Thursday, March 3, 2011

Getting acquainted with ... James Cagney

This is the first in a monthly series called Getting Acquainted, in which I watch three movies featuring a cinematic personality -- actor, director, etc. -- I need to get to know better.

If you didn't read my introductory Getting Acquainted piece about a month ago -- and conveniently ignored the title of today's post -- you might think I had chosen to get acquainted with director Michael Curtiz in February. After all, he directs the first two movies I'm going to discuss. And until this month, I'd always thought of him as "that guy who directed Casablanca and nothing else I've ever heard of." Seems the Getting Acquainted series came along just in time to correct some long-standing misconceptions of mine.

But no, both of those movies, and the third, feature James Cagney, a guy I don't know all that much about. In fact, I'd never seen a single film in which he was the star before about a month ago.

My initial impression of Cagney was as a short, rambunctious character with a chip on his shoulder. From the clips I'd seen of him, I got the impression he was always angry, and liked to shout a lot. I thought he was the little pipsqueak who might raises his dukes and say "Put 'em up! Put 'em up!" Then would pop you one, right in the kisser.

Well, he plays a notorious gangster in two of the movies, so maybe I was half right.

Note: From here on out I will speak casually about plot details, without giving spoiler warnings.

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938, Michael Curtiz). Watched: Tuesday, February 1st

My first Cagney movie was an excellent introduction to the man. I must admit it was the intriguing title that put it on my radar, but the movie itself was far more intriguing than I would have guessed for the year 1938 -- what I mistakenly think of as "a simpler time."

What first caught my attention was the way Curtiz moved his camera through the lower-class neighborhoods populated by Cagney's Rocky Sullivan and the teenagers played by the Dead End Kids, a troupe of young actors who continued to work together in various incarnations for something like 25 years (and have an hilarious camaraderie). It's not like Orson Welles invented camera movements in film with Citizen Kane a couple years later, but some of the movements by Curtiz' camera are more sophisticated than I expected them to be, given what I know about the development of the technology at the time. The way he takes in an expertly dressed downtrodden neighborhood was simply breathtaking.

The story itself concerns Rocky's attempts to redeem himself (sort of) after a life in crime. We understand he's been put away a couple times for what started out as petty thievery, and graduated to more serious behavior. Yet this is not the hair-trigger Cagney I was expecting. Cagney's Sullivan is tough and takes no guff, to be sure, but he's also pretty suave and has a genuinely good heart. It's poignant that the apparent reason Rocky entered this life of crime was that he didn't run as fast as his cohort after their first petty theft, meaning he was the one the police caught up to. Meanwhile, his cohort steered clear of this life by becoming a reverend (Pat O'Brien). Could there have been the same positive outcome for Rocky? His charitable behavior (such as donating $10,000 to the reverend's youth facility) suggests that there could have been, but we'll never know.

Without going into all the details, suffice it to say that there's also a love interest (played by Ann Sheridan) and a nemesis (played wonderfully against type by Humphrey Bogart) for Rocky, and his relationships with both are deliciously complicated. As Rocky tries to pursue both sides of his personality -- the one that sort of wants to go straight, and the one that sort of wants to line his pockets with ill-gotten gains -- a tight narrative unfolds over a crisp 97 minutes.

But it was at the very end that I was truly blown away by Angels With Dirty Faces. When Rocky's darker half takes over, through a series of good intentions gone bad, he is eventually captured after committing a handful of killings, some of them innocents caught in the crossfire. He's not getting out of this one, and is sentenced to death row. Less than an hour before he's scheduled to die, Reverend Jerry asks Rocky to make the ultimate sacrifice, so that his death won't contribute to his legendary status among the wayward teens (the Dead End Kids) who worship him. Instead of going to the electric chair proud and defiant, as Rocky intends to do, Jerry asks him to show panic and fear in his last moments on this earth -- emotions that will show these teenagers that a life of crime is not a glamorous form of rebellion. He asks Rocky to give himself the legacy of a coward, to tarnish the only part of him that will live beyond his death. It's an amazing sacrifice, and I've never see anything quite like it in the movies.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942, Michael Curtiz). Watched: Tuesday, February 15th

Well, what a change from Angels With Dirty Faces. Yankee Doodle Dandy is a musical, the story of the life of George M. Cohan, who composed such classic songs as "Over There," "Give My Regards to Broadway," "You're a Grand Old Flag" and "Yankee Doodle Boy." Given that impressive resume, I had a hard time believing I'd never heard of him.

If Angels With Dirty Faces was tight and crisp, then Yankee Doodle Dandy is long and flabby. Clocking in at 126 minutes, the film contains countless musical numbers as it goes through the stages of Cohan's life, frequently resembling a Busby Berkeley musical in terms of its aesthetic and sense of showmanship. This isn't to say that the movie isn't rousing at times -- those songs make sure of that. However, it is to say that it took me about three sittings to finish it, though being very busy certainly contributed to my delay.

What I took most from Yankee Doodle Dandy is how it demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, Cagney's range as a performer. He's the farthest thing imaginable from Rocky Sullivan in this movie, and even farther removed from Cody Jarrett, the character he plays in our third film. Yet he isn't a bit less convincing. The charming side is the one that dominates here, though it should be said that Cohan was also known as a bit of a troublemaker early in his career -- a guy who was difficult to work with. Perhaps that's why Curtiz saw Cagney as the perfect choice for the role.

