The Irish in us: The Cagney-O'Brien movies (Part II)

The Irish in us: The Cagney-O'Brien movies (Part II)

Despite the conflicts, Warners knew Cagney still had drawing power and wanted his name back on their theater marquees; disillusioned (for now) with his bid for independence, Cagney and the studio came to terms. His first assignment was with O'Brien and was a prestige offering, BOY MEETS GIRL (1938), an adaptation of Sam and Bella Spewack's screwball comedy about Hollywood that played Broadway for nearly 700 performances in 1935-1936, tailored to the talents of its two stars.

Again teamed with Lloyd Bacon as director, BOY MEETS GIRL focuses on Robert Law (Cagney) and J.C. Benson (O'Brien), a pair of screenwriters who have surrendered to the financial lure of regular work at the studio, yet spend more time bamboozling their boss, producer C. Elliott Friday (Ralph Bellamy) than coming up with workable scenarios. Additionally, they torment slow-on-the-uptake cowboy star Larry Toms (Dick Foran, who had completed a series of oaters for Warners) and try to help commissary waitress Susie (Marie Wilson), who finds herself both unmarried and pregnant.

When pressed by Friday for a potential hit, the manic pair scheme to make Susie's baby a star and the darling of the nation. The script, credited to the Spewacks, jettisoned the usual  recipe for Cagney-O'Brien pictures up to that point by making them equally loony, devious but well-meaning as befit the typically complicated plot. For both actors, BOY MEETS GIRL was a refreshing change from the parts the studio usually meted out to them. They're really at their best in scenes in which they storm Friday's office with their latest story idea and proceed to act out the extravaganza in front of him. And their theory that every movie plot boils down to a simple concept -- boy meets girl -- is  explained in comic terms by two masters.

In supporting roles, Marie Wilson was a new talent at Warners whose dumb blonde approach reached its apex in the next decade with the radio, movie and television versions of MY FRIEND IRMA, while Ronald Reagan, then new to the company, is amusing as a radio announcer (his former occupation) at a premiere. Comedies about the zany side of Hollywood weren't uncommon, among them Cagney's late, lamented SOMETHING TO SING ABOUT (dealing with a bandleader who becomes a movie idol), but BOY MEETS GIRL, little seen today for unknown reasons, remains one of the best.

Cagney and O'Brien then moved on into the first of a pair of films that cemented their respective screen images in the minds of audiences for decades to come. Rowland Brown, who had written and directed two of the lesser-known yet distinctive entries in the early gangster movie craze (QUICK MILLIONS, 1931, and BLOOD MONEY, 1933), reportedly pitched his original story that became ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938) to Grand National during Cagney's tenure, but the studio passed in favor of SOMETHING TO SING ABOUT (this according to Grand National producer Edward Finney in Gene Fernett, POVERTY ROW, Satellite Beach, Fla.: Coral Reef Publications, 1973, pp. 45-48). Grand National let its rights to Brown's story lapse, causing it to almost naturally come into possession of Warners, where it became the answer to not only what to do next with Cagney and O'Brien, but also with the Dead End Kids, the studio's latest celebrity acquisition.

In addition to a well-picked supporting cast and a powerhouse director like Michael Curtiz handling the project, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES couldn't fail, and didn't, thanks to the commitment of all in its company to make a potentially maudlin story become a memorable movie experience, a classic representation of Hollywood's Golden Age.

ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES begins some years in the past, as roughneck Lower East Side teens Rocky Sullivan (played by 23-year-old Frankie Burke, who bore an uncanny physical and vocal resemblance to Cagney) and Jerry Connolly (William Tracy) flee from police while breaking into a freight car. Fast-on-his-feet Jerry gets away, but Rocky isn't so lucky. Sent to the reformatory, Rocky instead becomes a better if not overly successful criminal, and following his latest stretch as a guest of the State of New York, he returns to the old neighborhood. The adult Rocky (Cagney) rents a room from childhood friend Laury Ferguson (Ann Sheridan) and reconnects with Jerry (O'Brien), who chose another path in life and is now the parish priest.

