Cast: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell
SUMMARY: Childhood friends Tom Powers (James Cagney) and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) have been criminals for many years: as children, they stole valuables and sold them to a fence named “Putty Nose”, much to the dismay of Tom’s father and older brother, Mike. When the boys grow older, they join Putty Nose’s gang for a fur warehouse robbery. During the robbery, Tom is surprised by a stuffed bear, and starts shooting. This attracts the attention of the police, who engage in a shootout with the men, and kill one of them. Tom and Matt kill one of the policemen, and are therefore in great danger; however, when they go to Putty Nose for help, they find that he has left town, hanging them out to dry. However, Tom and Matt keep up their criminal activities, much to the dismay of Mike. When the U.S. enters WWI in 1919, Mike enlists in the Marines, a decision Tom sneers at. When Prohibition begins in 1920, Tom and Matt team up with Paddy Ryan to sell bootlegged beer. They also bring in infamous local gangster “Nails” Nathan. Tom and Matt act as the enforcers for the gang, pressuring local businessmen to buy their beer. They become incredibly successful at this, and begin to make a lot of money. When Mike returns from the war, he is disgusted by this; Tom retorts by telling Mike that he should not talk, as he killed German soldiers.
One evening, Tom and Matt meet two girls at a club, and begin relationships with them. While Matt and Mamie (Joan Blondell) get along very well, Tom and his girlfriend, Kitty, do not get along as well. Eventually, Tom grows angry at Kitty’s constant complaining, and he leaves her (after pushing half a grapefruit in her face). Almost immediately, he meets Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow), whom he starts seeing. As for Matt, he and Mamie soon get married. After the wedding, the group is having a reception party at a local restaurant; during the party, Tom and Matt recognize Putty Nose across the room. When he leaves, Tom and Matt follow him all the way into his house. Putty Nose tries to appease the two men, and remind them of the good times they had. Matt seems to be swayed, but Tom is not: he shoots Putty Nose in the back and kills him. When Nails Nathan is killed after being thrown from a horse, Tom finds the horse, buys it, then shoots it. However, Nails’ death has created chaos in the gang, and another local gangster, “Schemer” Burns, attempts to take advantage of this. A war develops between the two rival gangs. When Tom and Matt come out of a building one day, Matt is shot down on the sidewalk; Tom barely manages to get away, unharmed. This sends Tom over the edge, and he becomes a one-man wrecking ball: he goes into a meeting of the Burns gang and starts shooting wildly. While Tom shoots several men, he also sustains a serious head injury, which puts him in the hospital. This event seems to finally change Tom’s mind about his lifestyle: when his family visits, Tom tells Mike that he is ready to turn over a new leaf, and forget his criminal life. That evening, Paddy Ryan comes by the Powers house to see Mike. Ryan tells Mike that the Burns gang has kidnapped Tom from the hospital, and his whereabouts are unknown. Searchers are sent out, but they cannot find Tom. Finally, a return is arranged, and Burns’ men bring Tom back to the Powers house. When Mike opens the door, Tom’s dead body falls into the entryway.
MY TAKE: The first Cagney movie that I saw was Yankee Doodle Dandy, and I’m both happy and sad that things happened this way. I’m happy about it because obviously, James Cagney was known for playing a villain: had I seen his other famous movies first, I’m not sure I would have been able to take Yankee Doodle Dandy seriously. However, seeing his gangster movies first might have meant a greater appreciation for Cagney’s acting talent. Even today, actors who are typecast in a certain role frequently do not do well in other types of roles, because people just can’t believe them (though there are some notable exceptions, like Jonah Hill). Cagney was a very well-known “gangster” actor, but won an Academy Award for his role as the singing, dancing, ultra-patriotic George M. Cohan. This just proves that he was an extremely talented actor (and a pretty good singer/dancer, too).
Like Little Caesar, this movie follows a now-familiar plot: main character and friend work their way up from the gutter, become very successful, find women (who usually create the downfall/fadeout of the friend character, almost always through marriage or the prospect of it), get too big for their boots, and are eventually killed (it’s also the basic plot of Scarface). Cagney is pretty scary as Tom Powers, because he’s completely cold-blooded. The man has no qualms about killing anybody or anything, including a rowdy horse. Of course, he’s not superhuman, and walking alone into a room full of armed gangsters is a terrible idea for the craziest of men. After he is shot up, Tom claims that he’s ready to change, though I doubt he would have been able to. In another example of a terrible idea, Tom is left at the hospital unguarded: in the midst of a gang war, he’s practically asking to be attacked. It turns out that the men in Burns’ gang can be just as nasty, as they bring Tom’s dead, beat-up corpse back to his house and leave it on the doorstep.