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 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, 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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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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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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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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