James Cagney: The Ultimate Bad-Ass

Today is James Cagney day on Turner Classic Movies and over at Sitting on a Backyard Fence, bloggers worldwide have rallied together to tip their hat to one of the biggest bad-asses ever to grace the screen.

I love bad-asses. No, not this newfangled generation’s overinflated sense of importance that has managed to give every Tom Dick or Harry the belief that, because of the number of Facebook friends they have or the number of people who follow them on Twitter that they are bad-asses.

No. You’re not. You know why?

James Cagney: The Ultimate Bad-Ass

Because THIS guy could knock the stuffing out of your designer-label-wearing LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME I’M SUCH A BAD ASS narcissistic kisser.

In my humble opinon, James Cagney is the ultimate bad-ass. And not for any one specific reason. Yes, his onscreen persona is often tough-as-nails. But, it’s also charming. Even when he’s the most sociopathic lunatic you’ve ever laid your eyes on… there’s still something undeniably likeable about him. He smashes grapefruits into women’s faces. And he’ll kill a man for his mama. On screen, Cagney is, indeed, capable of ANYTHING.His dangerous charm is part of what make Cagney’s best villains so deeply villainous, and what made him perfectly adept at playing lighter, romantic roles. While people might generally only think of Cagney as a “you dirty rat” mobster (a line that he actually never uttered onscreen), his range is terrific. You’ve got Angels With Dirty Faces, a film ending with one of the most unforgettably harrowing images ever filmed—Cagney’s demented, I’m-going-to-hell-and-I’m-proud-of-it close-up; a wholesome musical like Yankee Doodle Dandy with some of the best fancy footwork you’ll ever see; a charming romantic comedy like The Strawberry Blonde; a political comedy like One, Two, Three, with Cagney in a comic tour-de-force; and a sexy pre-code like Blonde Crazy.

Blonde Crazy isn’t one of Cagney’s best known films, and it isn’t one of his best (it’s no White Heat, let’s just say that), but it’s one of my favorites because Cagney is a sparkling firecracker in this fast, fun, frivolous precode. Cagney is young—terrifically young—as this is one of his first leading roles, coming hot on the heels of his star-making turn in The Public Enemy, and he is nothing but a ball of hotheaded charisma and, with the equally as hotheaded Blondell at his side, makes for a presence that is quintessential Cagney: rough, tough, yet somehow tender.

Being a bad-ass, you see, is not synonymous with being an ass-hole. Big difference. One that, for me, is wonderfully illustrated in the much overlooked Blonde Crazy. Directed by Roy Del Ruth, a director whose roster includes some of the very best precodes, Blonde Crazy is a rather average melodrama about a conman (Cagney) his partner in crime (Blondell) and their on-again-off-again love affair. After hooking up at a hotel (legitimately: they were coworkers) Cagney coerces Blondell to go into business with him on the small con. Cagney’s a know-it-all wiseguy who thinks he can take the world with his brains… and Blondell’s legs. He’s right, too. They run a successful racket with Blondell as the Venus Fly Trap and Cagney the guy pulling the strings. Until, of course, inevitably, Cagney gets pulled in by another con artist. You know what happens: he loses a load of lettuce and does anything to win it back. Including exacting revenge of the guy who suckered him.

The plot is light, the dialogue even lighter, but what makes this film sparkle is the pure starpower of Cagney and Blondell. Little touches, like Cagney’s adorable habit of calling Blondell “honey”, or as he pronounces it, “huuuuuuun-eeee”, playing around with Blondell’s undergarments, or my favorite: the beaming delight on Cagney’s face when Blondell, also beaming, smacks his face. Flirting doesn’t get much sexier than that.

And that goes for Cagney too.

Super sexy pre-code duo of James Cagney and Joan Blondell in Roy Del Ruth’s Blonde Crazy (1931)

Joan Blondell shows Cagney what she thinks of him with a playful slap to the face.

Cagney plays around in Joan Blondell’s boudoir

Cagney notices a noticeable posterior…

Sexy Joan Blondell

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A white-hot young Cagney

Blonde Crazy shuts with Cagney’s unforgettably cheeky line “If I had the wings of an angel, honnnney: over these prison walls I would flyyyyyy.”

Pre-Code Gams and Dams(els).

Marlene Dietrich... they're alllll Dietrich.

Legs.

Gams.

A whole lotta tomato.

Pick your hyperbole, the fact is that 1930s cinema were full of that most suggestive of appendages in a way never quite paralleled since.

