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In a wonderful movie career - arguably the best ever for a male leading
man - Jimmy Cagney made seven musical films. Of these, only two are
great musicals. The first was Busby Berkeley's FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933)
wherein Cagney is the harried producer of mini-musicals that are used
to introduce films in movie houses. The conclusion of the film, wherein
he (in tales) is a drunken sailor in the Far East, "lookin' for my
Shanghai Lil" (Ruby Keeler in heavy make-up) is one of the best
Berkeley production numbers. Nine years later he became the first actor
to win an Oscar for best actor in a musical portraying George M. Cohan
in Michael Curtiz's great YANKEE DOODLE DANDY. Those two films document
his real greatness as a song and dance man.
Some of the gangster films also suggest the dancing ability. Years ago Mikhail Baryshnikov was interviewed on a program about Cagney and pinpointed how in THE PUBLIC ENEMY, when he has killed several enemies in a shoot out, but got badly wounded himself, he walks away wounded in a kind of twisted dance step that illustrates his determination to get away, and shows his agony at the same time.
It's a good thing that those aspects are on film, because his other musicals leave much to be desired. In his memoirs, CAGNEY, he admits liking SOMETHING TO SING ABOUT because a dance number enabled him to dance with two hoofers he had long admired. But the whole movie is cheaply made (he was fighting Warners in a contract dispute at the time). There were two films with Doris Day: THE WEST POINT STORY and LOVE OR LEAVE ME. The latter is a wonderful movie biography of singer Ruth Etting and her hellish marriage to gangster Marty "the Gimp" Snyder, and both stars gave first rate performances. But Day is the singer and dancer in the film (Cagney's character's crippled condition makes any dancing impossible, and his personality was not conducive to singing - though he really admires Ruth/Doris's voice). THE WEST POINT STORY has several lively numbers in it, including Cagney in a zoot suit singing about his beloved Brooklyn (as well as later singing about "the kissing rock"). But the music is not the greatest music (although the film is entertaining enough).
In THE SEVEN LITTLE FOYS he reprises Cohan for a dinner at the Friar's Club, and a song and dance with Bob Hope (as Eddie Foy Sr.) on the dinner table. It's a good number - but only that single scene. Similarly there is a single sequence in THE MAN WITH A THOUSAND FACES, where we see Cagney as Lon Chaney Sr. in vaudeville doing a silent comic bit as a hobo, and ending in a lively dance. Again though, it is only that one scene.
Then there is this film: NEVER STEAL ANYTHING SMALL.
It would be the last musical he would ever appear in, but it's value is far below that of FOOTLIGHT PARADE and YANKEE DOODLE DANDY. The film is also lesser than THE WEST POINT STORY, THE MAN WITH A THOUSAND FACES, or LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME - it may be as good as SOMETHING TO SING ABOUT.
Based on THE DEVIL'S HORNPIPE, a musical by Maxwell Anderson, the plot is interesting. Cagney is playing McIllaney, a crooked labor union leader trying to become the head of the longshoreman's local. His plans are totally unscrupulous, and are complicated by his falling for Shirley Jones, the wife of ultra-scrupulous lawyer Roger Smith, whom Cagney tries to frame so he can marry Jones. He also uses his normal girl friend Winnipeg (Cara Williams) to lure Smith away from Jones. At the conclusion, despite some set-backs, the ever conniving Cagney still looks like a formidable future union leader.
The film sounds promising, but it is not memorable as a script or as a source of music. GIRL CRAZY, the Gershwin musical that was filmed with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland had a silly plot about a spoiled young man who is sent to a small town agricultural college as punishment. But the films music soared -including standards like "But Not For Me". That is not the case here.
The most memorable tune in this is a number concerning Cagney winning over a reluctant Williams to become a siren and break up Smith's marriage to Jones. They are discussing this on a street, when they pass a car showroom, and Williams' eyes light up - she does want a Ferrari. So they break into a ditty called, "I'm Sorry, I Want a Ferrari". Cagney is properly horrified (his idea of a proper bribe would have been say $500 to $1,000.00 - not $25,000.00 (1950 money)). In the course of the tune, Cagney even suggests that where he comes from Ferrari is considered a "very bad word." They end in a type of dance step on an conveyor line. And (apparently) Cagney is going to have to cough up the Ferrari.
I describe this because that is the film's highlight.
Perhaps it is his star magnetism at work - he is a terrific performer and screen presence (which is why I'm giving the film a 5). Williams is good too in the number (her enthusiasm for the Italian car almost like she is thinking about good sex). But aside from that scene the movie is forgettable - totally wasting Jones (a terrific musical singer herself) and Smith for that matter.
There must have been a curse active - he hit the heights of musical success twice, and touched it a bit three or four times, but just could not duplicate those two great successes. A real pity that.
