Boy Meets Girl: Cagney and O’Brien: madcap screenwriters or fur-capped Emerald City guards?
This week’s triad features a tangy-as-always James Cagney starring in three comedies under the direction of Warner Brothers’ swift-footed Lloyd Bacon.
Picture Snatcher clip
Picture Snatcher (1933)
In his column in the January 21, 1933 edition of Editor & Publisher: The Fourth Estate — and in advance of the release of Picture Snatcher — Martin Pew observed, “The Warners have produced more pictures insulting the newspapers of this country than any other concern. Their directors enjoy putting a gangster-type into the role of reporter or editor.” Gangster pictures were black-ink items for the studio, much to the perturbability of the Hays Office. In order to work around the censors, screenwriters turned to another genre populated by cunning, zippy-tongued wheels: the newspaper picture. We begin at Sing-Sing, with Danny Keane (James Cagney) being sprung after a three-year stretch. (Cagney so enjoyed real-life tabloid photog Danny Aherne’s short story that upon reading it, he immediately purchased the rights.) Lest one surmise this to be anything but a gangster comedy, Danny’s first stop in this pre-code panic is the bathroom, where his prosaically called pal Jerry the Mug (Ralf Harolde) looks on as another hood tops off the tub with an entire jar of lilac bath salts. The next day packs an even bigger jolt when Danny meets to inform his old gang of reprobates that he’s trading in a life of crime for a job with the Graphic News. (It’s the ‘30s answer to The Weekly World News, or as journalist student Sterling Holloway would later call it, “a filthy blot on the escutcheon of American writing.”) Co-starring in the role of McLean, Danny’s dipsomaniacal editor, is a young Ralph Bellamy, who at the time was but a mere hop-skip-and-jump from becoming Hollywood’s go-to designated loser in so many memorable romantic comedies. Ironically, Danny’s big break comes from literally snatching a picture, not with a camera, but from the wall of a cuckolded fireman, who returns from work to find his house smoldering and the body of his wife and her lover among the ashes. When it comes time for romance, Danny’s first inclination is to hook up with Allison (a high-spirited Alice White), the paper’s “sob-sister” columnist. (It must have been a good-paying gig, what with the Olympic-sized ping-pong table in the living room of her commodious one-bedroom.) But the passion in the air soon dissipates when Danny discovers that she’s the boss’s girl. That leaves room for Pat (Patricia Ellis), a classmate of Holloway’s on the student tour who happens to be the underage daughter of Police Lt. Casey Nolan (Robert Emmett O’Connor), the bull who put six slugs in Danny before sending him up the river. The disdain shared by cop and ex-con provides the film its biggest laughs. (Upon learning that Jerry the Mug rubbed out a couple of uniforms, Danny anxiously asks if Nolan was one of them.) The final confrontation finds Jerry with an armory in his davenport and Mrs. Mug and their two young demitasses stashed in a spare bedroom as collateral. The brutal exchange of gunfire is bound to satisfy even the most jaded fans of barbarism. Lively and succinct, no sooner does it get underway than the 77-minute running time has lapsed.
Here Comes the Navy trailer
Here Comes the Navy (1934)
In the first of their nine pairings, Pat O’Brien receives second-billing behind Cagney, but it’s comic relief Matt McHugh who shares more screen time opposite the star. (Cagney and McHugh met on Howard Hawks’ The Crowd Roars and became lifelong friends, appearing together in eleven pictures.) Chesty O’Connor (Cagney) is a riveter, one not afraid to toss a red-hot bolt in the general direction of principled Chief Petty Officer “Biff” Martin (O’Brien). The running gag plotline necessitates the scaffold monkey enlisting, just to settle his score with the unctuous bluejacket. As with Picture Snatcher, Cagney’s love interest is a relative of his arch rival — in this case Biff’s sister Dorothy (Gloria Stuart). The film’s lesser sequel, Devil Dogs of the Air, was a regular visitor on the late, late show, but I didn’t catch up with the original until well into my thirties. When that happens, the “How come?” can generally be summed up in one word: blackface. Sure enough: in order to secure permission to go ashore, Chesty corks up and trades places with the ship’s African-American cook Cookie (Fred ‘Snowflake’ Toones). Without the integral exchange, the continuity would have taken a turn for the unintelligible. So rather than snip the objectionable three-minute scene, the station shelved it altogether.
Boy Meets Girl trailer
Boy Meets Girl (1938)
The gritty gangland epics produced by Warner Bros. in the ‘30s helped to clear a path for what would soon come to be known as film noir. Were it not for the way World War II forced crime films to take a backseat to patriotic propaganda pics, film noir would have risen to prominence years before The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane made it official. (The censors weren’t the only ones tired of dealing with all the violence.) To give their star contract players James Cagney and Pat O’Brien something to do other than play with guns, Warners bought the rights to Bella and Sam Spewack’s screwball comedy interpretation of super screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. The boys are assigned the task of cranking out a much-needed hit for their fading, longhorn-bull-throwing cowboy star Larry Toms (Dick Foran), who’s agented by Matt McHugh. Ralph Bellamy once again co-stars as Cagney’s boss, a simpering studio head with an eye for art, said to have been patterned after Daryl F. Zanuck. O’Brien, who looked down in scornful astonishment as cocky Cagney made short shrift of all that surrounded him in Here Comes the Navy, is now an active part in the lunacy. Forced to think on their feet (if for no other reason than the fact that they have nothing down on paper), the pampered madcaps improvise a plot involving Toms and the unborn baby of a commissary waitress, played by the stratospherically-inclined Marie Wilson. The result is a non-stop chomp at the hand that feeds them, and far and away the decade’s most undervalued screwball comedy.