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Five lesser-known James Cagney films you should see

James Cagney
Warner Archive

We best remember James Cagney for his roles in several classic movies such as The Public Enemy (1931), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and White Heat (1949). Here are a handful of some lesser-remembered Cagney films you should see:

Taxi! (1932). Directed by Roy Del Ruth. A loosely plotted film about the life and loves of a New York City cab driver, Taxi! begins strongly with a plot about rival cab companies fighting for dominance in the city. Unfortunately, that plot, which could have provide the framework for the entire film, is quickly resolved and the rest of the film revolves around cab driver Cagney going from one thing to another until the final reel runs out. However, as Marguerite Tazalar said about Cagney in the New York Herald Tribune in 1933: “It is curious how this pugnacious little man dominates the screen so fiercely in all his stories, regardless of their worth”. Taxi!, like many films starring James Cagney, is worth seeing simply because he is in it. Even in the minor films he labeled “quickies”, you’ll never find him slumming, and his humor and energy leap off the screen. Highlights in Taxi! include a dance-off with George Raft, who would later become one of Warner Brothers’ biggest stars, and a scene in which Cagney talks Yiddish.

Picture Snatcher (1933). Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Cagney plays an ex-con who becomes a tabloid photographer, the kind of plot that could have only hatched at Warner Brothers of this era. While the plot is nothing special, Cagney once again dominates the screen. “His acting is filled with touches that heighten and throw him in sharp set-off to – well, most of Hollywood!” said John S. Cohen in his review of this film in the New York Sun. Those touches include his evil little laugh when he comes up with a scheme to get the kind of picture no other newspaper could get, or the little three-second dance he does when he finds a slow tune on the radio.

Lady Killer (1933). Directed by Roy Del Ruth. Many Warner Brothers films of the 1930’s were loosely plotted, but Lady Killer goes above and beyond the call of duty in its effort to change the story every fifteen minutes. Cagney starts off as movie usher, then becomes a gangster, followed by a turn as a movie star and finally a hero. At different points in the film, it is a comedy, a Hollywood satire, an action film and a love story. The only thing that holds Lady Killer together is James Cagney, who breezes through it as if it all makes perfect sense.

Great Guy (1936): Directed by John G. Blystone. While having one of his spats with his home studio Warner Brothers, Cagney did two films for the smaller studio Grand National. Great Guy was as close to a Warner Brothers Cagney film as you could get, with star Cagney and co-stars Mae Clarke and Edward Brophy all having worked at Warners. The story about a chief inspector of the Department of Weights and Measures battling corruption is straight out of the socially conscious/pro-FDR Warner Brothers era of the time. Cagney, in the first few minutes, proves once again how dominant he can be in a film. Two actors are over-playing a scene as if the talkies had just arrived, and then in comes Cagney, smooth as a silk tie, acting both performers off the screen by the sheer charm and energy of his personality.

The Oklahoma Kid (1939). Directed by Lloyd Bacon. One of only three films featuring both James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in the cast. Angels With Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties (1939) are the classics; The Oklahoma Kid is the one lost in the shuffle. Perhaps it should be. One of the few Cagney films that could be called “unmemorable”, The Oklahoma Kid feels like somebody at Warners yelled “Hey, let’s make a western!” and five minutes later everybody was in costume and on set. Cagney’s the good guy, Bogey the bad guy (he’s all dressed in black, of course). Still, it’s Cagney in his prime and Bogart a year or two before he becomes a star in his own right, and it’s Warner Brothers. Those are three reasons to see it, but, unlike many Cagney films, it might not be one you go back to again and again.