One of Cagney's last pictures before his extended retirement (he returned in Ragtime). Like On The Waterfront, Never Steel Anything Small deals with a corrupt longshoreman's union on the U.S. east coast. That's where the similarity ends, as one is a straight drama and the other a musical comedy. Cagney, with his roots as a vaudeville hoofer, dances and sings in some neat production numbers choreographed by Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire's (mostly) off-screen collaborator. The movie also sends up television commercials; an unusual thing in the 1950s when Hollywood was loathe to acknowledge the upstart TV medium. Shirley Jones does a nice job as the good wife who inadvertently tempts the wiley union boss/climber-with-a-heart-of-gold Cagney.
James Cagney in his autobiography said that he never ran his old films
at home with the exception of the musicals. Those he ran continuously
and he regretted he didn't do more of them.
Which is probably why towards the end of his film career he decided on a musical which had a certain amount of potential, but went sadly awry. Labor Unions were a big news back in the day. The hearings held by the McClellan Committee in the Senate made the doings of the Teamster's Union presidents, David Beck and Jimmy Hoffa front page headlines. There were any number of exposes showing how organized crime was muscling into honest unions. The Taft-Hartley law was a perennial issue back then with Democrats wanting to repeal it and Republicans staunchly in favor.
The songs by Allie Wrubel and Maxwell Anderson were singularly unmemorable and the comedy in Never Steal Anything Small is forced. However James Cagney is such a dynamic performer that he's put over far worse.
Roger Smith who played a straight arrow lawyer was a protégé of Cagney's back then. He played Cagney's son in Man of a Thousand Faces and after this film with a plug from Cagney to his old boss Jack Warner got cast in the television series 77 Sunset Strip.
My favorite in the film is Cara Williams. She's got the part that Joan Blondell or Gladys George would have played opposite Cagney back in the day. Williams is a worthy successor to both those women.
There is one true incident in Never Steal Anything Small. At one point Cagney nearly gets acid thrown in his face. There was just such an incident involving columnist Victor Riesel which was more successful and left him blind. But Riesel was a far more noble character than the one Cagney plays here.
Though in the end Cagney does show he has some scruples where women are concerned.
'Never Steal Anything Small' is a curiosity, a collector's item, and a
seldom screened rarity.
Based on Maxwell Anderson's rejected play 'The Devil's Hornpipe', with new songs by Allie Wrubel, 'Never Steal Anything Small' tells of Jake MacIllaney, an irrepressible rogue who climbs to the top in the Trade Union racket. No trick is too dirty, no strategy too low for this scoundrel, and it fortunate for the movie that he is played by James Cagney whose effervescent screen presence makes the character bearable. It is also fortunate that the married woman for whom Jake develops an uncontrollable yen is played by Shirley Jones. 'Oklahoma!' may have been her break-through movie, but this is her break-out movie. For the first time Shirley was allowed to play a full-grown woman on screen, and she presents a new Shirley Jones, full-bodied and sexy, strong-willed and argumentative. Those who were startled by Shirley's performance in 'Elmer Gantry' cannot have seen 'Never Steal Anything Small'.
The movie is a puzzle. Allie Wrubel wrote several other songs which were not used, and Hermes Pan is the choreographer. Yet there is almost no dancing in the film and hardly any songs. This raises the question of whether Universal-International lost their nerve, and tried to make it a non-musical. Certainly Universal is not a studio associated with musicals, least of all in Cinemascope.
The film provides a chance to see Robert Wilke and Royal Dano, two regulars in Universal westerns, in a modern setting, plus another view of Cara Williams, Cyd Charisse's unsuccessful rival in 'Meet Me In Las Vegas'.
'Never Steal Anything Small' is such an uneven movie, and the leading character so unprincipled, that many people will dislike the film. However those with a cynical sense of humour or an appetite for Shirley Jones will find much to enjoy.
'Never Steal Anything Small' comes tantalisingly close to being a
first-rate film, a sparkling musical comedy with some trenchant
satirical commentary on the close relationship between politicians,
labour unions and organised crime. James Cagney gives an ingratiating
performance in what very nearly could have been one of his greatest
roles. So close ... and yet so far. In the event, this film is full of
missed opportunities and near misses.
Firstly, this movie is almost but not quite a full-fledged musical. The film starts out promisingly before the opening credits, with Cagney chanting rhymed verse directly into the camera, recounting the advice handed down to him when he was a lad: 'Never steal anything.' 'Never steal ANYTHING?' asks an incredulous offstage chorus. 'Never steal anything SMALL,' amends Cagney, and we're off to a promising start ... but the promise (and the premise) are never fulfilled.
There are only about three full-fledged musical numbers in the entire movie. One of them, intended to be a satire on TV commercials, is a too-long advertisement for a dishwashing detergent with the unlikely name 'Love', performed by the annoying Shirley Jones. I've never understood the appeal of Shirley Jones, and I find her even less appealing nowadays (I'm writing this in 2003) when she looks like an older version of Hillary Clinton (another actress whose performances have never convinced me). Shirley Jones did have a good coloratura singing voice, but her big 'Love' number in this movie is written to be chanted rather than sung, so it minimises her genuine vocal talent.
