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A Lion Is in the Streets (1953) represents something of a real-life riddle.
It has what would appear to be a nearly impeccable pedigree. Director Raoul Walsh was a legendary figure in Golden Age Hollywood. He would soon come to be hailed by the French New Wave critics as an auteur. For his part, James Cagney was so profoundly popular a performer that he remains today one of the precious few actors of his generation to enjoy continued 21st century name recognition.
Individually these two men were responsible for countless classics; together they had made towering art. For A Lion Is in the Streets they would be surrounded by familiar faces, talented collaborators and like-minded spirits. And perhaps most importantly (for those of you hanging on that word "auteur"), this project was no misbegotten fancy imposed upon them by unthinking studio bosses, but a practically independent project they themselves initiated and maintained exclusive control over.
And yet despite this impressive heritage, the film itself became an instantly reviled source of regret. Like rueful gamblers awakening from a bad bender determined to forget the events of the night before, the makers of A Lion Is in the Streets proceeded to bury all memory of that film, as if it had never happened.
When, for example, Anne Francis went to pen her autobiography, she simply skipped over her one collaboration with Walsh and Cagney, even though they were arguably the most significant Hollywood figures she ever encountered.
The American film press proved complicit in this act of revisionist history. In the years to come, Walsh and Cagney would be interviewed and biographized, by writers who would carefully avoid any mention of Lion. By gentleman's agreement, it slipped into the darkest shadows of posterity.
Which brings us to our riddle: is it really as bad as all that?
Cagney was coming off the high of John Ford's What Price Glory (1952), and his brother William was developing a variety of projects to serve as potential follow-ups. Together, the brothers Cagney operated their own independent production company, Cagney Productions, with Bill as the business manager and Jimmy the front-end talent.
Bill had bought up a number of literary properties, since that was what good producers did in those days. But Jimmy thought a lot of these were just unsuited to his peculiar scene persona--things like Only the Valiant, and Bugles in the Afternoon. Bill was trying too hard to chase that What Price Glory magic, and Jimmy convinced him to sell those projects to other producers and other stars, and pocket the cash.
Cash that could go to filming the one book that both Cagneys thought was worth hanging on to: Adria Locke Langley's 1945 book A Lion Is in the Streets.
Practically every reader to have encountered Ms. Langley's novel and recorded their reaction agreed that it was an execrable thing: hackneyed characters in caricatured situations speaking atrociously written dialogue. Based on such reviews you may well ask who in their right mind would pay good money to acquire the screen rights to such a thing.
By "good money," I mean the Cagneys handed Ms. Langley $250,000 in 1945 and then spent the next eight years paying other writers to rework its contents into a workable screenplay. In the end Luther Davis would receive the credit as writer, for a product whose sloppiness reveals multiple anonymous hands.
The curious allure of the book has less to do with any literary aspects of Langley's prose and more with its content. What she penned was a thinly veiled fictionalization of the life of Huey Long. And there was its singular appeal.
I'll spare you the urge to rush to Wikipedia: the basic contours of the Huey Long story are reasonably represented by the events of the movie. A poor Louisiana boy who works his way up from peddler to self-taught lawyer, populist firebrand and demagogic politician, victim of an assassin's bullet. The basic stuff is inherently dramatic, but there was more to it than that.
Long exposed some troubling fault lines in American politics--unresolved tensions between rich and poor, urban and rural, white collar and blue, capital and labor. These things had always been an undercurrent of American life, but in Long's day they were the causes of violence, and in 1953 they had been elevated to the level of an epic struggle for the fate of the world.
I'm talking about the Cold War, and the ideological conflict between left and right. Long represented the "wrong" side of this struggle, the lefty side that now America was rallying against--yet he did so in a fundamentally sympathetic way, advocating for the rights of the poor and the oppressed. As if that contradiction wasn't enough to give the Huey Long story some deep cultural resonance, consider this: the recent World War had been fought to put down people who, like Long, had a gift for manipulating the passions of mobs to their own ends. And, having vanquished the demagogues of Europe in the name of human equality, Americans had come home to a growing Civil Rights movement demanding the same values to be demonstrated here. Everywhere an average American turned, there were conflicts between competing values, and an anxiety about the boundaries between activism and demagoguery.
