Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! This week, in honor of the 115th anniversary of Bette Davis’ birth, I’m sharing some thoughts on a Pre-Code film of hers that we’ve yet to examine. (This is our first Pre-Code review in nearly three years! Are you eager to see this genre make a recurring comeback on this blog? Let me know in the comments below!)
Jimmy The Gent (1934)
An unscrupulous detective makes a killing locating missing heirs. Jimmy Cagney, Bette Davis, Allen Jenkins, Alan Dinehart, Alice White, Arthur Hohl, Mayo Methot. Screenplay by Bertram Millhauser. Story by Laird Doyle & Ray Nazarro. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Warner Bros.
“Jimmy Corrigan specializes in finding heirs for people who die intestate. If he cannot find the legitimate heir, he has no qualms about finding someone who fits the description of the missing person and, afterward, taking a commission. His rival, Wallingham, has a more refined front, but underneath, he is just as much of a confidence man. This underlying dishonesty is not apparent to Wallingham’s assistant, Joan, who learned the trade from Jimmy. She is in love with Jimmy, but refuses to be involved with him as long as he continues his unethical practices. Wallingham has a monopoly on deaths that occur at the emergency hospital. When a seemingly destitute woman dies, hospital workers find bonds and jewels sewn into her coat. A spy in Wallingham’s office phones the news to Jimmy before the spy is caught and fired by Joan. After Joan lectures Jimmy about his lack of ethics, Jimmy hurries to Wallingham’s, where he arrives at tea time.
“Impressed by the refined attitude at the office, he offers to trade Wallingham the information he has on the dead woman for advice on how to become a gentleman. Joan finds the dead woman’s niece, Posy Barton, while Jimmy tries to find Posy’s father, Monty Barton. On a tip from a drug addict, they find Barton hiding from a murder charge under an alias. Using a ruse, Jimmy tells Barton about the inheritance. Barton claims that he killed in self-defense, but that Gladys Farrell, the only witness, has accused him of murder. Jimmy develops a plan that will allow Barton to collect his money. He marries Barton to Mabel, the girl friend of his assistant, Louie, with Mabel using a false name. Then he offers half the money to Gladys if she will marry Barton so she cannot legally testify against him. Without Gladys’ testimony, Barton’s case is dismissed and he inherits the money. When Gladys tries to collect her share, Mabel points out that she was married to Barton first and therefore Gladys’ marriage is not legal.
“Joan is disappointed when she learns about Jimmy’s trick, as Jimmy had told her he was going straight. She decides to marry Wallingham, who is interested in her, but not in marriage. Jimmy protests, signing his half of the money over to Posy, and gives it to Wallingham to give to her. Jimmy and Louie witness Wallingham cash the check and use the money to buy one ticket to England. Jimmy sends Joan a phony telegram from Wallingham, which invites her to join him on board ship. Just before the boat sails, Jimmy is able to prove to Joan that Wallingham is crooked. He mails the check to Posy and takes over Wallingham’s cabin, where Joan will join him after they are married by the captain.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Jimmy The Gent runs a brisk 67 minutes and its primary aim is letting us enjoy the infectious, boisterous work of its star. Jimmy Cagney is a scenery-chewing delight as a racketeer who profits by taking a cut from the heirs of unclaimed fortunes — a guy with no scruples, but who nevertheless remains the movie’s hero because (a) unlike his rival, he is authentic to himself, (b) his goals are ultimately for the purpose of bettering himself and his love interest (so he doesn’t have to keep doing this forever), and (c) he’s simply less awful than his main competitor. This combination of personal sincerity, noble intentions, and favorable morality in context makes for a classic Cagney character in the Pre-Code era, where guys who technically do bad things can still earn the audience’s investment and remain root-for-able. Such roles are perfect for the often-typecast Cagney, one of the seminal celluloid gangsters, for his charming, ball-of-energy persona further cements these “bad guys” as likable picture-drivers, no matter their dirty deeds.
Of course, it also helps that he’s loved by the persuasive Bette Davis, still in the early part of her career — right before an elevation in status following her turn in Of Human Bondage (1934). This is prior to her development as a bona fide titan, but her screen presence is undeniable — she’s forceful, magnetic, and memorable, even in gigs like these, where’s she’s an otherwise nice lady with a slightly sharp tongue, merely romantic support for a leading man who drives the plot. However, she leaves an impression, and today, her mere inclusion is a major plus in Jimmy The Gent’s positive column — as the film offers us the chance to see two of Warner’s biggest stars of the 1930s together in the same vehicle. (This was their first joint effort; the pair wouldn’t collaborate again until the mediocre screwball comedy The Bride Came C.O.D., from 1941.)
As for the picture’s value as a Pre-Coder — beyond just the depiction of its lead as a crook who masterfully secures the audience’s favor via all the reasons cited above (in accordance with this era’s belief in the figurative graying of “right” and “wrong” as it pertains to human behavior) — there are many snappy and risqué rejoinders, particularly from the women that Cagney engages as part of his scheme to make his murderous client a deliberate bigamist, which itself is a plot point that would have raised eyebrows just several months later, following the Code’s official enforcement. What’s more, there’s a lot of cartoon violence and a casual acceptance of criminality (or disregard for the law) — without consequence, in Cagney’s case — that fundamentally wouldn’t have been permissible in 1935 or beyond. This pure Pre-Codian charm adds to my enjoyment and helps compensate for the script, which, aside from a few fun moments — such as Cagney trying to act classy by savoring a cup of tea — never fully thrives like this cast with this premise should. It’s ultimately a so-so example of this era as far as its filmmaking is concerned, but with plenty of grounds to enjoy Jimmy The Gent, I certainly did.
Stay tuned next Wednesday for the results of last month’s survey and news about Sitcom Tuesday’s future offerings — you won’t want to miss it!