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Footlight Parade Review

With modern musicals being about as embarrassingly bad as they come (the nadir being Christopher Columbus' deplorable Rent), it's good to stop and take stock of the golden days of the movie musical. One of the splashy musical's most prominent heroes was Busby Berkeley, a choreographer who knew a lot about dance and even more about subtext. Through both his Gold Diggers pictures, Dames, 42nd Street, and Wonder Bar, you can see his dance style saying as much about the story as it is acting as a subversive agent. However, it never got so sly and perverse as it did in Lloyd Bacon's exceptional Footlight Parade.

In his finest non-dramatic role, James Cagney plays Chester Kent, a stage musical director who turns into a prologue director when silent pictures go all talkie. Prologues are lavish musical numbers they put on before and in between films, and Kent is the best in the business at them. When the possibility to sign a 40-theater deal comes up, Kent goes nutty and must rush out three ace prologues in three days. Keep in mind; this is all while dealing with his contemptible fiancée, Vivian (Carole Dodd), his loyal, loving assistant, Nan (Joan Blondell), two business partners who are ripping him off, and a spy in his dance company that is stealing his ideas. And then there are the two main leads that are falling for each other (sweetly played by Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler).

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The Roaring Twenties Review

Very Good
A gangster flick of the bootlegging/Prohibition ilk, this complicated tale starts in the trenches of World War I with stars Cagney and Bogart fighting the good fight, then finding nothing waiting for them when they return home. They turn to crime, with mixed success. A love story feels a bit tacked on, but ultimately the film is most notable for being the last film of the 1930s gangster era, a genre which wouldn't be revived again for close to a decade.

Ragtime Review

The late 1970s and early 1980s were heavy times for cinema. This was the era of the majestic miniseries: Roots, Rich Man Poor Man, The Thorn Birds, Shogun. Why, if your film couldn't stretch over at least four hours, it probably wasn't worth telling.

The miniseries mentality reached into the theatrical world as well. And so Milos Forman ended up with Ragtime, a sprawling book about American life in the early 1900s, filled with stories of racism, sudden upward mobility, abandonment, psychosis, and of course that good old ragtime music. The result is a film that sprawls well over two hours yet can't ever decide where the best story lies. Is it a tale of a murderous husband who avenges the harsh treatment of his former-chorus girl wife? The story of an abandoned black baby who winds up in the arms of a wealthy white family? No, Ragtime eventually focuses on a black piano player (Howard E. Rollins Jr.) who rises through the ranks of the ragtime scene, only to find bitter racism and resentment waiting for him on the other side. He ultimately winds up holed up in a library with one of the characters from another story in the film. Some of this is based on real events, most is not.

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The Public Enemy Review

The opening and closing titles of Warner Bros' The Public Enemy contain a solemn message that implies that the movie isn't meant so much to entertain but to enlighten. Studio head Jack Warner's mandate in the early '30s to produce movies that drew attention to salient social issues in Depression-wracked America resulted in a slew of melodramas (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang from 1932 being its high water mark) and gangster movies that poised themselves as morality fables.

The Public Enemy, like Warner's own Little Caesar from a year earlier, is classically molded in the template of the early-'30s gangster genre. It follows the rise and fall of a vicious hoodlum who finally repents his ways but falls prey to the very cycle of violence that he himself instigated. Thankfully, the movie's prudish show of outrage at the liquor racket and its plea for civic order is overshadowed by its Pre-Code mischief and the sheer delight of watching James Cagney hone the cock-of-the-walk persona that made him an instant star.

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Angels With Dirty Faces Review

Very Good
Casablanca director Michael Curtiz turned in this pioneering entry in 1938 -- part of the budding street urchin genre that posed the question of what society would do with its troubled kids. Starring the Dead End Kids (a group of hooligans akin to the Litle Rascals, only meaner), their story is filtered through the eyes of two men. Rocky (James Cagney in another career-defining gangster performance) is fresh out of jail and back on the streets where he hopes to make some cash. Father Jerry (Pat O'Brien) is a priest and boyhood friend of Rocky's, who's managed to turn toward the path of good. Oh, and Humphrey Bogart makes an appearance as a scheming attorney through into the mix.