It's easy to see how the Cagneys might see in this material the makings of a potent film.
Of course, that was the trap. This was not the Huey Long story, remember, but a fictionalized retelling. If the idea had been to cast Jimmy Cagney as Huey Long and do a moderately faithful bio-pic, then the historical aspect could have bolstered any aesthetic wobbles. But without the real Huey Long serving as a backstop, the film gradually wandered further and further off-track.
Long was too controversial a figure for a mainstream 1950s movies. This was an era of Red Scares, Blacklists, and other colorful metaphors for unrelieved paranoia. Long was too complex a figure for such times. Somewhere along the lines (the implication is that Walsh instituted the changes; the record is too incomplete to establish this with certainty), the already clumsy plot of Langley's novel was blunted even further. The resulting screenplay fell between two stools. It presumed a grandiosity it never earned, while undercutting its own most epic qualities. It was the cinematic equivalent of a 13 year-old girl dressed up in her mother's clothes: too old and too young at the same moment.
It should also be noted that A Lion Is in the Streets suffered by comparison to the similar yet superior production All the King's Men (1949), a few years earlier.
Which is not to say that Lion lacks for talented input. Cagney had the good sense to tap Raoul Walsh as his director--Walsh had once described him as "one of the most dynamic performers in motion pictures," a man with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship. "Jimmy, I can honestly say, was the best actor I ever directed," said Walsh. And for his part, Jimmy Cagney felt the best movie he ever made was White Heat (1949), directed by Walsh.
Walsh in turn then brought on cinematographer Harry Stradling to photograph the proceedings in gorgeous Technicolor, and the esteemed Franz Waxman to compose the score. The cast was filled out with brilliant character actors, including Barbara Hale and Lon Chaney, Jr.
Completing the vague family-reunion vibe of the project, the Cagney brothers brought in their sister Jeanne to play the woman who shoots Jimmy in the end, replacing actress Priscilla Gillette at the last minute.
Looking back, Bill Cagney attributed the film's poor showing to Jimmy himself. In Bill's estimation, Jimmy's power as a star was the ability to invoke audience sympathy for even the nastiest of characters. But in this instance, Bill thought Jimmy had failed to imbue this role with those sympathetic qualities.
"I think it was deliberate," Bill Cagney said, "I think he was so out of tune with Huey Long, who he was playing--he hated him so--that he did not get the audience to go along with him like he could when he was playing the worst killer."
A Lion Is in the Streets would be the last production by Cagney Productions. Bill returned to what he did best, which was being his brother's manager. Jimmy returned to what he did best, as a growling star in other people's movies.
Walsh's career may have already peaked (with Cagney, on White Heat), but the coming years would yet find him making some notable pictures like Battle Cry (1955), and The Naked and the Dead (1958). Cagney in turn would consider the half dozen films he made after Lion to be, maybe not his best work, but among his most personally and professionally satisfying. Neither man had any interest in revisiting A Lion Is in the Streets, and let its memory quietly fade away.
Producer: William Cagney
Director: Raoul Walsh
Screenplay: Luther Davis; Adria Locke Langley (novel)
Cinematography: Harry Stradling
Music: Franz Waxman
Film Editing: George Amy
Cast: James Cagney (Hank Martin), Barbara Hale (Verity Wade), Anne Francis (Flamingo McManamee), Warner Anderson (Jules Bolduc), John McIntire (Jeb Brown), Jeanne Cagney (Jennie Brown), Lon Chaney (Spurge McManamee), Frank McHugh (Frank Rector), Larry Keating (Robert L. Castleberry IV), Onslow Stevens (Guy Polli).
By David Kalat
Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It.
Kingsley Canham, The Hollywood Professionals Volume 1: Michael Curtiz, Raoul Walsh, Henry Hathaway.
Anne Francis and Florence Bird, Anne Francis: An Autobiography.
John McCabe, Cagney.
Richard Schickel, The Men Who Made the Movies.
Raoul Walsh, Each Man in His Time.