1 July 2008 | lugonian
Johnny Cave: Crime Buster
GREAT GUY (Grand National, 1936), directed by John G. Blystone, is an interesting yet plausible low budget production starring none-other than James Cagney, the same James Cagney of the higher quality studio of Warner Brothers. What's a top actor like James Cagney doing over at Grand National instead of at the majors as MGM, Columbia, United Artists or even Paramount? Well, it had something to do with a contract dispute, which kept him away from his home lot for nearly two years. Since Grand National, not First National, initially began in early 1936, how fortunate for the studio to have acquired a top name like Cagney working for them? How unfortunate for the studio to have lost his services following his second with the studio, a musical titled SOMETHING TO SING ABOUT (1937). How fortunate to have Cagney return to his home studio where he truly belonged, and continue to work on films that were to become classics. As for those done at Grand National .... well, let's take a look at his initial offering of THE GREAT GUY. It's not a gangster film idolizing a popular crime boss but actually a crime story placing Cagney on the right side of the law attempting to rid corruption. Having done something similar the year before in G-MEN, the misfortune for GREAT GUY is not having much gun play nor fast-pace action to make this equivalent to a Warner Brothers production.
The story opens with Joel Green (Wallis Clark), chief deputy of the Bureau of Weights and Measures, injured in a car crash, now in a hospital. Knowing the accident was a set up, Green calls for his friend, Johnny Cave (James Cagney), a former prizefighter working with the department of Weights and Measures, and assigns him in his place to acquire enough evidence on the corrupt district leader Marty Cavanaugh (Robert Gleckler). With the assistance of fellow Irishman Pat Haley, whom he calls Aloyisus (James Burke), Johnny teaches him the tricks of the trade of chiselers at the Paradise Market defrauding shoppers by exposing eights on chickens, putting false bottoms in baskets of strawberries, and cheating drivers of their gallons of gas. As for his love life, Johnny is engaged to Janet Henry (Mae Clarke), secretary to city official Abel Canning (Henry Kolker). Janet loves Johnny but finds him too conceited and quick tempered, but overall honest. Refusing to accept bribes even from the city Mayor (Douglas Wood), Johnny later has his work cut out for him by being abducted by hired thugs who frame him on a drunk and driving charge unless he gives up his investigation to expose the gang leader responsible for corruption.
The supporting cast includes Edward Brophy (Pete Reilly); Bernadene Hayes (Hazel Scott); and Edward McNamara as Captain Pat Hanlon, whose great scene has him standing outside the door smoking his cigar while his pal Johnny takes care of the ring leader. The big surprise in GREAT GUY is the casting of James Burke, better known for playing cops, playing the dopey sidekick in the El Brendel tradition, sporting an Irish derelict compared to Brendel's Swedish one. This was one of the few opportunities seeing Burke in a sizable part typically suited for the likes of an Allen Jenkins or Frank McHugh.
With all the ingredients of a Warner Brothers programmer, down to Joseph Sawyer (a Warners stock player) as one of the mobsters, what GREAT GUY lacks is polish and production values. Overall, GREAT GUY turns out to be a reunion of sorts between Cagney and Mae Clarke, his grapefruit victim from THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), and co-star of LADY KILLER (1933) the one where he dragged her across the room by the hair. This time they are on friendly terms, as an engaged couple who gather together for lunch in a cafeteria and, with a touch of humor, talking things over at a furniture store with a salesman (Arthur Hoyt) trying to interest them with the display.
Virtually unknown even by film buffs, GREAT GUY is one film in Cagney's filmography list that doesn't get a mention in his 1977 autobiography, "Cagney by Cagney," though his second Grand National starer did. Not until the age of video recording of the 1980s or late in the 1970s on commercial television has GREAT GUY been given some exposure. Circulating prints from 1980 and over suffer from being ten minutes shorter than its actual 75 minute release. Abrupt cuts are noticeable, especially one scene involving Mary Gordon as Mrs. Ogilvie and the corruption involving milk deliveries at the orphanage, found in current video, DVD and public TV late show broadcasts. While a complete version with clearer picture quality won't change GREAT GUY from its low-budget status in the Monogram Studios tradition to a Class "A" Warners production, but restoration will make a big difference on how to view this one, especially with the great guy himself, James Cagney. (***)