Posted by Moira Finnie on April 22, 2009
Have you a favorite cab driver from classic movies?
Is he (or she) loud, pushy and aggressively seeking a faster route and big tip–maybe a Alan Hale, Sr. or Nat Pendleton type, quick with his mouth and his fists when needed? Or is the celluloid cabbie you cherish a comical “hail fellow well met” type, eager for conversation and filled with an inexplicable sense of bonhomie–perhaps played by a George Tobias, Red Skelton or Frank McHugh? Might another compelling favorite be those Charon-like figures behind the wheel, ferrying passengers across the dark city, musing philosophically about the pulse of the lifeblood of the city while guiding those in the back seat to a physical and spiritual destination–weightier characters captured by such diverse actors as Tom D’Andrea and Paul Lukas?
In mulling over the place of cabbies as characters in the studio era recently, it dawned on me that their contradictory presence served movies well during the “golden era” of Hollywood history. Back then, the dream factory cranked out a monthly gross of bright, richly textured, often candy-colored–and occasionally–realistic and sometimes threadbare snapshots of the working stiffs behind the wheel. As characters plying the sometimes “mean streets” of the city, they are representative of the uneasiness we all have with our society’s mobility. Taxi drivers in the movies are often walking clichés–usually parked in a niche somewhere between whatever society of the time deems a failure and a success–and often burdened with a host of issues and attitudes drawn from the real world.
As previously touched on in a posting about librarians in this blog , if the movies were to be believed, a disproportionate number of people in the United States from the 1930s on made their daily bread as cowboys, tycoons, detectives, madcap heiresses, gangsters, medicos, newspaper reporters, actors and models. After all, such flicks were supposed to take us away from most of our daily lives–not reflect them.*
A Little History of Hack Driving & Popular Culture
As America became a predominantly urban and mechanized culture by 1920, audiences were already well versed in the role of taxis in transportation, and the subculture that was emerging around it. Social historians tell us that as far back as the early 19th century, the horse drawn carriages and the later motorized hack drivers on the streets of our burgeoning cities had a “dubious history.”
The more predatory cabbies began to be called “nighthawks” in urban patois, and their reputation included tales of drivers preying on naive customers, being a conduit to the myriad vices offered by urban life, and engaging in turf wars around key hotels and depots. In the U.S., the trade made a concerted effort to bring a level of service to riders as cabbies started to organize and the police have used them repeatedly for a window on the city’s life.
Inevitably, driving a taxi has been a living for immigrants of each succeeding generation, with new drivers taking jobs pushing a hack as they attempted to move up the economic food chain. In New York City, for example, freed African Americans dominated the business in the early 1800s, to be replaced by a massive wave of Irish and, to a lesser extent, German newcomers. The latter two groups colored the studio era characterizations for the most part, with the Irish being represented in disproportionate numbers on screen until the 1950s.
Today an estimated 12,000 taxis roam the Big Apple’s streets alone, in what is often a city’s most nerve-wracking job, with many of this country’s émigrés from Asia, Africa and former Eastern Bloc countries filling the ranks now. Today’s cabbies struggle with new and old challenges of culture shock, language, long hours, and a general breakdown of civility. The labor unrest, racial strife, ruthless competition and political maneuvering that is part of the cab business history on screen and off. The inherently dramatic nature of that business became material for writers as early as Washington Irving and in showcases as fascinating and gamy as HBO’s addictive Taxicab Confessions on cable. Cash Cab, a game show that began on The Discovery Channel in 2005, even takes place entirely in a taxi.
Discering writers such Edith Wharton soon incorporated the taxi-driver into their narratives, lending them a realistic atmosphere. Wharton, one of the more observant chroniclers of American life as it transitioned from the 19th to the 20th centuries, saw the hustling cabbies as “a mob of bus and hack drivers…[who would arrive] shouting ‘To the Eagle House’, ‘To the Washington House’, ‘This way to the Lake’” as they descended on hapless upper middle class travelers like mosquitoes in her novel , Summer (1917).