Sure, they’re still everywhere because they’re still sexy. They’ve always been sexy– ever since skirts first hiked heavenward in the late 20s straight through to today. But never quite this sexy. Perhaps for the fact that the definition of “sexy” is dependent upon the word “suggestive.” Today, sex on film is hardly suggestive. It is blatant, forthright, overpowering, and leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination.

These shots? They leave everything to the imagination.

Wherein the real power lies…

This post is not meant to spark any sort of debate on feminism v. femininity v. sexism … although I’m always game for it.

And since the fundamental core of feminism is the freedom of female CHOICE, I choose to see the following images, not as sexual exploitation, but rather as strong, working women, embracing their newly won sexuality.

And, largely unknown to them, so deeply changing the game in the process.

Chorus girl gams in 42nd STREET

Thelma Todd

Clara Bow, cinema's original IT girl, in 1927.

Joan Blondell

Carole Lombard

Our Dancing Daughters-- Joan Crawford and Anita Page

Eleanor Powell, 1935

Ruby Keeler

Ginger sur la plage.

Joan- Oh Joan - Blondell

Sexy Harlow

Anita Page... in charge, no holds bars.

Myrna Loy

Barbara Stanwyck in LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT, 1933

Toby Wing

Bette Davis, Santa Monica CA

Busby Berkeley's DAMES

Blog it for Baby: Day One of the Jean Harlow Blogathon

The Jean Harlow Blogathon Day One!

Today The Jean Harlow Blogathon kicks off and we are off to a roaring start! Thoughtful, imaginative and introspective—everyone is really putting out some beautiful work which just amps up the excitement of what’s in store for the rest of the week.

Thanks to all the participants who have jumped on board for this special week of activity! Let’s get this show on the road, shall we?

color by Victor Mascaro

Carole & Company:

Vincent from Carole & Co., who has been a major supporter of this Blogathon, has created an alternate universe in which real-life friends Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard have swapped careers. Let’s Switch” is a winsome short story that asks us to tap into our imagination and wonder how might they have fared in the other’s films:

Harlow, Lombard: Let’s switch!

For the centenary of Jean Harlow’s birth, I tried to find a way to commemorate it – especially since this will be part of a Harlow blogathon at “The Kitty Packard Pictorial,” a superb site on Harlow, classic Hollywood and popular culture (https://kittypackard.wordpress.com/).

An entry linking Carole Lombard and Harlow isn’t easy. Although they were good friends and were beloved by casts and crews throughout filmland, no picture of them together has ever been discovered – a holy grail among both fandoms. Carole’s first husband, William Powell, later had an intense, but ill-fated, romance with Harlow, and Lombard’s second husband, Clark Gable, was renowned for his steamy romantic films with Jean (although in real life, they were good friends, never lovers).

So, what’s a writer to do? Use imagination, that’s what. I’m going to create an alternate universe where Lombard stars in Harlow’s movies, and vice versa. How might these silver screen goddesses have fared in each other’s films?

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Clarosureaux:

Kevin Scrantz runs a fascinating blog called Clarosureaux and specializes in colorizing and restoring vintage photography. He’s also a Jean Harlow enthusiast as you will find in his post Harlow Centenary:

March 3 will mark Jean Harlow’s 100th birthday, so pretty much my entire blog will be devoted to her for the next couple of weeks

As part of the celebration of her hundredth year, the Max Factor Museum in Hollywood will be hosting a new Harlow exhibit that contains such cool items as her Packard and a mural that once hung in Paul Bern‘s Benedict Canyon home depicting Harlow, Joan Crawford, and a host of other MGM stars as medieval courtiers.

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Eve’s Reel Life

Oh that Lady Eve Sidwich! Her Eve’s Reel Life blog is a real treasure trove : an intelligent blend of thoughtful prose and painstaking research and she has really outdone herself with “Platinum Blonde and Beyond“. Here she takes a look at one of Harlow’s early features, Platinum Blonde, and within the contextual framework of Harlow’s early career she does a marvelous job of pinpointing what makes Platinum Blonde pivotal:

It was her trademark, her calling card and, in 1931, the name of a film in which she received third billing. Platinum Blonde had originally been intended as a vehicle for top-billed star Loretta Young but, by the time it was released, the film’s title had changed and changed again until it was an outright reference to pale-haired co-star Jean Harlow. It was not Harlow’s breakout picture, that had come with Hell’s Angels (1930), nor is it generally cited as one of her great classics, but Platinum Blonde was pivotal – it proclaimed her stardom.

