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When Jimmy Cagney came to Hollywood from Broadway in 1930, it wasn't just a case of him being ready for movies. A new kind of movie was ready for him. Before him, silent movies often seemed like dreams. Talkies, after Cagney, came on like firecrackers. His machine-gun verbal rhythms made them exciting. His tough streets-of-New-York cadences made him a gutter everyman. He expressed his approach to film acting succinctly: "Never relax. If you relax, the audience relaxes." Even as he gunned down gangland enemies, audiences were on his side. He embodied, in an outlaw way, Americans fighting back against an establishment that had betrayed them into a Depression.
He didn't have to knock on studio doors. He and Joan Blondell came to Hollywood with three-week contracts at $500 a week to transport intact the qualities they brought to a Broadway melodrama, Penny Arcade, retitled Sinners' Holiday. Hardly had it finished shooting than he got another three-week contract for another gangster quickie: The Doorway to Hell (1930). In his second film, Cagney was billed sixth, playing the street-smart right-hand man to Chicago crimelord Lew Ayres. If it were more memorable, it would be remembered for its spectacular miscasting. Even Cagney couldn't resist remarking in his memoir, Cagney by Cagney, how ridiculous it was to have one of the prettiest young men in Hollywood cast as a ruthless, murdering gangster baron, a latter-day Al Capone.
It only makes sense if you recall that Ayres was just coming off All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and was hot at the box office. In fact, his name did sell enough tickets to put the film in the black. It's not just Ayres' prettiness that works against him it's his misplaced sensitivity. Soft, refined, wistful, he seems at odds with his character's world. The script calls for his crimelord to want to get out of the crime biz and, like Capone, retire to his Florida mansion after his kid brother comes to grief because of his crimes. Ayres' gangster comes to life only once, summoning emotive quality when he drives through his old neighborhood, bitterly recalling how his siblings died of tuberculosis contracted by drinking milk bought from a filthy shack near the tenement in which they lived. Otherwise, though, he seems to keep wishing he were somewhere else as an actor.
What life the film has comes from Cagney, saddled with a ridiculous name, Mileaway, more suitable to a racehorse. He never seems to wish he were anywhere but in the moment. Filled with cocky street smarts, and an abundance of the energy the film sorely needs, he's the news here. Mileaway is a bit of a heel, climbing through the ranks, but two-timing his boss with the latter's girl. As played by Dorothy Matthews, we can sympathize with the poor floozy. She's obviously much more comfortable with Cagney's confident operator than with her remote boyfriend and, later, husband. In a desperate phone call from Florida, she tells Cagney how she's bored to the point of feeling buried alive, and what a downer it is hanging around with Ayres' suddenly occupationless dud she likens to an ex-champ. The trouble is we never were convinced he was a champ, at least not a gangland champ. It took Hollywood a while to figure out the Godfather persona Edward G. Robinson's Capone surrogate in Scarface (1932) usurped the gang throne from Osgood Perkins, an actor better suited to playing the Godfather's lawyer!
The problem with The Doorway to Hell is that it never really keeps the promise it makes to audiences, to jolt them out of their seats. It wanders halfheartedly through the soul-sickness of the character who should be a take-charge figure, but isn't. Cagney, on the other hand, is always fun, starting when, assigned to rub out a mob enemy, he snarls to a poolhall flunky: "Gimme my violin case, willya?" He's at home in the world of the film as the effete Ayres is not. Cagney also gets one of the two iterations of the script's reach for poetry ("You're gonna treat yourself to a handful of clouds if you don't watch your step."). Apart from the force lost by the simple act of repetition, Ayres' later reading of the same line illustrates graphically the difference between Cagney's snap and his sag. (A Handful of Clouds was the title of the story from which the film came and which served as the film's title in Britain.) The pared-down Warner esthetic that worked so well for its films ripped from tabloids, suited Cagney's rapid-fire approach.
Still, there are bits of elegance as we're reminded that the film dates from a time when men commonly wore tailored suites, collars, ties and hats. Cagney looks sharper than his boss. But while Ayres projected misplaced soulfulness, Cagney matched his rat-a-tat vocal deliveries, delivered with chipper wiseguy knowingness, to moves subtler than they may have seemed. There's nothing in The Doorway to Hell that's the equivalent of the little sidestep he executes when he meets Jean Harlow in The Public Enemy (1931), much less his ballet of death when he staggers down a street, body riddled with bullets, to expire on the steps of a church in The Roaring Twenties (1939), inspiring Jean-Luc Godard in Breathless (1960) among a host of other filmmakers.
But while psychologically his characters plant their feet confidently in the space around them, he always seems to be acting on the balls of his feet, ready for movement. The Cagney who became the urban gangster archetype, whose whole career seemed to be one long bravado-filled dance, through which he snarls and erupts with smiling, charming resilience and velocity, didn't begin with Public Enemy. It was right there from the start in his young punk bootlegger in Sinners' Holiday and his henchman, whom you keep thinking should have been running the gang, in Doorway to Hell. Cagney's performance wasn't lost on William Wellman, who recast Cagney from a lesser part to the title role in The Public Enemy, two films later. After which, of course, Cagney never looked back.
Director: Archie Mayo
Screenplay: George Rosener; Rowland Brown (story, "A Handful of Clouds")
Cinematography: Barney McGill
Film Editing: Robert Crandall
Cast: Louie Lamarr (Lew Ayres), Sam Marconi the florist (Charles Judels, scenes deleted), Doris (Dorothy Mathews), Jackie Lamarr (Leon Janney), Captain Pat O'Grady (Robert Elliot), Steve Mileaway (James Cagney).
BW-78m. Closed captioning.
by Jay Carr
Cagney by Cagney, James Cagney, Doubleday, 1973
Cagney: The Actor as Auteur, Patrick McGilligan, Da Capo, 1975
Cagney, John McCabe, Knopf, 1997