Friday, 9 April 2010

Lady Killer (1933)

Not to be confused with the classic Ealing "Ladykillers" with Alec Guinness or the dire recent mis-step from the Coen Brothers, this pre-code James Cagney vehicle is something of a mixed bag, although also something of a hoot. In those days his studio was churning out half a dozen pictures a year for their star, and while many of them have faded into an amorphous mass in one's memory, others have stayed fresh, largely thanks to Cagney's energy and charisma.

In this one he starts off as one of an army of cinema ushers, but is too cheeky and too ready for a game of craps to hold that job. He then falls in with a gang of con men and robbers, led by slimy Douglass Dumbrille and his moll, Mae Clarke. When things get too hot with the police, the gang disperses and Cagney and Clarke head for sunny Los Angeles to arrive in torrential rain. (As a throwback to their memorable scene in 1931's "Public Enemy", she cracks that California is known for grapefruit!) He's picked up by the authorities for questioning and she absconds with his dough and dirty Dumbrille. However when Cagney is on the skids, he is talent-spotted by the movie studios as an interesting new face and is promised three bucks a day and a boxed lunch.

He starts off as an extra and is a particular treat in full-feathered gear as a Sioux chief spouting Yiddish. He soon becomes a full-fledged moustachioed leading man (thanks to his volume of fan mail -- which he writes himself) and becomes involved with leading lady Margaret Lindsay. The behind-the-scenes glimpse of movie-making is amusing; "Light the Moon" commands one autocratic director as Cagney becomes a garlic-chewing Italian lover. When Lindsay's birthday approaches she jokes that she would like a crate of monkeys, a tyrolean yodeller, and an elephant -- all of which Cagney provides at her snooty party unleashing havoc. However the gang of baddies reappears and want Cagney to furnish the kind of information that will squash his career and his romance. Naturally it all sorts itself out in a blaze of firing guns.

The New York Evening Post reviewed the film as being a kind of resume of everything Cagney had done to date -- mixing the gangster genre with broad comedy. Unfortunately this is inaccurate as it does not include any of Cagney's laid back soft-shoe dancing with was so very charming. To this day I can guarantee to cheer myself up by watching his wonderful turn in "Yankee Doodle Dandy".

The film was directed by Roy del Ruth who started as a Mack Sennett writer and who cranked out so many popular entertainments from the silent days. As a pre-code flick, the film contains a number of touches that would never have been allowed within a year's time. Cagney casually pats Clarke's breast in one scene, tosses a huge pineapple onto her lap (rather than a grapefruit to the mush), and at one stage throws her out of his apartment by dragging her by the hair. It may be hard to imagine, but all of this was done with sprightly grace and good humour. And you don't get much of that to the pound nowadays.
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