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During the studio system days of Hollywood, official sequels were scarce. Instead, studios would cast actors in roles or character types which had already proven popular with audiences in previous hits. One such movie was The Toast of New York (1937), RKO's biographical film of the life of Jim Fisk, a rapscallion of Wall Street in the 1860's.
Edward Arnold, best known for his villainous roles in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941), had just starred in a big hit, Come and Get It (1936), playing a Nineteenth Century lumber baron. To cash in on his popular success, RKO starred him in this movie as another financial wizard in period costume.
What added spice to the production was the supporting cast. Playing the secondary male lead was Cary Grant, then just on the cusp of stardom, which would soon arrive in the movies Topper (1937) and The Awful Truth (1937). Cast as Arnold's mistress Josie Mansfield was Frances Farmer, also a rising star, but one who courted controversy during the making of the film and would later experience personal tragedies as her star plummeted and she was wrongfully incarcerated in a mental institution.
Farmer later wrote in her autobiography Will There Really be a Morning? (1972) that she battled to bring reality to her role: "Josie Mansfield had been a designing harlot, it's true, but she was also a woman of pathos in her desire for respectability...Instead of a cheap vixen, they wanted an ingnue fresh from Sunnybrook. So I rebelled. I argued with the producer. I fought with the director, and got into verbal knockdown drag-out battles with the writers...But they won, and I ended up beautifully costumed, and Josie Mansfield was safely tucked into a chastity belt."
Farmer was quite correct that the finished film of The Toast of New York bares only a slight resemblance to the facts of Jim Fisk's life. What follows is a recounting of the historical events that were the basis of the film.
James Fisk first made his fortune during the Civil War, buying cotton on the cheap from destitute farmers in the South whose lands had recently been occupied by Union troops, then selling it at a highly inflated price to a cotton-starved Europe. After the war, Fisk and Jay Gould became partners with financier Daniel Drew and seized control of the Erie Railroad. Cornelius Vanderbilt, trying to build a transportation monopoly, tried to force them out by buying a controlling share of the stock, unaware that Fisk and Gould were simply printing more stock certificates for the railroad and dumping them on the market. It was just the beginning of one legally dubious financial scheme after another leading to Drew, Fisk and Gould attempting to corner the gold market in September 1869. The attempt failed and the fallout caused the stock market to crash in an event called Black Friday. Hundreds of investors were ruined and the economic disaster pulled down European stocks as well as American.
Fisk was by now considered a public enemy but his wealth bought him political protection that enabled him to treat the law and Congress with contempt. Meanwhile he lived the high life, taking a succession of mistresses while indulging his passion for grand opera. Josie Mansfield was the favorite of his mistresses but became the one who brought about his downfall. An argument over her and some business transactions led Edward Stokes to shoot Fisk in the Grand Central Hotel in New York January 6, 1972. Fisk died the next day.
Director: Rowland V. Lee
Producer: Edward Small
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols, Joel Sayre, John Twist, based on Robber Barons by Matthew Josephson and The Book of Daniel Drew by Bouck White
Cinematography: Peverell Marley
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Musical Director: Nathaniel Shilkret
Editing: Samuel Beetley, George Hively
Cast: Edward Arnold (Jim Fisk), Cary Grant (Nick Boyd), Frances Farmer (Josie Mansfield), Jack Oakie (Luke), Donald Meek (Daniel Drew), Thelma Leeds (Fleurique).
by Brian Cady