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Taxi (DVD Review)

20 Feb, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars James Cagney, Loretta Young, Guy Kibbee.

Perhaps best known as the movie where consummate Irishman James Cagney speaks Yiddish in an early scene, Taxi is transported over its plot holes (sometimes wide enough to swallow up an entire cab caravan) by the palpable chemistry between the actor and co-star Loretta Young, who in one scene even joins him in a dance contest.

This is notable because the threat of domestic violence (once their characters are married) looms over the film in ways that probably wouldn’t be tolerated by audiences today. As the daughter of a cabbie, Young is by no means complacently philosophical in the manner of, say, the Crystals’ bizarre recording for Phil Spector of "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)"; she is, in fact, a little closer to the giving-as-good-as-she-gets attitude of Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man. But mostly, the rarely acted-upon tension emanates from Cagney’s verbal tendency to blow gaskets — as in the “bang, zoom” and “to the moon, Alice” rantings of Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden.

This guy does have a temper. A syndicate of New York hoods is trying to horn in on the routes of established drivers, leading to the imprisonment of Young’s father (Guy Kibbee) after the old guy takes understandable packed-heat issue with his cab being intentionally destroyed by goons who’ve ordered him to pick up fares somewhere else. This incenses Cagney, who gets even more agitated when Young (instead of rallying for revenge against dad’s eventual death in prison) seeks a more pacifistic approach. And family turmoil doesn’t end here. We soon learn that Cagney’s character has a kid brother – and whenever kid brothers get script-conceived for ‘30s melodramas (and especially Warners melodramas), they are automatically set to become dead meat at some point in the story.

There are stories, true or apocryphal, that a lot of early ‘30s Warner films would end abruptly because someone simply tossed out a few concluding script pages in the name of studio economy. In this case, the practice seems to have been more equitable in terms of the entire movie: there are craters throughout. One of the oddest comes early when Cagney (who doesn’t know Young all that well) has an outdoor altercation with her. We then cut to a scene where they’re on a movie date and all chummy as if they’ve been dating for a long time.

In a way — and particularly because Taxi is a 69-minute quickie — this shortcutting only serves to make a fast-moving picture run even faster. Even the dance contest is kind of a throwaway — yet a welcome one because Cagney never got to show his musical or dance skill in too many movies beyond Footlight Parade, Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Seven Little Foys and The West Point Story (in which Taxi’s Roy Del Ruth directed the actor again 18 years later). The other male dance partner in a four-person contest is played by George Raft (not quite yet a star), and it exists mostly for Cagney to get angry with him and take a swing that connects. Other familiar faces, though not necessarily pretty ones, include David Landau, who always looked like one of my college hangovers. He plays the chief henchman — good use of an actor who specialized in playing creeps and malcontents until his real-life death in the mid-decade halted one of the decade’s busiest careers. As for Kibbee, his part is small for such a popular character actor (two years later, he’d have the lead in Warner’s adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. But he’s still on screen long enough to make you wonder (after basking in Young’s rarely equaled beauty for the era) what the hell mom looked like and how he ever ended up with her.

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