Monday, February 29, 2016

The Jim Fisk story, more or less

Over the weekend, I got the chance to watch The Toast of New York off my DVR. It's available on DVD from the Warner Archive, so I'm comfortable doing a full-length post on it.

Edward Arnold stars as Jim Fisk, who at the start of the movie is seen in the old South just before the Civil War began. He's there with his business partners Nick Boyd (Cary Grant) and Luke (Jack Oakie) selling soap in a scam. Just as the scam is about to be discovered news arrives of the firing on Fort Sumter, and the three northerners have to beat a hasty retreat north. Jim, however, gets an idea: with the Civil War, the North is going to blockade the south making it difficult to get cotton out of the South. Jim can smuggle to cotton out, and make a financial killing doing so.

Fisk and Boyd do more or less make a killing, but after the war is over they return to Luke in Boston, only to find out that he was stupid enough to invest all of their profit in Confederate war bonds. So, the partners are more or less broke, unless they can use those bonds to scam somebody, which of course Jim is fairly easily able to do, getting involved with the shipping company of Daniel Drew (Donald Meek, wearing one of the worst fake beards you'll ever see in the movies). Fisk uses his new partnership with Drew to go up against the magnate of the time, Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Meanwhile, Fisk and Co. go to the theater to see the latest sensation from Paris, Fleurique. Fisk wants to meet her back stage, but due to an error, he really winds up meeting Fleurique's maid, Josie (Frances Farmer) who is a maid only because it's what's getting her into the theaters. She really has dreams of becoming an actress. Jim falls in love with her, but she's really in love with Nick, who has ambivalent feelings for her. Fisk is rising in the business world at the same time he's carrying on the romance with Josie, and Nick is worried that Jim is letting his love for Josie blind him to the financial perils he's going to face.

Eventually Jim develops a serious case of hubris, deciding that he can corner the gold market. Nick thinks this is a step too far, since the US Treasury is bound to release gold into the market, thereby driving down the price of gold and bankrupting Jim. And while the attempt to corner the market is going on, it's going to create a market panic anyway. As the movie presents things, Fisk's attempt to corner the market is what finally ticks off his shareholders irrevocably.

Too bad it didn't quite happen that way. In real life, James Fisk did indeed love a Josie Mansfield. But he could never marry her because he already had a wife. They weren't living together, but were enough of friends that they'd spend the summers together at their old summer place. And Josie was also seeing another of Fisk's associates, the one that the Nick Boyd character is more or less based on. Well, that's a bit off too, since the movie completely omits Diamond Jim Brady from the plot. It's this other business associate who finally puts an end to all of Fisk's dealings because of the relationship with Josie. Fisk, in fact, came out of the gold panic relatively unscathed.

But while The Toast of New York gets some key points of history wrong, it's still a pretty entertaining movie. Edward Arnold brings a lot of energy to the role of Jim Fisk, something that's necessary for a man who wanted to be bigger than life. Grant is pretty good in what is clearly a supporting role, something he was soon to graduate from. Jack Oakie provides the comic relief very comically, and Frances Farmer does OK as the love interest. RKO also went to great expense by RKO standards to make this movie look good, and succeed there too.

I'd recommend both watching this movie, and reading up on the real Jim Fisk.

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