Sunday, May 18, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: JIMMY THE GENT (1934)

By modern standards, 67 minutes hardly seems like time enough to tell one story, but Michael Curtiz's film often feels like two different stories are fighting for dominance in that short span. The ads sell the story the title suggests: Jimmy Cagney as a crude boor crashing society and making a mockery of social graces. But that element is barely developed and looks like an afterthought added to pad out the film, which started out with the title "Heir Chaser." Bertram Millhauser's screenplay is really about an elaborate legal game the Cagney character plays to secure an inheritance for a wanted fugitive. Cagney runs a sort of detective agency that tracks down heirs to apparently intestate fortunes, and Curtiz opens the picture with a montage of stock-footage death and destruction punctuated by newspaper headlines. Cagney (playing Jimmy Corrigan, "the greatest chiseler since Michelangelo") has a team of minions led by the much-abused Louie (Allen Jenkins), and a rival agency led by the suave Charles Wallington (Allan Dinehart), aided by Corrigan's former flame Joan Martin (Bette Davis). The contrast is stark. Corrigan runs his business like a gangster and he looks like one, sporting a brutish Jack Dempsey haircut -- short on the sides, longer on top -- that reportedly repelled both director and leading lady. When Corrigan visits Wallington's office, he's overwhelmed by a refined staff that practically forces cups of tea on him, in the most polite fashion. He takes nearly as many lumps as Pete Puma and pays for it; the consequent tummy rumbling is as close as even Pre-Code cinema dares get to flatulence humor. Despite his discomfort, Jimmy endeavors to emulate the example set by his rival, but the only real payoff is a new set for Corrigan's office and better dressed extras. Jimmy doesn't mingle with the rich and the only change in his personality is that he now boasts of "crawling with ethics." And he lets his hair grow out a little to look more civilized. He does all this to gain business and win back his girl, but those goals are at cross-purposes after a bag lady dies with a fortune in bonds sewn into the lining of her coat. The Corrigan and Wallington agencies race to find an heir. Joan finds a granddaughter for Wallington, while Jimmy gets a tip from a hophead that a wanted killer, using an alias, is actually the old lady's son.

The fugitive (Arthur Hohl) actually killed his man in self-defense, but an angry girlfriend (Mayo Methot) is determined to testify against him. Jimmy's mission is to make sure that Monty Barton can inherit his fortune and enjoy it as a free man, minus the 50% Jimmy will claim. The key is to neutralize the girlfriend. That can be done by getting her to marry Monty, since these are still the good old days when a wife is not allowed to testify against her husband in court. But Jimmy doesn't want to cut the girlfriend in on Monty's money. So before he makes his move on her he press-gangs Louie's dimwitted girlfriend (Alice White) to marry Monty before a justice of the peace. Then, keeping this secret, he convinces Monty's girl that she'll get a fortune if she marries Monty and effectively acquits him. Later, he'll be able to cut her out by saying the marriage was illegitimate. In case Louie's girl gets any ideas, Jimmy has her marry Monty under a false name, so her marriage won't be legitimate, either. It's actually a pretty brilliant scheme, and it works, but it all turns to ashes for Jimmy when Louie blabs about it to Joan, thus destroying the image of a reformed Jimmy that the title gent had tried to cultivate.

To atone, Jimmy makes a grand gesture of self-sacrifice. He goes to Wallington's office and surrenders his share of Monty's inheritance to his rival so it can go to the granddaughter. As it turns out, Jimmy has smelt a rat for some time. Wallington had been making romantic moves on Joan for a while, but now that he has a big payday he moves to ditch her and take a steamer across the Atlantic alone. Jimmy manipulates everyone so Joan will catch Wallington on the ship and after the requisite brawl -- much of it happening behind a closed bathroom door -- our hero gets the girl. The problem with all this is that Jimmy Corrigan is one of the most unlikable characters Cagney ever played. He never ceases to be a ruthless self-serving manipulator and a thug at heart, but there's little charm or even charisma to compensate for that. There's no reason to root for him except that he's Jimmy Cagney, and that might be enough if he really were the sort of cartoon character he seems to be here, but I think audiences knew better and I hope they recognized this as second-rate Cagney, as Cagney himself apparently did.

The trailer doesn't play the "gent" angle up so much and thus sells the picture more accurately. It's from, of course.

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