Tag Archives: James Cagney

Love Me or Leave Me (1955)

1-love-me-or-leave-me-poster-art-doris-everettWhat do you get when you combine the sunny Doris Day with gangster James Cagney? Love Me or Leave Me, a sensational grangster/drama/musical and one of my favorite films of all time.

Love Me or Leave Me is a loose biopic of singer Ruth Etting, who was famous in the 1920s, but whose career in Hollywood was ended when her gangster husband, Moe Snyder, shot her lover in the mid-1930s (the lover survived and they were later wed). The film explores not only her career, but her relationship with her husband.

Ruth Etting (Doris Day) is a would-be singer working at a dance hall, until she gets fired for kicking an over-familiar customer. This catches the eye of Marty “The Gimp” Snyder, a Chicago gangster (James Cagney) with a limp. He tries a pick-up line, but she rebuffs him, until he offers to help get her another job. This starts a whole cat-and mouse process, with Marty trying to get her obligated to him and Ruth trying to hold out, but still take advantage of his help at the same time. She’s ambitious, but Marty initially thinks if he can just humor her, eventually she’ll be satisfied and go away with him.

But pianist Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell) is also interested in Ruth, but wants to help her career honestly, without using any of the questionable methods of Marty. But Ruth is ambitious. Because she’s played by Doris Day, it is easy to overlook just how ambitious she is, but she is leaving nothing to chance and wants to use Marty to help her career and she’s not ignorant of his strong-arm methods for doing so. But as Johnny warns Ruth, she’s playing with fire and she can’t just use Marty and then leave him. She doesn’t listen and winds up in an abusive marriage with Marty.

Doris Day and James Cagney are magnificent in this film. They are two dynamic, incredible actors and the screen lights up whenever they share it. Doris Day is never overwhelmed by him, but actually is his match in both presence and personality as the two of them battle back and forth. Both actors admired each other; Cagney thought Day was an instinctive actor like himself and even lobbied to have her cast in the film and be given top billing (remarkable generosity). Nothing, I believe, demonstrates her abilities better than this film and how she manages to hold her own with James Cagney. I’m not sure I can think of an actress who does it better.


Cagney and Day

Doris Day is still seemingly herself, but with an edge. By the second half of the film, after she has achieved stardom, she is bitter and deeply unhappy, but still with that Doris Day resilience and willingness to bounce back, though perhaps not quite with the same enthusiasm that Ruth had when her career was first beginning.

Love Me or Leave Me also has one of my favorite James Cagney performances (along with White Heat and Yankee Doodle Dandy). He’s baffled and angry, full of lust and lovelorn at the same time, but he never lets you forget that he’s capable of dangerous violence.

And initially he doesn’t have a clue what he has in her, singing-wise. When he packs the club with people to hear her sing, he’s looking around nervously while the audience sits rapt during her song. There is another wonderful moment when Ruth makes her Ziegfeld debut. You can see it on his face: wonderment, anxiety, as he realizes how far she’s come and that she technically no longer needs his help, but also like he’s finally comprehending the full extent of her talent.

The more I see the film, the more sorry I feel for him (up to a point) in the first half, until he wipes away all sympathy by his actions. By the second half, Ruth becomes primarily a victim, but initially she is just as complicit as Marty and even strings him along, trying to have all the benefits of being a mistress without having to pay the price. I’m no longer sure  how much she is genuinely standing up for herself and how much is manipulation. When she is angry that he expects sex in return for getting her a job, does she really intend to walk out or is she hoping that he’ll give in? Maybe both.

I used to wonder how on earth she could have married Marty after he (it’s implied) finally gets fed up and rapes her. I finally concluded that the problem is that she both has too many scruples and not enough. She doesn’t have enough to prevent her from trying to use Marty, but too much in that she feels so guilty about it that she stays in an abusive situation because she feels like she owes him. And because she knows how crazy he is about her.

love_me_or_leave_meThat is what makes the film so powerful, in my opinion, the nuance the actors bring. Marty is primarily an abusive hood (and largely unsympathetic), but he has human emotions and is nuts about Ruth, so much so that he hardly understands it. Ruth, on the other hand, is not merely a victim, but consciously working her way to the top and is willing to roll over (or have Marty roll over) quite a few people to get where she wants (including discarding the man she loves and who loves her).