Rocky's immediate agenda is to recover the $100,000 promised him for taking the rap in the last robbery he committed from crooked attorney James Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) and gang boss Mac Keefer (George Bancroft). But as Frazier and Keefer put him off, he uses his free time to help Jerry tame the unruly boys causing mayhem around the neighborhood. Rocky's mentoring has the opposite effect on the kids, as they come to idolize his criminal past and head down the same road Rocky has taken. Because Frazier and Keefer have played Rocky for a sucker, things come to a head and following a shootout that leaves his former cohorts in the morgue, Rocky is tried and sentenced to death.

Worried the boys are too forgone in their hero worship of his friend, Jerry visits Rocky prior to his execution and asks him act a coward as he goes to the electric chair. Rocky scoffs at such nonsense, determined to go out on his terms, but at the last minute, he breaks down and begs for mercy. Reading newspaper accounts about Rocky's fate, with Jerry confirming that his friend turned yellow at the critical moment, the chastened boys head off to church with Jerry to offer a prayer "for a boy who couldn't run as fast as I could."

ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES works in large part because of the sincerity its leads brought to their roles, both of which were so lampooned over the years that people believed Cagney and O'Brien made more movies like this one. Channeling memories of his own troubled upbringing, Cagney endows Rocky with not just an enviable set of street skills but also with a sensitivity that lies beneath his hard outer surface. Despite his preference for the criminal life, Rocky has an affection for his home turf that brings him back time and again between prison sentences. It's when he leaves those old haunts he gets back into trouble and becomes the tool of uptown sharpies like Frazier and Keefer. In his interaction with the rough-and-tumble Dead End Kids, with whom Rocky has a shared experience, one can see he supports Jerry's goal of making them do good; it's in how he does so they disagree.

To his great credit, O'Brien makes Jerry's Catholic cleric a human being and not just another platitudinous priest or prison chaplain found in such pictures of the time. Jerry sees an innate force for good in people such as Rocky and the boys in particular, and helping Laury (a fine performance by Sheridan) overcome her cynicism about life is one of a number of small triumphs for his parish. Some critics have found Jerry's request to Rocky to turn into a sniveling rat at the end to be utterly ridiculous, but while it is a fiction, it works here because of Jerry's ability to read people. Knowing the boys won't accept Rocky's final act of cowardice, Jerry gambles with apparent success that the rowdy group will turn away from the life that reduced Rocky to such a lowly end. And as in many of his films with O'Brien, Cagney's character again finds redemption.

ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES may have inspired the generic "you dirty rat" line often attributed to Cagney in his tough-guy portrayals, although the stance and pronunciation is a generalization of all of his similar '30s roles since THE PUBLIC ENEMY. It may have been what audiences expected of him in each new film, but he was enough of an actor to bring a variation to each performance, and as Schickel pointed out about his collaborations with O'Brien, to inject more psychological motivations into the part. This served Cagney well in the post-World War II period when moviegoers expected more realism, no more so than in his terrifying modern-day bandit Cody Jarrett in 1949's WHITE HEAT.

ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES also clicked with audiences who were then fascinated with the antics of the Dead End Kids, who emerged as the real stars of Sidney Kingsley's stage success DEAD END in 1935. Samuel Goldwyn bought the play, and the kids, out west in 1937 for the screen version that starred Joel McCrea, Sylvia Sidney and Humphrey Bogart. For the record, the "kids" -- some approaching their 20s -- were Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Gabriel Dell and Bernard Punsly. After making the Goldwyn version of DEAD END, the group seemed to do their level best to live up to their image as undisciplined street urchins. Goldwyn washed his hands of them and sold their contracts to Warners, which capitalized on their fame in CRIME SCHOOL (1938), co-starring Bogart in one of his then-rare good guy roles.

ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES was, however, an ideal outlet for their insolent appeal, but Cagney didn't tolerate their on-set tomfoolery, letting them know decisively of his displeasure with upsetting the filming routine. One wonders if the physical punishment Rocky visits on the kids during a basketball game engineered by Jerry demonstrated Cagney's frustration with the boys; in any event, neither he or O'Brien worked with the group again. (Actually, the Warners star the kids interacted with the best was John Garfield in THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL, 1939, in part because Garfield, himself a former street kid from the Bronx, was only a few years older than them).

A year elapsed before Cagney and O'Brien were brought back into harness, along with Frank McHugh, George Brent, Alan Hale Sr., Dick Foran, Guinn "Big Boy" Williams and others, for THE FIGHTING 69TH, the highly fictionalized but stirring story of an infantry unit of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. The 69th hailed from New York and was heavily Irish-American in makeup, and despite it being part of the Rainbow Division that constituted units from all over the U.S., the film focused on its proud Irish members. And with such sons of the Ould Sod as Cagney, O'Brien and Brent in the leads, what else could it be about?

Filmed in the latter half of 1939, as war erupted in Europe and isolationist sentiment remained strong in America, THE FIGHTING 69TH was another of Warners' attempts to awaken audiences to the inevitability of another global conflict. Their first effort in this direction, and at the time the first from any major studio, was CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY (1939), done with all of the studio's expertise at tabloid journalism dissection of current events. One of Warners' last prior to Pearl Harbor was Howard Hawks' SERGEANT YORK, which netted Gary Cooper the Best Actor Oscar for 1941. THE FIGHTING 69TH, which hit theaters early in 1940 under the direction of William Keighley, explored the nature of patriotism, courage and commitment to a common goal as both history lesson and rollicking entertainment.

As the U.S. goes to war with the Kaiser in 1917, the 69th, a National Guard unit that fought with distinction in the Civil War, works to whip raw recruits into soldiers under the no-nonsense tutelage of stern Maj. William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan (Brent) and gruff Sgt. "Big Mike" Wynn (Hale). Among the new fish is Jerry Plunkett (Cagney), an insolent, all-talk-no-action goldbricker who drives Wynn to distraction and quickly gets on Donovan's washout list. The war is a lark to Jerry and worse, he seems ashamed of his heritage, loudly informing all and sundry he cares nothing about being Irish and repeatedly refers to Wynn as a "thick Mick." The only defender Jerry has is the unit's popular  chaplain, Father Francis P. Duffy (O'Brien), whose spiritual support of the troops soon becomes legendary.

There is a nice comic air to the camp scenes of THE FIGHTING 69TH, exemplified when Wynn discovers to his horror that a Jewish volunteer (Sammy Cohen) is masquerading as "Mike Murphy" in the unit. His ruse discovered by Jerry (who speaks a few words of Yiddish to "Murphy" and gets some in reply), the prospective doughboy begs Wynn to let him serve with the 69th. Impressed if still out of sorts about the whole situation, Wynn grants "Murphy" his wish in one of Hale's best movie scenes.

That light mood disappears when the division lands in France, facing the reality of warfare in the trenches. Predictably, on patrol and encountering Germans, Jerry turns coward, gives away their position and causes the deaths of several comrades, including Wynn's young brother (William Lundigan). Donovan, fed up with Jerry's behavior, has him court-martialed and sentenced to death, despite Duffy's intervention on his behalf. On the eve of the execution, Duffy tries to explain the meaning of duty to not only the service but his fellow man to the embittered Jerry, who will have none of it.

But when a German shell demolishes his makeshift prison, Jerry heeds Duffy's words, races to the front and with Wynn's assistance launches a victorious mortar attack on the enemy lines. Knowing no one despises him more than Wynn, Jerry still sacrifices himself by throwing his body over a German grenade meant for the sergeant. Led by Duffy, the 69th mourns the loss of one of their own.

