A scene from the most recent film in Warner’s James Cagney Signature Collection, 1950’s The West Point Story, typifies the set’s opinion of the actor’s career as a whole. As Broadway choreographer Elwin Bixby, Cagney is sent to improve a stage show at the U.S. Military Academy. He stands onstage, demonstrating a dainty move to a group of cadets. His hands rise lightly, dropping and coming back to a ballet position. He spins across the stage, stopping on mark in front of the largest cadet in the room, Bull Gilbert (Alan Hale Jr.). The kid is massive: two feet on the diminutive Cagney and a wide frame built of army-issue muscle. Bull, seizing the moment after Bixby’s display, whistles a catcall. Bix smiles to the pianist off screen and says, “Over again.” He returns to one, repeats the maneuver, and in the last spin knocks the oversized cadet out, ending on mark as gracefully as Gene Kelly ever did.
The moment’s setup and quite literal punchline are screwball, but the message in terms of Cagney’s legacy is neatly delivered. No actor had more fight in such a small package. None was as scrappy or as capable at throwing his weight around with menace or grace, depending on the scene. His characters swung from wisecracks to tyrants to warriors, but they were always complicated men, often with as much ability to carry a tune or dance as lead with a right hook. His unique talent was in the landing. If the cinema were a boxing match, Cagney would be the pound-for-pound champ. And he’d be sure to mention Brooklyn along the way.
Range like this is fully on display in this latest Signature Collection, which features the actor in five roles from the middle of his career. Aside from a choreographer, he is twice a pilot, once a frontline soldier in WWI, and, genuinely perplexing, a rapacious banana-plantation foreman trading verbal innuendos with Ann Sheridan’s itinerant card shark in 1940’s Torrid Zone. The film is an odd delight, and with Cagney’s stage performance and Gene Nelson’s wonderful dancing in The West Point Story, it anchors a somewhat eccentric collection. The Fightin’ 69th, in which Cagney plays a coward, is a nice change of pace for the rough-and-tumble actor. Captains of the Clouds, directed by Michael Curtiz in 1942, the same year he directed Casablanca and led Cagney to an Oscar for Yankee Doodle Dandy, is a meandering, strange wartime morale booster with Cagney playing a Canadian bush pilot who enlists in the RCAF for WWII only to wash out, become a drunk, lead a friend to his death and die himself, gloriously but with the suddenness and lack of polish of a train impact. A deathbed confessor Cagney is not.
The true gem of this set is the most famous: 1941’s The Bride Came C.O.D., directed by William Keighley and co-starring Bette Davis as a Texas oil heiress eloping against the wishes of her father (Eugene Pallette). She is kidnapped by freight pilot Steve Collins (Cagney) on the promise of a payoff per pound once Collins delivers the girl to her old man unmarried. The photography is next to perfect, the performances top-notch, with writing quintessential to the ‘50s best screwball comedies and at least one scene cut into Oscar-night montages to the country’s cinematic legacy: “Never seen a movie?” says the copper to the old man. “Sounds un-American to me.” The Bride Came C.O.D. is, in short, classic—in the truest, most genuine meaning of the word; let’s put this one away in libraries.
Warner Bros. has made a franchise of their Signature Collections. James Stewart, John Wayne, Cary Grant, Tracy and Hepburn, Robert Mitchum, and Errol Flynn (twice) are among those already given the studio’s “signature” treatment (and Universal is soon to follow with its own box set series, The Screen Legends Collection), offering a precise enough survey of who was under contract with whom for what pictures during the studio system’s golden era. The surface message is that nostalgia for certain eras of American moviemaking is a commendable impulse and it pays to offer films, in a certain context, a second chance: The Bride Came C.O.D. was a critical failure in 1941, commentators opining that Davis and Cagney were wasting their considerable talents on a level of chicanery that has since gained an aged tint of respectability. On the other hand, to suggest this particular collection bears Cagney’s “signature” as an actor is shortsighted. None of his most famous performances are included, and the five films are from the late-middle of Cagney’s career, 1940 - 1950, giving the set a war-heavy edge, ignoring Cagney’s impact on ‘30s film noir crime stories that established Warner’s elemental dark look and in which Cagney was one of the very best actors.
What we do have here, though, works, allowing a moment to remember an actor of true range and menacing charm for more than a handful of his most memorable films. While Warner Bros. is showing off a bit—dragging some films out from its vaults to display how often they worked with Cagney—no doubt the tough little kid from Brooklyn deserves it. Light on his feet, quick to the trigger, and, in The West Point Story, even fast to sing: “B apostrophe, K no ‘postrophe, L, Y, N.” Cagney was one of a kind.
The color film-Captains of the Clouds-does not survive as well as the black and white, but there's a lot to live up to there: James Wong Howe's wonderful photography in Torrid Zone remains finely etched and dynamic. The mono sound is clear. Good, solid work throughout.
This collection features Warner's Night at the Movies on each disc, a collection of shorts, newsreels, and trailers that can be played in order before the feature to recreate a '40s night out. Uninformative, but very enjoyable.
Cagney's well worth remembering, and this set is a good start to a specific corner of his career. You'll have to pick up Angels with Dirty Faces and three or four others to honestly complete it. Just watch out for Cagney's first right hook.