Cagney and the Code: Winner Take All (1932) and Here Comes the Navy (1934)

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James Cagney was a destabilizing force, able to enliven stock scenarios with his grab bag of gestural curlicues, which could snap from playful to menacing in the curl of his lip. A professional boxer on the set of Winner Take All (1932) was impressed with Cagney’s fighting footwork, and asked if he’d ever been trained. Cagney responded, “Tommy, I’m a dancer. Moving around is no problem.” Whether it was the sneering violence of his grapefruit-to-the-face in Public Enemy or the grace in which he spins into a dance hall in Other Men’s Women, the pre-code Warner Brothers films of James Cagney are repositories of the infinite variety of his “moving around.” The enforcement of the production code of 1934 limited the range of Cagney’s expressive possibilities, as evidenced in his first post-code film, the subdued armed forces comedy, Here Comes the Navy (1934), which was duly nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. The Warner Archive has released both Winner Take All and Here Comes the Navy on DVD, lending an opportunity to see how Cagney handled the transition into post-code Hollywood.

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Something Tough: Body And Soul and Force Of Evil

(L-R) Abraham Polonsky, George Barnes, Jack Warren (?) and John Garfield on the set of Force of Evil

“According to materials contained in the PCA [Production Code Administration] files in the AMPAS Library, PCA director Joseph I. Breen objected to ‘the completely anti-social basic theme of this story, which presents wrong as right and right as wrong, in violation of both the letter and spirit of the Production Code.’” -Force of Evil entry, American Film Institute Catalog

In 1946, John Garfield’s contract with Warner Brothers expired. Instead of re-signing, or moving to another studio, Garfield signed on with the independent Enterprise Productions. Bringing together a group of artists who were communists, or communist sympathizers, Enterprise made an inflammatory group of nine films before folding, after which many of its members were blacklisted, including directors Robert Rossen and Abraham Polonsky. Two of their features, Body and Soul (1947) and Force of Evil (1948), respectively, ended up in the Republic Pictures library, and are being released today on Blu-Ray from Olive Films, in strong transfers. Garfield was eager to make a statement with Enterprise, telling PM Magazine in this period that:

I want to make pictures with a point – I know I gotta continue to appear in pictures like Postman [The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946]. I know I gotta retain my position of value at the box office, but I also want to be available in between for the kind of picture that’s harder to do but may turn out to be more interesting. Maybe in the next few years I’ll make so many mistakes I’ll kill my career. I can afford the chance. There’s fear in Hollywood about tackling dangerous subjects, difficult subjects. I feel I owe it to myself to be available when some enterprising people want to try something tough.

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Working Class Warriors: Down and Out

Years ago I was a student of art history at Ohio State University where I discovered the boxing paintings of Thomas Eakins in a class on American art. Eakins, who broke with academic conventions and elitist views of art, pushed toward a realism that actually offended sensibilities of the era. What fascinated me about the three paintings was the way they revealed the social history of the period, especially in regard to class. The paintings, Taking the Count, Between Rounds, and Salutat, were completed in the 1890s during the Gilded Age, when an increasingly  industrialized economy was dominated by ultra-rich robber barons who depended on and often exploited the immigrant and working classes for labor. The differences between the classes is depicted in Between Rounds by the physical distance between them: The working class and immigrants watch the fight in the cheap seats high above and far away from the middle and upper classes on the floor or in the boxes. Fighter Billy Smith rests in the corner of the ring as his second Billy McCarney fans him with a towel, and manager Ellwood McCloskey offers encouragement. Smith’s neck and face are suntanned and ruddy while his body and legs look pale, revealing Smith to be an outdoor laborer during the regular work week. As a boxer at The Arena in Philadelphia, Smith displays the physicality and skill that is admired by the very classes who employ and exploit him during the workweek. And through boxing, Smith is attempting to advance his position in society and make something of himself with the only path open to him and the only tool available—his body.

Studying boxing in relation to social class as reflected in Eakins’s trilogy of paintings gave me a respect for the sport. Boxing—a mano e mano competition in which minimally clad contestants beat each other for money—doesn’t try to mask its brutality as do other popular competitive sports. There’s no ball, sticks, hoops, or pucks to hide behind; no pretense that spectators are watching for the finer points of “the game.” There is no equipment in the arena other than the boxers’ own bodies and no protective gear beyond the padded gloves. It’s simply brutal; that’s why spectators watch and that’s why it’s not the sport of kings.

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