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'G' Men

'G' Men(1935)

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The popularity of early sound gangster films such as Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932) alarmed many self-appointed guardians of public morality, who feared the movies glamorized criminal behavior. Criticism of the gangster genre became part of a rising tide of complaints against Hollywood's perceived immorality. Conscious of their public image and fearful that the mounting pressure could lead to censorship laws, the studios announced in July of 1934 that all movies would have to be approved by the Production Code Administration. Headed by Joseph Breen, the office would enforce the rigid rules of the Production Code, a set of moral guidelines and principles the industry had established in 1930 to appease critics but had, until now, largely ignored. With its insistence on the upholding of law and morality, the Code appeared to spell doom for the gangster film, but Warner Bros., the studio that had virtually created the genre, devised a way to reinvent it: shift the focus to the lawmen fighting the gangsters, while retaining most of the action and violence that thrilled audiences. The result was films like "G" Men (1935), starring their former number one gangster, James Cagney, as a crusading officer with the Department of Justice. Now available on DVD from Warner Home Video, the film is both terrific entertainment and a fascinating example of Hollywood facing a transition period.

The story: Struggling young attorney James "Brick" Davis (Cagney) closes his practice and signs up with the Department of Justice's recently-formed Bureau of Investigation after his friend Eddie Buchanan (Regis Toomey), an agent for the Bureau, is killed trying to apprehend gangster Danny Leggett (Edward Prawley). Raised on the streets, Davis' intimate knowledge of many of the top hoods proves indispensable in their capture, but it raises the suspicions of his superior Jeff McCord (Robert Armstrong). McCord learns that Davis' education was paid for by bootlegger "Mac" McKay (William Harrigan) and is prepared to have him removed from the service, but relents when the tyro agent passionately explains his desire to avenge Buchanan and serve the law. As the battle between the gangsters and the Bureau heats up, Davis' past ties create an increasing number of personal complications: his now-honest benefactor McKay meets with tragedy and old flame Jean Morgan (Ann Dvorak) is discovered to be married to top mobster Brad Collins (Barton MacLane). Davis is on the brink of resigning when news comes in that Collins has kidnapped the woman he loves--Jeff's sister Kay McCord (Margaret Lindsay). Brushing aside doctors and climbing out of his hospital bed, Brick rushes to rescue Kay and have a final showdown with the ruthless crime lord.

"G" Men delivers all the fights, car chases and shootouts a gangster movie fan could want, but differs from its recent predecessors by painting the hoods as one-dimensional, unappealing thugs instead of charismatic figures fighting their way to the top in a corrupt world. Furthermore, they are demoted from lead characters to supporting players. Taking center stage are the G-Men of the title, celebrated as a morally righteous bulwark against a tidal wave of crime. Much of the story takes the form of a police procedural, a sub-genre that would not become fully developed for another ten years or so when Twentieth Century Fox kicked off a string of pseudo-documentary crime films with The House on 92nd Street (1945). Early scenes depict the training methods of the Bureau of Investigation, the efficiency of the organization and the advanced scientific techniques used to analyze evidence. (Science is always emphasized in these films to impress the audiences with how sophisticated crime fighting has become, but there's also the subtle suggestion that the Bureau's men are never wrong and won't ever misuse their power because all their decisions are validated scientifically.) Given that the film offers a glowingly positive portrayal of the Bureau and argues strongly for rewriting laws to grant it greater authority, it's surprising to learn from Richard Jewell's commentary track that Warner Bros. received no cooperation from the government during production. However, Bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover cast aside any reservations he may have had once he saw the finished product and endorsed the film enthusiastically. Thanks in large part to the success of "G" Men, the FBI started to view popular culture as an excellent method to mold its public image and began eagerly cooperating with the creators of movies, radio shows and comic books.

