It's here! It's here! The James Cagney Blogathon hosted by R.D. Finch, The Movie Projector is here! A week of love for the one and only Cagney.
Do I seem a wee bit excited? It can't be helped. I'm a Cagney fan in a world filled with Cagney fans. Some of us are of an age where his films were seen first run in theatres. I fall into the category of people who discovered the actor's brilliance seeing movies as they were meant to be seen - late at night on television with commercials. Whether he was roughing up a guy or dancing with him the compelling Mr. Cagney stole our hearts and he did it all with his screen presence. In a business based on publicity, Cagney was an introvert who shunned public displays with the exception of good causes such as the War effort. He preferred the company of family and a few close friends to the noise and rush of the Hollywood scene. He enjoyed the comforts his lifestyle afforded by purchasing his beloved farm on Martha's Vineyard fulfilling a childhood dream, but he avoided the trappings of stardom. His friend and frequent co-star Pat O'Brien, who loved Jim dearly, nicknamed him "the faraway fella" for his quiet, thoughtful demeanor. John Larroquette hosted a show on the A&E network in 2001 called The Incurable Collector. One segment of the entertaining program featured respectful and happy fans from around the world bidding on items from the Cagney estate including a film script, a guitar and some of Cagney's paintings. Not a Tommy gun in sight from one of the screen's greatest gangsters. The fans spoke about how these things brought them a sense of closeness to their favourite actor. While most of us cannot share in that opportunity, we do have his movies and what they meant to him.
Cagney chaffed at the autocratic leadership of the Warner Brothers. He did his job and did it well, but wanted respect and more control over the direction of his artistic life. One of the Cagney legends is his tendency to flub a scene at the end of a long day's shoot if it required extras returning for more work the next day. A subtle rebel who looked out for the little guy. Cagney first tried life as an independent producer in the early 30s and through Grand National released the adorable Hollywood spoof Something to Sing About and the good tough guy flick Great Guy. Neither film was successful and he returned to the WB fold for Angels With Dirty Faces, his first Academy Award nomination.
In 1943 after winning the Oscar for Yankee Doodle Dandy, Cagney along with his brother William as producer and physician brothers Harry and Ed as executives formed William Cagney Productions and their first production under that banner was Johnny Come Lately. In an era of exciting propaganda based action films and brittle comedies, the Cagney brothers returned to a simpler time in a film bathed in a nostalgic glow.
Johnny Come Lately is an adaption of Louis Bromfield's novel McLeod's Folly. Bromfield was a journalist (original staff of Time), innovative farmer and noted conservationist. It was at his Ohio farm that Bogie and Bacall were famously wed. Bromfield won the Pulitzer Prize in 1926 for Early Autumn. Others of his works adapted for the screen include The Rains Came and Mrs. Parkington. Bromfield wrote against the prejudice and hypocrisy he felt was the result of the industrialization of America. The screenplay is by John Van Druten, the playwright and short story writer had already contributed to the films Gone With the Wind, Pride and Prejudice, and Forever and a Day. Soon to come would be I Remember Mama, Voice of the Turtle, I Am a Camera, and Bell Book and Candle. Johnny Come Lately would be among the last films for director William K. Howard whose career reached back to silent westerns and included The Power and the Glory and Fire Over England.
Set in 1906, McLeod's Folly tells the story of Vinnie McLeod, an elderly widow in a small city who runs her late husband's newspaper. The wide open town of her youth has become a crowded, graft-ridden despot run by a man called Dougherty. The town is particularly inhospitable to vagrants to whom Mrs. McLeod offers rest and food in her basement until they can get safely out of town. She is assisted at home by her housekeeper Aida and at work by her niece Jane and her dusty, old-fashioned staff. With her limited means Vinnie McLeod takes on the town boss to the extent that she becomes more than nuisance and Dougherty takes to bullying. Vinnie helps a vagrant, Tom Richards (Cagney), who proves to be an experienced newspaper man. Circumstances conspire to keep him in the town of Plattsville and admiration for Mrs. McLeod returns him to his recently abandoned life of a crusading reporter. With the energetic Richards at her side, can right fail to prevail? It is very sweet. It is very sentimental. Some cynical souls may call it corny, but I think Johnny Come Lately has too much heart to be so derided.
Johnny Come Lately received one Oscar nomination for Leigh Harline for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. It is one of five career nominations for Harline, who shared the the 1941 Oscar for Original Score for Pinocchio with Paul J. Smith and Ned Washington and the Best Song Award for When You Wish Upon a Star with Ned Washington. Vinnie's theme in the score is Balfe's Then You'll Remember Me from The Bohemian Girl. The use of that tender old ballad tells all you need to know about the tone of the movie.
