Sunday, August 24, 2014

A James Cagney Gem

I share this with those of you who may also be James Cagney fans.  The movie I'm writing about was not a major studio release and it may be an old film that became public domain.  You might be able to find it on DVD.  I found it on YouTube.  I'd never even heard of this film until a couple of nights ago.  The 1943 release is called Johnny Come Lately.  When I saw the title, I thought it was probably a crime drama with a tough private eye.  I didn't even know Cagney was in it.  When I saw his name in the opening credits, I stayed with it. And I'm glad I did.  Johnny Come Lately was 95 minutes of total enjoyment that just breezed by with James Cagney giving one of those performances that showed why he was a top movie star and an Oscar-winning actor.

Johnny Come Lately is like one of Cagney's best Warner Brothers movies, only he didn't make it for Warner Bros.  His character has the charm, drive and smarts that you saw in his Oscar-winning Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) performance and the underdog spunk of Biff Grimes in The Strawberry Blonde (1941).  He's a good guy who can be tough, knows how to handle a gun and throws more than a few punches to take down an opponent.  Exactly what you'd expect from a Cagney character.
The spine of this movie is freedom of the press.  We're taken to small town America in the days when the auto was new and folks still used horse and buggies.  When the movie starts and we're introduced to a gracious old lady, known  to the community, I expected a sweet Our Town-type story.  But there's half a cup of vinegar in this story that gives it some snap.  That old lady has been hocking valuable belongings so she can keep her local newspaper in operation.  There are men who'd rather she write about things like local social gatherings and women's clothing, but she doesn't.  She wants to do editorials on city corruption.  Mind you, the town's not dark like Pottersville in It's A Wonderful Life, but it does have a few bad apples in its political barrel.  She's hip to the male city officials who okayed the construction of new homes with building code violations.  A few children have died because a new waterworks systems was so long-delayed in being installed.  The old widow, Vinnie McLeod, is up against some intimidating political crooks and she's not making enough from the paper to keep being a public advocate the way she wants to be.  She's threatened financially and physically.

Tom Richards, played by Cagney, is an unshaven vagrant she comes across in the town square.  He's reading a book.  She looks over his shoulder and notices that he's reading Dickens.  They chat about the novelist.  She suggests that he go to her home and get a bite to eat.  She does this with down-and-out vagrants to keep them from being arrested and subjected to jail abuse.  She keeps Tom Richards out of jail and discovers that he's smart as a whip and used to be reporter.  He develops and immediate filial affection for her and takes a great interest in what she's trying to do with her paper.  He knows how to help her take down some political fat cats and generate income for the publication.  She puts him in charge of the paper.  Fireworks start with the editorials and political cartoons about graft and other corruption.  Tom is exactly what she needed.  And she's got a gorgeous single daughter who's just as passionate about the paper as her mother is.

One of the best things about Johnny Come Lately is seeing Cagney in scenes with fellow movie pros who know how to nail a supporting role.  Cagney seems to be having so much fun in this role.  Like he's on a two-week vacation...with pay.  That sense of fun carries over to his scenes with Hattie McDaniel as the McLeod housekeeper and cook.  She knows the town and knows who the reporter needs to talk to.  I loved their playful scenes.

This was a better domestic role than some of the others McDaniel got after her historic Oscar win for 1939's Gone With The Wind.  This was way better than her maid role in the 1942 comedy The Male Animal and not trivial like her appearance in 1946's Margie.  Hattie had a nice, warm chemistry with Cagney.

Also getting laughs in a scene with Cagney is Margaret Hamilton as a prune-faced co-worker at the newspaper.  Few women in 1930s and '40s films could work a bun in their hair the way actress Margaret Hamilton could.

Marjorie Main delivers an absolute hoot of a performance.  Aida, the McLeod housekeeper, tells Tom that he needs to talk to "Gashouse" Mary for the lowdown on some local politicos.  Main plays "Gashouse" Mary, the big dame who runs sort of a...gentlemen's club.  A saloon with musical entertainment and saloon gals providing non-musical entertainment.  Aida tells Tom that Mary's joint is known for being honest.

I watched the movie and then rewound it to replay Marjorie Main's first scene with James Cagney.  She broke me the hell up laughing in that saloon scene.
Here's some TV trivia for you.  Baby boomers may recall the 1950s sitcom, Make Room for Daddy later retitled The Danny Thomas Show.  He played the widower dad and nightclub entertainer who remarries.  Marjorie Lord played his second wife on that hit sitcom.  She's the gorgeous daughter in Johnny Come Lately.

As of this August 2014 posting, Marjorie Lord is now 96 years old.

Johnny Come Lately.  I'm so glad I unexpectedly found this heartwarming, entertaining movie.  It's a James Cagney gem.  See if you can find it too.

1 comment:

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