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Cagney is Danny Kenny, a truck driver who enters "the fight game" and Sheridan plays his girlfriend, Peggy. Danny realizes success in the ring and uses his income to pay for his brother Eddie's music composition career, while Peggy goes on to become a professional dancer. When Peggy turns down Danny's marriage proposal for her dancing career, Danny, who wanted to quit the fight game, continues on & is blinded by rosin dust purposely placed on the boxing gloves of his opponent during a fight. His former manager finances a newsstand for the now semi-blind Danny. The movie ends with brother Eddie becoming a successful composer and dedicates a symphony at Carnegie Hall to his brother who listens to the concert on the radio from his newsstand. Peggy, now down on her luck, but in the audience at Carnegie, rushes to Danny at his newsstand where they reunite. The movie is based on a novel of the same name. Written by
CITY FOR CONQUEST (Warner Brothers, 1940), directed by Anatole Litvak, starring James Cagney and Ann Sheridan, is another one of many movies produced during the 1930s and 40s to represent New York City life with a realistic approach, and one of the best of its kind. Not as famous as Cagney and Sheridan's previous effort, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938), which also featured the same street setting and tenement apartment backdrops, CITY FOR CONQUEST, which begins in 1934 in a city of seven million people, does have its strong points (the forceful acting, particularly by Cagney, with Sheridan coming a close second) and bad points (occasional heavy handiness in melodramatics), but it still makes a fine story highlighted by a well staged, but brutal prizefight sequence, and a memorable Max Steiner score.
Focusing on the ambitions of three people from the Lower East Side, Cagney stars as the self-sacrificing Danny Kenny, a truck driver who becomes a prizefighter, only to become nearly blinded in a stadium ring when double-dealing gangsters place resin powder in the gloves of his opponent; Sheridan as Peggy Nash, an over anxious girl who wants to become a professional ballroom dancer, only to become partnered with the wrong kind of guy named Murray Burns (played by the menacing Anthony Quinn); and Arthur Kennedy (in his movie debut), featured as Cagney's younger brother, Eddie, working as a piano teacher who strives on becoming a symphony composer. After the ups and downs of the three central characters are presented, the outcome results in a powerful conclusion.
The supporting cast includes Donald Crisp as Scotty, Danny's fighting manager; Frank McHugh as Mutt; George Tobias as Pinky; Jerome Cowan as Dutch; and Blanche Yurka seen briefly as Sheridan's tenement mother, Mrs. Nash. Then there is future movie director, Elia Kazan, making his movie debut as Googi. His performance is small but excellent. As mentioned before, Arthur Kennedy, another good but underrated actor, also makes his debut. Interestingly Kennedy closely resembles Cagney well enough to actually be his brother, but his Eddie character comes close to being a George Gershwin-type, especially when conducting his symphony at Carnegie Hall in the latter part of the story. Another performer who should not go unnoticed is Lee Patrick, usually cast in sophisticated character roles, and best remembered as Effie, Sam Spade's secretary in the 1941 version to THE MALTESE FALCON, playing Gladys, a floozy but good-natured chorus girl who offers the down-and-out Sheridan accommodations at her place.
One cannot help noticing character actor and playwright Frank Craven as "Old Timer" being featured THIRD in the opening and closing cast credits. He appears in only ONE brief scene in the opening segment where he happens to be walking down Delancey Street. He notices a young teen stealing two pieces of bread, catches the boy only to say, "If you must steal bread in New York (slight pause), don't get caught!" Afterwards he gives the boy one piece and takes one for himself. Old Timer is never seen or heard from again. Craven's character name of "Old Timer" isn't even heard or called out during those few minutes. What does Craven's cameo, which ranks third in the cast, have to do with the plot? After doing some research, I have come to learn that the print in circulation, both on video cassette and television presentations, is from a 1948 theatrical reissue, which excised all but one of Craven's scenes. Anyone who has ever seen his performance in OUR TOWN (United Artists, 1940), where he plays a philosopher appearing throughout the story delivering messages to his audience, will be interested to know that Craven has done the same in the original version of CITY FOR CONQUEST, which could have been a revamped production re-titled OUR CITY. In CITY FOR CONQUEST, Craven occasionally intrudes or narrates in numerous scenes to tell the camera eye about the central characters. It would be interesting to see the outlook of this restored version someday. (That someday finally took place on the night of November 12, 2007, on TCM, getting to see Frank Craven address the story to the viewers, to see the main characters of Danny, Peggy and Googi as children, Ward Bond as a cop, and other scenes not before seen since its original theatrical release).
Aside from its melodramatic storyline, CITY FOR CONQUEST features a handful of instrumental melodies, many from previous 1930s musicals, including "Lullaby of Broadway," "The Continental," "Corn Pickin'" "Garden of the Moon," "I'm Just Wild About Harry," "The Shadow Waltz," "The Words Are in My Heart," "42nd Street," "Where Were You When the Moon Came Out?" "Powder My Back for Me" and the six minute finale, "Symphony of a Great City." Many of these tunes are part of the ballroom dancing as performed by Sheridan and Quinn.
CITY FOR CONQUEST is an interesting look on New York lifestyle of long ago, which makes this worth viewing whenever aired on Turner Classic Movies. (***1/2)
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