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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Precode Hails a Taxi!

Taxi went out with an exclamation point ... Taxi! ... so to convey, I guess, throb of Gotham streets just outside the Strand and other NY spots where James Cagney drew biggest coin. His early (in fact earliest) pics remind of how utterly unique a screen personality Jim was, a Vitaphone era's charging bull (quick, who were the most dynamic arrivals to emerging sound film? --- I say Cagney and Clark Gable) . All the "goodies" JC dropped (his term) came self-invented --- no one behind cameras pulled strings. It mattered little who directed him. Suggestions Cagney made were followed to the good and profit of all concerned. Much of him seems ad-libbed ... at least he made it appear so. The man must have had huge confidence, but never appears to have been ego-driven.

Jim and Loretta Young Have an Ice-Cream Break Between Taxi! Scenes
 Taxi! played TCM with a Library Of Congress logo at the head, and was sure improvement on prints I'd seen before. Real-life taxi wars of the day supply backdrop. Did patrons exiting the Strand witness hacks in violent confrontation as shown in Cagney's film? His persona sold because it mirrored sensibility of those buying tickets, at least 'dose who rode underground from one borough to another. The identification is made clear during a movie night out Jim and Taxi! chums don't necessarily enjoy. Cagney regards with a sneer Donald Cook's effete on-screen lovemaking, then playfully seizes date Loretta Young to show her how real people smooch. The scene's a great indicator of distance between Hollywood romance and ways its public went about love rituals. Cagney's for telling us that movie mush is the bunk, and that was refreshing to folks fallen short of a Barrymore or Fredric March (two who come in for a Taxi! ribbing), but who could imagine themselves mating after the Cagney fashion.

Waitress Loretta Young primps before a cracked mirror. Maybe that was to show even her looks were no guard against poverty which by early 1932 had firmed its grip. Just getting in to see Taxi! meant you were flush, or at least had a dime the landlord or gas meter didn't get. With Cagney doing four at least shows a year at Depression's peak, could even most dedicated fans afford to catch his quarterly act? He was valued most for how-to on slugging ways out of hard times. Jim right away traded gangster-ing of Public Enemy for confidence tricks barely within the law, or when beyond it, stopping short of murder. Increasing appeal made us want to see him live, if not prosper, at the finish, sentiment patrons felt for most precode self-starters, Cagney most of any. One that broke rules and expectation, He Was Her Man, played TCM recently. I'll not spoil its ending for the picture having done as much in 1934. Significantly, this would be the first Cagney vehicle to lose money for Warners.

Mickey Shares Marquee Space with Cagney --- Was The Mouse Jim's Animated Counterpart?

Precode speakers had this way of making ordinary language sound profane. Or was it ordinary? Case in Taxi! point: James Cagney refers to one guy as a "wet smack," sneering that off as though it were basest obscenity. I don't recall any wet smacks cropping up after PCA enforcement took hold in mid-1934, so why was that? Turns out there was good reason for the banishment, "wet smack" being British slang for masturbation, and a pretty commonly known, if not widely used term (for obvious reasons) in the UK. Movies here have commonly dealt words a lot heavier freighted over there ... "bum" and "shag" come to mind. I've tried finding what "wet smack" meant in US utterance when Taxi! and precode thrived --- did Cagney and WB scribes figure it for a sex barb as did the Brits?

One scene after another displays Cagney versatility. He dances here, cries there, speaks Yiddish (well) not two minutes in. Jim was a fortunate (for Warners) product of the melting pot theatres dreamed to attract. A Barrymore or Fredric March couldn't throw the net he did. JG was raised among innumerable dialects and ethnic sprawl. This actor from beginnings had down their every gesture, being expert mimic he was. Cagney makes with the Yiddish for his entry scene of Taxi! and right there introduces a talking screen's concept of Street Smart. The moment still thrills for our knowing he needn't resort to phonetic memory device, as JC knew the language cold and even used it to overhear Warner bosses when they imagined use of Yiddish would exclude him from finer points of contract negotiation.

