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

Early in 1934, Warner Bros.-First National Pictures was in pre-production for a new action comedy-drama that would be released as HERE COMES THE NAVY. Key to the process before the project went before the cameras was casting the lead players. There was little doubt the showy role of Chesty O'Connor belonged to James Cagney, whose screen image as a tough, scrappy individualist gliding through life on his wits as much as his fists had been carefully built since his breakout role as gangster Tommy Powers in THE PUBLIC ENEMY three years before.

The female lead part of Dorothy Martin was filled by Gloria Stuart, late of Universal. And for the first time, Cagney was assigned to a film with Pat O'Brien, the fast-talking and energetic stage veteran who, like Cagney, had only been in Hollywood a few years.

Because O'Brien was expert at portraying hard yet intuitive characters, his casting as naval officer Biff Martin was fortuitous. HERE COMES THE NAVY required Cagney's trademark cockiness to play off an equally self-assured yet authoritative figure, the kind of character that O'Brien personified in this and seven more productions for the Brothers Warner. O'Brien, in the words of critic Richard Schickel, was Cagney's "perfect co-star," a mixture of Irish-American charm, pugnaciousness and warmth that spoke to audiences of the time. Cagney may have been the acknowledged star, but he and O'Brien were on equal footing in their screen adventures together, sometimes starting off as rivals, always becoming friends (as they were in real life) and expressing their own particular chemistry in high-flying adventures, straight drama and one all-out farce.

More importantly, in an era when their fellow countrymen were struggling to shake off the effects of a devastating economic depression, Cagney and O'Brien played men who offered a glimmer of hope to those in the audience spending what money they could afford for an afternoon or evening's distraction. For each actor brought their irrepressible Irish spirit to uniquely American situations, proposing that a carefree attitude melded with dedication to a goal would boost the country back to prosperity. Their on-screen relationship was perhaps best (and colorfully) summed up by Andrew Bergman:

"Cagney played shanty Irish, O'Brien seemed to have moved up to the lace curtain class. Cagney was the club fighter and O'Brien the classy, stand-up counter-puncher. O'Brien's wit relied more on irony and side-of-the-mouth cynicism than Cagney's, which exercised the body as well as the the brain; a punch in the mouth was never far away." (From JAMES CAGNEY: PYRAMID ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE MOVIES, New York: Pyramid Publications, 1973, p. 52). Schickel, exploring a Freudian strain in their screen pairings, found that "O'Brien gave Cagney someone against whom he could test his mettle, as no woman ever could." (In JAMES CAGNEY: A CELEBRATION, New York: Applause Books, 1999, p. 88).

Both men had basically similar backgrounds. Both were born in 1899 (Cagney on July 17, O'Brien on Nov. 11), Cagney in New York, O'Brien in Milwaukee. Both knew hardship in their youth, were devout Catholics, yet found themselves attracted to the theater and deciding the actor's life was for each of them. Cagney worked Broadway and vaudeville equally when the opportunity arose; the latter medium allowed him to refine his talent as a hoofer. O'Brien worked stock when roles were lacking on the Great White Way. They arrived in Hollywood at roughly the same time, Cagney to re-create his stage role in the play PENNY ARCADE in the Warners film version SINNERS' HOLIDAY (1930) and O'Brien to portray Hildy Johnson in Howard Hughes' production of THE FRONT PAGE (1931). HERE COMES THE NAVY was Cagney's 18th movie, and was O'Brien's eighth under the studio contract he signed in 1933; the actor had previously made 18 features as a freelancer.

Their only noticeable difference? Despite his screen brashness, Cagney was an intensely private person who avoided the film industry's social scene; O'Brien, who once described himself as "your basic Irish show-off," was more outgoing and gave wrap parties when his latest film was finished.

In HERE COMES THE NAVY, Cagney's Chesty is a working stiff who falls into a feud with O'Brien's Biff, who's assigned to the Pacific Fleet. Chesty leaves his job to join the Navy, see the world and bedevil Biff, as he and buddy Droopy (Frank McHugh) are stationed on the same ship. Undisciplined Chesty soon becomes the bane of Biff's existence, especially when he begins dating Biff's sister (Stuart) whom he innocently meets on liberty.

In what was and continued to be the stuff of service movies to come, Chesty is poised to get washed out but redeems himself twice by saving the lives of his shipmates. Chesty marries Dorothy and while his battles with Biff will no doubt never end, Biff has found a new respect for this crazy guy.