The movie gave Cagney the chance to spotlight the people he felt were most responsible for Hollywood's Golden Age, the character actor. There were plenty of quirky roles to go around and lots of talented familiar faces to play them.
A newcomer was brought to the screen to play Vinnie McLeod. Grace George (1879-1961) performed in almost 50 Broadway productions between the years 1898 and 1951. Dramas such as Kind Lady, classic revivals including School for Scandal and leading roles in comedies created a theatre legend. Her husband was the producer and theatre owner/operator William A. Brady (1863-1950) whose first Broadway play After Dark was in 1889 and who was still going strong in the 40s with Harvey. His daughter, Grace's stepdaughter, was the Oscar winning star of In Old Chicago, Alice Brady (1892-1939).
Johnny Come Lately was the only film for Miss Grace George, as she is billed. She returned to the stage until retiring in 1953. I imagine it was her preference as her easy, natural performance should have led to more screen roles. She looks just as if Vinnie McLeod at stepped out of the book:
...She was tall and thin and very straight. In her youth she had been a beauty, famous in Calamos County and the Southwest, and now in old age, despite all of her worries, her untidiness and her distraction, she remained a handsome woman, although now the beauty remained more in the voice, the eyes and the expression than in the body. Although the face was wrinkled, the cheeks sagged, and the hair hung in wisps from beneath a worn and dowdy hat there was something about her that arrested a stranger and made him think, "That must have been a fine, handsome woman."
Hattie McDaniel (1892-1952) plays Aida, Mrs. McLeod's "keeper". It is yet another maid for Hattie, but none of her roles in service ever felt subservient. She is always the smartest person in the room from Gone With the Wind to TVs Beulah. Johnny Come Lately is no exception where her big heart and common sense keep everyone on the right track.
Marjorie Main (1890-1975) plays "Gashouse" Mary who runs a straight joint - as the audience is constantly reminded. She's sick of paying into Dougherty's protection racket and ready for action. Main just about steals the picture. Like Marie Dressler of an earlier decade, Marjorie Main is a character gal who became a popular leading lady in films like Tish, Mrs. O'Malley and Mr. Malone and her signature role of Ma Kettle. Audiences loved her and producers/directors always found a spot for her despite her eccentricities such as wearing multiple gloves and surgical masks to ward off germs and sometimes stopping in mid scene to set lunch or have a conversation with her husband who had passed away in 1935. I imagine he said what she wanted to hear.
Edward McNamara (1884-1944) was a Cagney crony whose booming voice was his most recognizable feature. Once a cop becomes known as a singing cop, he just naturally has to get into the show business. As Dougherty, McNamara warbles tunes between dastardly deeds. McNamara had been the only private student ever taken on by Enrico Caruso at the behest of famed contralto Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink. Madame's third husband named McNamara in a 1914 divorce suit. Madame denied all, "Me, in love with that boy?" His last film was as Officer Brophy in Arsenic and Old Lace (above). He had a heart attack while delivering some of neighbour Cagney's race horses to the coast. Of his performance of Dougherty you can say that he really looked the part.
Pretty Marjorie Lord was the ingenue in the piece showing her own share of spunk and the appeal that would make her a television staple on Make Room for Daddy. Ms. Lord was in attendance at a recent screening of the film as noted in March on Laura's Miscellaneous Musings.
George Cleveland (1885-1957) was a vaudeville veteran who played in close to 200 movies including serials, westerns, and splashy musicals. The Cape Breton born Cleveland found himself a welcome spot on television in 1954 as Gramps Miller on the beloved Lassie. In Johnny Come Lately he plays the sweetly soused reporter Willie Ferguson.
Robert Barrat (1889-1970) plays a political boss with a penchant for ketchup. Wait until you see what he does! Barrat is a chameleon of an actor who never disappoints in roles such as the anarchist turned capitalist in Heroes for Sale, Chingachgook in The Last of the Mohicans and Wolverstone in Captain Blood. Keep your eyes peeled for Barrat. You never know when he'll show up.
Margaret Hamilton (1902-1985) was a former teacher and single mother who worked in films from the 30s to television starting in the 50s and toured with A Little Night Music in the 70s. She is an actress beloved by generations for frightening us The Wizard of Oz and a welcome sight in movies as diverse as These Three and Broadway Bill. Cagney admired her work tremendously and was thrilled to have her in Johnny Come Lately as reporter Willie's "dragon lady" sister.
Finally in charge of his own image and legacy, Cagney chose to give us the very definition of a feel-good picture. Perhaps that tells us all we need to know about "the faraway fella".