Wait For the Moment When: James Cagney

James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931)

James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931)

…comes home to Ma in the final scene of prototype gangster movie THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931). I won’t spoil the surprise but for sheer grotesque horror I’m prepared to equate this with the denouement of THE MONKEY’S PAW: it shocks me rigid, every time. But from start to finish this is a wholly nasty, stylishly sadistic movie – speeding along at 79 minutes (those were the days), but seeming even nippier: maybe because in its cynicism and attitudes it is so modern.

As it is also in its lechery. Tiny (he was just under 5’5″) tough mad-eyed grinning Cagney is a sexy little psychopath. There’s a hint of the mother-fixation in THE PUBLIC ENEMY that was later to be worked out so thoroughly and disturbingly in WHITE HEAT, two decades later. And look out for the remarkable scene – now restored on DVD after being cut for the film’s re-release in the more prudish 1940’s – where Jimmy is painstakingly measured by an ogling and lascivious male outfitter. Even creepier than the creature who waits on Bill Holden in SUNSET BOULEVARD, the tailor whips out his tape & announces a waist of 31 and a half ¤. ( “O sir! Here’s where you need the room…such a muscle!”). Exactly as you’d imagine in this compact little ex-dancer and off-screen equestrian, who then goes off to shove a grapefruit into Mae Clark’s face before picking up the whorish Gwen (Jean Harlow, 2nd billed) while kerb crawling the highway.

James Cagney and Tailor in The Public Enemy

The lascivious male outfitter

 

Cagney was highly attractive to female audiences and appeared opposite a string of glamorous – and esoterically sexy – leading ladies including Rita Hayworth, Barbara Stanwyck and Mary Astor. His own off-screen marriage was a 64 year idyll. But was Cagney also a coded and unconscious gay icon in his time, as was reputedly his British contemporary, King George V? Gangsters were certainly a big turn-on for their contemporaries of both sexes and there’s a lot of evident homo-eroticism in these early “social realism” movies. The “endearing frog face of Edward G Robinson” appears as Rico in LITTLE CAESAR which premiered just 4 months before PUBLIC ENEMY. Here’s another miniature monster, this time in a satin dressing gown and spats: Rico has no time for girls, but hangs around with fawning guys who loll on the bed with the boss, or strike the sort of leggy poses Dietrich was just then making the acme of eroticism.

Edward G. Robinson as Little Caesar (1931)

Edward G. Robinson as Little Caesar (1931)

Cagney’s contemporary, Billy Wilder, full of the worldly wisdom of old Europe, picked up on all these cross currents when he made SOME LIKE IT HOT nearly thirty years later. Not only does he reference explicit scenes and shots from the Warners classics, but he goes further and makes female impersonation, sexual ambiguity and satyriasis v. impotence the main themes of his own picture. Yet for all its risky riffs ( the heavy drinking, priapic & presumably under-age bell boy; Joe E Brown’s preoccupation with his mama; and Marilyn’s astonishingly rude nude souffle dress) SOME LIKE IT HOT is an essentially innocent comedy, despite the killings and the gangster menace. “You couldn’t take offence”. To use an awful phrase, it’s a feel-good picture. THE PUBLIC ENEMY is most emphatically not a feel-good movie: it is seamy, sinister, misogynistic, heartless and very frightening. Look out for the rude song of a dirty old man at the piano; the voyeuristic touch of Joan Blondell and Edward Woods having noisy intimacy just out of shot; the inaudible but clearly lascivious whispering (“..whispery and obscene…”); and the first screen example of a horse’s head in a bag. And meantime – as in Ken Russell’s WOMEN IN LOVE decades later – the infantile, haunting “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” reprises on the soundtrack, the moans of trampled Depression innocence.

