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Monday, September 06, 2021

Just Beware Eye Contact With Rosin Dust


Watch City for Conquest, Then Move To The Country

Warner meditation on fickle lady that was NYC and how she'd not lay welcome mat to any but fastest runners at life, a sermon repeated to numb effect by "old-timer" Frank Craven alert to City for Conquest as epic mosaic on urban lives. Here was big town counterpart to Our Town where Craven played memorably the Stage Manager for Broadway audiences through much of 1938. Our Town had been popular, influential to drama since, remains so today. City for Conquest was ambitious in ways unique to modern-set Warner output. Source was a 1936 novel by Aben Kandel, who wrote plays as well, made his way to Hollywood as did most that sought assurance of a roof and square meals. The book took exception to so little milk of kindness flowing from Gotham, an expected attitude among those who would chronicle modern life. City for Conquest the book was enjoyed, discussed, eventually forgotten. Few recall it now except as basis for a James Cagney vehicle. A Routledge-published line of “Lost Urban Classics” rescued City for Conquest from neglect in 2015, promoting it as a “nearly forgotten masterpiece,” readers left to side or not with enthused reappraisal. Reader reviews of the reprint are enthused. Who doesn’t like discovering art cast out of memory by others? Shows free thinking and not running with herds, like glow I feel carrying banner for Cain and Mabel.

Varied Reprints of the Source Novel

This was a sort of story to bear as much (more) Warners signature as any ten authors could apply, a reason why Kandel narrative and characters got sheared so viewers could absorb the lot in less than two hours, an outcome to displease Cagney, something of a bibliophile who felt movies profaned truer arts. He in fact wrote a letter of apology to Kandel after seeing City for Conquest, said he was all done watching movies he appeared in, a promise not to be entirely kept. What Cagney forgot was urgency, especially WB’s, to keep tempo at boils, maintain him at perpetual bounce, paying crowds not there after all to see novels faithfully reproduced. Irony was Aben Kandel having had screenwriting experience, enough surely to adapt his own work, yet John Wexley, late of Angels With Dirty Faces, took helm to structure (rather re-structure) content. In fact, Angels was more a model for City for Conquest than Kandel’s book, a same teeming slum for good-bad kids to graduate from, some headed for success (and heartbreak attendant), others to crime. Echoes of not only Angels, but aforementioned Our Town and Frank Craven as narrating omnipresence, then Bob Steele for surly foe as he was in previous Of Mice and Men, a prestige if not commercial prelude to City for Conquest. Latter ran to 104 minutes, longish for a Cagney, his fanbase restless as his characters tended to be. Warners sensing this cut City for Conquest to reduce girth of an April 1946 double-bill it shared with also-reissued No Time For Comedy, virtually all of Frank Craven dropped. Those minutes stayed truant through years of televised syndication and rental prints, an abrupt ending to tip us that sections were out. Digital put City for Conquest right, Craven not necessarily welcomed back. In fact, viewers might prefer he stay gone.

Some speculate cuts were made to dump the “old timer,” intent likelier to bring City for Conquest below 100 minutes and reassure 1946 exhibitors that it and No Time For Comedy would together be taut enough for maximum turnover of combo attendance, this in addition to Craven’s character having slowed down action, plus Warner no longer needing to draw parallel with Our Town. City for Conquest was directed by Anatole Litvak, who Cagney disliked for being tortoise slow and a martinet besides. Jim thought most meggers at WB to be punk, him profane to biographer John McCabe re Litvak as the two sat in Cagney’s kitchen over forty years later to recall City for Conquest. I heard audio of those conversations (McCabe sharing them at a Cinecon where he spoke), he and JC interrupted by dogs ambling in-out of the room while the two men talk, all this to remind us of country-wide canyon between bustling Hollywood of 1940 and quietude of a Duchess County, New York farm in the early eighties. Cagney outlived most of people he worked with and so spoke freely of them. Judging by opinions the actor expressed, we could wonder why he did not retire sooner than 1961, money being plentiful to do so. JC was perverse for wanting to dial down dynamism while Warner execs to a man knew this was his strength. Oft-producing Hal Wallis forever wrote memos asking Cagney to toughen up scenes, give fans what they paid to see, but Jim largely ignored “front office” directives, never liked Wallis besides, and Wallis knew it (from his memoir re Cagney: “He and I never became friends. He was cold to me, and I wasn’t particularly fond of him”). Interesting to read of people forced together, for years as case with Wallis-Cagney, success requiring them to make a best of less than agreeable relation. Would that take bloom off a rose that was wealth or stardom? We like to think people disdained can be dodged, but how possible was that amidst bustle of the picture business, any workplace, then or now? Could be among reasons many were unhappy even to make a prosperous living there.

