Monday, August 13, 2012

Note there's no S on the end

A Google search of my blog suggest that I have never blogged about the movie Lady Killer (not to be confused with The Ladykillers) before. It's airing tomorrow morning at 9:00 as part of TCM's Summer Under the Stars day of James Cagney movies.

Cagney plays Dan Quigley, who at the start of the movie is a movie usher. Actually, he's much more than an usher; he's a small-time con artist and gambler to boot, running a dice game in the restroom among other things. One day he meets Myra (Mae Clarke, who had been with Cagney in The Public Enemy, which airs just before Lady Killer at 7:30 AM), just as she's dropping her purse. He picks it up and follows her back to her apartment, where he finds that her brother-in-law Spade (Douglass Dumbrille) is running a poker game. Dan, being the keen gambler, gets in on the poker game, but gets cleaned out. On leaving, however, he finds that he's been scammed, and extorts his money back from his opposing con artists, getting in on the gang in the process. Quigley eventually becomes the leader of the gang, but they're incompetent and accidentally kill somebody during a botched robbery, forcing Dan and Myra to go on the lam to California.

In California, Dan gets arrested but there's not enough evidence to convict him. Free but broke, Quigley gets picked up by a talent scout because the scout thinks Quigley could play the sort of gangster that the movies wanted back in those days in spades. Quigley starts off as an extra, meets leading lady Lois (Margaret Lindsay), and because of his charisma, he immediately becomes romantically involved with her and starts to rise the ladder of fame in Hollywood. Well, he does so by engaging in a con but when has Hollywood ever been authentic. Of course, there's one thing Dan hadn't considered: if he were to become famous, certainly his old gang would recognize him in one of his movies, and come looking for him. Sure enough, that eventually happens.

Lady Killer is a movie that I think would make a good double bill with Picture Snatcher, or possibly The Mayor of Hell. In all three of them, Cagney plays a gangster who tries to go straight, but also has to use his con skills to make it a bit easier to get ahead in honest life as they're the only way he knows how. By 1933, when all three of these movies were made, the moral scolds were getting uncomfortable with the traditional gangster movies, but audiences still loved them, so the studios tried to find different ways to use their gangsters. Having the gangsters go straight was one way. Lady Killer and Picture Snatcher both have a fair bit of comic relief in them, while The Mayor of Hell doesn't have nearly so much. In all three, however, Cagney is charismatic as ever and makes the movie zip forward by leaps and bounds. Lady Killer, like the other two, is certainly not a "prestige" movie, and has the look of a lesser movie. But it's also immensely entertaining and a heck of a lot of fun.

All three of the Cagney movies I mentioned are available on the same Warner Gangster Movie box set.

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