In the bustling ’20s, F. Scott Fitzgerald, in one of the most eloquent passages of The Great Gatsby (1925), brought the world laced together by the taxis into focus:
The influential Cornell Woolrich delivered several grittier sketches of cabbies in his pulp stories from the ’20s through the ’40s, describing one of his many taxi drivers in his evocative 1937 story, “Blue Is For Bravery” as a mostly silent witness to the triumphs and defeats of his fragile clientele, “mum as a clam, aware that the gentry in dark-blue have no great love for his kind.” In other stories, Woolrich‘s cabbies adopt an attitude of resigned acceptance of the world’s indifference, on the fringes of lives, though occasionally they appear and reappear as annoyingly persisent avenging angels, as they sometimes seem in a book such as Manhattan Love Song (1932). The works of Woolrich, as seen in several film noir adaptations, ranging from a true classic of the genre under Robert Siodmak’s direction in Phantom Lady (1944) to Harold Clurman‘s direction of the beautifully written if flawed Clifford Odets‘ adaptation of Deadline at Dawn (1946). (If someone hasn’t written a book about taxi drivers in film noirs, I have a feeling that a PhD treatise may be lurking out there).
Today, the movies may look at the life of cab drivers such as Jamie Foxx in Michael Mann‘s compelling, jacked up Collateral (2004), or Timothy Spall‘s sad sack driver in Mike Leigh‘s melancholy yet astute All or Nothing (2002). Since the combustion engine overtook horse-drawn hansom cabs in the early 20th century, these rolling figures in a landscape have been fodder for the movies and are likely to continue to be a part of cinema, especially when the filmmakers want a dash of realism.
The Life of a Modern Cabbie on Screen
Sure, when we mention cab drivers today most movie-goers automatically think of the violently poetic portrait created by director Martin Scorsese‘s dark and disturbingly violent nightmare look at New York City cabbie Travis Bickle in the brilliant Taxi Driver. The film, showing how corrosive the exposure to human misery on a brutally grand scale in the decaying NY of the ’70s could be on one man’s psyche, has had a residual effect to this day on general perceptions of those who ply the trade. This film has emblazoned itself on our collective cinematic imagination, like it or not. Beneath the portrait of a limited man made mad by his brutal environment and alienation, that movie captures something essential about the aching loneliness of the job and much of modern life, especially in an anonymous, enormous city. Most drivers in real life, good or bad, are just trying to get through the day, but somewhere in the back of a passenger’s mind lurks a now clichéd image of the unhinged Travis played so unforgettably by a young Robert De Niro, asking that eternal challenging question: “You looking at me?”
Another memorable recent portrait of a cab driver as someone cruising on a rim of hell came a few years later with Ernest Borgnine‘s “Cabbie” in the entertainingly dark John Carpenter film, Escape from New York (1981), starring Kurt Russell. During a trip into a post-apocalyptic Big Apple turned dangerous prison, a cheerfully profane Borgnine tosses molotov cocktails at approaching crazies and cadges gas from anyone he can. He is, like many cabbies, a man just struggling to survive and taking in the harrowing passing parade.
Mona Lisa (1986) with Bob Hoskins‘ lovestruck driver pining dangerously for his charge, the call girl Simone (Cathy Tyson), explored another side of the cabbie’s sometimes melancholy life, focusing on a lonely man’s dangerous longing for the woman he drives around London.
More recent years have also brought director Jim Jarmusch‘s gently observed Night on Earth (1991), a lovable anthology film showing how five cabbies on the night shift, each in LA, NYC, Paris, Rome and Helsinki, observe their world and their passengers from the front seat with the meter running. Most people seem to favor the sequence in that film with a grubby, grounded Winona Ryder as a chain-smoking, elfin cabbie, with an exhausted career gal in the back seat, (played by Gena Rowlands, whose presence enhances any scene in a movie). They exchange their perceived truths during their shared journey through an arid Los Angeles, with both learning a bit about the other, including some real respect for their different choices in life.