Cagney didn't just cry in that movie era when men seldom did. He convulsed. There's a younger brother death scene where JC breaks down to almost startling degree. There'd been glimpse of unchecked emotion in screen debut Sinner's Holiday, so maybe Cagney legions were conditioned for his anything-going, but imagine delight when he revealed dancing chops in extended head-to-toe demo of what vaudeville and Broadway trouping had taught him. What Cagney did was called the Peabody, which I'm told is a quick-step Fox Trot. All that need be said of this sequence is that it lasts about a tenth as long as we'd like it to (JC's rival in the dance contest is George Raft, an expert himself and picked personally by Cagney so there'd be a meaningful competition). With Taxi! now waxed and polished by the Library Of Congress, here's hope that Warners will get it out as a DVD Archive release.


Blogger Tom said...

The pre-code Cagneys at Warners are, to me, small miracles of street smart toughness, often including small inventive comic touches, largely supplied by the star. Cagney's seemingly instinctive, spontaneous acting ranks him among the very greatest of the studio system days. In fact, there's no actor that I admire more for his acting craft at that time.

Taxi! has always been one of my particular favourites of the Warners pre-code period. The scene is which Cagney fires his gun threw the door when he thinks he has his quarry trapped inside gives the audience a glimpse of the psychotic, dark side of his impulsive screen persona. In some respects that scene is a precursor to the Cagney of middle years who would give a performance for the ages when he played Cody Jarret, under Raoul Walsh's tough direction, in White Heat. There's a momentary glimpse of insanity in Cagney when he fires that gun, to hell with the consequences, into the "dirty rat" he thinks is behind the door. It's an unexpectedly chilling moment in what is overall a rather breezy little urban slice-of-life drama.

By the way, in spite of the recent headlines Loretta Young's gained lately with the sad story of her love child by Gable, she's excellent in Taxi!, standing up to Cagney with far more spunk that most of his rather bland leading ladies of the time (excluding, of course, the delectible Joan Blondell). When it comes to great but neglected screen teams, my very favourites include Cagney with Blondell, as well as Cagney with Ann Sheridan (but that, as they say, is another story).

12:04 PM  
Blogger VP81955 said...

Loretta Young is wonderful in "Taxi!" (as she is in so many pre-Code films; I'm glad she lived long enough to witness the pre-Code revival), but she got the part only because another star of the time turned down a loanout to Warners. That was Carole Lombard, and you can learn why she rejected it at Too bad; a Cagney-Lombard teaming might have been delicious.

Interesting, too, that later in 1932, Carole did agree to be loaned out from Paramount (to Columbia) for a film with a taxi motif -- "Virtue," with Pat O'Brien, arguably her best performance before "Twentieth Century."

11:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Definition of WET SMACK
: a social misfit : a dull or obnoxious person

Never heard that one myself. Could be that the writer was aware of the double meaning, though. Another pre-code, Parachute Jumper, with Bette Davis and Fairbanks, Jr. had some gay innuendo, and a hitch-hiking Frank McHugh flips off a car that won't pick him up

- KD

11:07 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon sends along some more insights into Jim Cagney's enduring persona:

Hi John!

It's funny, but fate and poor housekeeping (generally---and I'm specifically talking about me, without dragging my innocent spouse into the equation!) have kept a copy of "Cagney", John McCabe's good bio of said star with a GREAT cover photograph by Eve Arnold, right next to my bed---on the FLOOR----for the past year. I know. Try to forget I admitted that. My middle name is "Packrat". So naturally I loved your recent post/article. You are not only---as I keep saying---a wonderful wordsmith, but you are right up my alley and down my street (who is it used to say that?) with your old movie enthusiasms. This must be genetic, but it must be admitted that younger people I befriend often have no use for "old movies", which to them is a pejorative term, the very reverse of my inference.

I love the way you nominate Cagney and Gable, because they are birds of a feather if not to go as far as to say (which you didn't) peas in a pod. What I and I'm quite sure all connoisseurs of old movies feel is a sense of amazement at just how many distinctive personalities (actors) came out of Broadway and just the woodwork during the sound era, be they star material or GREAT 'supporting' or 'character' actors. We just lost one remaining-such, Henry Morgan.

