two years later.

Cagney and Blondell co-starred in four movies between 1931 and 1933. (She had had a small role in The Public Enemy.) In the first, Blonde Crazy – a generic title that doesn’t actually fit the storyline – he’s a bellhop who gets an eyeful of her when she walks into the hotel in search of a job and then undermines another young woman, the girlfriend of a co-worker, to put her at the front of the line. The next day he holes up in a room that’s being renovated and has the desk clerk send her up , and when she shows up at the door he dims the lights and looks at her as if they were already in bed. She eludes him, but she’s interested. These were the pre-Hays Code years, so there was no coyness about sexual relationships, and these two were a match made in Hollywood heaven: both sexy, both wisecracking, both savvy.  He was a hard-boiled guy with unexpected pockets of sensitivity; she was a woman of the world but not as hard-boiled as she seemed.  Cagney’s Bert Harris is turned on because Blondell’s Anne Roberts is a vivacious blonde with a torch-lit smile, but eventually it’s her feistiness he responds to, and her authenticity. He’s an operator who gets her to partner with him on some minor scams. She tumbles for him but she calls him out for being more interested in money than in her. Cagney plays his best scene when he tells her that she’s underestimating him and then pulls back and assures her that if he can’t have her he’ll settle for someone else, masking his feelings for her because he’s afraid of making himself vulnerable. We see how deep that insecurity goes when a more experienced crook (Louis Calhern) and his slick girlfriend (Helen Wilson) make a monkey out of him and run off with his cash. He becomes obsessed with getting revenge. Anne says he’s behaving like a kid and she’s right: he’s still an adolescent who’s terrified of looking like a rube.

Blonde Crazy is a melodrama with a lot of juice, and like all these urban Warners vehicles it moves very fast – maybe a little too fast, because the plot gets ahead of the working out of the characters’ motivation in the last act. The director, Roy Del Ruth, gets it in under an hour and a quarter, just as Howard Hawks does with the pair’s next picture, The Crowd Roars, and Lloyd Bacon does with their final collaboration, He Was Her Man – also melodramas. In The Crowd Roars Blondell and Cagney have the two biggest roles but they’re not cast opposite each other. He plays Joe Greer, a racing-car champ who has been sleeping with Lee (Ann Dvorak) but drops her when his kid brother Eddie (Eric Linden, very touching in the part) impresses Joe enough behind the wheel to persuade him to take Eddie on and show him the ropes. Joe is trying to protect Eddie from the seedy side of the life he’s been leading – in the words of Joe’s back-up driver Spud (the affable Frank McHugh, a Warners stock-company perennial), to “grow wings” on him – so he doesn’t want him to know about the kind of relationship he has with Lee. She’s a former good-time gal but she’s serious about Joe, and so devastated when he breaks it off with her that she and her best friend Ann (Blondell) plot to drive a wedge between them. Ann starts dating Eddie, and what began as a scheme turns to real love on both sides. But Joe takes it badly, and his callous treatment of Ann wrecks the brothers’ relationship. In this movie we get to see Cagney and Blondell at odds. He’s splendid; her performance is uneven – it calls for hysterics, which was Dvorak’s stock in trade but not Blondell’s.  But The Crowd Roars is a hell of a good time, with tip-top racing scenes (Harry Hertz and E.B. Gilmore helped Hawks out with them) and one effective twist and turn after another. 

Joan Blondell and James Cagney in Blonde Crazy (1931).

I’d say the two actors are equally fine in He Was Her Man: he gives a soft, muted performance with a great deal of emotion and hers is layered and complicated. Blondell plays Rose Lawrence, who’s trying to escape a checkered past by settling down with a decent fisherman (Victor Jory) who’s proposed to her. Cagney is Flicker Hayes, an ex-con who left New York for the West Coast under an assumed name to get away from gangsters he’s double-crossed. She’s flat broke in San Francisco, trying to get to the small town where she’s set to get married; he buys her a meal and blows her to a bus ticket. By the time they get on that bus, she’s drawn to him and desperate to get shot of him so that her feelings for him don’t spoil her chances to redeem herself by marrying a good man whom, however, she doesn’t happen to love. The last act of the movie has a similar problem to the last act of Blonde Crazy – the plot machinations outdistance the character arcs. Still it’s affecting, with a gallant, unsettling ending that perhaps only Jimmy Cagney could pull off.

The only one of Blondell and Cagney’s four co-starrers that isn’t a melodrama is the 1933 Footlight Parade. It’s a backstage musical directed by Bacon, with musical numbers staged, with his characteristic lunacy, by Busby Berkeley. Romantic musicals focus on the coupling of the hero and heroine; there’s always a romance (or two) in a backstage musical, but the central conflict is between show people striving to put on a top-notch production and the obstacle, or series of obstacles, that threatens to close them down. In Footlight Parade Cagney plays Chester Kent, an imaginative producer-director of musical shows in the employ of a pair of two-timing money men (Guy Kibbee and Arthur Hohl) who finds himself superfluous when the talkies come in. But he’s indefatigable. He simply switches from staging full-length musical comedies to staging prologues, live opening acts for movie theatres. Then he has to combat the money men, who are robbing him blind; a company spy who’s working for a competitor and stealing Kent’s ideas; and a couple of gold diggers (Claire Dodd and Renee Whitney). That Kent is blind to the true character of the women he gets involved with is part of a larger problem: his radar for double-crossers is off. His secretary, Nan Prescott, played by Blondell, is sharper than he is in that regard, and luckily she’s always watching out for him. And she’s in love with him – though it takes him almost the whole movie to realize it, and to reciprocate.

The movie is ridiculously entertaining (even when it’s ridiculous), and the Cagney-Blondell combo is the ace up its sleeve. Blondell appeared in a number of Berkeley musicals in the thirties, but this was Cagney’s only one – in fact, the first time he got a chance to use his vaudeville chops in front of a camera. (Not, obviously, the last:  he won a deserved 1942 Oscar for playing George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.) For most of the movie he doesn’t sing and he only dances in brief rehearsal segments where he takes over from the hypochondriac dance director (Frank McHugh again) to show the chorus girls how the steps should go. But in the final number he has to step in for the inept, tippling juvenile and perform the role of the amorous gob looking for his Chinese sweetheart (Ruby Keeler). The song is called “Shanghai Lil,” and it’s one of the nuttiest, as well as one of the most compelling, of Berkeley’s far-out musical spectacles. It opens in a whorehouse-opium den, and at the end it turns patriotic, with the chorines forming a portrait of FDR and then the NRA eagle. Cagney’s rendition of the irresistible song (music by Harry Warren, lyric by Al Dubin, who rhymes “Shanghai” with “hang high”) is wonderful, his dancing sublime. As soon as he gets offstage, he proposes to Blondell. It’s about time.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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