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When James Cagney walked out of his contract with Warner Brothers in
1935 it was because of the roles he was getting. He objected to the
type casting. So he signs with this B picture studio called Grand
National and this is one of the two films he did for that studio.
He could have made the same picture at Warner Brothers. It sure isn't anything original for him. He makes it at Grand National and does his usual Cagney urban tough guy part and doesn't get the benefit of the production values of an A Studio.
It's a B picture and it shows. But it's not a bad film at all. I think that it was butchered in the editing, the picture seems to start in the middle of the story. But what remains is a good fast paced Cagney film (is there any other pace for him?). He gets good support from among others, Joe Sawyer, Edward Brophy and most of all from James Burke who in his role as Cagney's trainee sidekick almost steals the picture from him.
Ironically in 1937 he went back to Warner Brothers and what is the first film Cagney does? Angels With Dirty Faces. No new ground for him there, but he gets his first Oscar nomination. It's like he gave up on typecasting. But he certainly did expand his range and got a lot of good roles, both from Warner Brothers and from other studios.
If you like Cagney you'll like this film. It has the pretense of American integrity at any cost, personal or social. Cagney plays the head of weights and measures in NYC. Cagney goes up against crooked politicians, the criminal underground, a prominent philanthropist and simple grocers who add a few ounces to the price of a chicken. The chicken scene is hilarious where Cagney finds a weight placed in the bird cavity by an unsuspecting butcher. The chicken gets tossed around the shop in a hilarious scene about who controls the "evidence". If you like old telephones there are interesting scenes of dials, phones and even bizarre phone cords. Compared to a lot of film made today this is pure entertainment and includes mystery with comedy and a message that honesty above all should be the guiding principle of humanity. Made in simpler times it reflects a world we can't find today. The fashion (especially hats) outwear and automobiles all play a prominent visual role in defining this little film.
Early in the movie, Cagney's Johnny Cave character tells his gumshoes in the Office of Weights and Measures that in the previous year, unscrupulous shop owners had cheated the American consumer out of more money than the aggregate National War Debt! Then he goes out and tickets a particularly greasy green grocer for short-selling him a bag of sugar that is four ounces off (oh, the horrors!!) and one skinny chicken that his butcher's scale has rather generously proclaimed to be six lbs., after which the fur--or in this case feathers--flies. Er, fly. When a racketeer in politician's clothing attempts to derail an investigation into the paltry poultry purveyor's practices, our hero becomes a lone wolf waging the war of the weights on behalf of housewives across America. After all, four cents here and a quarter there add up and before we know it we have anarchy! Word of his intransigence soon reaches both the Mayor and the Governor's offices, and Cagney becomes a marked man. If it sounds silly, it's not--the dishonest retailing practices are only a plot tool (or as Hitchcock would say, the McGuffin) and while unfamiliar, it works every bit as well here as any Treasury Agent or G-man anthology in which the fight is taken to shady crooks who are operating outside the interests of the country's common good. The production standards are decidedly Grade-B, but it is Cagney who makes this movie the delight that it is: this was his first film away from Warner Brothers after seeking release in court from his unreasonable contract, and he seems to be at ease and enjoying himself tremendously--the performance turned in here is intelligent and crackles with his unique energy and surefire charisma. Mae Clarke's presence lends a definite Warner's feel to the overall production. The supporting players turn in solid performances and the story moves along smartly after a rocky introduction that seems to begin three or four reels into the story--but sit back and enjoy it for the Cagney showcase and engaging Depression-era time capsule that it is.
What does this movie have in common with The Godfather, the Wild West or
even Superman? Well, it comes right down to truth and justice - whether
they really are the American Way or whether corruption and violence have
gnawed to the core of democratic society and made it rotten. Second only
to sex, institutionalized corruption has been just about the biggest issue
for Hollywood right through its history. And rightly so as, the battle to
resist it is seemingly never finished.
That's a big build up for a small movie. Great Guy is just a simple story about one man who tries to make a difference and who takes a lot of personal risks in doing so. And let's face it, the Bureau of Weights and Measures is hardly the most glamorous place for a story. But James Cagney's character Johnny Cave uses his brains, his fists and a lot of Attitude to try setting things straight and I for one am grateful to him and others like him.