The music is also sensational (one of my favorite soundtracks). Most of the songs were popularized and associated with Ruth Etting, such as “Love Me or Leave Me” (Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn) and “Ten Cents a Dance” (Rodgers and Hart). A few songs, like “I’ll Never Stop Loving You” were written for the movie.

Doris Day doesn’t sound a thing like Ruth Etting and she’s still more fifties than twenties – in fact the entire more looks more like a twenties flavored fifties film, but that’s not a complaint. I’m not sure the twenties look would have flattered Day nearly as well as the fifties, anyway. Ruth Etting actually wanted Jane Powell to portray her in the film, but Cagney lobbied for Day, for which I am extremely grateful. Doris Day’s incandescent talent (nothing against Powell) makes her success and Marty’s surprise at her success all the more potent, because she really is stunning. How could she not become a star?

Here is Doris Day’s rendition of “Love Me or Leave Me.”

And Ruth Ettings rendition, recorded in 1929. Ruth Etting always claimed that her voice was deeper than it sounded on recordings.

“Ten Cents a Dance,” sung by Doris Day.

And Ruth Etting’s version of “Ten Cents a Dance.”


Posted by on May 12, 2016 in Movies


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Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

Angels_with_Dirty_Faces_Film_PosterI’ve concluded that I needed to be somewhat familiar with the gangster genre to properly appreciate Angels With Dirty Faces. The first time I saw it, to my slight shame, my reaction was tepid. But when I watched it again last weekend, I thought it was wonderful. The difference? I’d finally seen Cagney’s other gangster films (and Bogart’s and Robinson’s). I understood the context much better and suddenly the film seemed like the masterpiece I knew it was supposed to be.

It’s a post-code gangster film, meaning that movies could no longer seem to be celebrating the gangster as hero. It’s a limitation that put an end to a particularly kind of film, but as often happens with limitations, it also forces creativity in a new direction. It allows Angels With Dirty Faces to explore the affect that glorification of gangsters has on young kids, but also contrasting that glamour with the more ordinary and unexciting, but wholly transformative virtue of simply doing the right thing. But it is also a story of friendship and redemption, not to mention a good excuse to watch gangsters shoot each other up.

Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly (played by Frankie Burke and William Tracy), two poor Irish kids who grew up together in New York City, try to rob a freight train. But they are discovered in the act and both try to flee. Jerry gets away, but Rocky is caught and sent to juvenile detention. This is the beginning of a life of crime and he becomes the famous Rocky Sullivan (now played by James Cagney), a headline-making gangster who’s constantly in and out of prison. But Jerry becomes a priest (Pat O’Brien), who lives in the same neighborhood where he grew up and is trying to help the kids, especially by keeping them out of a life of petty crime that so often leads to hardened crime.

When Rocky is released from his latest prison sentence, he returns to the old neighborhood and is reunited with Jerry for the first time in years. He is also after his money, which he stole before his prison term, and which was supposed to be kept safe for him by a crooked and weasely lawyer, Frazier (Humphrey Bogart), who does not exactly welcome Rocky’s return because he’s set himself up in business with another crooked mob leader, Mac Keefer (George Bancroft).

James Cagney, Pat O'Brien and The Dead End Kids

James Cagney, Pat O’Brien and The Dead End Kids

The Dead End Kids play the group of delinquents that Father Jerry is trying to save, but who develop a case of hero worship for Rocky, who enjoys their adulation. As Rocky muscles his way into Mac and Frazier’s business and even controls the police, Father Jerry can’t, in good conscience, turn a blind eye to Rocky’s doings, no matter how great their friendship, and he warns Rocky that he’s going to fight corruption, for the sake of the kids. He never blames Rocky, though. He believes it’s because Rocky couldn’t run as fast as he could and that he could have been in the same position.

James Cagney plays Rocky Sullivan like a paradox. He’s cocky and enjoys the glamour of his position. He likes to read about himself on the front page (as do the kids), loves the wealth and the power and definitely the thrill of violence. He’s utterly ruthless when dealing with fellow gangsters, but there’s another side of him. He’s unshakably loyal to Jerry. Underlying the cockiness, he respects Jerry.

