Monday, November 23, 2009

He Was Her Man (1934)

I just watched the 1934 James Cagney movie He Was Her Man, and it wasn’t very good. James Cagney was kinda boring as Flicker Hayes, the completely reformed safecracker who goes on the lam to San Francisco and its outskirts; he didn’t really yell or punch anybody! Again, he wore that stupid mustache but it didn’t bother me as much as it did in Ceiling Zero. Joan Blondell was also pretty good but she seemed pretty sad throughout the film, like I am when I get preoccupied. Alas, this would be their last film together—and this was kinda a bad excuse of a film to end their seven-film partnership. (I wish their on-screen partnership gained as much recognition as Tracy and Hepburn’s, Astaire and Rogers’, and Bogart and Bacall’s.)
This film was the first to bump off James Cagney since The Public Enemy, and the characters and the endings could not be more dissimilar. Flicker Hayes was Cagney’s first ex-criminal to reform completely. After doing his time, he returns to society to put the finger on mobsters, aid a young woman in distress, act with consideration toward others and—ultimately—sacrifice his love and life. Perhaps Cagney’s constant complaining [for better scripts] finally resulted in this script; and though he again plays a cocky wiseguy, he achieves true redemption by the film’s end. James Cagney actually commits no real criminal acts in this film; he only flees to San Francisco since the gang he formerly worked with conspires to kill him.

At least He Was Her Man worked a few changes on the gangster formula. Much of the film is set in a California fishing village where Cagney hides out and much of the action revolves around his flirtation with a reformed streetwalker engaged to one of the fishermen. At least Cagney made his character, Flicker Hayes, noticeably different from the cocky gunmen who had made him a star. Since Hayes spends much of the film in hiding, Cagney toned down his performance, only allowing the occasional sneer to remind viewers that he was playing a man living outside the law. He also grew a mustache for the role.

Providing strong support in He Was Her Man was Victor Jory, who had moved into character roles after being unsuccessfully groomed for stardom at Fox (where, admittedly, he played leading roles primarily in low-budget films). Jory’s role as the decent fisherman who almost loses Blondell to Cagney was different from the more villainous roles, like Jonas Wilkerson in Gone with the Wind (1939), for which he would be best remembered.

Despite the talent assembled, He Was Her Man was not among Warner’s or Cagney’s most successful films. Critics were decidedly mixed, many complaining that Cagney’s new mustache was far from flattering. He Was Her Man would fade from public view quickly, though not because of the mixed reviews. It was released in May 1934, just three months before the industry agreed to stricter enforcement of their self-censoring Production Code. The film’s clear depiction of Blondell’s character as a prostitute was a violation of the Code, which would keep Warner Bros. from re-issuing the picture after its initial run. It also kept the film off television for years, depriving fans of a chance to see Cagney in a different type of gangster role. I wouldn’t really recommend this film for any James Cagney fan since it’s so bleak and depressing and a real turkey. Happy commenting!!
(Next blog: Something to Sing About [1937])
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