In 1931, the 20-year-old starlet was still under an oppressive five-year contract with Howard Hughes, producer/director of Hell’s Angels. She had proven her appeal in the film, but Hughes had no projects in the works for her and most Hollywood insiders believed he was mismanaging her career. Harlow’s then-friend/future husband Paul Bern arranged for her loan to MGM for The Secret Six (1931) an underworld drama with Wallace Beery and not-yet-famous Clark Gable.

Immediately after, she was loaned out to Universal for an unsympathetic role in The Iron Man (1931), a boxing drama with Lew Ayres. While still on that project, she went back to MGM for retakes on The Secret Six and began work on her next film, this time on loan to Warner Brothers for the gangster classic The Public Enemy (1931), with James Cagney. Her fourth film in five months was for Fox, Goldie (1931), a comedy with Spencer Tracy. Of these films only The Public Enemy was an unqualified hit, and it was a blockbuster, but it was Cagney who became the overnight star…Harlow’s allure was noted, but her performance was widely panned.

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The Hollywood Revue:

Angela with The Hollywood Revue is a super swell dame and, in honor of Jean’s centenary, she has published a great review of one of Jean Harlow’s best films, Wife vs. Secretary. It’s also in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the film’s release back on Febraury 28 1936:

Van Stanhope (Clark Gable) seems to have it all: he’s a very successful magazine publisher, he’s been very happily married to Linda (Myrna Loy) for three years, and he’s got Whitey (Jean Harlow), the best secretary he could ever want.  Most wives would be worried about their husbands having secretaries, who look like Whitey, but Linda trusts Van completely and she has every reason to.  At least she trusts him until all the suggestions from friends and family that Whitey must be one of those secretaries finally start to get to her.  But Linda isn’t the only one jealous of Van and Whitey’s working relationship.  Whitey’s boyfriend Dave (James Stewart) wants to marry her, but she loves her job and doesn’t want to quit to stay at home.

When Van decides to take on a new business venture, he has to keep it top secret from everyone, including Linda.  Whitey is the only person who knows what’s going on.  So when he says he’s been at a club all afternoon one day, Linda does a little investigating and finds out he wasn’t at the club all day, he was with Whitey.  Linda begins to fear that all those insinuations were right after all, she has no idea that he and Whitey were working together on the new business deal.  Things get even worse when at a company skating party, Linda thinks Van and Whitey look like a little too friendly and she asks Van to transfer Whitey to a new job.  Van refuses and Linda eventually decides she’s being ridiculous and Van promises to take her on vacation soon to make it up to her.

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The Platinum Page:

Ah, the lovely Lisa Burks. If you’re a fan of Harlow’s you almost certainly have spent many an hour at her Platinum Page. It was the first such one on the Internet dedicated to Harlow and is still the place to go for anything and everything related to her. It is hardly surprising, then, that in her post Harlow 100 Week she has proposed a truly beautiful gesture in Jean’s honor:

This weekend I had my thinking cap on to come up with some article ideas, when my friend and fellow Harlow fan Reg Williams pinged me about his efforts to encourage fans to fill Jean’s room in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Glendale with flowers.

If you’d like to participate, contact The Flower Shop at Forest Lawn to place your order. Please note, Forest Lawn’s $3 placement fee will apply.  The delivery location is Great Mausoleum, Sanctuary of Benediction, Private Family Mausoleum Room #34, Crypt B.

How will we know if the goal is met? Being a private room, special permission is needed to visit in person. The Platinum Page is on the case and will be working our contacts to bring you officially sanctioned updates, so stay tuned!

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Keep the links coming, everyone!

Join in the celebration and email The Pictorial!

From the Vaults: Footlight Parade

This poster of the 1933 musical Footlight Parade is definitive sexy pre-code ‘tude.

If you’ve not had the pleasure of viewing Lloyd Bacon’s  film, it is ceratinly one that belongs in your Netflix queue. Its admittedly throwaway backstage plot is more than compensated by all manner of early 30s cellophane fancies, namely, a scorchingly hot Joan Blondell, a never-been-better Ruby Keeler and Cagney–oh, Cagney–proving once and for all that a tough little cuss can strut a softshoe and still be a hell of a he-man.

And then, of course, there’s the matter of the music. Harry Warren and Al Dubin bringing to the screen the delicious subtle salaciousness that can only come from pre-code cinema.

Shanghai Lil, anyone?

Footlight Parade, 1933. Directed by Lloyd Bacon.

Footlight Parade, 1933. Directed by Lloyd Bacon.

Don’t you just adore the early 30s deco geometry?