The best number in this film (which isn't saying much) is a peppy novelty song called 'I'm Sorry, I Want a Ferrari', performed by Cara Williams and Cagney. We know (from his previous films) that Cagney's a great song-and-dance man, so we really want to see him cut loose with some hoofing in this movie ... but he never does it. The closest Cagney comes to dancing is in the 'Ferrari' number, when he struts along a conveyor belt with Cara Williams (who, like Jones, also fails to convey any appeal to me).
I enjoy musicals, so it seldom bothers me when 'normal' people on screen suddenly burst into song and dance. But in 'Never Steal Anything Small', the musical numbers are so few and far between that we can never really accept this movie as a musical. Consequently, when the characters occasionally DO break into song (after long stretches of straight dialogue), the transition is jarring.
I was delighted when I saw Charles Lederer credited with the screenplay for this movie. Lederer was one of the great wisecrackers of Hollywood's golden age, an iconoclast who knew everyone and had plenty to say. He was also the nephew of Marion Davies, which gave him permanent entree into William Randolph Hearst's estate at San Simeon. (Lederer was the one who tipped off Hearst that Orson Welles was making a movie about a guy named Citizen Kane who bore an unflattering resemblance to Hearst.) I was well and truly hoping that 'Never Steal Anything Small' would be full of Lederer's vintage wisecracks and some Hecht/MacArthur-style dialogue, but I was disappointed.
Most annoying of all is this film's immoral viewpoint. Cagney's character (a big shot in the longshoremen's union) is flagrantly corrupt, but we're expected to cheer him onward because he's a lovable rogue with a line of blarney. Cagney's opponent here is an honest attorney (played by Roger Smith, who previously played Cagney's son in 'Man of a Thousand Faces'). The attorney is a colourless cipher, clearly meant to be less sympathetic than Cagney's charming crook. Smith gives a bland performance as the attorney: he was a dull actor, who later had better success managing the career of his wife Ann-Margret.
What hurts is that 'Never Steal Anything Small' has many enjoyable moments. The few musical numbers are well-staged and well-written, making us wish for more. The lyrics are excellent. The dialogue and the comedy are amusing but not really up to what we should expect from Lederer. Sadly, I rate this movie 5 out of 10. A pleasant time-passer, but it could have been a truly great film.
Well, I gotta say one thing about this film--the concept certainly is
unusual. The film is a comedic musical all about gangsters! But,
unfortunately it isn't very funny and the songs aren't very good. If
you were expecting GUYS AND DOLLS, you are in for a big disappointment.
Instead, the movie looks and feels pretty dull and uninvolving. In a
way, I would love to have seen the Jimmy Cagney from WHITE HEAT or THE
PUBLIC ENEMY enter the film and beat the ever-living snot out of the
wussy and "cute" gangster Cagney plays in this film.
The bottom line is that the film just isn't entertaining or interesting. There are so many better Cagney films out there--pick one of them instead.
Charming Damon Runyon flavored semi-musical crime comedy driven by
Only Jimmy could make the strong arm racketeer he's playing so appealing and he sails through this minor film with the assurance of the star he was. Shirley Jones is lovely and sings beautifully but it's the brassy Cara Williams who really stands out.
The songs may not be too memorable but they fit the spirit of the story well and the zippy "I Want a Ferrari" duet between Cagney and Cara Williams is a classic car lover's dream.
Special mention should also go to the production designer who uses an almost exclusively muted palate of colors to create a rich harmonious look that gives the film a very stylish appearance without ever drawing the audience's eye away from the action.
Full of wonderful character actors and a jaunty attitude this is an under-known gem from the latter part of Cagney's career and he owns the film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
" . . . in every knuckle," sings NEVER STEAL ANYTHING SMALL television pitch-woman Shirley Jones in praise of "Love Soap." Does this mean that Mrs. Partridge gets as raunchy as the object of her spoof, Dove Soap's Real Life Admeister Marilyn Chambers, BEHIND her own GREEN DOOR? Heck no! Even though Harold Hill's "Marian the Librarian" admits to visiting her public library to dig up the dirt on James Cagney, and despite the fact that she offers the puckish Cagney "anything" to get her wayward estranged Hubbie out of the clink, Curly's Laurey never actually wheels out her slurry with the fringe on top. "What's the use of Wondering" why viewers do not see so much as Julie Jordan's Union Suit here, even with Cagney's Longshoreman's Local being portrayed more as a bordello than a working man's haven. NEVER STEAL ANYTHING SMALL essentially is a remake of Marlon Brando's ON THE WATERFRONT. Its lack of Big Box Office is one reason why we haven't yet seen Tinseltown trot out SCHINDLER'S LIST: THE MUSICAL or GHANDI SINGS--so far, at least.
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