Tuesday, April 9, 2013

James Cagney Blogathon: Johnny Come Lately (1943)

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 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 mean to us.

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 1930s 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 adaptation of Louis Bromfield's novel McLeod's Folly. Bromfield was a journalist (original staff of Time), an 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. Other of his works adapted for the screen include The Rains Came and Mrs. Parkington.

In McLeod's Folly 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 CandleJohnny 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 the 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.

One of those vagrants Vinnie helps is Tom Richards (Cagney), who proves to be an experienced newspaperman. 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 Vinnie's side, can right fail to prevail? Johnny Come Lately is very sweet and 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 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. 

James Cagney, Grace George

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 1940s 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 Bromfield's 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 BeulahJohnny 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 racehorses 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 regarding that condiment! 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 1930s to television starting in the 1950s and toured with A Little Night Music in the 1970s. 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".


  1. I unfortunately haven't seen this movie, but I loved your affectionate description of Cagney and his co-stars. I get the impression that Cagney's real, quiet self comes out more in his own produced films, such as Great Guy and The Time of Your Life. And you're right, the best way to watch movies was on late-night tv, with commercial breaks to run to the kitchen for more popcorn. Thanks so much for a great post!

  2. It's been years since I've seen this, but I remember being quite charmed by it. I would love to see it again.

    Because it was his first film since "Yankee Doodle Dandy" I think audiences were expecting more from him than his pleasant little film that followed. I have a suspicion it will play better today and it did for 1943 audiences.

    Enjoyed your look at the character actors as well. Yep, Robert Barrat shows up as a commander in the two Cagney films I'm writing about tomorrow. Surprised to see he lived until 1970.

  3. It's true, Grand Old Movies. TCM's mandate of no commercial breaks is laudatory, but leaves no thought to bathroom breaks or snack refills. Not to mention that wonderful "I've been up too late" feeling at school or work the next day.

    The maniac, gun-wielding Cagney is thrilling to watch, but the "real" Cagney seems like a guy you'd like to have around the house.

  4. Looking forward to tomorrow's Barrat fest, Kevin.

    Contemporary reviews were mixed. Some were kind, but some who wanted the more energetic Cagney sounded more like IMDb fanboys than critics. The film made money so that was good news for the brothers.


  5. Have not seen this film, but I really enjoyed your background information and the breakdown of the supporting cast. Will have to hunt for it. Excellent job!

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  7. I've never seen Johnny Come Lately, so I can't really comment on the movie. However, I must say that any film with so many gifted character actors must be a delight to watch. Main alone makes any film more interesting, not to mention Hamilton and McDaniel. Nice post.

  8. Didn't know Cagney did any producing. I wonder how well this did at the box office for him.

  9. John, I think Cagney was right about the character people being a major reason the golden age is the golden age. Enjoy.

  10. Kim, it's like spending time with a bunch of old friends. A most pleasant Sunday afternoon sort of movie.

  11. Rich, "Johnny Come Lately" didn't set the world on fire, but it was a success for William Cagney Productions. Jimmy was the company's great asset and starred in "Blood on the Sun", "The Time of Your Life" (more of an ensemble piece), "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye" (a return to the tough gangster) and "A Lion in the Streets" (sort of "All the Kings Men"-lite). A couple of westerns were made as well, "Only the Valiant" with Gregory Peck and "Bugles in the Afternoon" with Ray Milland.

    In 1960 James Cagney and Robert Montgomery co-produced "The Gallant Hours" starring Jim and directed by Bob.

  12. I've seen this one several times as a couple of years back it seemed to be shown almost every week on UK TV! To be honest, I don't think it's one of Cagney's best (it copies Capra a bit, and the way this small town has two daily newspapers, both apparently produced with almost no staff, is somewhat unbelievable!). But it does have a great cast of character actors, and I really enjoyed your comments on them, Patricia - I especially love Marjorie Main.

