The Cagney features collected here are not "must-owns", but they are enjoyable "might-owns" for anyone who takes pleasure in watching a talented actor finding moments of undiluted joy in work-a-day films.
James Cagney: The Signature CollectionDistributor: Warner
Cast: James Cagney, Bette Davis, Pat O'Brien, Ann Sheridan, Doris Day, Gordon MacRae
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 2007
Look son, I've been working with talent all my life and all I've gotta do is listen once and I know.
Now, you've got it.
Where you got it, how you got it, don't know.
But the question is: what are you going to do with it?
-- James Cagney as Bix Bigsby, The West Point Story
The Golden Age of Hollywood boasted numerous stars and each (for better or for worse) had her or his niche, largely based upon the star's "personality". Jimmy Stewart was the eternally affable everyman, all stutters and charm, while Cary Grant was the urbane gentleman, every mannerism seeming like it was rehearsed to perfection. Bette Davis was the imperiously tempestuous and often tragic figure of raw femininity, while Jean Arthur was the mildly sarcastic and self-aware gal about town. These stars occasionally played against type, but the very fact that these performances registered with an audience as being "against type" solidified the importance of their recognizable personalities.
Among them was a rather diminutive and brash man from New York's East side who delivered his lines with the staccato rhythm of a telegraph machine and even in comic scenes appeared ready to explode. His face was itself a strange contradiction: his eyes always retained a hint of desperation while his set jaw exuded confident determination. Will Rogers once said of him: "Every time I see him work, it looks to me like a bunch of firecrackers going off all at once." He was the epitome of the gangster, inspiring thousands of fans to imitate a line ("you dirty rat") that he never actually uttered onscreen (the actual line from his 1932 film Taxi! was "Come out and take it, you dirty, yellow-bellied rat, or I'll give it to you through the door") and yet he won an Oscar for his role as the song and dance man George M. Cohan in the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy. Like many of the great Hollywood stars, he was highly versatile and yet always recognizably "himself". I am speaking, of course, of James Cagney.
Warner Home Video is now honoring the screen legend -- one of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild and the recipient of the American Film Institute's first Lifetime Achievement Award -- with a five-DVD collector's set: James Cagney: The Signature Collection. (Each film may also be purchased separately.) Like earlier releases under the auspices of The Signature Collection series, this set features films that were not previously available on DVD. Indeed, films that are largely forgotten or at the very least are not foremost in the minds of Cagney's admirers. However, this by no means diminishes the value of the set but rather enhances its worth. While forgoing his iconic performances in such familiar noir films as White Heat and the chilling Angels with Dirty Faces (not to mention his quirky comedic turns as the ship captain in Mister Roberts and beleaguered businessman in One, Two, Three), the set allows viewers to explore five solid performances in arguably mediocre but satisfying vehicles that admirably demonstrate Cagney's fine abilities before the camera. After all, these were also among the "Cagney" films that audiences went to see on Friday or Saturday nights, and although none of them are likely to be found on any "Top Films" list, they bear witness to an era before television reigned supreme, when Hollywood films provided the richest source of entertainment for most middle-class families.
A particularly egregious example is the set of shorts included on the DVD of The Bride Came C.O.D., which has the frightful temerity to present an interminable musical short Carnival of Rhythm that borders on the exploitative (and clearly banks on the fascination with the seemingly primitive -- and of course musical -- dark-skinned Other) and then follow it with yet another interminable musical short Forty Boys and a Song about a school that trains boys to become fine choral singers. The latter, we are informed, was nominated for an Oscar, leading me to believe that America was simply too shell-shocked from the ever-growing crisis of World War II to make any responsible aesthetic decisions. The only thing that salvages the collection of shorts on that particular DVD is the pair of cartoons: Porky's Pooch and the highly inventive Rhapsody in Rivets, also nominated for an Oscar. All right, some responsible aesthetic decisions were made.