The obvious reliance on the formula of the Cagney-O'Brien pictures is obscured by the huge plot and numerous characters enacted by just about every male contract player on the Warners roster. THE FIGHTING 69TH is also the strongest of their films on the blarney, but the stress was on American unity, a point Donovan drives home in the boot camp scenes when he breaks up a fight between rowdy members of the 69th and Southerners who will be part of the Rainbow Division. "We all worked hard on the picture, and tried to add to its realism and its spiritual content a feeling of the complexity of life in times of turmoil," reflected O'Brien (in THE WIND AT MY BACK, p. 222).

Yet the spirit of the Irish Mafia was felt after the film was completed in November 1939. John Harron, who had the uncredited part of Carroll in THE FIGHTING 69TH, was on a fishing vacation near Spokane, Wash., when he contracted and died of spinal meningitis at the age of 36. A former silent movie star, Harron's best-known sound role was the romantic lead in the horror classic WHITE ZOMBIE (1932) that starred Bela Lugosi. In the succeeding years he had become a contract bit player at Warners. Despite the brevity of his part, the delegation of cast members from THE FIGHTING 69TH attending the funeral Mass for Harron in Los Angeles was led by his fellow Irish Catholics Cagney, O'Brien and Brent.

For the most part, Cagney makes THE FIGHTING 69TH's Jerry Plunkett a frankly unsympathetic character, a braggart who folds under fire. But, as O'Brien noted, because his pal was so skillful at stealing scenes "by lifting an eyebrow," Cagney still creates a compelling characterization. O'Brien approached the role of Father Duffy with more rectitude than his Jerry Connolly in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, primarily due to his playing a real individual the actor had met in New York prior to Duffy's passing in 1932. This more pious interpretation may have led to the belief that O'Brien played nothing but priests in the movies; yet a check of his IMDB record reveals he was a cleric onscreen only in the two films discussed here, 1948's FIGHTING FATHER DUNNE and THE FIREBALL (1950), not that O'Brien apparently minded the misunderstanding.

Warners evidently believed a change of pace was needed after the solemnity of THE FIGHTING 69TH, so Cagney and O'Brien were again cast as rivals in the action-adventure TORRID ZONE (1940). Reteamed with William Keighley as director, Cagney is Nick Butler, devil-may-care manager of a South American plantation for a U.S. fruit company, while O'Brien is Steve Case, Nick's results-at-all-costs boss. When we first meet Steve, he's facing a situation freely borrowed from THE FRONT PAGE: trying to keep his best man on the payroll.

Nick, tired of the grind and Steve's conniving, has chucked it all to return home. But raids on the firm's plantations by revolutionary Rosario (George Tobias) are on the rise and Nick has been successful at preventing the native workers from joining Rosario's cause. Rebuffing Steve's attempts to stay put, Nick relents when he rescues knockout entertainer Lee Donley (Ann Sheridan) from the clutches of the easily-corrupted local police. The rest of this speedy yarn is devoted to quelling the revolt and which of the two male stars will win Lee by the close.

With comic relief from Andy Devine as Wally Davis, a role that would have normally been filled by Frank McHugh, TORRID ZONE is amusing if empty, its Richard Macaulay-Jerry Wald screenplay exploring new avenues of Cagney and O'Brien as battling buddies but ultimately going nowhere. The film is actually a major showcase for Sheridan, "the Oomph Girl" Warners prepped for stardom and gave top exposure in 1940. As she did in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, Sheridan plays off Cagney and O'Brien with aplomb. Now in a bigger role, the actress reveals why she was one of the studio's more exciting new faces.

TORRID ZONE would have been more forgettable if it wasn't the final collaboration between its two male leads. After completing his best-known film as a solo lead, KNUTE ROCKNE -- ALL-AMERICAN (1940), O'Brien left Warners when he and the studio couldn't come to terms over salary. His services were soon picked up by Columbia and then by RKO, where he spent the remainder of the decade, balancing roles as steely military men (BOMBARDIER, 1943, and MARINE RAIDERS, 1944) with leads in the burgeoning film noir movement, notably in CRACK-UP (1946) and RIFF-RAFF (1947). Cagney continued with the brothers Warner, netting the Best Actor Oscar for his George M. Cohan in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942) before he again left the studio, this time as an independent producer and lead actor. Four interesting if not successful films later, Cagney ended the '40s by returning to the studio where he became a star.

