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Friday, March 09, 2018

A Star Glimpsed at Start


Stage To Screen For Future Warner Stars

Robert Youngson compiled in 1955 a startling mélange of footage showing top stars at career beginning, all culled from early talkies done by Warner Bros. Among these was Clark Gable In Night Nurse, Spencer Tracy in 20,000 Years In Sing Sing, and James Cagney from Sinner's Holiday. The films excerpted had not been seen in decades, none having been released to television as yet, and all serving as eye-opener to how raw and vital these players were when starting out. The Cagney moment is particularly strong: menacing, sniveling, cowering, all at once. JC by the 50's seemed prosaic beside this. Crowds had seen Public Enemy the year before in wide reissue with Little Caesar, so maybe shock wasn't too great, but Sinner's Holiday? That had been largely off screens since 1930 when it finished initial release.


In fact, we went years without access to Sinner's Holiday, thanks to problems with the soundtrack and consequence of the film not being included with pre-49 Warner pics syndicated to TV in 1956 and afterward. William K. Everson ran Sinner's Holiday for his New School class in 11/75 and wrote that the film had only recently been made available via recovery of discs that could be wedded with existing visual ("recently" in this case was May 1962, when Sinner's Holiday was made available to syndication in a package with 33 other titles from TV distributor United Artists). TCM has shown the film since, not often, and I like to think the sound will be further cleaned up before upgrade to HD. Sinner's Holiday is a curiosity for reasons well beyond Cagney, even as his presence alone makes it worth seeking out. The story was based on a Broadway play (Penny Arcade) that Al Jolson allegedly saw and recommended to Warners. He also touted Jim, plus Joan Blondell, for soundstage rendering of their parts, neither of which was a lead, but as things developed, more interesting than if they had done principal roles filled by Grant Withers and Evelyn Knapp.


Sinner's Holiday was, then, a shared screen debut for Cagney and Blondell. You'd think the two had been doing movies for years. All of assurance they'd display over a long future is here. When either come on, other cast members shrink. Jim presages Public Enemy as a mama's boy delinquent lured by easy money and a gun. He cries convulsively and all but hides under beds when the law comes calling. Cagney was never afraid to strip away man surface when characterization called for it. He can still shock viewership for depth of sissy panic roused by stress. Cagney undoubtedly knew this sort from growing up, and so enacted them here. His more noted Rocky Sullivan wasn't the only character JC would recreate from past acquaintances. Warners put skids on nuerotic aspect of Cagney's persona that would have made selling tougher once he became a major name, though glimpses did persist, and full-flower on occasion of a White Heat. Sinner's Holiday has value too in glimpse it gives of fairway attractions long since gone, including mutoscopes always in need of repair. These peep devices, whether hand or electric-power cranked, were familiar to arcades for generations. I remember watching "The Electrocution Of An Elephant" on one at a Myrtle Beach, SC arcade in the late 60's.

4 Comments:

Blogger Dave K said...

Wow! I have seen the aforementioned short (I think it was tucked away as a bonus in the anniversary JAZZ SINGER box set) would love to see the whole feature. Blondell and Cagney light up another early pre-code, Wellman's OTHER MEN'S WOMEN in small supporting roles. Tough talking waitress Joan has the best dialogue in the picture and makes the most of it and Cagney's few minutes with Grant Withers atop moving boxcars provide one of the greatest bits of throwaway business in 30's cinema!

12:02 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

https://ok.ru/video/296413366926

2:09 PM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

Then there's "Angels With Dirty Faces", that cagily lets viewers decide whether Cagney is turning yellow or is doing something noble.

4:28 PM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

On a sidenote, it might be difficult today to imagine the way people viewed and remembered things back then. The 25 years between 1930 and 1955 to movie audiences must have seemed like the jump from the bone to spacecraft in 2001. 1930 must have seemed way further back than 25 years, given how so much was out of circulation. I mean, 25 years ago now is 1993. Phffft! I don't think we we are agog about the time gap except maybe amused by pre-cellphone technology. Then too (yes, I keep my mind busy this way), growing up in the early '60s I'd watch Buck Privates with Abbott & Costello, which was only 20 years old at the time, and while watching it felt like it was made yesterday. Anyway, just some idle thoughts spurred by yet another fascinating post. :)

5:03 PM  

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