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After receiving praise for his work in Footlight Parade (1933), the only one of his five releases that year that he actually liked, James Cagney hoped to do more musicals and varied roles that expanded his range beyond the fast-talking, hot-tempered tough guy parts his home studio, Warner Brothers, constantly typecast him in. When he was handed the assignment for Jimmy the Gent, he was happy to be working with Michael Curtiz, a director he admired. But the role, he felt, was another clichd character part. As he put it in his biography, Cagney by Cagney (Doubleday, 1976), "They want another of those mugs, I'll really give them a mug." Whether to protest the studio's choice of vehicle or simply to give the character a visual distinction from all his others, Cagney had his hair shaved down to a nub all around his head, retaining only the locks on top and in front. He later said the scars that appear on the buzzed part of his scalp were added by a make-up man at his request. According to Cagney, Curtiz "damn near fainted when he saw that shaved head," and production boss Hal Wallis took the haircut as a personal affront.
The stunt likely did not sit well with his leading lady either, an up-and-coming young actress named Bette Davis. She and Cagney were actually on the same wavelength at the time, both determined to get better parts, although apparently they did little commiserating over their common lots during filming. In later years, they would be quick with praise and admiration for each other's work and integrity (and would appear together again, in The Bride Came COD, 1941). But at this point Davis was angry about her studio assignments and eager to get this assembly line "quickie" out of the way so she could honor her loan out to RKO for Of Human Bondage (1934), the film that finally earned her respect as an accomplished actress. With all that on her mind, Davis was not amused by the antics of Warners' bad boy and refused to pose with him for publicity stills. "Her unhappiness seeped through to the rest of us, and she was a little hard to get along with," Cagney later wrote. "But she was still a pro and did her job beautifully, as she always did and always has done."
As for Davis, whatever her attitude may have been during the filming, she had high regard for her co-star and later said, "Jimmy had a vitality that matched my own, and he had wonderfully unpredictable little twists and catches and surprises in his technique that kept me on my toes. What a joy he was to play with! No placidity and false hauteur or phony poise about him! He was very much himself, at all times, so real, so true - would that I had more Jimmy Cagneys to play with!"
Seen today, Jimmy the Gent hardly seems the throwaway picture Cagney and Davis considered it, and in retrospect, there is nothing for them to be ashamed of. The picture provides Cagney with the opportunity to demonstrate his comedic skills while still giving audiences the scrappy, shady type of character that brought the actor his early success. Here he plays Jimmy Corrigan, an unscrupulous businessman best described as a "hearse chaser." Pouring over news stories about accidents, murders, disasters and ghastly deaths, he seeks to locate the missing heirs to fortunes, and when he can't find the true heir, he's not above concocting a fake one for a 50 percent cut of the estate. Davis is his erstwhile love interest, a former employee who has gone to work for an outwardly more respectable "genealogist," although it's soon apparent she still carries a torch for Jimmy and it's only his shifty ways that keep them apart. Davis is attractive and appealing in the role, matching Cagney line for line in verbal wit and dexterity. We even get an early glimpse of the trademark Davis intensity, as she clutches her new boss, who has offered to marry her, practically screaming into his ear, "Make me love you, make me love you!"
Jimmy the Gent performed well at the box office, and reviewers liked it, too. Variety called it "good for plenty of laughs...at breakneck speed," and even three years after its release, critic Otis Ferguson was writing about it, "If this wasn't the fastest little whirlwind of true life on the raw fringe, then I missed the other one."
This was Cagney's first full film with Curtiz, although the director had done some uncredited work on the earlier Cagney movie The Mayor of Hell (1933). They worked together three more times on some of Cagney's best roles: Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Captains of the Clouds (1942), and Cagney's Academy Award winner Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).
Director: Michael Curtiz
Producers: Hal B. Wallis, Robert Lord
Screenplay: Bertram Millhauser, based on the story "The Heir Chaser" by Ray Nazarro and Laird Doyle
Cinematography: Ira Morgan
Editing: Thomas Richards
Art Direction: Esdras Hartley
Original Music: Bernhard Kaun
Cast: James Cagney (Jimmy Corrigan), Bette Davis (Joan Martin), Allen Jenkins (Lou), Alan Dinehart (Charles Wallingham), Alice White (Mabel).
by Rob Nixon