Jimmy the Gent (DVD Review)18 Oct, 2010 By: Mike Clark
Available via WBshop.com's Warner Archive
Stars James Cagney, Bette Davis, Allen Jenkins.
James Cagney and Bette Davis were the biggest stars of their respective sexes laboring at Warner Bros. in the 1930s, and (in what probably wasn’t a coincidence) the two who later got into the most squabbles with boss Jack L. Warner over money and lousy parts. But other than 1943’s indifferent The Bride Came C.O.D. (barely a blip on either career), the only time they ever teamed up was in this rather novel variation on the chiseler’s trade — a comedy directed by Michael Curtiz and released about four months before Davis enjoyed her Of Human Bondage breakthrough on a loan-out to RKO.
Befitting the focus of Jimmy’s title, Cagney was already a star, though he doesn’t exactly wear a star’s haircut here. It’s kind of a Full Metal Jacket buzz cut on the sides and back, with a small glob of hair in the middle; if he had a little more to work with on top, he wouldn’t be that far away from whatever it was that the Detroit Tigers’ Johnny Damon sported this past baseball season. Davis, meanwhile, makes you understand why one of this movie’s working titles (a good one) was Blondes and Bonds. She’s getting some help here out of the beautician’s bottle, her hair notably lacquered down the first time we see her for a kind of Plaster-of-Paris effect.
Jimmy’s other working title (and another good one) was Heir Chasers — which would have removed any initial pre-screening curiosity about the storyline. For a comedy, there’s a remarkable mortality rate in the opening montage: plane crashes, boating accidents and (in a capper that can’t help but draw a laugh after the other accidents we’ve just seen) two locomotives doing a head-on into each other. The result is dead people — or dead people without heirs — and it is Cagney’s business to come up with phony ones to inherit the victims’ fortunes (for a cut, of course).
Davis’s character was once Cagney’s assistant but left him to go work for a more polished rival (Alan Dinehart), whose office tea-serving in one scene gives Cagney what is probably the biggest attack of on-screen gas suffered by any major actor until Humphrey Bogart’s in The African Queen. Dinehart’s phony hoity-toity has Davis snowed, and for a while, even Cagney is intimidated. His own office, which lacks his rival’s plethora of femme assistants, looks more like the professional digs of a marginal private eye; it wouldn’t be surprising to hear that Warners recycled one of its private-eye sets.
With Davis second-billed but not yet a full star, the script doesn’t have much reticence about letting her disappear for stretches in the movie’s mid-section. In her place is some knockabout between Cagney and sidekick Allen Jenkins (the glass on Cagney’s office door keeps getting shattered by flying objects); some Cagney rah-rah to his voluminous male crew (they’re kind of like a sales team, except that their job is to facilitate their boss’s crooked schemes); and some phony marriages that will do the same. One bogus bride is played by Mayo Methot, whose biggest claim to fame was as the real-life mate that Humphrey Bogart left for Lauren Bacall after what had been one of the stormiest official unions in Hollywood. Methot is funny playing off Cagney, who cheats her as much as he does everyone else. This is not a movie with a whole lot of reverence for the institution of marriage.
Nonetheless, marriage is the state to which one clearly senses that the story is leading the stars — if only Cagney’s Jimmy will clean up his act. By this time the actor was on his way to doing the same with his screen image; blue-noses and the Hollywood Production Code (one and the same) had pretty much curtailed the Little Caesar-Public Enemy-Scarface gangster cycle, and within a year, Cagney would be playing the lead in G-Men (with J. Edgar Hoover presumably eyeballing the script in advance).
Cagney and Davis play off each other well enough to make one wonder why they weren’t teamed more than they were. But the brothers Warner knew how to manage frugal budgets, and both stars could clearly carry a picture by themselves — or at least they could after Davis’s 1935’s Oscar win for Dangerous, which was regarded as a consolation prize for the one she didn’t get for Bondage. There was just no point in depleting assets.