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.
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.
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!
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?”
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!