1:54 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

... and here's Craig Reardon's take on "Wet Smacks":

I laughed at your examination of aspects of vital, 'living' pre-code candor and realism. "Wet smack"---that a crack-up! Perhaps in American 'translation' that might merely have meant that the guy was as disgusting as a wet (i.e., sloppy wet) kiss. But the Brits have many a distinctive take on vulgarisms. I've never quite gotten to the bottom of what's so extreme, to British ears, about 'bloody', e.g., except that I think it steps on religious toes in its original meaning. I do know that 'bedlam' is a corruption of St. Mary of Bethlehem (unless I'm fuzzy on this---again, I'm not running this by Wikipedia in advance!) where there were interned the hopelessly 'insane'---though God knows what modern doctors would make of each and every one of those poor souls branded as 'crazy' or 'insane' in THOSE benighted times! And I believe it was either this very institution or a fictional stand-in that figured in the memorable Val Lewton/Boris Karloff film, no? Most of us certainly know and understand another much-heard English vulgarism, 'wanker'---which DEFINITELY means what 'wet smack'---according to your research---is supposed to have meant in Britain at that time. I worked among several 'imported' Brits years ago at the Jim Henson Creature Shop 'chapter' in Burbank, CA. (The original was in New York, and one was then established in London to service films Henson produced in the U.K., such as "The Dark Crystal", "Labyrinthe", and some television films...a few things. Then in time one was opened in Burbank.) The Brits very freely used the pretty term 'twat' to characterize any MAN they thought of with contempt. Very sexist by proper, P.C. American other words, a contemptible guy is a female genetalia! But, there you go. But, one other term I had defined for me by a cheerfully vulgar English actor I worked with some years back was actually an eye-opener. I'd certainly heard the term 'blow job' almost my entire adult life, and that's moving the starting line on 'adult' down to my earliest 'teens. However, he asked me one day, "Do you know what it means?", and I said, "Uh...yes, I know what it means!" He knew what I meant, however, and so he rephrased the question: "Yes, but do you know what it REALLY means? How the term was coined?" And I said, " Now you've got me, lay it on me." He said it was a corruption of 'BELOW job'....meaning, something done below! I'd never, ever even thought of that one. So, yes, the Brits may not have written the book on 'naughty'----or, they may damn well have! So 'wet smack' creeping into a Hollywood film in 1931 (?) or so is not so surprising in concept.

1:57 PM  
Blogger Jim Harwood said...

The Library of Congress had made a new 35mm preservation fine grain off of the original camera negative over 20 years ago when I worked there. I guess it was about time for WB to make a new video master.

2:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks John for another great post, and of course, the usual nice assortment of stills and other images. If anyone was wondering why the stills are coded with the initials TP that is because one of the working titles for the movie was "Taxi, Please!".
Warner Bros. seemed to do that a lot - change a movie's title after the stills had already been printed bearing a working title's code initials.

More "Taxi" trivia:
Originally Warners intended Dorothy Mackaill to be the leading lady. Then she was replaced by Joan Blondell. Then for some reason that didn't work out so next they planned to borrow Nancy Carroll from Paramount before finally giving the role to Loretta Young. It is interesting to imagine today how each of those ladies might have been in the lead instead of Loretta.

8:00 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Yeah, great post as usual! Cagney is fascinating. One of the iconic leading men of Old Hollywood but unlike Gable, Bogart, Wayne, Cooper, Grant, Fonda and Stewart, he did it while making few (if any) genuinely great movies. A whole lot of really good ones mind you, just few great ones. He could be the model of modern 'natural-life' big screen performing , but had an almost 19th century view of fine acting being equated with the amount of appropriate business an actor can interject. And, of course, all that business IS great. It seems to me the longer he was in Hollywood, the more these little bits and gags would involve other cast members, often bit players.

Always loved Loretta Young... she seems so natural in the early jobs like TAXI, MIDNIGHT MARY and PLATINUM BLONDE.

3:51 PM  

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