Danny Richards Jr as the Bellboy in Some Like It Hot (1959)

Danny Richards Jr as the Bellboy in Some Like It Hot (1959)

Needless to say, no one is seen applying scent: that really would be beyond the pale, of a piece with Fatty Arbuckle’s parties and Valentino’s pink face powder. Cagney expert John McCabe tells us that in private life Jimmy was addicted to heliotrope, having been entranced as a child by a teacher who smelled of this sweet powdery almondy scent. Heliotrope is a mauve floral oil, a whiff of the Edwardian era: tranquil, soft, maybe faintly fruity, slightly triste, the colour of half-mourning. Ambiguous and stylish, it sits well on both sexes. Try it at Les Senteurs, striking a chord in Secrete Datura, L’Eau d’Hiver, Un Bateau Pour Capri, Gris Clair and perhaps most intriguingly and prominently in Mona di Orio’s extraordinary Musc.

JAMES CAGNEY 1899 – 1986

¤ inside leg comes in at “33 and a half”. Poetic licence. Hips are “37 and a half”: the sequence is the titillating aural equivalent of Marlene posing beside the nude statue of herself in SONG OF SONGS or Valentino being dressed like a doll in MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE .

Advertisements

Kiss me, my fool.

ThedaBarawikimedia

To celebrate the centenary of its release I sat down and watched ‘A Fool There Was’ on the You Tube: the great sex shocker of 1914 which propelled Theda Bara upon the world, the first screen femme fatale: The Vamp. Hard to believe that an almost mythic movie has played for 100 years. Bara (nee Goodman) died, not old, the year I was born. Refused a certificate in Great Britain, the movie still retains the power to shock, not by its prurience but in the final shots of a man reduced to human wreckage and total physical & psychological degradation. I squeaked aloud in my chair. ‘Some of him lived / but the most of him died’ reads the title card. It’s a theme that von Sternberg and Dietrich returned to with even greater effect some 15 years later: a pillar of society reduced by sex to a baying, dying beast.

Theda Bara has less to do in the film than I had imagined: she is taller, too, and rather more attractive. She was probably the cinema’s first brunette leading lady, the original wicked dark-haired temptress, a creature of the Night destroying the daughters of Light and their lawful wedded husbands. Her wide mouth is covered in lip rouge which photographs as black, and her huge inky eyes are liberally smeared with Vaseline and candle smoke. She is heaped with clothes in the especially hideous styles of the day; in one sequence her feet become entangled in her fish tail train. I can’t decide whether this is a cute device to give the viewer an eyeful of her ankles or whether the director either didn’t notice or couldn’t be bothered to cut.

Roses, cruelly used, are her leit motif. We first see the Vamp smelling two flowers, then tearing them to pieces: the destruction of her prey, the denial of her own femininity, the end of innocence. In one sequence of startling phaliic symbolism she disarms a rejected admirer who draws a gun on her by stroking the the revolver – now detumescent and redundant – with the rose she carries. Whereat the wretched man shoots himself.

The Vamp and her confreres play cards, loll around half-dressed, let down their back hair and indulge in a lot of what my mother used to call ‘posturing’. But interestingly perfume is not part of the picture. Scent does not appear though the viewer rather anticipates shots of atomisers and drenching showers of musky fragrance as an additional sign of shameless sin. After all this film was made in a Golden Age of perfume: L’Heure Bleue, Jicky, Quelques Fleurs, Narcisse Noir, Phul Nana, Shem-El-Nessim and the early Coty repertoire were all by then on the dressing tables of the rich & fashionable.

Maybe Theda Bara’s director – Frank Powell – felt that his Vamp should exude her own seductive and noxious aroma, like a night-blooming flesh-eating flower; that she should lure men to their doom by an involuntarily secreted deadly & delectable unnatural odour. Writings and novels of this period describe scent as being emitted by hair, clothing, furs, fabrics and furnishings rather than by the skin …” a faint delicious fragrance hung about her..”. But perfume actually poured onto the skin? Or oozing from it? A subject then ‘too difficult even to talk about’ as the adverts used to say. Too animal, too raw, too downright carnal: ideal for Theda Bara.

Now all you have to do is run the movie!

Image: Wikimedia Commons