When many movie buffs think of James Cagney’s 1930s work for Warner Bros., the first thing that comes to mind, not surprisingly, is two-fisted gangster dramas where an unrepentant Jimmy often meets a bullet-riddled end. While it’s true that the pugnacious actor quickly became one of the company’s top on-screen lawbreakers courtesy of his star-making turn as tough-as-nails, grapefruit-in-the-face-smashin’ hood Tom Powers in the 1931 crime thriller The Public Enemy, Cagney’s popularity and versatility–to say nothing of his notorious feuds with studio heads over scripts he wasn’t happy with–soon convinced the top brass to place him in more sympathetic and diverse roles. As so it was that Cagney got chances to relive his stage song-and-dance days (1933’s Footlight Parade), wield a gun on the right side of the badge ( “G” Men from 1935), and even try his hand at a little Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, also ’35).
This week, fans will get to catch Jimmy in four more unconventional roles from his early leading man days: as a wisecracking Hollywood screenwriter, a brash Marine Flying Corps pilot, an Irish-American boxing promoter forced to fill in for one of his charges, and a truck driver caught in the middle of a Midwest “milk war,” courtesy of a quartet of new releases from the Warner Archive Collection series. Each film is new to DVD, and two of them–The Irish in Us and The St. Louis Kid–have never been available in any home video format! If you only know James Cagney from his gangster work, you might want to check out:
Boy Meets Girl (1938) – Cynical Tinseltown screenwriters Robert Law (James Cagney) and J.C. Benson (Pat O’Brien) delight in flummoxing clueless studio execs. But when their exasperated mogul (Ralph Bellamy) demands they craft a vehicle for a fading and fatheaded cowboy star (Dick Foran), the duo sees a means to help out a single and pregnant commissary waitress (Marie Wilson). Adapted by Sam and Bella Spewack from their play, this snappy industry satire also features e4arly turns for Carole Landis, Penny Singleton and (as a radio announcer) Ronald Reagan.
Devil Dogs of the Air (1935) – Brooklyn-born barnstormer Tommy O’Toole (James Cagney) is challenged by lifelong pal Lt. Bill Brannigan (Pat O’Brien) to use his aerial skills where they’ll do the most good…in the Marine Flying Corps. The cocky recruit wastes no time alienating his whole squad, especially when he starts making maneuvers on Brannigan’s girl (Margaret Lindsay). Exciting Warners aerial opus co-stars Frank McHugh; look for John Ford favorite Ward Bond and “B” western hero Wild Bill Elliott.
The Irish in Us (1935) – Though it was a comfort to Mrs. O’Hara to still have her boys–cop Pat (Pat O’Brien), fireman Mike (Frank McHugh) and boxing promoter Danny (James Cagney)–still under her roof, Pat wants to move out and marry the fire chief’s daughter (Olivia de Havilland), and Danny keeps pinning his hopes on fighters who don’t pan out. The O’Hara family dinners don’t get any easier after Danny falls for Pat’s girl and later has to step into the ring himself! Clever comedy/drama co-stars Allen Jenkins and Mary Gordon.
The St. Louis Kid (1934) – Tough Midwestern trucker Eddie Kennedy (James Cagney) found his current gig hauling dairy products to be anything but a milk run, as he was confronted by striking dairymen and settled matters with his fists. When the labor strife results in a farmer’s murder, the accused Eddie has a race to prove his innocence and stop further violence. Punchy Cagney vehicle co-stars Patricia Ellis, Allen Jenkins and Robert Barratt.