Some people have commented that Pat O’Brien is solid, but overshadowed by Cagney, but I think that’s the point. Rocky is supposed to be more exciting than Father Jerry. That’s why all the kids want to be like him. Living a decent life and doing the right thing doesn’t look like much fun in comparison. That is why Father Jerry is determined to expose crime as un-heroic and the easy way out.

Spoilers! Which is also why, at the end, Father Jerry asks Rocky to pretend to be a coward just before he dies on the electric chair. If the kids see that he’s actually a coward, then the glamour will fade and they can view crime for what it really is. And fundamentally, Rocky must agree with him. He admitted earlier to Jerry that he’s taken the easy way out, that Jerry’s way was harder, and, as DVD Verdict writes, for Rocky to choose to throw away his whole reputation (which is all that he has left, “Rocky [must have] thought about his life and truly found it lacking.” He ultimately agrees with Jerry and makes the sacrifice, throwing his reputation and his pride out the window and plays the coward. It’s an incredible ending to a film, making Rocky the unlikely angel of the title.

James Cagney, George Bancroft and Humphrey Bogart

James Cagney, George Bancroft and Humphrey Bogart, looking distinctly shifty

There is some question about whether Rocky really pretended to be a coward (because he tells Jerry he won’t do it) or if he simply fell apart for real and Jerry just thought he was doing it for him. I’m more inclined to think Rocky did it deliberately When you look at the last shot of his face before he is put on the electric chair (which we only see in shadows), he has a look of steely determination. He does not look like a man who’s about to fall apart. And it jives with his previous, contradictory performance of a gangster who’s also secretly self-aware, who can still recognize goodness when he sees it.

Angels With Dirty Faces is a film chock full of great talent. Ann Sheridan is still at the beginning of her career (she really hit it in 1940) and plays Rocky’s sweetheart, a sort of reformed fallen woman who falls again. The only problem is that her character disappears in the last part of the film and one can’t help but wonder what happens with her.

Humphrey Bogart is also in pre-star mode. I used to wonder how Warner Bros. could have relegated him to supporting roles for so long, but in truth, he’s actually pretty good at it. As the lawyer, Frazier, he’s weasely and craven, not a man of action, who sweats under pressure, shifty and greedy. It’s not a role you think of with Bogart, but he plays it well. He’s not at all like the charismatic leading man of the 1940s. He knows how to inhabit his roles without overplaying them or trying to compete with the other stars. He’s understated and subtle. The more of his pre-star roles I see, the more I seem to appreciate him as an actor.


Posted by on September 18, 2015 in Movies


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White Heat (1949)

downloadWhite Heat is one of James Cagney’s finest films and when I first saw it I was so blown away that I had to watch it again. It was the movie that really turned me into a serious Cagney fan (though I always liked him in Yankee Doodle Dandy and Love Me or Leave Me). Violent, brutal, psychotic, cunning and too-trusting, with serious mommy issues, Cagney’s Cody Jarrett is a frightening and yet surprisingly vulnerable gangster. The vulnerability doesn’t make him more likable, but it does make him a human being and not just a killing machine.

Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) and his gang – which includes his overpowering and devoted mother, Ma (Margaret Wycherly), his cheap, bombshell wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo), and Big Ed (Steve Cochran), who would love nothing better than to replace Cody – have just held up a train and are now hiding out. The police are hot on their trail and to derail suspicion, Cody decides to confess to another crime he didn’t commit (he knows the guy who did commit it), which would show he couldn’t possibly have held up the train. The idea is that he’ll only get a few years and emerge again to enjoy the spoils of criminality.

But once he’s in prison, Big Ed makes his move. Verna, who can hardly compete with Cody’s mother for Cody’s attention (so greatly does Ma Jarrett dominate his life), is quite willing to switch from Cody to Big Ed. Meanwhile, the police know Cody is in for the wrong crime and plant a policemen in jail to get close to Cody. His name is Hank Fallon (Edmund O’Brien) and his job is working in prisons to worm out secrets from the inmates. The police figure that without the strong and steadying influence of Ma, Jarrett will need someone to lean on and they are hoping it will be Fallon. But it’s a race against time. There is insanity in the Jarrett family, Cody’s father ended in an asylum and the police know Cody is beginning to crack up. They want to find out who the fence is who takes care of all the hot money that Cody steals.

