Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! This month’s Pre-Code is…
Lady Killer (1933)
A criminal on the run becomes a Hollywood movie star. Starring James Cagney, Mae Clarke, Margaret Lindsay, Leslie Fenton, Douglas Dumbrille, and Russell Hopton. Screenplay by Ben Markson and Lilie Hayward. Story by Rosalind Keating Shaffer. Directed by Roy Del Ruth. Produced and Distributed by Warner Brothers.
“While returning a purse dropped by attractive Myra Gale (Clarke), Dan Quigley (Cagney) quickly learns that he has been the victim of a confidence game. He threatens the gang with exposure unless they cut him in on their profits. Dan works the racket so successfully that they are able to open a gambling club patronized by wealthy customers. When they spot a likely victim, Dan arranges a fake accident so he will be taken into the victim’s house and cases it for his fellow gangsters. Eventually, the police suspect Dan’s gang, and when someone dies during a robbery, the gang leaves town. They travel to Los Angeles, where Dan is arrested. He asks Myra to arrange his bail, but Spade Maddock (Dumbrille), another gang member, talks her into using the money to leave town. Because they do not have enough evidence to hold Dan, the police release him. Looking like a hobo, he is offered work as a movie extra.
“One day, he stumbles into the dressing room of movie star Lois Underwood (Lindsay). He starts a self-promoting letter writing campaign, which convinces the studio that he would be a good choice for a new leading man. Dan and Lois become romantically involved, and things are going well for Dan until Myra and the gang return. They threaten to reveal his past unless he fingers wealthy Hollywood people for robberies. He refuses, paying the gang a large amount of money to leave town. They double-cross him, robbing Lois’s house, and Dan is arrested. When the studio will not stand by him, Lois offers to pay his bail, but the gang beats her to it, planning to kill him before he can tell the police about their activites. Suspecting their motives, Dan tips off the police, and the gang is captured. After Dan is cleared of all charges and his career saved, he and Lois leave to get married.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
I’ve been waiting to cover this one for a long time; much like Edward G. Robinson got to do in The Little Giant (1933), this picture affords Jimmy Cagney the chance to turn his gangster persona on its head by positioning that typically tragic character as the anchor of a romantic comedy. Lady Killer is much more successful at this aesthetic bait-and-switch than the aforementioned, though — due in large part to its leading man’s peppier, sexier, charm (which, incidentally, also helps make The Public Enemy, Cagney’s brilliant and most earnest “gangster picture,” a more engaging watch today than Robinson’s nevertheless equally important Little Caesar). Additionally, the screenplay succeeds at being more laugh-out-loud funny, mostly because of the chosen setting: Hollywood. Yes, instead of the rough streets of Chicago or New York, the bulk of Lady Killer plays out in La La Land, and this novel setting — for a “gangster picture,” that is — not only provides for more comedic centerpieces, as the film industry gets to gently rib itself, but it’s also better able to engage fully with its star. On one hand, Cagney is the mobster with whom he’s most associated on the screen, and on the other hand, he’s the movie star that he is off the screen. This bit of self-reflexivity amps up the fun, invites the audience in on the joke, and pivots Cagney into a more well-rounded cinematic space.
If you’ll recall, the “gangster picture” burned hot in 1931, but by the time of Scarface and The Beast Of The City in 1932, the appeal had largely dwindled, leaving such celluloid hoodlums as stock types to be peppered in stories that used them only incidentally, or at least, compartmentalized their identity — keeping them from being the classic “tragic heroes” of the genre’s most famous efforts. So, it’s no surprise that press in 1933 for Lady Killer emphasized its spoofy Hollywood elements over the rougher (and more familiar) criminal narrative through-line… Frankly, though, this is dishonest. This is a “gangster picture” because all of the dramatic turns in the plot hinge around these elements, and indeed, the film’s credited leading lady, the one who gets top billing, isn’t the Hollywood ingenue with whom Cagney ends up in the final reel (Lindsay) — it’s Clarke as the moll who first snares him into the group, and then leaves him out to dry, only to eventually redeem herself in the climactic car chase. Now, Clarke’s inclusion is fascinating because she evokes direct memories of the iconic The Public Enemy, and there’s even a knowing nod to the famous grapefruit scene…
Furthermore, as in these crime pictures, the violence remains central to the story, even when it’s used for laughs — like in the scene where, cementing its Pre-Codian value, Cagney drags Clarke across the floor by her hair and then kicks her, literally, out on her rump. This brute force against women, from someone for whom we’re rooting (and not that it matters, but is also in quasi “reform”), is but one of the picture’s era-specific elements. Others include some choice double entendres (Cagney offers another gang member some fruit with the quip, “You like fruit; that I know”), the shocking sound of a toilet flush (which was then considered in poor taste), and a sequence where Cagney is spray-painted and dressed to play an “Indian Chief” in his latest picture… So, there’s no doubt this is a Pre-Code affair, and while the Hollywood setting is fun, it’s really just used as a backdrop and a jumping off point for comedic moments, like when Cagney unleashes monkeys at a swanky party or when he does a love scene with garlic breath. No, Lady Killer is merely a “gangster picture” that looks for other ways to be different, settling on humor and using the Hollywood concept as a source for its hahas.
It’s for this reason that the picture never graduates from “Fun” to “Classic.” You see, Lady Killer has the opportunity to use its chosen setting for more than just incidental chuckles. While exploring the dual halves of the Cagney persona, the film could have made some kind of commentary on the similarities between criminal notoriety and Hollywood celebrity. And indeed, the picture was released right during the sensational outlaw sprees of Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde, whose reigns would both end gorily in 1934, the same year that, our Musical Theatre Monday fans will know, a classic Cole Porter musical called Anything Goes was able to make the precise thesis that Lady Killer is deficient for not finding — that in America, during the Great Depression, our criminals are as exciting and important to us as our movie stars… But the film never even approaches this concept, and aside from avoiding the kind of thematic cohesion that would be beneficial, it’s also a dramatic loss, for the film waits too long to publicly out Cagney’s criminal involvement to his Hollywood circle, and the few moments where his past sins do encroach upon his new life — like when he beats up a critic or Clarke sours his relationship with Lindsay — are not maximized for inner conflict.
Indeed, the picture shies away from boldness several times. As a comedy — right from the beginning — we expect a happy ending, but the one we get is not fully earned, for the leading man is never forced to emotionally reconcile with the premise’s inherent tension — again, that of his dual personas. Additionally, he gets his ingenue, Margaret Lindsay, even though (because Hollywood was but a setting, not an essential ingredient) their love affair is undercooked. To wit, there’s no scene where Cagney charms Lindsay back onto his side after she catches Clarke in his room. This is a crucial turnaround that would have verified their feelings for one another and could have made their relationship more important than Cagney’s with Clarke — a dynamic that actually goes through more of an arc (even though it, too, isn’t as fleshed out as it could have been)… Ultimately, Lady Killer has a lot of the right ideas, but it isn’t courageous enough or thoughtful enough to put them all together. It’s a “gangster picture” that wants to pretend otherwise, even though it doesn’t go far enough in utilizing the setting that could have provided more nuance… Nevertheless, it’s fun, funny, and Cagney is magnetic. (Plus there’s some great shots of 1933 Los Angeles.) I recommend it to Pre-Code lovers everywhere!
Come back next week for another Wildcard post! And tune in Tuesday for more sitcom fun!