Two-fisted, crusading Deputy Chief of the Department of Weights and
Measures Johnny Cave is out to smash short-weighting delicatessens,
markets, and grocery delivery services and to expose the crooked
businessmen who are behind the short-weighting racket and who pay off
the aldermen and mayor who are on the take. The plot sounds like a
parody of all the tough-guy G-Men and T-Men movies of the thirties, but
it is played straight and it works.
The pleasures of the movie, aside from Cagney as Cagney, are that this is the third and final movie to pair Cagney with Mae Clarke and that several great character actors in the supporting cast, particularly Edward Brophy, James Burke, and Henry Kolker, are given plenty of opportunities to show off their characteristic acts.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is what James Cagney is all about, wisecracks, cockiness, hard as
nails and no-nonsense charisma.
Although the plot sounds serious, the film is anything but. It is done in the 30's screwball comedy style and works well with his 'bickering' with fiancé Mae Clark and his reactions to the tall stories of his colleague James Burke.
What raises it above normal is the dialogue and the cast that delivers it. Dialogue is good but it is nothing unless delivery is spot on and can bounce about the characters involved. This is done well by all throughout.
Good entertainment and thoroughly enjoyable.
GREAT GUY (Grand National, 1936), directed by John G. Blystone, is an
interesting yet plausible low budget production starring none-other
than James Cagney, the same James Cagney of the higher quality studio
of Warner Brothers. What's a top actor like James Cagney doing over at
Grand National instead of at the majors as MGM, Columbia, United
Artists or even Paramount? Well, it had something to do with a contract
dispute, which kept him away from his home lot for nearly two years.
Since Grand National, not First National, initially began in early
1936, how fortunate for the studio to have acquired a top name like
Cagney working for them? How unfortunate for the studio to have lost
his services following his second with the studio, a musical titled
SOMETHING TO SING ABOUT (1937). How fortunate to have Cagney return to
his home studio where he truly belonged, and continue to work on films
that were to become classics. As for those done at Grand National ....
well, let's take a look at his initial offering of THE GREAT GUY. It's
not a gangster film idolizing a popular crime boss but actually a crime
story placing Cagney on the right side of the law attempting to rid
corruption. Having done something similar the year before in G-MEN, the
misfortune for GREAT GUY is not having much gun play nor fast-pace
action to make this equivalent to a Warner Brothers production.
The story opens with Joel Green (Wallis Clark), chief deputy of the Bureau of Weights and Measures, injured in a car crash, now in a hospital. Knowing the accident was a set up, Green calls for his friend, Johnny Cave (James Cagney), a former prizefighter working with the department of Weights and Measures, and assigns him in his place to acquire enough evidence on the corrupt district leader Marty Cavanaugh (Robert Gleckler). With the assistance of fellow Irishman Pat Haley, whom he calls Aloyisus (James Burke), Johnny teaches him the tricks of the trade of chiselers at the Paradise Market defrauding shoppers by exposing eights on chickens, putting false bottoms in baskets of strawberries, and cheating drivers of their gallons of gas. As for his love life, Johnny is engaged to Janet Henry (Mae Clarke), secretary to city official Abel Canning (Henry Kolker). Janet loves Johnny but finds him too conceited and quick tempered, but overall honest. Refusing to accept bribes even from the city Mayor (Douglas Wood), Johnny later has his work cut out for him by being abducted by hired thugs who frame him on a drunk and driving charge unless he gives up his investigation to expose the gang leader responsible for corruption.
The supporting cast includes Edward Brophy (Pete Reilly); Bernadene Hayes (Hazel Scott); and Edward McNamara as Captain Pat Hanlon, whose great scene has him standing outside the door smoking his cigar while his pal Johnny takes care of the ring leader. The big surprise in GREAT GUY is the casting of James Burke, better known for playing cops, playing the dopey sidekick in the El Brendel tradition, sporting an Irish derelict compared to Brendel's Swedish one. This was one of the few opportunities seeing Burke in a sizable part typically suited for the likes of an Allen Jenkins or Frank McHugh.
With all the ingredients of a Warner Brothers programmer, down to Joseph Sawyer (a Warners stock player) as one of the mobsters, what GREAT GUY lacks is polish and production values. Overall, GREAT GUY turns out to be a reunion of sorts between Cagney and Mae Clarke, his grapefruit victim from THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), and co-star of LADY KILLER (1933) the one where he dragged her across the room by the hair. This time they are on friendly terms, as an engaged couple who gather together for lunch in a cafeteria and, with a touch of humor, talking things over at a furniture store with a salesman (Arthur Hoyt) trying to interest them with the display.
