PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Film

Jame Cagney's Reinvention in 'Johnny Come Lately'

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


Johnny Come Lately

Director: William K. Howard
Cast: James Cagney, Grace George, Edward McNamara
Distributor: Olive
Release date: 2014-05-13

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

5

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Music

'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.

Music

Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.

Music

MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.