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 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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A pet project of Tyrone Power, this film gives us Power in probably his greatest role ever. He starts off as a standard-grade con man, then works his way into the carnival as an aide to the mentalist (Joan Blondell in a solid mid-career role). Power's Stanton woos the "electric girl" (the hauntingly beautiful Coleen Gray), and together they eventually launch a mentalist act of their own, playing in black-tie nightclubs and landing radio spots and more. But when a psychiatrist (Helen Walker, the "bad dame" of the film) tempts him into scamming wealthy tycoons with visions of loved ones from the beyond, Stanton winds up in deep shit. His eventual return to the carnival is one of cinema's most poetic, ironic, and heart-rending moments.
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McQueen is the Kid, a young card player who believes he is the best in the country. Edward G. Robinson is the Man, the aging veteran that McQueen must knock off his pedestal. McQueen is cocky, confident, appealing, and fundamentally decent; Robinson is complex and opaque, with one of the greatest poker faces in cinema. The inevitable showdown between the two is a battle of wills and nerve which lasts a night, most of the next day and another night.
Continue reading: The Cincinnati Kid Review