William Keighley's direction is assured and polished. His work isn't as stylish or snappily paced as that of Warners' Michael Curtiz, but Keighley was a solid professional who enjoyed a long career at the studio, including four more films with Cagney (Each Dawn I Die (1939), Torrid Zone (1940), The Fighting 69th (1940) and The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)). The opening scenes do a good job of quickly introducing us to Cagney's Brick Davis and his background, including the gangsters he grew up around and Jean Morgan, who is working as a performer in McKay's nightclub. To assure audiences that Cagney is still the same tough, streetwise mug he was in his gangster pictures in spite of being on the right side of the law, Seton I. Miller's script has him decking a gangster in the opening scene merely for suggesting that he might be doing shady work for McKay. Once Davis joins the Department of Justice the pace slackens a bit due to some formulaic plotting, with the Brick Davis-Jeff McCord relationship clearly modeled after military films in which a brash young recruit and a crusty sergeant grow to have a grudging respect for one another. Brick also has a standard "meet cute" scene with Kay, and predictably their early scenes together play up her annoyance with his smart-alecky manner. (Movie fans instantly recognize this as a sign that they are destined to fall in love.) After an agent is killed while transporting an arrested gangster, the film fortunately abandons the formulaic character development and kicks into high gear with a series of exciting action scenes, climaxing with the tense confrontation between Davis and Collins.

The driving force propelling the film along is, of course, James Cagney. Perhaps the most magnetic and vibrant actor of the era, Cagney plays his scenes with an unaffected emotional directness that is very appealing. Many stars might have come across as weak in the scene where Davis begs McCord not to drop him from the Bureau; Cagney impresses us with his sincerity, passion and humility. He is able to express a great deal with an economy of means. Note, for instance, the slow, mischievous smile he flashes Collins early in the film after the gangster threatens him with a gun. It reveals Brick's attitude at the moment more effectively than any dialogue. In action scenes, Cagney moves with a litheness influenced by his dance training, but always makes it look completely natural. Throughout the film he is effortlessly charming, ably demonstrating why he remains, to this day, one of the great Hollywood stars.

Cagney is surrounded by a capable supporting cast. The talented Ann Dvorak, memorable as Cesca in Scarface, is terrific as Jean, bringing humanity to what could have been a stock "gangster's moll" role; we're touched by her unrequited love for Brick. Margaret Lindsay, stuck with the comparatively colorless "good girl" part, does her best but can't quite spark her underwritten character to life. King Kong's Robert Armstrong is effective as Jeff McCord, avoiding "gruff tough guy" clich├ęs and balancing the character's determination and courage with intelligence and empathy. It's unfortunate that the success of the film appears to have done little to help his career; after "G" Men his resume is dominated by B movies and TV appearances. A young Lloyd Nolan has a small but memorable role as a government agent, foreshadowing his later appearances in The House on 92nd Street and The Street With No Name.

Warner Home Video's DVD of "G" Men features a flawless transfer of the 1949 reissue version of the film, which adds a brief prologue depicting an FBI agent (David Brian) preparing to show the film to a class to teach them how things were in the early days of the Bureau. The extras are plentiful. The viewer can watch the film by itself or with the "Warner Night at the Movies" option, in which the feature is preceded by a selection of short subjects: an excerpt from a newsreel about real G-Men; a trailer for Devil Dogs of the Air starring Cagney and Pat O'Brien; the comedy short subject The Old Gray Mayor, starring Bob Hope in a role resembling an early version of the comic persona he would cultivate in his later features; and Buddy the Gee Man, an early, cutesy black and white Looney Tune made before the Warners cartoons developed their distinctive, anarchic style. The aforementioned feature commentary by Richard Jewell strikes a good balance between covering the making of the film and discussing real-life events that influenced the storyline. A new 20-minute documentary, Morality and the Code: A How-To Manual for Hollywood, features film historians, actors, producers and directors discussing the Pre-Code era of filmmaking and the beginnings of the Breen Office. Rounding out the extras are the trailer for "G" Men, the short subject How I Play Golf by Bobby Jones No. 11: Practice Shots in which Cagney appears; and a rare, fascinating Warner Bros. blooper reel called Things You Never See on the Screen: Breakdowns of 1935.

"G" Men is available individually or as part of the Warner Bros. Pictures Tough Guys Collection, which also includes Bullets or Ballots, San Quentin, A Slight Case of Murder, Each Dawn I Die and City for Conquest.

For more information about "G" Men, visit Warner Video. To order "G" Men, go to TCM Shopping.

by Gary Teetzel