James Cagney and Edmund O'Brien

James Cagney and Edmund O’Brien

Spoilers! When Ma Jarrett is killed, Cody goes completely psycho and breaks out of jail, bringing Fallon along with him. The rest of the film almost takes on the tone of a suspense thriller – will Cody kill Big Ed? will Cody catch on to Fallon? will Fallon survive? will Cody figure out that it was really his wife and not Big Ed who killed Ma? – which is broken at the end when everything comes to a head in a blaze of gunfire, a massive explosion, fire and a complete mental breakdown by Cody. It’s both gripping and mesmerizing, made even more so by a unforgettably volatile performance by Cagney, at times pathetic, terrifying, childish, cunning, and even hurt.

The classic gangster of the early 1930s falls because of his own hubris. James Cagney adds new layers to the earlier gangster persona, his motivations slightly obscure. He doesn’t seem ambitious for power or influence, per se. The ambition is coming from his mother, who always tells him “On top of the world, son.” He also doesn’t seem that interested in enjoying the wealth he has, which frustrates his wife, who has to talk him into buying her a fur coat. She wants to live high, have rich things, spend money, travel and hobnob with the rich, but she can’t seem to get her husband interested in any of that until his mother is dead.

Cody Jarrett himself seems most interested in the life of a gangster: the camaraderie, the power over others, the planning, danger, thrill, and also the killing. He gets a high from it and he just likes hanging out with the guys, especially Fallon. Verna is an accessory.

James Cagney and Margaret Wycherley

James Cagney and Margaret Wycherly

And for all that he’s cruel, violent and enjoys it, he’s too trusting. It’s ironic, because in a way, he’s not wrong to place all his faith in his mother. She’s the one who figures out that someone is trying to kill him while he’s in prison (he put the incident down to an accident), she’s the one who senses that they are being followed by the police at the beginning of the film, she’s the one who also who knows Big Ed and Verna are going to betray him. Her mistake is not in taking on Big Ed, but in underestimating Verna.

But once she’s gone, Cody trusts all the wrong people. He makes Fallon his friend and confidante and believes Verna when she tells him that it was Big Ed who murdered his mother and that she never betrayed him at all (she’s nearly as good a liar as Brigid O’Shaughnessy and apparently just as much of an opportunist). Near the end of the film, Cody is sitting in a room with Fallon and Verna, fully trusting these two people, one a cop and the other the murderer of his mother. It would be pathetic if everyone wasn’t so afraid of him.

White Heat was directed by Raoul Walsh and I’ve come to like his films very much. There’s something uncompromising about them that I enjoy, brisk, full of energy, never dull. James Cagney is fantastic. Edmund O’Brien is not dynamic, but he’s not supposed to be. He’s a cop who’s playing the part of a solid and loyal friend. Margaret Wycherly matches Cagney for dynamic personality, as a woman so tangled up in her son’s life, willing him upwards to success, still babying him when he’s low and propping him up so he won’t appear weak to others. Her character intrigued me. She knows insanity’s in the family – her own husband went insane. Does she not see it in her son? Does she think she can hold it in check?

James Cagney, Virginia Mayo

James Cagney, Virginia Mayo

Virginia Mayo is superb as a sort of cheap, gum-smacking Brigid O’Shaunessy. She’s out for the glamour and the high life of drinking, gambling, jewels, the life that so attracted gangsters and their molls in the early 1930s, and she will take whatever guy can give it to her, whether Cody or Big Ed. To be honest, when I first saw the movie, I thought Cody was going to kill her and I was impressed that she survives the film. She’s the only gang member left standing at the end (though she’ll get jail time).

For a person who grew up on musicals and costume-drama romances, I’ve really surprised myself by loving these early gangster films. They’re epic, like a Greek tragedy; not to compare Cody Jarrett to Achilles. To be honest, I never warmed to the characters in Greek epics. They always seemed to me like murderous, bloodthirsty, hubristic rapists eager for glory…actually, maybe there is a comparison to be made. But the comparison should be made in reverse. Cody Jarrett is not an American hero; Achilles is a Greek gangster. I don’t know if I’d begin with White Heat if I’d never seen a gangster film before. The best place to start is at the beginning, with Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (I haven’t seen Scarface yet, but it’s on my list). But White Heat is one of the best.


Posted by on September 16, 2015 in Movies


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