6 July 2006 | theowinthrop
The Peculiar Problem of James Cagney's Musicals
In a wonderful movie career - arguably the best ever for a male leading man - Jimmy Cagney made seven musical films. Of these, only two are great musicals. The first was Busby Berkeley's FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933) wherein Cagney is the harried producer of mini-musicals that are used to introduce films in movie houses. The conclusion of the film, wherein he (in tales) is a drunken sailor in the Far East, "lookin' for my Shanghai Lil" (Ruby Keeler in heavy make-up) is one of the best Berkeley production numbers. Nine years later he became the first actor to win an Oscar for best actor in a musical portraying George M. Cohan in Michael Curtiz's great YANKEE DOODLE DANDY. Those two films document his real greatness as a song and dance man.
Some of the gangster films also suggest the dancing ability. Years ago Mikhail Baryshnikov was interviewed on a program about Cagney and pinpointed how in THE PUBLIC ENEMY, when he has killed several enemies in a shoot out, but got badly wounded himself, he walks away wounded in a kind of twisted dance step that illustrates his determination to get away, and shows his agony at the same time.
It's a good thing that those aspects are on film, because his other musicals leave much to be desired. In his memoirs, CAGNEY, he admits liking SOMETHING TO SING ABOUT because a dance number enabled him to dance with two hoofers he had long admired. But the whole movie is cheaply made (he was fighting Warners in a contract dispute at the time). There were two films with Doris Day: THE WEST POINT STORY and LOVE OR LEAVE ME. The latter is a wonderful movie biography of singer Ruth Etting and her hellish marriage to gangster Marty "the Gimp" Snyder, and both stars gave first rate performances. But Day is the singer and dancer in the film (Cagney's character's crippled condition makes any dancing impossible, and his personality was not conducive to singing - though he really admires Ruth/Doris's voice). THE WEST POINT STORY has several lively numbers in it, including Cagney in a zoot suit singing about his beloved Brooklyn (as well as later singing about "the kissing rock"). But the music is not the greatest music (although the film is entertaining enough).
In THE SEVEN LITTLE FOYS he reprises Cohan for a dinner at the Friar's Club, and a song and dance with Bob Hope (as Eddie Foy Sr.) on the dinner table. It's a good number - but only that single scene. Similarly there is a single sequence in THE MAN WITH A THOUSAND FACES, where we see Cagney as Lon Chaney Sr. in vaudeville doing a silent comic bit as a hobo, and ending in a lively dance. Again though, it is only that one scene.
Then there is this film: NEVER STEAL ANYTHING SMALL.
It would be the last musical he would ever appear in, but it's value is far below that of FOOTLIGHT PARADE and YANKEE DOODLE DANDY. The film is also lesser than THE WEST POINT STORY, THE MAN WITH A THOUSAND FACES, or LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME - it may be as good as SOMETHING TO SING ABOUT.
Based on THE DEVIL'S HORNPIPE, a musical by Maxwell Anderson, the plot is interesting. Cagney is playing McIllaney, a crooked labor union leader trying to become the head of the longshoreman's local. His plans are totally unscrupulous, and are complicated by his falling for Shirley Jones, the wife of ultra-scrupulous lawyer Roger Smith, whom Cagney tries to frame so he can marry Jones. He also uses his normal girl friend Winnipeg (Cara Williams) to lure Smith away from Jones. At the conclusion, despite some set-backs, the ever conniving Cagney still looks like a formidable future union leader.
The film sounds promising, but it is not memorable as a script or as a source of music. GIRL CRAZY, the Gershwin musical that was filmed with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland had a silly plot about a spoiled young man who is sent to a small town agricultural college as punishment. But the films music soared -including standards like "But Not For Me". That is not the case here.
The most memorable tune in this is a number concerning Cagney winning over a reluctant Williams to become a siren and break up Smith's marriage to Jones. They are discussing this on a street, when they pass a car showroom, and Williams' eyes light up - she does want a Ferrari. So they break into a ditty called, "I'm Sorry, I Want a Ferrari". Cagney is properly horrified (his idea of a proper bribe would have been say $500 to $1,000.00 - not $25,000.00 (1950 money)). In the course of the tune, Cagney even suggests that where he comes from Ferrari is considered a "very bad word." They end in a type of dance step on an conveyor line. And (apparently) Cagney is going to have to cough up the Ferrari.
I describe this because that is the film's highlight.
Perhaps it is his star magnetism at work - he is a terrific performer and screen presence (which is why I'm giving the film a 5). Williams is good too in the number (her enthusiasm for the Italian car almost like she is thinking about good sex). But aside from that scene the movie is forgettable - totally wasting Jones (a terrific musical singer herself) and Smith for that matter.
There must have been a curse active - he hit the heights of musical success twice, and touched it a bit three or four times, but just could not duplicate those two great successes. A real pity that.