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Friday, August 15, 2014

Those Chicago Censors Never Learn ...

Now They Want To Ban "Too Exciting" G-Men (1935)

You'd have thought they were kidding ... were Chicago censors really blocking Warners' G-Men because it was "too stimulating, too exciting for children"? If so, this was new height for absurdity and boon to a pic that every kid would now have to see. WB had merely to appeal the ban and await court reversal which came within the week (late April-beginning of May 1935), then watch G-Men "zooming the gate into high territory and good profits after weeks of doldrums and pecuniary malnutrition" at the Chicago Theatre. Here was once when bluenoses did what thousands spent on publicity might not --- make G-Men into a red hot must-see based on beaten back effort to suppress it. Money couldn't buy this kind of luck. With Hollywood's own Production Code now firmly in place, local censor boards were more and more inconsequent, a gnat flicked generally away --- but wait, Chicago successfully stopped Warners' previous Side Streets and Dr. Monica, "the local exchange about having given up hope of ever getting these by."

Line Up, Folks. Jim's On Our Side Now

Warners got possessive in a hurry, figured they owned the very concept of federal law dogging. To quell competitors, they'd seek protection of courts. Edward Small got out a smallish exploiter called Let 'Em Have It, in which FBI men Richard Arlen, Gordon Jones, and Harvey Stephens rack up bank-robbing Bruce Cabot and mob. What burned WB was Small referencing "Government Men" in ads, this an alleged infringement upon just-released G-Men. Also an irritant was Let 'Em Have It being shown in theatres owned by the Great States circuit. They'd done no business with Warners for whole of a current season, this much of reason for the latter's retaliatory move. Distribution and exhibition were two of a three-headed monster that was the majors-dominated movie industry, and so far as these Ghidrahs were concerned, little fish like Edward Small could go fry.  This was mile-high, if not accustomed, arrogance on Warners' part, another instance of the big bully picking on a little bully (remember Casablanca vs. A Night In Casablanca?). But justice would for once prevail when the judge told plaintiffs to take a hike, and Let 'Em Have It went on to what reward it could scrounge.

The Bureau had decidedly mixed emotion re movie adapt of its operation. Hoover knew Jack Warner, however, and that's said to be reason for his tentative open of door to G-Men. He'd not share case files or publicly endorse the venture, however. What story G-Men told was cooked up solely by WB staffers, and plain obvious was fact they weren't invited within FBI sanctum. That would be policy as well for other rat-a-tatters in studio pipelines, including Ed Small's Let 'Em Have It, Metro's Public Hero No.1, plus a pair from Paramount and Universal. In fact, said Variety, Hoover sent but one emissary to Hollywood "to check up on the several yarns to see that the producers do not go overboard in the glorification" of federal agents. They didn't want filmland "to paint the G-Men too gory or too matinee idolish." Toward this goal, there would be vetting of scripts and technical advising for all of features that utilized a Bureau backdrop. G-Men would boast a highest profile for its straight-to-point title and ideal casting of one-time Public Enemy James Cagney as quick-draw defender of law/order. That last was what really put G-Men in the chips and leagues past competition.

Cagney had been stuck doing comic variation of his urban caveman since Public Enemy stirred storm of protest and ultimate clampdown by an empowered Production Code. No more gangster pics was censorship's fresh edict, and so personalities like Cagney, wired too tight to stay strictly within the law, had to play their hustle for laughs and leave firearms off the menu. Warners kept Cagney out of a rut's way by using him in a musical (Footlight Parade) and then service yarns (Here Comes The Navy, Devil Dogs Of The Air), uniforms a safest alternative to the gangster motif, as they rechanneled Jim's excess energy to military purpose. The same formula would be applied to G-Men, Cagney entering as raw recruit to the Bureau where he'll learn it's best to play by rules. Within this short period, then, JC would go from street menace to defender of same, casting a matter of which branch he'd serve or badge he'd wear. There wouldn't be another Cagney bad man until Angels With Dirty Faces in 1938.

Genius Showman Don Nichols of Charlotte's Broadway Theatre Draws a Curious Crowd
To a Parked Car That Once Belonged to Al Capone, a Surefire Tie-In with G-Men

And yet ... Warners knew it was memory of Public Enemy from which much of Cagney energy flowed, and they'd assure 1935 patronage that G-Men was a same flavor of raw meat, which indeed it was in terms of let-loose violence and firepower that hadn't been on screens since that first flush of gangstering now in concrete shoes fitted by the Code. Maybe Warners couldn't reissue Public Enemy and ones like it, but merchandising could still promise ticket-buyers "The Same James Cagney That Gave Them Public Enemy." Added to this was urgency of crime-on-upswing that was Depression era scourge, plus conviction that only a gloves-off FBI could stop it. G-Men was a hardest sell for arming Fed agents with same lethal weaponry as thugs they pursued, and letting chase extend past state lines that were previous barrier to law enforcement. Give criminals the same harsh medicine they dealt out, said G-Men's army, but not on vigilante terms. With Cagney and company on duty, there'd be no need for self-help in any case.

Showmen filled lobbies with display of police firearms and standee rundown of Most Wanted Public Enemies. Fingerprinting of patronage was offered as bally and civic service, this a lure to mothers who'd want offspring digits recorded in event of kidnap later on. That's how profound fear of babies being snatched had become since the Lindbergh horror. G-Men made hay on real-life anxiety stirred by everyday headlines that made crime seem altogether out of control. Ninety minutes of reassurance from Warner Bros. seemed fair exchange for anyone's admission, which in G-Men instance totaled a million in profit, the biggest gain yet for a Cagney show. G-Men would prove continuing worth by its inclusion with Casablanca on 1949 bills, the reissue pair dressed with fresh ads and even a prologue to update the 1935 "Daddy Of All G-Man Pictures," as cited by David Brian, who appears on camera to unspool a 16mm print of the oldie for benefit of latter-day FBI trainees. It is this version that is shown on TCM and available on DVD from Warner Archive.


Blogger Robert Fiore said...

Interesting to note in G-Men v. Let 'Em Have It is the King Kong veteran confrontation of Robert Armstrong in the former and Bruce Cabot in the latter.

2:16 PM  

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