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Some people think that movie studios in the 1930s cranked out wall-to-wallwholesome entertainment, pictures on the order of Top Hat (1935) oranything featuring Shirley Temple and her amazing dimples. That type ofmovie was popular, of course, but Depression-era audiences were just aslikely to find gangsters with Tommy-guns on the big screen. WilliamKeighley's 'G' Men (1935) is a prime example of just how aggressivemovies could be in those days. Keighley and his writer, Seton I. Miller,even slyly altered James Cagney's violent persona in order to meetnewly-enacted Production Code standards while still giving the masses whatthey wanted.
Cagney plays "Brick" Davis, a lawyer who's put through law school by apowerful gangster (William Harrigan.) When Davis' friend - an FBI man whowas not legally allowed to carry a gun - is shot dead, Davis joins theBureau. Upon receiving his training, he travels to New York City and tellsthe mob, including his mentor, that he's coming to get them. Soon, Daviscaptures Public Enemy Number One (Edward Pawley) and wins the respect of hisfellow agents. Later, when several G-men are shot dead (in a scene that's aclose re-creation of the real-life "Kansas City Massacre" of 1933), a newlaw is enacted that allows FBI agents to use firearms.
Now we're talkin'! This was the crime movie equivalent of "virtuous"producers filming Bible stories because they could get away with illustrating the many types of sin complete with writhingbodies and sexual situations. As long as Cagney was ventilating criminals during hisbrutal outbursts, everything was hunky-dory with the Hays Office. Soventilate he did.
'G' Men was Hollywood's attempt to once again make heroes out of thegood guys, after several years of audiences cheering for charismatic killersand thieves. Even though Cagney was originally one of those killers, hisvolatile acting style had a way of winning over viewers. Will Rogers oncesaid of the actor, "Every time I see him work, it looks to me like a bunchof firecrackers going off."
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was thrilled with all the free publicitygenerated by 'G' Men. Hoover, of course, was a big blowhard who wasnever shy about promoting his own myth. He was eventually so taken withthis sort of picture, he actually lobbied Franklin Roosevelt to let the FBIopen its own movie studio. Roosevelt, needless to say, didn't think much ofthe idea.
Cagney's unexpected switch to the right side of the law was played to thehilt by Warner Brothers' publicity department. Given the tone of'G' Men's newspaper ads, you'd think he was saving souls instead ofmerely shooting character actors: "Public Enemy Becomes 'Soldier ofthe Law'! Hollywood's Most Famous Bad Man Joins the G-Men and Halts theMarch of Crime!" The hyperbole worked wonders. 'G' Men was such a bighit, Warner Brothers would periodically re-release it to rake in a few morebucks.
It may have been way over the top, but not everything about 'G' Men wasmake-believe. There's a moment during the picture when Cagney's characteris hiding behind a stack of logs while the bad guys fire away. It looksutterly convincing, and it should- Keighley insisted on using real bulletswhile he filmed it! Incredibly enough, this wasn't the first time Cagneyhad been shot at with live ammo on-camera. But it scared the hell out ofhim, and he decided it would be the last.
Three years later, while filming Angels with Dirty Faces (1938),Cagney refused to stand for a one-shot when director Michael Curtiz insistedon firing actual bullets. "I got out of the scene," Cagney later said, "andBurke, the professional machine gunner, fired the shots. One of the bulletshit the steel edge of the window, was deflected, and went right through thewall where my head had been." Had Cagney played along with Curtiz,Angels with Dirty Faces, and a great actor's life, would have endedsomewhere in the middle. AndYankee Doodle Dandy (1942), for which both Cagney and Curtiz later wonOscars, might not have even been made!
Directed by: William Keighley
Screenplay: Seton I. Miller
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Art Direction: John Hughes
Editor: Jack Killifer
Principal Cast: James Cagney ("Brick" Davis), Ann Dvorak (Jean Morgan),Robert Armstrong (Jeff McCord), Lloyd Nolan (Hugh Farrell), William Harrigan(McKay), Edward Pawley (Danny Leggett), Regis Toomey (Eddie Buchanan).
BW-87m. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara