The James Cagney Blogathon: Lady Killer (1933)

Before I began working on this post, I’d seen Lady Killer (1933) only once – many years ago. And in all this time, one scene stuck with me. It was because of my memory of that scene that I selected this film for the James Cagney Blogathon. But I’ll get to that a little later.

In Lady Killer, Cagney stars as Dan Quigley, a New York movie theater usher who’s got – as my mother would say – more brass than a monkey’s ass.  When we first see Dan, he’s belatedly joining a line-up of his fellow-movie theater ushers as they’re receiving a final look-over by their boss (Edwin Maxwell). Dan’s tardiness, and his shifty-eyed smirk when his boss admonishes a certain nameless usher who’s been using the theater restroom for dice games, suggest that he’s a rule-breaking wiseguy from way back. And as we soon learn, he’s that, and then some.

When Dan’s smart mouth gets him fired from his usher job, he manages – by a fortuitous series of circumstances – to get involved with a gang of low-level hoods that includes Spade Maddock (Douglas Dumbrille), Duke (Leslie Fenton), and Myra Gale (Mae Clarke). But when a burglary of a rich widow’s house results in the death of an innocent bystander, the gang members go on the lam, and Dan winds up in sunny California with Myra. As soon as they set foot in L.A., Dan gets pinched for the burglary charge and Spade just happens to show up, convincing Myra to flee with him to Mexico instead of bailing Dan out of jail.

Dan Quigley, movie star.

Dan Quigley, movie star.

But luck is with Dan – he’s released when the cops don’t have the evidence to hold him, and in another case of being in the right place at the right time, he’s spotted by a casting agent and given a job as a movie extra. Before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” the studio has tapped him to be their new leading man (“The public is tired of these handsome, curly haired leading men . . .  The rough and ready type is what women go for nowadays.”) and he’s dating screen star Lois Underwood (Margaret Lindsay).  But just as Dan hits the big time – with his mustachioed mug plastered across the pages of every movie magazine – Myra re-enters the picture, surprising Dan by gaining entrance to his swanky new apartment and moving in, bag and baggage.  And Dan’s response leads to the scene that has stuck with me for so many years:

But this isn’t the end of Myra – in fact, she soon shows up again, this time with the other members of the gang, who threaten to expose Dan’s past until he finally agrees to pay them off with a cool ten grand. In exchange for the money, the gang members vow to leave the city. Instead, they start knocking off movie star houses, and when Dan finds out they’ve burglarized Lois Underwood’s house, it’s ON!  In a flurry of events, Dan confronts the gang, retrieves Lois’s jewels, and is nabbed by the cops, who think he’s the thief – but he’s bailed out of jail by the gang, who plan to bump him off before he can talk to the D.A. (Whew!) The whole thing climaxes with a wild car chase and shootout involving Dan, the gang, and the cops, and at the end, Dan and Lois fly off into the sunset together to get married.

Monkeys, yodelers, and elephants -- oh, my!

Monkeys, yodelers, and elephants — oh, my!

Lady Killer offers an interesting and rather unique marriage of drama and comedy: there are three murders – a member of the gang, a cop, and a maid (or a butler – the film can’t seem to decide which) – as well as a number of scenes involving criminal activities, including the home burglaries and an illegal casino operation. On the other hand, there’s an extended scene featuring escaped monkeys, a band of yodelers, and an elephant. Regardless of its categorization (or its lack, thereof), Lady Killer never drags, features memorable performances by Cagney and Clarke, and offers some great pre-Code dialogue.

Here are some of the high points of the movie for me:

That scene where Cagney drags Mae Clarke across the room still manages to leave me riveted, even after numerous viewings. (Incidentally, Clarke was also the actress who got the grapefruit shoved into her face by Cagney in Public Enemy. What was with those two?) It was actually accomplished by Clarke holding on to Cagney’s wrist, but it’s still a shocking visual – and I love it!

Dan and Myra decide on a destination.

Dan and Myra decide on a destination.

When Dan and Myra leave New York, their first stop is Chicago. When they’re trying to decide where to head next, Dan spins a globe in the train station and then tosses his wad of gum at it.  Where it sticks is where they pick: Los Angeles.

While dining at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, Dan spots a critic who wrote some unfavorable personal comments about his relationship with Lois.  Dan asks to speak to the critic alone, then leads him to the men’s room, locks the door, and makes him eat the copy of the column that Dan has with him.  Literally. And he informs him that if he writes anything else about Lois, “I’ll cut your ears off of you and mail ‘em to your folks.”

When the gang members visit Dan in his apartment, Spade picks up a picture of Lois, making a comment on how Dan is now “rubbing noses with all the big shots in the picture business.” Dan chuckles and off-handedly remarks: “Well, call it noses if you like.” (Whoa!)

After the gang members agree to get out of town in exchange for $10,000, Dan is making out the check when one of the guys asks him: “Where would ya like us to go from here?”  Dan looks up, flashes a smile, and quips, “Need I say?”

If you’ve never seen Lady Killer, and you’re a fan of James Cagney, you simply must see this one. And if you haven’t seen it in a while, give it a re-watch! You only owe it to yourself.

This post is part of the James Cagney Blogathon, sponsored by R.D. Finch over at The Movie Projector. Do yourself a favor and click the pic of James Cagney to check out the wealth of great posts being offered as part of this fantastic event!

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~ by shadowsandsatin on April 7, 2013.

42 Responses to “The James Cagney Blogathon: Lady Killer (1933)”

  1. Great post! Like you, I have only seen this one once, and quite some time ago. But – I remember it as being great fun. And poor Mae! That sure looks like it hurt!

    • Thanks, Chick! It sure does look painful, doesn’t it? In fact, I noticed that Mae Clarke is rubbing the top of her head right before Cagney tosses her out the door, LOL.

  2. I recently watched this for the first time and it’s such a fun film! I need it in my DVD collection. 🙂 Great post on a great movie.

  3. I fall into the category of “haven’t seen this one in ages”. Thanks for reminding me and setting me on the right path. “Lady Killer” throws a lot in the pot and makes a delicious goulash.

  4. A fun programmer for sure, though it is a strange mix of underworld and Hollywood. Cagney had a thing for treating women rough in many of his films while also having a thing for his mother in some of them also.

    • Thanks, John — you are so right about the strange mix. It’s so funny how it’s a pretty serious gangster flick at first and then it veers into this wacky Hollywood comedy!

  5. I haven’t seen “Lady Killer” but you’ve gotten my attention with a great post and that show-stopping video clip.

  6. I have seen this one not long ago, and I found it one of the most entertaining of Cagney’s early films. It might deal at times with serious subjects, but it’s also very funny, especially in its satirical scenes of the movie industry. The changes of personality Cagney goes through–from insolent movie usher to criminal to movie star–give him the opportunity to show his talent for comedy as well as menace. He reminds me of the heroes of picaresque novels like “Tom Jones.” He’s a scoundrel, but you can’t help loving him for his resourcefulness and confidence and his ability always to land on his feet by turning adversity to his advantage. I’m so glad you chose to write on this film for the blogathon, and I hope your excellent post will encourage those familiar only with the mean early Cagney to check this film out for a different side of him.

    • Thanks so much, R.D.! I totally agree about the different facets of Cagney’s talent that this film allows him to display. Another thing I’d intended to mention was his balletic movements — even when he’s not dancing, you can tell that he’s a dancer. I love to watch him move.

  7. Despite being a big Cagney fan I must admit I didn’t like this film very much when I saw it a while back – for me it is a bit of an uneasy mix, and I’ll admit I can’t stand the scene where he pulls Mae Clarke by her hair and I also didn’t like the scenes with the monkeys. But your post has me tempted to give it another try and see if I like it better on a subsequent viewing; maybe I was in the wrong mood for it!

    • Hi, Judy — I had to laugh about the monkey scene. It’s probably the only thing about the film that I could do without — it just went on so long, and really didn’t add anything. But you know how I feel about the hair-pulling scene, LOL. If you watch it again, I hope you’ll like it better the second time around!

  8. I simply adore James Cagney, so this is a must-see for me! It’s one that has never crossed my radar, and you have really whet my appetite for it, so I am certainly going to be on the lookout for it.

    Funny, as I was watching the video clip, I thought to myself, “Poor, Mae…she really takes a lot from Jimmy.” (After all, I have the grapefruit in the face video on my post). Then I read further, and you made the same comment. I wonder how their off-camera relationship was? My guess is they were probably friends. I know they were paired together also in 1936’s “Good Guy.” I don’t recall him getting rough with her in that one.

    I’ve got to say it…get rid of the mustache! I am a clean-shaven man sort of gal, so I’m always whining when one of my beloved guys sports a mustache on occasion. Keep that fabulous face clean-shaven.

    Thanks for a terrific highlight of a film I definitely need to see.

    • I bet you’re right about their relationship, Patti — at least, I like to think so! Your “clean-shaven man” comment cracked me up — I was sort of startled by the ‘stache, but it really seemed to fit the “movie star” that he transformed into! You know — kind of phony and over the top!

  9. I’ve never seen Lady Killer, but it looks and sounds fun. Loved that clip you inserted! Mae Clarke and Cagney sure made some memorable scenes together, didn’t they? Cagney was good at mixing drama and comedy, so sometimes his films were a combination. Enjoyed your review!

    • Thanks, Kim — great to see you! It’s funny — until I saw this movie, I didn’t realize that there were several Cagney movies that walked the dramedy line!

  10. This is one of those fun ’30s flicks that I remember watching for the first time and thinking, whoa, that’s not where I was expecting this thing to go! Gotta love Cagney’s cheesy mustache. Can’t recall, but hoping he didn’t sport that til his character reached Hollywood as some sort of comment on Hollywood cheesy stashes in general. I’m with you, by the way. After the grapefruit, the hair drag probably stands out in my mind as Cagney memorable moment #2.

    • Hi, Cliff — I know just what you mean about being taken in a different direction. Like I said in the post, all I remembered from my sole viewing years ago was the hair-dragging scene, so I was totally surprised to see this great mishmash of crime and comedy! I loved the cheesy mustache, too — it was perfect for his cheesy movie star persona!

  11. i saw this film for the first time during a Cagney marathon on TCM. I was riveted at how deftly Cagney played the comedy and the menacing drama. Charm for days, he has a way of making the most despicable characters, if not exactly charming, most certainly compelling. I enjoyed your pointing out your favorite scenes, for it makes me want to go and view the film again. Having only seen it once, I should do that anyway. This one’s a keeper. Thanks!

  12. I find Lady Killer a bit of a weird mix, combining gangster film with movie-star-gazing bio. It doesn’t quite work for me, but you point out many of its best and funniest moments, which keeps it crackling. I like the scene when Cagney confronts the film critic in the men’s room and locks him in the toilet – that’s a detail that would not have been allowed after the Production Code crackdown.

    • It’s definitely an unusual mix, GOM — you never know which way the film is headed! Dare I laugh? Or is somebody about to be snuffed out? I bet it was lots of fun to make!

  13. Almost all of Cagney’s 1930s Warner Bros. movies are worth watching over and over again, and “Lady Killer” is a prime example. They move like a gazelle, have no fat on them, are loaded with memorable character actors and vignettes. They’re just so much fun to watch.

  14. Isn’t this the only other film, besides Taxi!, where Cagney speaks Yiddish? I seem to remember him spouting a few phrases while lounging in his Indian costume in the star’s dressing room…

    • Hi, Karen! I think he also speaks Yiddish in The Fighting 69th, which was released in 1940. You’re right — in the dressing room, he jokes with Margaret Lindsay that he is playing “Big Chief Es Tut Mir Veh im Tuchas,” which translates to “Big Chief It Hurts My Rear End.” (Hee!)

  15. Wow! This sounds (and looks) hilarious. I’ve never seen LADY KILLER, so thank you for bringing it to my attention. You zoom in on some fantastic wisecracks and scenes. I also appreciate your consideration of the weird genre mashup feel of this black showbiz comedy… or is it a comic gangster film? I had similar feelings of genre confusion watching THE LITTLE GIANT, also directed by Roy Del Ruth. I guess the studios were looking for a “same but different” slant on their many crime films to keep up public interest. Thanks for bringing this Pre-Code gem to my attention!

    • It is totally hilarious, Diva. I’m so delighted to have found this clip — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched it. I can’t believe I missed The Little Giant — is it good? (Or is that a stupid question, given the cast?)

  16. I have not seen this one – and what is up with that?! Thanks for this terrific review. I am going to record this the next time it’s on TCM. It’s one of those movies that everyone talks about.

  17. “Lady Killer offers an interesting and rather unique marriage of drama and comedy: there are three murders – a member of the gang, a cop, and a maid (or a butler – the film can’t seem to decide which) – as well as a number of scenes involving criminal activities, including the home burglaries and an illegal casino operation. On the other hand, there’s an extended scene featuring escaped monkeys, a band of yodelers, and an elephant.”

    Excellent point, and your entire review really rocks with enthusiasm and scholarly heft! Yes this film gives further evidence why Cagney may well have been the most versatile of the giants. Loved your sizing up of your favorite scenes in the film too!

  18. Oh, Mae and Jimmy again? This sounds like a great movie, and another great pairing with lots of quarrels!
    Don’t forget to WATCH my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Greetings!

  19. Sounds intriguing! I have not seen it so thanks for introducing me to this film.

    • My pleasure, Filmboy — I hope you get a chance to see it soon! I’m so glad that scene stuck out in my memory, or I would never have gotten the pleasure of seeing it again!

  20. […] the awesome clip from the movie (give it a look if you haven’t seen it yet!), but my post on Lady Killer was definitely my most well-received this […]

  21. Great post and excellent movie! In the matter of movie’s high points, what about the scene where Dan plays the role of a convict and the director says that he is not able to punch… while the beaten actor is unconscious on the ground?
    I agree with your passionate review! Many thanks!
    Aurora
    PS- With regards to the murders, during the first burglary a maid is wounded (almost to death), but not killed; then it seems that during a further burglary the butler in wounded to death.. so I recognized..

    • Thanks so much, Aurora. And you’re so right about that scene where Dan is playing the convict! And thanks for your take on the maid-butler mystery. I hope to see you here again!

  22. […] model citizens. These were titles such as Blonde Crazy (1931), Picture Snatcher, The Mayor of Hell, Lady Killer (all 1933) and others, which found the tightly wound actor playing fast talking con men or barely […]

  23. […] Karen at Shadows and Satin covered this a while ago, and mentions her favorite things about the movie, including this bit I’d missed: […]

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