I’m most partial to Armin Mueller-Stahl‘s bewildered East German circus clown turned New York City hack driver in one of the movie’s funniest yet touching passages. Mueller-Stahl‘s awestruck if highly incompetent cabbie has a gentling effect on two of the city’s loudest and possibly angriest residents, played with zest by Giancarlo Esposito and Rosie Perez. Exuding a bear-like warmth and childlike bewilderment about the overwhelming urban world that Helmut (Armin Mueller-Stahl) has landed in thanks to one of modern history’s hairpin turns, his character seems to be an admirably serene counterpoint to his aggressive, frazzled passengers. Helmut knows he’s lost in this lonely, chilly world. He accepts that fact, but still gamely tries to find his way through the labyrinthian streets–even if he doesn’t seem to know the first thing about how to shift into drive. His quiet acceptance and appreciation for taking things as they come brings out an impatient protectiveness in his passenger Yoyo (Giancarlo Esposito), even after he takes over the drive from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Most of the cabbies in this movie are isolated from their surroundings, but the darkness that surrounds them and the fleeting nature of their experiences with their passengers allows them to be more themselves, vulnerable and open, occasionally unburdening themselves of their own baggage, sometimes warily, and at other moments, in a torrent, (such as the most tedious sequence with Roberto Benigni in Rome).
Some Favorite Classic Cabbie Spottings
While I enjoy some of the treatments of taxi drivers on screen today, being a classic movie fan, I particularly love when films of the ’30s and ’40s focus on this scrappy form of commerce. The regular joes and later janes who keep the world spinning without getting much glory for themselves in Depression are part of the workaday world in studio era movies peopled with actors who took the parts of cabbies, secretaries, doormen, bartenders, hairdressers, waiters, maids, butlers or general factotums. Knowing a bit about people living on the edge socially and economically, they breathed a vivid semblance of life into potentially hackneyed portrayals. The success or failure of individual actors to rise above the conventions of their roles often depended on a sensitive director or a deft writer, but just as often on the individual actor’s own considerable skill as well as a down-to-earth, unglamorous demeanor, and the audience’s familiarity and affection for a supporting player they felt they knew.
On screen, these roles, usually filled by supporting players, offered an audience a chance to see an often brief reflection of themselves. They also gave the scriptwriter a chance to make a tacit comment on one class and another while dramatizing some tension between groups, jostling for a foothold on a slippery economic ladder, and instances of frustration or tenuous bonds being forged between the cabbie and the passenger abound. The character of suave detective Nick Charles, played so skillfully by William Powell showed that, while rich, he had not lost the common touch. Half the time in the “Thin Man” series Powell seems to know the cabdrivers he encounters because he sent one of them up the river, (for which they are inexplicably grateful in a few cases). These characterizations usually allowed Hollywood to wax sentimental about such “little people”, trying to make audience members buy the notion that “poor but happy” was always better than “rich but miserable.” I tend to believe that audiences at the time were not so easily fooled.
The Harry Bellavers, Horace McMahons and Frank Faylens who were often cast in such parts were craftsmen who took their secondary roles in such movies and made them shine with their humor, grumpiness and wry expressions. Faylen, an actor who deserves far more recognition than he ever received in his lifetime, was fortunate enough to be cast as Ernie Bishop, Bedford Falls’ cab driver in Frank Capra‘s now classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Ernie, (who shared many scenes with Bert the cop, played by the indispensable Ward Bond), tools around town throughout the sentimental movie bringing a nice note of gentle sarcasm to his scenes. His sweet brashness, on display when he’s playing a Mr. Fixit with Bert for Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart on their thwarted honeymoon, brings a needed bit of saltiness to the proceedings, as does Faylen‘s raised eyebrow when he sees Gloria Grahame‘s frisky flirt trying to make time with Stewart one day. Faylen‘s cabbie excels after George Bailey’s wish to never have been born comes true. At that point, Faylen has a small field day adding shades of anger, sneakiness and fear to his portrait of Ernie.