How these three men interrelate is the main story line, while the hijinks of the kids stands as a continuous backdrop to the action. Sometimes it's fierce, but just as often it's plodding and uninspiring. The underlying social commentary -- how children can turn good or bad depending on how they are raised, a controversial idea in the 1930s -- doesn't get much of a chance to shine, which may be a problem of too many stars, too many precocious child actors, and not enough legroom for all of them to stretch.

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Mister Roberts Review

Very Good
A universally overrated diversion, Mister Roberts is a pleasant diversion but not a lot more. The story of the most boring ship in the WWII-era Navy (a lowly cargo ship), we find its denizens desperate for action, resorting to pulling practical jokes for kicks. Among them are Jack Lemmon (who won an Oscar for a trivial role) and Henry Fonda, who proves unilaterally that he was not made for comedy, but James Cagney's crazed captain steals the show. The last half-hour of the film is depressing.

White Heat Review

Norman Bates had nothing on Cody Jarrett. When it comes to love for his mother, Cody (James Cagney) and Ma (Margaret Wycherly) are as thick as thieves... which they are all well. The Jarrett gang is a merciless group led by the unflinchingly evil Cody. Even when Cody is in jail -- as he is for half the film -- he's still running the gang without missing a beat.

Cagney had been out of the gangster scene for nearly a decade, but he made his triumphant return to the genre here in one of his most memorable roles ever. It's got little to do with the plot, however. Cody's gang plans a big heist, while an undercover cop infiltrates his gang in prison, after saving Cody from an assassination attempt. Finally, once Cody is out and the heist is underway, the "copper" betrayal is revealed, and things go south as the cops close in (very slowly -- during a 15-minute sequence with the cops using directional radios to locate the car they're driving -- it must've been a crazy high-tech idea at the time, but the rotating antennae and map plotting come off as tediously dull today).

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Man Of A Thousand Faces Review

This dutiful biopic tells the life story of early screen legend Lon Chaney, from his deaf-mute parents to his Vaudeville acts to his crazy first wife to his fame in Hollywood to his death from cancer. The problem is that James Cagney, in the title role, doesn't have 1,000 faces. He has one face, and it isn't Lon Chaney. Reportedly this film plays it fast and loose with the facts, which is unfortunate, because getting some insight into the actor is really the only reason you'd want to watch the movie, apart from Dorothy Malone's nice performance as Chaney's nutjob of a first wife.

Boy Meets Girl Review

Very Good
Watch for Ronald Reagan in a small role in this late 1930s screwball comedy that centers around a movie studio, two oddball writers (Cagney and O'Brien), and an unwed mother (Wilson) with her baby Happy. Happy's rise to superstardom is amusing, provided you can keep up with Cagney's mile-a-minute mouth. But Wilson is just plain grating as the ditzy blonde, her voice reaching into octaves meant only for dogs.

Love Me Or Leave Me Review

This overblown biopic of singer Ruth Etting (Doris Day) follows the Star Is Born template pretty faithfully, only with the spin of James Cagney as a gangster underwriter, not to mention historical underpinnings.

Cagney's work here is fairly rote, and Day's portrayal of Etting isn't exactly spot-on, but both are good enough for the job they've been tasked with. The problem comes from the abrasive repetition in the story, which has Cagney's Martin Snyder continuously beating and shooting people that stand in Etting's way, then nurturing her all lovey-dovey like. Two hours of this is just too much, even if it does feature a handful of Etting hits (including the title number).

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Angels With Dirty Faces Movie Review

Angels With Dirty Faces Movie Review

Casablanca director Michael Curtiz turned in this pioneering entry in 1938 -- part of the...

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