However, if one has the necessary fortitude (or Buddha-like patience), one will inevitably discover some fascinating (if sometimes disturbing) insights into the cultural past by dipping selectively into the shorts. The sports short Rocky Mountain Big Game offers us an unsettling example. The short film features a group of hunters (the film claims that they will be hunting primarily with their cameras) as they arduously make their way up steep, snow-covered mountains in search of bighorn rams. We see shots of bears amicably wrestling, men pitching tents, and horses rolling about on the ground, relaxing after a long trek. All the time, the narrator indulges in that fatuous game of "speaking" to the images on the film as he relates the joys and tribulations of the pursuit. Eventually, the hunters find a ram and drop the camera in exchange for a rifle. The animal is killed on a treacherous slope and its dead body limply tumbles down the mountainside as the narrator intones: "This kind of shooting is always a satisfaction to a real sportsman for it kills instantly without crippling. It's a long ways down." It is a harrowingly callous moment, which only gets worse inasmuch as the very next shot features the hunters holding up the severed heads of two rams for the audience's admiration. At the same time, the short is entirely typical of the vicarious adventure audiences sought as part of the theater-going experience. If nothing else, this is a wonderful lesson in film history.
The Bride Came C.O.D.
In 1942's Captains of the Clouds Cagney is a pilot, again, but this time in one of the first war flicks to emerge after America's active entry into World War II. Here Cagney plays Brian MacLean, a bush pilot with a knack for stealing transporting jobs away from other flyers. He relentlessly flirts with a young woman engaged to marry the saintly and earnest Johnny (why are they always named "Johnny"??) who dreams of a respectable marriage and establishing his own airline. MacLean eventually marries the girl out from under Johnny and leaves her the morning after their wedding night. All of this was supposedly designed to prevent Johnny from ruining his life by attaching himself to a girl that was just "no good". One cannot help but wonder if MacLean actually recognized an emergent fallen woman within her or if he led her to a life of debauchery by abandoning her (presumably after deflowering her on their wedding night).
Captains of the Clouds
Perhaps the finest film in the set is The Fighting 69th from 1940, which focuses on the vaunted regiment of mostly Irish-Americans from New York. Cagney's off-screen buddy, Pat O'Brien, does a fine job portraying Father Duffy, the spiritual leader of the regiment, while Cagney again plays the brash and cocky ruffian but this time with a difference: beneath the façade of swagger lies the heart of a coward. After weeks of braggadocio in training camp (during which Cagney's Jerry Plunkett assures everyone that he will single-handedly defeat the Germans once given the chance), the new recruit finds he cannot withstand the pressures of the trenches. Plunkett's desperate attempts to remove himself from the line of fire result in the demise of 24 of his fellow soldiers. Father Duffy convinces the superior officer to give Plunkett another chance, which only results in a major blunder and more unnecessary deaths. Plunkett is sentenced to execution by firing squad but in the end redeems himself through an act of courage.
The Fighting 69th
O'Brien and Cagney team up again (this time joined by a radiant Ann Sheridan) for Torrid Zone. This film, like The Fighting 69th, was produced in 1940 but that is where the similarities end. Torrid Zone is an action comedy set mostly on a Central American banana plantation. O'Brien plays an executive of the company and he is desperate to keep his best man on the job as a supervisor of a troublesome plantation, beleaguered by poor management and a gang of native dissidents. Meanwhile, Sheridan plays a chanteuse with a penchant for cheating at cards and Cagney splits his romantic moments between her and another man's wife. The plot, inasmuch as the film has one, is entirely incidental and amounts to little more than a string of excuses for banter among the characters; the point is the rapid-fire exchange of one-liners.
The West Point Story
All that aside, Cagney is beguiling as a song and dance man with a shark-toothed grin and an ego that goes on for miles. He winds up being forced to live like a cadet and he does a fine job of looking like a man that is much too old to be doing so. If nothing else, the inclusion of this movie rounds out the many faces of Cagney with the glaring exception of Cagney as gangster (but there is plenty of that elsewhere).
As I write this review, it is a rainy day in New York City and I am slightly under the weather. It strikes me that there are few things I would rather be doing at the moment than watching films such as these. The set has much to recommend it; it fills a lazy day splendidly. Patterns in Cagney's acting emerge, of course: the forced smile, the way every line is delivered as though it were an evasion, and the manner in which the writers seem to find any opportunity for Cagney to punch someone out no matter what the plot of the film. The Cagney features collected here are not "must-owns" but they are enjoyable "might-owns" for anyone who takes pleasure in watching a talented actor finding moments of undiluted joy in work-a-day films. These films demonstrate that Cagney had a lot of talent but as he says in The West Point Story "the question is: what are you going to do with it?" Evidently, Cagney did a lot with his.