Virtually unknown even by film buffs, GREAT GUY is one film in Cagney's filmography list that doesn't get a mention in his 1977 autobiography, "Cagney by Cagney," though his second Grand National starer did. Not until the age of video recording of the 1980s or late in the 1970s on commercial television has GREAT GUY been given some exposure. Circulating prints from 1980 and over suffer from being ten minutes shorter than its actual 75 minute release. Abrupt cuts are noticeable, especially one scene involving Mary Gordon as Mrs. Ogilvie and the corruption involving milk deliveries at the orphanage, found in current video, DVD and public TV late show broadcasts. While a complete version with clearer picture quality won't change GREAT GUY from its low-budget status in the Monogram Studios tradition to a Class "A" Warners production, but restoration will make a big difference on how to view this one, especially with the great guy himself, James Cagney. (***)
James Cagney was an actor with plenty charisma, and this film is an evidence of it. He was always pleasant in any role, no matter if he was a gangster, a good man or a dancer, he performed all well and delivered enough smell for sympathy. The film had no a complicated plot, it was quite simple but still relevant for the society. Corruption of officials is very common, and what the film showed is what still exists. Certainly there are decent people who do not commit such mistakes, and Johnny 'Red' Cave (Cagney) was one of them, who was in charge of the bureau of weights and measures. He investigated several dark cases and succeeded to make them clear as well as finding out who were responsible for such misdeeds. However, knowing is not enough, it is necessary to make accusations with evidences to condemn those guilty, and that was what Johnny did. Probably today somebody like Johnny should use more sophisticated methods according to those used by those infringing the law. In any case, the film is good also to be watched for entertainment.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
With having been in the mood for the last week or so for an easy-going
Film Noir,I decided,that due to having had a fun time seeing James
Cagney combine espionage and Kung-Fu in the fun Blood on the Sun a
while ago,that I would take a look at a Film Noir,that was Cagney's
first indie production.
Rushing to the hospital after hearing that Department of Weights & Measures head Joel Green has been hurt in a car crash,Weights & Measures officer Johnny 'Red' Cave is happy to find his boss alive,but is horrified to hear from Joel that he strongly suspects the 'accident' was an attempted mob hit. Realizing that he is going to be stuck to hospital for weeks on end,Green tells Johnny that he is officially making him head of the department.
Deciding to show the gangsters which gang is really in charge,Cave begins going around the mob-run businesses and closing down all of the shady operations taking place on the premises. (which include chickens being filled with lead,so that the customer has to pay more when they are weighed on the scales.) Originally hoping that those in power would support his shakedown,Johnny soon discovers that the mob have their Weights & Measures going on in areas that he could never have guessed.
View on the film:
Leaving Warner Brothers behind due to feeling that he was getting nothing but the same scripts,James Cagney gives a good lively performance,but one which appears to be not stretching Cagney's (very good) acting ability to any great measure. Reuniting with Cagney after having a grape fruit whacked in her face,the very pretty Mae Clarke gives a delightful performance as Janet Henry,with Clarke showing Henry to be the only person who is attempting to keep Cave safely away from the mob.
For the screenplay of the movie,writers James Edward Grant,Henry Johnson,Henry McCarthy and Harry Ruskin take their Film Noir in a terrifically off-beat direction,with the writers showing the Department for Weights & Measures to act more like the cops than the cops themselves ever do. Complimenting the off-beat Film Noir nature,the writers also give the title an extremely playful comedic streak which wraps round the movie on its sharp final note,as the mob discover what a great guy Johnny 'Red' Cave really is.
It's fun to watch a young James Cagney doing his thing. He plays the cheapskate Weights and Measures guy who takes his job very seriously, stepping on the toes of a group of crooked politicians. He is offered the world, but keeps his integrity. He is beaten and set up, but that's the problem. We never know if he is really in danger. They say he's in a spot, but still seems to have carte blanche to move around and do what he needs to do. At times he's so cocky he doesn't do much to protect himself. His allies are in the police department but just about everything else is pretty corrupt. He perseveres (almost too good to be true), of course, and we pull for him. The problem for me is a lack of sustained suspense. It would have been much better if he had had to clear his name. He never drops into the depths, even when rejected by his wife to be. It's still fun with the bad guys kind of imploding. See it just to watch Cagney do his tough guy posturing.
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