In a similarly themed film, The Bishop’s Wife (1947), directed by Henry Koster from Robert E. Sherwood‘s adaptation of Robert Nathan‘s novel, that consummate character actor, James Gleason tackles the part of a cab driver named Sylvester. He is a man who realizes that the “main trouble [with this world] is there are too many people who don’t know where they’re going and they want to get there too fast.”
Finding an invitation to join an angelic Cary Grant and the bishop’s harried wife, Loretta Young in a skating party irresistible, Gleason’s character discovers that he has undreamed of acrobatic skills on the ice, despite his age. (The late middle aged Gleason may be seen–at least in silhouette–skating the light fantastic in this clip with the actor’s slightly raspy voice providing a commentary for the action and a few choice close-ups). In a scene that would probably give any real life taxi driver considerable pause, this escape from his routine leads Sylvester to refuse any fare when he returns the twosome to the vicarage, explaining that his “pockets are just bulging with coins of self-satisfaction…because you and the little lady have restored my faith in human nature, that’s why.” Grant‘s angel even paraphrases Proverbs 31:28 summing up the cabbie’s character as he drives away, commenting that “Sylvester is a noble soul. His children and his children’s children will rise up and call him blessed.”
Yep. I know you’re probably thinking that’s just too much treacle for any day that’s not December 25th. However, those lines, in the hands of an actor of Jimmy Gleason‘s calibre just sing–despite the sentimentality–and Grant, (who is said to have had his qualms about the script) makes that valedictory prediction unexpectedly moving. As someone once pointed out to me, actors as believable as Faylen and Gleason “take the curse off having a heart.”
There are a few other, less tender-hearted cab driver characters whose appearances in films remain my favorites. Two of them–not surprisingly–were played by James Cagney, who is seen at left with his co-star, fellow cabbie George E. Stone in Taxi! (1932, directed by Roy Del Ruth). The raffish pre-code features a chronically truculent Cagney spouting Yiddish one minute, never backing down from a fight with rival taxi drivers, a cop, a customer or his girl, (Loretta Young, at her near peak of appeal in this early, fine phase of her career). The bantam actor even squeezes in some nifty dance moves in a contest scene that features a glimpse of a young high-stepping George Raft as a participant/sparring partner for Cagney.
The 67 minute film is no masterpiece, but was clearly intended as one more machine-made entertainment from the Warner Brothers assembly line. It is episodic at best, hurtling from one sequence to the next. One portion focuses the story on dramatizing a war between rival cab companies vs. independent hack drivers, a theme explored again in other films in the decade, in the Brian Donlevy in Born Reckless (1937) and in the Frank Borzage-directed movie with Spencer Tracy as a taxi-driver and Luise Rainer for MGM, Big City (1937). (The latter film has one great playful opening sequence, with Tracy “picking up” his fare on a street corner, Luise Rainer, who it turns out is actually his wife. Unfortunately, the movie seems to fall back into a fairly conventional script later).
Later scenes in Taxi! are seemingly tacked on to tie the storyline to Cagney‘s screen persona as a tough guy drawn into a confrontation with gangsters. The actor even gets to say the widely (and inaccurately quoted) lines “Come out and take it, you dirty, yellow-bellied rat, or I’ll give it to you through the door!” when threateing to plug a deserving bad apple through a door. Some viewers might have a tough time accepting Loretta Young‘s apparently inexplicable affection for Cagney‘s Matt Nolan, who is not above hitting her, (as some strange form of foreplay, perhaps?). Young‘s character seeks to tame his wild temper, appalled at his constant pugnacious behavior after picking a fight with another man while in line at a movie, and making murderous comments such as “I’d like to bury the hatchet – right in their thick skulls.” Yet she clearly finds him deeply appealing and their playfulness and a near palpable longing for one another is very effective in this movie, (especially in one scene in public when they merely lean against one another).