    PS, you can have some of the ad breaks from the UK TCM if you really want them - they often show ads every few minutes here, but do seem to have cut it back to every half an hour or so recently which makes it a bit easier to keep track of the film! Anyway, thanks for this great posting. Judy

  13. It's odd how some movies will disappear in some locations and become a staple in others. The book is more clear on the two newspapers in town business. The McLeod's is read more by the surrounding rural communities and more out of respect for Vinnie. Also, she wasn't a daily.

    I'm no great fan of ad breaks, but lived in the era where all channels had them and all channels showed movies. Now all those common venues are used for infomercials and how I long for the old days.

  14. Caftan Woman, excellent post on a film I wasn't even aware of until you proposed writing on it for the blogathon. Your description of it makes it sound like prime early 20th-century Americana, sort of in the vein of "The Strawberry Blonde" or "Yankee Doodle Dandy," which I know is something that was more to Cagney's own taste than the crime pictures he was typecast in. Nice lead-in explaining Cagney's dissatisfaction with Warners and his desire to produce his own pictures. I recall Cagney writing about how important he thought the great Hollywood character actors were, and I'm glad you devoted so much space to the ones in this picture, most of whom I'm sure are familiar to classic movie fans (just not all together in one movie!). I'll have to hope that TCM will show it one of these days and I can watch it now that I'm aware of it.

  15. Through this blogathon, I am discovering more and more of the great Mr. Cagney's films that I need to add to my must-watch list. I have never even heard of this one, let alone seen it.

    Your write-up does the film great justice, especially your focus on some of the supporting players in the film. I have seen both Edward McNamara and Robert Barrat before, but I never knew their names. Now I do...thank you for that. I think the supporting players deserve the respect of having their names known!! They were often as essential to a film as the main stars.

    Ah, to have seen James Cagney on the big screen!! My grandparents' generation was SO lucky. But in our generation, we can rewind our favorite parts and re-play them over and over again (which I often do).

    Thanks for bringing this film to my attention.

  16. CW - I am so with you - Cagney movies are meant to be viewed at night with commercials!!! We turn our noses up at such things now, but boy, look how much fun they were and how they made us love the movies! As for Johnny Come Lately, you do an excellent job on this sort of hiccup between stints at Warner Brothers. I kind of wish I had picked the topic of "James Cagney and Jack Warner: I Love You I Hate You." Oh well, too late. Thanks for giving Marjorie Lord the shout-out - my dream TV mom.

  17. Comprehensive, interesting, and well-written review of a Cagney film I haven't seen. I especially enjoyed reading about the supporting cast (even though the focus this week is on Mr. Cagney).

  18. Thanks, RDF.

    It seemed right to spotlight the cast as Cagney didn't act like the star in the picture, but part of a proud ensemble.

  19. Thank you very much, Patti.

    One of the cool things about Cagney is that he could be a star and still be one of the gang. He appreciated the supporting players and that they could make or break a picture.

  20. It's so true, isn't it Flick Chick. We grew to love movies by the flickering tube.

    I like your Cagney-Warner idea. You should go with it.

  21. Thanks, Rick. I think the casting of the movie shows a lot of Cagney's respect for character players (Main, McDaniel, etc) as well as for his pals (McNamara). What's the point of being the boss if you can't hire people you like?

  22. I am wholly unfamiliar with this film, but your description of it (and that wonderful cast of character actors) makes it sound quite charming. Unless it's out on DVD, I'll be scouring the TCM schedule to add this film to my bucket list of classic films. Thanks for a very enjoyable post and focus on one of Cagney's change-of pace films!

  23. Yours is the first post I've encountered in the Blogathon where ... I-don't-think-I've-seen-this-before! Argh, not that I haven't wanted to, I just always thought I had.

    Thanks for bringing it to me. And selling it to me, I've got to pick up a copy now!

    Great focus on the character actors with Barrat and ketchup ringing slightly familiar, but I can't pinpoint what he does (nope, haven't seen it).

    Nice highlight on author Bromfield too. Quite a few good stories from that source, huh? Recently enjoyed the screen version of his Mrs. Parkington, yet again.

    All right, I've got to go find a copy of this now. I'm sold on the actor, the source, and that giant bag of character actors. Great post!