Although both actors tend to be remembered for individual movies they made, the Cagney-O'Brien pictures were a snappy melding of talents welcomed by an America pulling itself out of the depths of tough economic times. As in HERE COMES THE NAVY, their first film together, Cagney refined his image of rugged individualism and cocky attitude toward authority that audiences saw as a tonic to the worries of the time. O'Brien sharpened his characters' commitment to a vision of a better world through faith, obedience and roll-up-your-sleeves dedication, sometimes at the expense of the rebels exemplified by Cagney. It was a kind of teaming that helped inspire 1930s audiences to dig deeper and meet their higher ambitions, or simply get through a difficult period. That in turn created a sentiment that carried the nation through a world war and the uncertainties that followed with peace.

Some four decades after TORRID ZONE, Cagney and O'Brien were back on celluloid, even if the project didn't afford them any scenes together. When production commenced on RAGTIME (1981), a panaroma of life in New York City (and by implication, America) in the early years of the 20th Century, much was made of the fact it marked Cagney's return to the screen after nearly 20 years of retirement. His role as Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo was small but critical to the proceedings, especially at the close as he and his officers cope with an armed siege of the Pierpoint Morgan Library led by angry Coalhouse Walker (Howard E. Rollins), a black musician ill-treated by whites for his success and attitude.

Reportedly uncomfortable after having been away from sound stages for so long, Cagney took solace in the fact that his old friend O'Brien was on hand for the shoot in the even smaller role of Delphin, a crafty attorney representing Harry Kendall Thaw (Robert Joy) in the murder of architect Stanford White (Norman Mailer) over Thaw's wife, former showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern). The unbalanced Thaw believed White had violated Evelyn and shot him in front of witnesses in what became known as the infamous "Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" case. Having been in and out of poor health in recent years, Cagney was nevertheless commanding in his scenes directing the resolution of the siege, the old discipline and professionalism shining through each sequence in which he appears. (He is also glimpsed at a banquet as RAGTIME opens, but has no dialogue).


O'Brien, who seemingly never stopped working despite the decline of his film career in the '50s, is likewise a breath of how they used to do it, clipped but colorful as the lawyer who manages to spare his client a death sentence. It was a reteaming of what had become "old Hollywood" that gave interest to an indifferently-received production; RAGTIME was directed by Milos Forman and derived from E.L. Doctorow's popular historical novel of 1975.

For O'Brien, who gamely took to the television talk show circuit (sometimes accompanied by the normally reticent Cagney) to promote the film, RAGTIME was his screen swan song as death called for him on Oct. 15, 1983. And despite suffering another bout of declining health in the intervening years, Cagney was again coaxed out of retirement for the lead in a made-for-television feature shot in New York, TERRIBLE JOE MORAN, which premiered March 27, 1984, on CBS. Although age and illness had taken their toll on the man, Cagney rallied for a riveting performance as a onetime boxing champion in a human interest story that co-starred Art Carney and Ellen Barkin. The actor who provided American cinema with some of its more spirited moments -- and energy to spare -- bid farewell to the world on March 30, 1986.

Comments

  1. In reference to my statement that neither Cagney or O'Brien worked with the Dead End Kids after ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, O'Brien, Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall did appear together in a scene near the end of THE PHYNX (1970). They did not interact with each other. O'Brien played himself (lamenting how if he and Ronald Reagan had switched roles in KNUTE ROCKNE, "he'd be here and I'd be in Sacramento"). So were Gorcey and Hall, but in their Bowery Boys personas as Slip Mahoney and Sach Jones.

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