Their bond, forged from a clearly physical attraction and sealed with two tragedies when they witness the death of family members as a result of the dog eat dog world they live in. The film never fully develops this theme, though a Still, Jimmy Cagney‘s energy and visceral instincts as a performer at this stage of his career makes him such fun to watch, and one wonders if certain lines were improvised by the actor. In an early moment, after glibly amusing himself by explaining some directions to a puzzled Jewish passenger who doesn’t speak English, a policeman standing by asks, “Nolan, what part of Ireland did your folks come from?” With a nicely accented zinger he replies, “Delancey Street, thank you.”
In director Raoul Walsh‘s spectacularly entertaining The Roaring Twenties (1939), Cagney closed out the decade in the world of the taxi driver again, this time in the company of his frequent co-star Frank McHugh. Returning from WWI, the Warner Brothers star plays Eddie Bartlett, a dough boy whose pre-war job has not been held for him as promised. Rooming with his amiable buddy, an easygoing professional cabbie McHugh, a desperate Cagney becomes a taxi driver just as Prohibition ensures the rise of bootleg liquor. Jimmy is soon delivering the hooch via his taxi, unwittingly at first, and later with a determination to succeed. As he finds the lucre rolling in, Cagney and his sweetly dim pal McHugh eventually have a fleet of taxis with the profits, though they are likely roaming the roads to serve tipplers as much as passengers.
In the process of getting rich quick, the cab company that emerges becomes irrelevant to Cagney‘s drive for the trappings of his success, especially in his effort to win the unrequited love of Priscilla Lane, (an actress I like, who is seen beaming away mindlessly in the image at the beginning of this piece behind Cagney at the wheel of a taxi). Lane is a songbird with dreams of her own–none of which involve Eddie nor the gangster’s world he is drawn into–though in a nice, wry touch, she is not averse to coasting on Eddie’s largesse for a time. The film becomes increasingly darker, with rivalries culminating in the murder of Frank McHugh as a sacrificial lamb tossed on the sidewalk by some rival gangsters, (is it from the back of a cab!!??).
The film follows the feckless, soaring economy to its downfall in the ’29 Crash of Wall Street. Cagney eventually returns to an endless round of shifts behind the wheel of a cab, having lost Priscilla Lane to straight arrow mouthpiece Jeffrey Lynn, (who becomes a crusading assistant district attorney–natch!) and his crooked taxi empire to a duplicitous Humphrey Bogart. The change in the actor’s characterization of the seemingly self-assured Eddie Bartlett has begun. It began in the scene when Cagney first spots Lane and Lynn together on the street, followed by his loss of McHugh (who is a gentler shadow of himself). Stiffening and then sagging, James Cagney conveys more about pain, resignation and acceptance with the sagging of his body language than any of the words of the script.
Jimmy finds solace in a bottle and endless renditions of “Melancholy Baby” by Gladys George between the daily roundelay of driving in circles. In this phase of the movie, with Cagney‘s playing of the despairing taxi driver and former bootlegger down on his luck, his acting may be at his most brilliant and touching. The cockiness has drained from him, but there are glimmers of a man whose desire for something beyond the ordinary went seriously awry and borders on the tragic, even though his life had all the significance of a quickly glimpsed headline. His end, appropriately enough, begins after he encounters Lane, now a married wife and mother, pleading with him to protect her hubby from Bogart‘s threats. In a climactic sequence that is one of the great endings in movies, Cagney tumbles drunkenly from the back of a taxi delivering him to Bogart‘s door, and his doom. Stumbling away from the blood bath that has occurred as a wan Jimmy sets Bogart and his minions straight, the actor dies on the snowy steps of a church, almost as anonymous as a package left on the back seat of a cab–except that the loyal, loving Gladys is there to say that “he used to be a big shot.”
After the glorious celebration of the rise and fall of one luckless cabbie with ambition in The Roaring Twenties (1939), I’ll wait until next week to conclude this personal take on classic Hollywood’s use of the taxi driver to carry a host of mixed messages to their audience.
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