  24. Thanks a lot, Ken and Cliff.

    "Johnny Come Lately" is a quiet little charmer that has an appeal for those of us who would like to host a dinner part with all our favourite character actors.

    Bromfield and Cagney seemed to come from the same place with their love of the land and elevating the little guy.

  25. The introduction of your post was very heartfelt, loved it!
    Many actors saw freedom in forming their own production companies, and Burt Lancaster is the first that comes to my mind in this case. By the way, I think you gave me an idea for a future post!
    I'll also remeber you when I watch another Cagney movie, specially Johnny Come Lately!

  26. Marvelous review, and a fitting tribute to the character actors in the film.

  27. Thanks, Leticia. Here's a hug from Canada.

  28. Thank you, Classic Film Boy. I share Cagney's admiration for the character player.

  29. CW - I'm not familiar with "Johnny Come Lately" (beyond knowing it existed) either. Love the way you opened your blog - and how you gave each of the supporting players a profile. I didn't know Marjorie Lord was making movies in 1943 - and I haven't thought of George Cleveland for years. When I was but a pup my dad ran into him somewhere and came back with photo of him (with Lassie, Jeff, etc.) autographed to my brother and me. It was a thrill. Great post and tribute to the one and only!

  30. Thanks so much, Lady Eve. Cool story about George Cleveland. It's such a small world!

    I've a funny relationship with biographies. It is the Hollywood career that leads me to read the books on favourite stars, but it's usually their life outside of that world that is most fascinating.

  31. I don't remember ever seeing this one, I am going to have to catch it. I appreciate what you wrote about Hattie. I totally agree with you. Although, she always played a maid ( a lot of the African American community got on her for that.) She was no "subservient," in fact, in a lot of her films, she made her bosses shake in their boots! They knew they couldn't mess with her!

    It sounds like a softer role for Cagney, I kinda think Cagney LOVED playing, well...himself when he took on these roles. Thanks for this lovely post!

  32. Thanks, Bacall. It really is a sweet little movie and shows us a side of Cagney we rarely get to enjoy.

  33. I haven't seen this one, so I was glad to read your terrific review. I love Cagney as a gangster, but he's always great in non-gangster roles, too.

  34. Cagney may be most famous for his tough guy stints, but I think his effortlessness in change of pace roles is the key to his enduring popularity.

  35. I love this: "The movie gave Cagney the chance to spotlight the people he felt were most responsible for Hollywood's Golden Age, the character actor." What a lovely stance for a star to take.

  36. I'm a little slow to comment on this -- it's been a crazy month including many trips to the Noir City Film Fest! Better later than never (grin), have really enjoyed catching up with your post and reading your impressions of a film I recently saw. Thank you so much for the link, too!

    Best wishes,

  37. You've certainly been having a busy and fun time of it lately, Laura. I'm so pleased you managed to squeeze my take on "Johnny Come Lately" into your schedule.

  38. Caftan Woman, I've never had the opportunity to see JOHNNY COME LATELY, but with Cagney showing his gentler side, that wonderful supporting cast, and the love you clearly feel for the film, I'll have to check it out next time I come across it on TCM or the like! By the way, I love your avatar; it's so cheerful and endearing!

  39. I'm sure you would enjoy this sweet-natured movie, Dorian.

    Thanks for the kind words about the new avatar. It is the work of my daughter the aspiring animator. A few years from now I'd probably have to pay her!

  40. CW, I could swear I commented on this post earlier, but I see I was wrong. Chalk it up to old lady confusion. But jeez I could swear...never mind.

    I've never seen this film, but I love being charmed. I will definitely add it to my list.

    Thanks for the intro.

  41. I've found myself doing that a lot lately, Yvette.

    "Johnny Come Lately" is a cozy sort of movie for a cozy sort of day. When my daughter asked for a movie with picket fences and nice people, this is the one we turned to.

  42. P.S. Love your new profile pix. :)

  43. Thanks so much, Yvette. You probably guessed that it is the work of my aspiring animator/daughter. It was a birthday gift. I knew her when!



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