Warners was allowed six weeks to film aboard the USS Arizona, offering a terrific record of the battleship that went to the bottom of Pearl Harbor following the 1941 Japanese air attack that catapulted the U.S. into World War II, "taking with it," O'Brien hauntingly recalled in his autobiography, "many of the men who had appeared in the picture we filmed in San Diego." He added that on one of the Arizona's cruises at the time of the filming, "it struck a Japanese fishing boat which resulted in fatalities (an ironic and grim omen before Pearl Harbor)." (In THE WIND AT MY BACK, New York: Avon Books, 1967, p. 174). But in those happier days of April 1934 when shooting aboard the Arizona was completed, the studio staged a show for the ship's crew in appreciation of their help in making the film, which yielded an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

HERE COMES THE NAVY was a success for Warners, inevitably prompting a reteaming of Cagney, O'Brien (with Frank McHugh tossed in for good measure), director Lloyd Bacon and the service movie concept. DEVIL DOGS OF THE AIR (1935) positions Cagney as Tommy O'Toole, reckless stunt pilot looking to renew his friendship with fellow barnstormer Bill Brannigan (O'Brien). But Brannigan has become a flight instructor for the Marine Corps since he and Tommy last did the loop-de-loop, and Tommy's sudden arrival, biplane and all, at his training field leads to a strained reunion.

Tommy joins the Corps as a flier and as usual, can't adapt to the military's way of doing things and Brannigan's insistence on orders and discipline (re-echoed in Cagney's CAPTAINS OF THE CLOUDS, 1942). As a discharge looms, Tommy redeems himself much in the same manner as Chesty in HERE COMES THE NAVY. Familiar yet crowd-pleasing, the studio knew it was on to something with its two contractees, and it wasn't long before Cagney and O'Brien were back before the cameras, with warhorse Lloyd Bacon directing, in THE IRISH IN US (1935).

A drama with a healthy dose of comic relief, THE IRISH IN US has O'Brien playing a uniformed policeman, Pat O'Hara, and McHugh as his firefighter brother Mike. The other brother, Danny (Cagney), doesn't work for the city; in fact, his attempt at gainful employment as a boxing manager has been less than stellar. So much so that he and the hopeless contender (Allen Jenkins) he's training live with the brothers and their quintessially Irish mum (Mary Gordon). Meanwhile, Danny gets into a romantic rivalry with Pat over a girl (Olivia de Havilland). But when Jenkins' punchy battler gets an important bout and can't compete, Danny steps in to win the day. Again playing a ne'er-do-well who suffers the contempt-laden slings and arrows of his more stable brothers, Cagney's character finds the right stuff to win his family's approval.

Danny O'Hara knows a lot of angles but not all work for him, an annoyance brother Pat tries to overlook while urging Danny on to the right path. Generally considered the most negligible of the Cagney-O'Brien teamings, THE IRISH IN US benefits from taking the formula out of the service flick mode and into the inner-city environment for which Warners was known. By the the time this film was released, Cagney and O'Brien were already responsible for forming what became known as Hollywood's "Irish Mafia," like-descended Catholic actors (such as McHugh, Allen Jenkins, William Gargan and Regis Toomey) who socialized and commiserated about the movie business at the Cagney or O'Brien residences.

More dramatic was the next collaboration, CEILING ZERO (1936), directed by Howard Hawks from a screenplay that Frank Wead adapted from his 1935 Broadway play of the same title. Cagney and O'Brien are again part of a threesome, the third wheel played this time by Stuart Erwin instead of Frank McHugh. Cagney and Erwin are, respectively, commercial airline pilots Dizzy Davis and Texas Clarke, while O'Brien is their boss, Jake L. Lee, trying to make a go of the airline terminal while watching out for his employees's safety against the perils of flight conditions. Dizzy's devil-may-care attitude and ditching of an assigned flight causes Texas's death when he fills in for Dizzy and crashes in heavy fog. Shamed by the experience and the scorn of Jake and his friends, Dizzy's only path to redemption is a suicidal assignment, which he accepts.

It all had a ring of familiarity -- Cagney again the irresponsible man-child who sees the light and O'Brien the dedicated authority figure -- but CEILING ZERO continued to work as Hawks, again using the story as another of his studies in professional men and women, provided the film with exciting flying sequences. In that mode, Dizzy has no choice but to take a death-defying flight in order to win back the esteem of Jake and the other airline workers; O'Brien brings to the proceedings the steely resolve that informed his lead portrayals of determined career men in OIL FOR THE LAMPS OF CHINA (1935) and CHINA CLIPPER (1936).

It was after the release of this film that Cagney, who had successfully walked out on Warners over salary in the past, left claiming violations of his contract. This time it appeared the actor's dissatisfaction wasn't over the rate of pay but with the material he was handed; at 36, he wanted to explore other acting opportunities. O'Brien noted in his autobiography that production chief Jack Warner even asked O'Brien to intercede with Cagney and bring him back into the fold, but Cagney's pal declined.

While contesting his claims against the studio, Cagney allied himself with the fledgling B movie company Grand National Pictures. Neither GREAT GUY (1936) or SOMETHING TO SING ABOUT (1937) covered Cagney in glory, both considered lower-budgeted retreads of the Warners formula. In fact, SOMETHING TO SING ABOUT, a (surprise!) musical, failed to recoup the expense put into it, causing thinly-capitalized Grand National to disappear by the close of the decade.


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