And speaking of that range, did you know this guy could sing and dance? I'm sure Cagney appeared in any number of musicals, but in the interest of judging him only in the context of these three movies, I'm not going to research his whole career for this piece. Let's just say the guy is a natural. A beautiful singing voice, to be sure, and an innate sense of how to move on the stage. But what I found exquisitely delightful was his dancing, in which his legs seemed to have a life of their own, disconnected from his upper torso. His legs kicked and skipped him along the stage in a manner I can't properly describe. As I said, delightful.

And gosh darn it if I wasn't humming/singing "Yankee Doodle Boy" for a period of about a week after the movie. One thing I noticed that was funny: As I learned that song growing up, I thought the lyrics were "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy, Yankee Doodle doo dah day." It's actually "Yankee Doodle do or die." That makes more sense -- "doo dah day" doesn't mean anything. Now I'm wondering if it was just me that mislearned it, or if our music teachers taught it to us in a different way because they thought we were too young to be making references to death in the songs we were singing.

A final interesting thing about Yankee Doodle Dandy -- it's a great example of the filmmaking of its time because it essentially functions as a propaganda film to support World War II. Today, something like that would sound ridiculous at best, pernicious at worst. But patriotism, especially in a war like World War II, was never stigmatized then as it might be today. The point about Cohan, and the title song, is that he is a lover of the United States of America through and through. Back then, nobody questioned whether that was a good thing or not.

White Heat (1949, Raoul Walsh). Watched: Saturday, February 26th

And after a soft middle, we end strong with James Cagney. As Cody Jarrett, he's back in the role of a criminal -- but this time he's an unrepentant criminal, an anti-hero if ever there was one. And this, my friends, looks good on him as well.

As the film opens, Jarrett and his associates are robbing a train. We learn how merciless Jarrett is when he kills several train employees, just because one of his associates accidentally spoke Jarrett's name in their presence. Back at the hideout, he orders one of his associates to kill another, just because the second was burned by an expulsion of steam on the train, and they can't afford to take him to a doctor. This is no Rocky Sullivan -- he doesn't want to do good for anyone but himself, and possibly his mother (Margaret Wycherly). Oh yeah, did I mention that Cody is obsessed with his mother, who is part of their criminal operation? Not only that, but Cody suffers from overwhelming migraines, and might just be crazy. As a result of all this, the only person he trusts is his mum, casting a suspicious glance at everyone else -- even and perhaps especially his wife (Virginia Mayo), to whom he is inordinately cruel. The narrative then progresses into prison, where Cody smartly opts to serve a short sentence for a job that he supposedly committed at the same time as the train job -- hence giving him an alibi for the worse crime. He's not only ruthless, and crazy, but also smart, as we will see repeatedly throughout.

As I was watching White Heat, I kept thinking of other films it reminded me of -- films that didn't come out until decades later, and may never have come out at all if it weren't for having their way paved by Raoul Walsh's film. For one, the film involves the deep undercover work of a federal agent (Edmond O'Brien), who goes into prison to gain Cody's trust in an attempt to locate where the booty from the train job is hidden. I was instantly reminded of Donnie Brasco, and the way an infiltrating lawman is forever on the verge of discovery in a precarious situation like this. Turns out, White Heat is more tense and examines this in smarter ways, 50 years earlier. Then there's the mother character, who reminds me of countless nefarious mother figures in films, most recently Jacki Weaver's character in Animal Kingdom. One of my only complaints about the movie is that when Cody's rival kills his mother, the whole thing occurs off-screen, almost as an afterthought. That could have been handled better.

And let's look at Cody Jarrett himself. In what I assume must be a trailblazing performance, Cagney plays him as a true psycho -- a genuine anti-hero whose every action is despicable. He's twitchy, he's deranged, he's focused on his own mother to an alarming degree. Yet because of Cagney's powerful magnetism, we actually like the guy, in spite of all the things he does. I'm borrowing from another writer (I can't remember who, but someone I read in the last few days) when I make this observation, but Cody Jarrett paved the way for the darker villainous performances we would come to see in the 1960 and 1970s. And in White Heat, the clock had not yet struck 1950.

To top off an amazing viewing experience, the movie climaxes with a famous line I didn't realize was from White Heat: "Look, ma! Top of the world!" Followed by Jarrett being consumed in an explosion that he himself triggered. What a way to go out for a truly indelible character.

Good start to Getting Acquainted, Jimmy Cagney. I'm sorry I didn't know you before now. But you can bet I'll check in with you again in the future. Soon.

And now, on to March, when I'll be getting acquainted with ...

Ha! I'm not telling. If you would like to follow my Most Recently Seen section and take a guess, I may -- not holding myself to it -- host a little contest right before the end of the month, to see if you've divined my focus for the March edition of Getting Acquainted.

However, that could require a lot of work on your end, so don't worry about it. I already make you read a lot every day -- to keep track of what I watch, as I watch it, is for obsessives only.

If you are one of those obsessive, well, just try not to go the route of Cody Jarrett. Even though you get to have a killer sound bite, it's quite painful.

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