City for Conquest
has sentiment, pace, and great Cagney work. He lost weight to train for boxing, so there's not the paunch that peeked in during previous Torrid Zone, a property he didn't respect near so much as this. JC is a boxer who's foolish for fickle Ann Sheridan, her wanting bright lights that pro dance partner Anthony Quinn can give. Others of Cagney orbit meet destiny appropriate to Big Town backdrop. Supporting performances are expectedly outstanding. How many accents could one identify as New Yorkese? Did/does each borough have its individual dialect? From where I live, they all sound essentially the same, Huntz Hall-ish or Leo Gorcey-esque. Could a Henry Higgins transplanted to New York identify a dozen, maybe a hundred, differing speech patterns? “Southern” accents are thought to be of-a-region piece when truth is they differ from state to state, county to county even, if subtly. Chances are James Cagney of Yorkville origin talked different, if marginally, from those of a bridge or tunnel’s opposite end. He liked to surprise interviewers by not resorting to dem-dose as expected. Did Cagney and other Gotham-born actors work, in fact struggle, to rid themselves of identifying accents to get wider work? Southerners are routinely advised to homogenize speech if they expect to move up in corporate jobs, certainly ones where headquarters are Northeast located or on the West Coast. I have a friend from Hickory, NC who as a teenager trained his voice to sound like Laurence Olivier. It very nearly worked, as he does evoke more Larry than others of rural origin (never mind what affectation that must have sounded like to his neighbors). For myself, Basil Rathbone remains the ideal, though at this stage of life, I have more/less given up any quest to sound like him.

Elia Kazan as ill-fated “Googi” made me wish he had stayed an actor longer, or maybe directed himself eventually. Kazan hard sells “personality” and gives a fun performance we may not expect of early Method training (though from all account, Kazan had his own Method, relying more on instinct and judgment than hard-wired technique as taught by former associates in Group Theatre). Bob Steele, welcome always in non-west parts, is the bully boxer Jim knocks down, Donald Crisp a benign fight promoter (were there such men?), Lee Patrick a resigned chorine who takes in destitute Sheridan, oily Anthony Quinn essaying a type Rudolph Valentino might have come to had he lived to character work in talkies. You could wonder in fact if Rudy was anything like Quinn’s “Murray Burns” during dance days before he entered movies, though from I understand, RV was unfailingly a considerate sort, unlike City’s sleaze Quinn.

Classy and by all appearance costly finish is the “Magic Isle Symphony” as composed by “Edward Kenny,” brother to Cagney’s “Danny” and played by Arthur Kennedy. This lengthy section amounts to step up for Max Steiner to status of serious composer, at least gives appearance so. There would not be fulfillment of such promise; unlike Warners colleague Erich Korngold, no concerts were dedicated to, or conducted by, Max Steiner. His scores were symphonic in a sense not favored today, cued to action, “Mickey Moused” as detractors said then and have repeated since. I of course get defensive at this, Mickey Mousing for me a good thing. Movies lost a lot when they let go this technique. I wonder how viewers might respond if someone revived it. That would sure be a novelty … maybe a popular one? Who complained over music in Mickey Mouse cartoons?  I can whistle back all eight minutes of Leigh Harline’s contribution to Mickey’s Service Station, talent acquired from 1974 and acquisition of a 16mm print (as to whether this is useful talent, let others judge for themselves).

Commenters say the Steiner “Symphony” traded too transparently on Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, which since its debut in 1924 was mighty influence upon composers everywhere, in movies especially. It sounds in fact like movie music to come. How many would-be Gershwins do you suppose wrote their own Symphony for Some-Or-Other City? Given ability or inclination, I might have penned something to salute my little town, though I doubt the setting would merit soaring melodies as tendered by Gershwin or frank imitator that was said to be Steiner. Also could regret City’s score not going on store shelves for sake of eager listeners (proper LP’s still a way off in 1940). So why isn't this on CD, other than excerpted here/there? I had a cassette tape as offered by the Max Steiner Music Society in the seventies, played it plenty, the theme delivering wallop upon my boy plexus at a time when I was perhaps more in touch with emotions. For one at appropriate age and romantic bent, City’s climactic concert serves a bounty. I asked Conrad Lane what effect it had on him in 1940. “I hummed the principal theme for years after,” he said, so powerful was the effect. Memory was all Conrad had, however, for he would not get to see (and hear) City for Conquest again until the late fifties when it turned up on television (minus Frank Craven, he noted).

The Symphony was signal that City for Conquest was something more than formula served an umpteenth time by Warner. Intentions were good here, if earnest past patience of patrons there for punches, and never mind high-minded sentiment re Gotham as expressed by A. Kennedy while quiet and attentive Cagney hangs on his every speech. Latter liked thoughtful words and went passive where he saw them coming, a struggle with duality of on and offscreen characters, preferring the cerebral if reminded daily of toast buttered by flying fists the Strand mob, and ones elsewhere, insisted upon. Jim did not mind being a loser at love or victim of sour circumstance as where Ann Sheridan uses him badly and a worse ring bout sees him blinded maybe for life. Cagney could be novel at playing sightless or whatever infirm others applied rote skill to. His “Danny Kenny,” down to selling papers at a corner kiosk (right across the street from NY’s legendary Rialto Theatre), tilts his head and squints in a way the actor probably observed among real-life afflicted. City for Conquest builds to Cagney crash, signals along the way that he’ll lose both girl and a welterweight crown.

I choke up always at that moment halfway through where Cagney and Sheridan are parting at a train, Danny/Jim pleading that she will “always be my girl,” this again where Steiner spots the ideal emotion and draws it out of us. Or does he? I mean now, not nearly fifty years ago when I first saw City for Conquest. Would a modern audience mock this in toto? I suspect my response to such moments were, and remain, very much like those experienced in 1940, being of accord with Conrad in that respect, but how reasonable is it to expect a twenty-year-old today to feel anything like the same? This truly is approach and style that movies have put away, that the case from not so long after City for Conquest came out. Did audiences revisiting it in 1946 find City for Conquest a little bit cornball? Change was in many ways infinite between 1940 and 1946. By the time Warners’ pre-49 library began showing up on television in 1956-57, viewers were acutely aware that these were “old” movies they were watching and that each would require a proper adjustment. Tack sixty-five more years onto that and imagine how some teenager feels when he/she stumbles over City for Conquest on TCM. Remember in the 70’s when then-stars John Travolta and Michael J. Fox talked of how much they loved Cagney growing up? Could a young player today be similarly impressed, and inspired? City for Conquest plays TCM in HD, and streams so elsewhere. Added-back footage looks to be several generations removed from the camera negative. We can be grateful those minutes survive at all.


Blogger RichardSchilling said...

When the pandemic began, my movie watching went into overdrive as I realized I'd have time to finally watch, and re-watch, many unopened dvds. City For Conquest at the top of the rewatch list. I first saw it when I was in my early twenties and never forgot the film's propulsive energy, Cagney's rise and fall, and the Max Steiner symphony.

When I re-watched it I was 56 and I found all of that and more. It is a much more elegiac film than I recall, or maybe I did not realize it years ago. I also noticed the performance of Ann Sheridan, underrated then and now, as a major stand-out. The fascinating restored scenes gave the picture an extra dimension, even if they were slightly an uneasy fit. It's such a unique, ambitious film.

James Cagney's unfortunate reaction was a harbinger of things to come. A few years later, just when Cagney was hitting his peak, he leaves wartime Warner Brothers to make his forgotten now-public domain films with his brother. It took Warners to really rescue him with White Heat.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Steven said...

Another wonderful essay, John. Re. Steiner, I'm happy to report that while researching his biography I attended as many live showings as possible of his films, to see how they played with a modern audience. Not once did people laugh at the music. Viewers of all ages seemed to surrender to the heightened-reality world of WB drama, where dialogue, music, etc. could feel bigger than life, but the emotions could remain honest and relatable.

12:44 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Another Gershwin rip-off was Alfred Newman's theme for "Street Scene" in 1931, which shamelessly echoes "Rhapsody in Blue". Newman must have liked it, though, because he reused it for seemingly every Fox film noir he scored in the 1940s.

8:53 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I only saw this film once several years ago and, except for the Max Steiner's symphony, I never felt a need to revisit this film. First, I didn't like at all how it was promoted; the VHS edition had a brief synopsis of the entire show, so if you were watching it as a premiere the surprises were taken away from you. The cast is excellent and, if I think about it, the movie does reflect a tragic pattern of the history of most boxers: being born into poverty, boxing success, a series of friends of the "champion", physical decline due to boxing, back to poverty. This kind of cycle had variations depending on the boxers; some becoming criminals, others remaining nice people but still losing everything. There have been horrible situations throughout the years of boxers on the news, the latest I remember is the death of Sergio Victor Palma in Argentina due to Covid: he was a very nice guy, the first world champion from Argentina to win his title in the United States; but being a boxer took a big toll on his health and he lost everything but the affection of journalists because he remained a good guy up until the end. Other boxers had terrible fates.

