Pick Up The Pieces, Folks ...
Ever see a young person come out of an old film astonished for having seen something that was actually good? For many, it’s akin to root canal hurting less than expected. Film students on assignment subsist on a diet of lowered expectation. They figure such classes are an easy grade, but they’re far from ready to embrace black-and-white movies. Such a hardened group (eighty strong) came reluctantly to watch White Heat when I ran it for a University class. Only a week before, they’d scoffed at Northwest Passage (imagine silence broken by a lone nineteen-year-old female voice --- This sucks!). White Heat was something else entirely, for here was violence and pace in keeping with shows they’d pay to watch in theatres yet. Given a commission to list classics for which general viewers need give no ground, I wonder how many we could honestly come up with. Probably a lot less than we’d like to think. I’d submit White Heat for high placement on said short list. For a picture nearing sixty, it’s more energized still than any crime thriller I could name from the forties. While film noir lingered upon wet sidewalks, White Heat raced over them. James Cagney’s Cody Jarrett indulges not a moment's brooding. Among noir’s conflicted criminals and hangdog gumshoes, he’s an engine firing through 114 minutes that go by like half that. White Heat bypasses even the look of noir, as if dwelling on shadows might slacken tempo (and frankly, it would). Some mistakenly call White Heat a "B" only because it delivers like one, and that’s rare for postwar studio star vehicles. The negative cost was $1.3 million, less than what Warners spent on most 1949 product and coming at a time when belt-tightening was evident in much of what was being released by them. Cagney was paid $250,000. That alone necessitated economy in other areas. He’d complain about Warners putting everybody in it they could get for six bits. Bitterness came of a promise (broken) to use Cagney pal Frank McHugh as a prison sidekick for Cody, casting we know now might have choked White Heat in its cradle. JC figured Frank for comic bits like ones that hobbled shows going back to precode, but tired shtick McHugh traded in was the last thing White Heat needed. In fact, he’d been the weakest link in The Roaring Twenties ten years before, a point at which such kibitzers should gracefully have gone to pasture now that Cagney’s gangsters were getting more depth and longer running time to display it. The cheapjack job he called White Heat embarrassed Cagney in hindsight. He never liked looking at this show and didn’t relish talking about it either. The actor’s perhaps too healthy respect for critics may have brought him into Bosley Crowther’s camp, for The New York Times under Crowther's byline reported grim and horrendous approval of White Heat's ultra-violence among Strand Theatre youngsters chanting Bee-you-tee-ful whenever Cody unloaded on stoolies and rats. Crowther was sufficiently despairing of weak minds corrupted by such displays as to recant positive points of his initial review and followed up with stern admonishment to Warners for having released such a firago (a cruelly vicious film … its impact upon the emotions of the unstable or impressionable is incalculable).
The Strand mob was Cagney’s most loyal. New Yawkers loved the hometown boy who’d made good. They probably kicked in much of the $2.1 million in domestic rentals White Heat collected (for an eventual profit of $1.3 million). Neighborhood houses added a co-feature for immediate subsequent runs (ad shown), as audiences by 1949 expected more bang for their admission than a mere single feature, thus even premiering Strand was obliged to sweeten the pot with Xavier Cugat on stage. This was early September. Here’s the newly refurbished Strand as of that opening week, along with the massive lobby a 2,750 capacity audience first saw upon entering. Ads were specially customized by WB’s art department for these bows, as the Strand was flagship to many if not most Warner/Broadway openings. White Heat marked the return of the action Cagney long missed. Nearly three years had passed since he’d clenched fists in 13 Rue Madeleine. Warners sensed fan starvation for Cagney brio like old times. They garlanded White Heat ads with JC hit parade titles going all the way back to The Doorway To Hell, a picture then out of circulation for nearly two decades. The Cagney Roles Contest was WB’s assurance that White Heat would play in accordance with happy times patrons remembered when Cagney was still making their kind of entertainment. Jimmy’s In Action Again as ad centerpiece dug at gentle Johnny Come Lately and cerebral The Time Of Your Life (produced independently), the latter managing only $1.1 million in domestic rentals the previous year. Their first glimpse of Cagney in White Heat might have taken viewers aback, for suddenly he looked much older and heavier than when tumbling on judo mats in 1945’s Blood On The Sun. Lost momentum for having left Warners in 1942 cost Cagney. But for White Heat, he’d not get back the old verve of that unbroken chain of success WB’s campaign referenced.
Thanks to Warner’s shimmering DVD, I’m finally able to read the Sun-Val Drive-In’s marquee for that night Cody, Ma, and Verna pulled in to watch what’s later identified as Task Force. Close inspection reveals the Sun-Val’s actual program to have been South Of St. Louis and Siren Of Atlantis. The Drive-In was located in Burbank and first opened in 1938. It would be California’s second outdoor theatre, closing by the mid-seventies when such venues nationwide took a nosedive. White Heat is a virtual tour of LA and surrounding environs. Street names are bandied about as cops triangulate around Cody’s mob. Big sedans look like lumbering dinosaurs even when giving chase. Did movie auto pursuits ever truly convey speed prior to 1968 and Bullitt? The ever problematic Drinking Out Of Empty Coffee Cups Syndrome creeps into White Heat as well; both John Archer and Edmund O’Brien tip theirs just enough to let us know there’s not a drop in them (normal, well-adjusted people don’t notice these things --- I do). Cody stays a step ahead of the FBI all the way to the end. No wonder those unstable and impressionable youngsters at the Strand rooted for him. Incredible that the PCA granted a Seal to White Heat even as they continued an embargo against The Public Enemy being reissued (and asceded only after it was substantially cut in 1954). Cagney is shockingly uninhibited in White Heat. Extras are said to have been alarmed by his/Cody’s dining hall outburst when word comes of Ma’s death. Everyone from JC to Raoul Walsh down to the guard at the gate seems to have taken credit for the mother fixation twist that distinguished White Heat, especially the moment when Cody sits in Ma’s lap. Being shot fairly close in, there’s less emphasis on where his character’s positioned. I wonder if there weren’t alternate takes from further back that were later discarded in favor of the angle provided us. Would audiences have laughed had they clearly seen robust Cagney sitting on frail Margaret Wycherly’s lap? Raoul Walsh was in the midst of an incredible run as White Heat climaxed twenty (plus) good to outstanding pictures from the director since 1939. This man was surely, along with Michael Curtiz, the most accomplished wheel in Warner’s machinery. Unlike Curtiz, he lived long enough to regale young pups at university screenings with embroidered tales of how he (often single-handed) made great actioners like White Heat. Often in cowboy boots and ten-gallon hat, Walsh ranked among most colorful of old Hollywood raconteurs, and appearances with his films helped elevate their critical status during nascent film study days of the seventies. Indeed, negative owner (at the time) United Artists was able to boost 16mm rental rates for White Heat up to $125 per day by 1975, bringing it in line with most-in-demand oldies Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. For collectors, White Heat made unexpected landfall in 1976 when a group of 16mm negatives out of UA became available for surreptitious printing. These were "originals" with quality the equal of anything TV or rental used. My custom White Heat, brand new out of the lab, seemed a bargain at $275 (wonder who's watching it now ...), especially as dupes of shows this good might cost nearly as much.