Jame Cagney's Reinvention in 'Johnny Come Lately'

by Jose Solis

4 June 2014

In this otherwise predictable film, James Cagney paved a path for future performers and the DIY ethic.
cover art

Johnny Come Lately

Director: William K. Howard
Cast: James Cagney, Grace George, Edward McNamara

US DVD: 13 May 2014

It seems as if James Cagney spent plenty of time trying to get rid of his image as the bad boy of gangster dramas like Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and White Heat (1949). With his cherubic face and charm, how could he let audiences forever think of him as a maniacal criminal?

In 1942 he won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), about a man so patriotic that he was born on the fourth of July as if by his own choice. The Michael Curtiz-directed musical seems to have been the first step in Cagney’s career reinvention, considering that there is an old Hollywood legend that says he decided to star in the film because there were rumors of him being a Communist.

The film proved to be a box office hit, and Cagney was well on his way to gaining a new life onscreen as someone who had more in common with rising star James Stewart than with the dark Peter Lorre. After starring in Yankee Doodle Dandy, Cagney took his career and destiny into his own hands, announcing that he was leaving Warner Bros. Studios to open his very own production company.

This was a logical step for Cagney to take, given that Warner had been responsible for creating his thuggish image, and movie stars back then were forever linked to the studios they were working for. Why he didn’t try to move to Metro Goldwyn Mayer and build a career in the musicals is a complete mystery, which proves he was a bold artist that had faith in his own powers.

He created his company and it took him almost a whole year to deliver its first film, a melodrama titled Johnny Come Lately, a movie so dull and forgettable that it seems as if it’s only purpose was to continue shedding Cagney’s old look. The film has been released in a new Blu-ray edition by Boutique distributor Olive Films, which inarguably has done a beautiful job in the technical aspects, but might have been better off releasing a better film? The distributor has established that its purpose is to restore and show films that have been forgotten or that remain obscure, and this one makes a perfect case.

Perhaps mostly unknown to people who have never caught a midnight showing on Turner Classic Movies, Johnny Come Lately is an example of the efficiency with which films were made during the studio system era.

Cagney stars as Tom Richards, a wide-eyed drifter who arrives to the small town of Plattsville. The year is 1906 and Plattsville is the kind of town still ruled by the morals of nice old ladies like Vinnie McLeod (Grace George), the publisher of the local newspaper “Shield and Banner”, whose idealistic motto “A Shield for the Oppressed, a Banner for the Brave” is caught in the imaginary version of America that Hollywood was trying to “preserve” as World War II ravaged the globe.

Vinnie runs into Tom one day and immediately takes a liking to him (because he’s reading a Charles Dickens book), leading her to hiring him as a reporter for her dying newspaper. It helps that a judge also places him under her care, after a slight faux pas with the law.

Tom soon discovers that the lovely town, is darker than its picket fences and smiley citizens suggest, it’s most definitely not dark in the way David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is, but dark in the kind of harmless way old fashioned melodramas often are. In this case, the villain is contractor Bill Dougherty (Edward McNamara), whose money and influence are aiding the corruption of Plattsville.

Dougherty is also running for office, and has become Vinnie’s enemy because she refuses to print articles about him and the good he does for the town. Of course, Tom comes to the rescue and after Vinnie names him managing editor, sets up a campaign to fight the wicked Dougherty, but he soon realizes that the corruption has seeped into every little crevice of the town.

To say that the film is predictable would be a serious understatement; every subplot and every line of dialogue seem to be geared towards making Cagney’s character almost saint-like. However, while the film fails as a great piece of art, its value as a document in re-invention is what makes it so unique. Johnny Come Lately gives us a piece entirely dedicated to making a man become something he’s not.

In terms of pure Hollywood power, Cagney delivered a bold move, paving a path for future performers who realized that the only way to get things done was by doing it themselves.


There are no extras with this DVD

Johnny Come Lately


We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

NYFF 2017: 'Mudbound'

// Notes from the Road

"Dee Rees’ churning and melodramatic epic follows two families in 1940s Mississippi, one black and one white, and the wars they fight abroad and at home.

READ the article