10:04 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Elia Kazan's film performances are fun. In this and in BLUES IN THE NIGHT. Both were directed by Anatole Litvak

12:16 AM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

Love the movie and love Steiner's score but I have to say Arthur Kennedy's conducting of the symphony is laughably inept. He's not even trying to be convincing, just waving the baton. And I love Arthur Kennedy. Just not his attempts at conducting.

12:39 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"Viewers were acutely aware that these were “old” movies they were watching and that each would require a proper adjustment."

Maybe a handful of people did that. I certainly did not.

When I score a silent film I Mickey Mouse. The audience I learned early from experience as an actor in live theatre comes out not to have its expectations met but surpassed.

While Mickey Mousing may be out of fashion so is going to the movies.

It takes work to Mickey Mouse. It means we have to be on the beat.

Classical Ballet once Mickey Moused (altho the term did not exist then). Dancers had to be on the beat. That took discipline. When being on the beat was dropped Ballet became a yawn. People, the ordinary people who are the audience, stopped going. Then government subsidy stepped in.

You've got me sold on this movie. Have to take a look at it.

10:19 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer ponders CITY FOR CONQUEST:

I have always liked “City for Conquest," finding it an entertaining film, though also a rather florid and showy one. Kevin Deany’s comment on Arthur Kennedy’s conducting style says as much for its pretensions and how well they were realized.

Much of that was probably due to the direction of Anatole Litvak. Raoul Walsh was originally named as director, until Warner Bros. decided that a prestige picture needed the touch of someone with a higher tone. The underrated Walsh is better known for rowdy melodramas and action pictures, but he understood people in a way that Litvak did not. There are sensitive and even poignant moments in such films as “Gentlemen Jim” and “Objective Burma” that would have graced “City for Conquest.”

James Cagney did not like the autocratic Litvak even a little. “A squirrely son of a bitch,” he’s quoted in John McCabe’s biography, “Cagney,” as describing the director. “There are some guys who are just natural-born assholes, and [Litvak] was one of them.”

Cagney is great in the film, though, probably the reason for watching it, apart from the terrific score by Max Steiner. This was one of the last incarnations of the Yorkville boy who popped up so often early in his career, someone from a rough neighborhood looking for a way to a better life. As you say, he got in shape for this part, a man of 40 playing a character much younger in age. He trained as a prizefighter would, getting up at 5:30 in the morning to run ten miles, kept to a frugal diet, and trained and sparred with stunt man Harvey Perry. He lost ten pounds and felt better than he ever had in his life.

Unlike most actors playing boxers, Cagney looks at home in the ring, a natural. Looking at his quick footwork moving in and out, the two-fisted attack punctuated with that sharp right cross, he rather reminds me of Mickey Walker, the “Toy Bulldog,” who held the welterweight and middleweight titles in the late twenties and early thirties, and whose punching power was such that he beat several heavyweight contenders. Even the work rate maintained by Cagney in the fight scenes, which would seem absurdly high, is just like that of the superbly conditioned Walker.

A shout-out to “radiotelefonia,” but one of my favorite boxers is the Argentinian master, Nicolino Locche, “Il Intocable,” (“The Untouchable”), who held the junior welterweight title and finished with 117 victories, four losses, and 14 draws. Here is what might be called a compendium of futility; that is, of anyone trying to lay a glove on Locche:

One last comment, but if Elia Kazan had never achieved greatness as an actor or director, he would have been enshrined in some hall of fame as someone who could wear the hell out of a hat.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I've been watching other Hal Wallis productions lately; maybe it's just because I recently watched "I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang", and I've not watched "City For Conquest" in a couple of years, but I think that the role played by Cagney would have had more punch to it, and the story greater dramatic heft, had Paul Muni been available or willing to play this character.
Cagney, rightly or wrongly, and like many other movie stars, seemed to chafe at being limited to playing the type of role that had made them box office stars, as indeed did Muni - nevertheless, I think Muni would have made this a better film of the story it tells. As it is, it's merely another Cagney film, and not his best.

8:50 AM  

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