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He Was Her Man

He Was Her Man

Only four years into his Warner Bros. contract, James Cagney was already chomping at the bit to get away when he made the 1934 crime drama He Was Her Man. The problems were two-fold: overwork and typecasting. This was the second of four films he would make that year and once again cast him as criminal, this time on the run from two partners he was trying to pay back for an act of betrayal. Discontent never tarnished his work ethic. He still put everything into the material. But his unhappiness would eventually lead to an attempt to break his studio contract.

At least He Was Her Man worked a few changes on the gangster formula. Much of the film is set in a California fishing village where Cagney hides out and much of the action revolves around his flirtation with a reformed streetwalker engaged to one of the fishermen. At least Cagney made his character, Flicker Hayes, noticeably different from the cocky gunmen who had made him a star. Since Hayes spends much of the film in hiding, Cagney toned down his performance, only allowing the occasional sneer to remind viewers that he was playing a man living outside the law. He also grew a moustache for the role.

Another consolation was the chance to work with Joan Blondell in their seventh film together. The two had met in 1929 when playwright-director George Kelly cast them in his Maggie the Magnificent. That play flopped, a first for the prolific Kelly, but the future stars' second play together, Penny Arcade, brought them to Hollywood when Al Jolson bought the screen rights and sold them to Warner Bros. Blondell's role as a streetwalker with a heart of gold in He Was Her Man represented her typecasting at Warner's, though she also played a long string of brassy chorus girls. Less rebellious than her co-star, she simply took what the studio offered her, though she would later confess that at the time she didn't even know what prostitutes did. Cagney used to kid her about her innocence, calling her "the most naïve sophisticate he'd ever seen in his life" (Blondell quoted in John Kobal, People Will Talk).

Providing strong support in He Was Her Man was Victor Jory, who had moved into character roles after being unsuccessfully groomed for stardom at Fox (where, admittedly, he played leading roles primarily in low-budget films). Jory's role as the decent fisherman who almost loses Blondell to Cagney was different from the more villainous roles, like Jonas Wilkerson in Gone with the Wind (1939), for which he would be best remembered. Despite juicy roles like Wilkerson and Oberon in Warner's all-star A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), he would find his best opportunities on stage. After a long Broadway run as a murderous husband in The Two Mrs. Carrolls, he moved into classical roles, first with Eva La Galliene's Civic Repertory Theatre and, in later years, at his son Jon's Actor's Theatre of Louisville. Eventually the Actor's Theatre would even name a performing space after the elder Jory.

Despite the talent assembled, He Was Her Man was not among Warner's or Cagney's most successful films. Critics were decidedly mixed, many complaining that Cagney's new moustache was far from flattering. Although Howard Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune praised him for "execut[ing] a characterization with such clarity and conviction that a poor plot becomes exciting and engaging through his participation," Variety's critic called his and Blondell's characters "human flotsam" and complained that their actions "may both alienate and confound the patrons."

He Was Her Man would fade from public view quickly, though not because of the mixed reviews. It was released in May 1934, just three months before the industry agreed to stricter enforcement of their self-censoring Production Code. The film's clear depiction of Blondell's character as a prostitute was a violation of the Code, which would keep Warner Bros. from re-issuing the picture after its initial run. It also kept the film off television for years, depriving fans of a chance to see Cagney in a different type of gangster role.

Producer: Robert Lord
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Screenplay: Tom Buckingham, Niven Busch
Based on a story by Robert Lord
Cinematography: George Barnes
Art Direction: Anton Grot Music: Leo F. Forbstein
Cast: James Cagney (Flicker Hayes), Joan Blondell (Rose Lawrence), Victor Jory (Nick Gardella), Frank Craven (Pop Sims), Harold Huber (J.C. Ward), Ralf Harolde (Red Deering), John Qualen (Dutch), Bradley Page (Dan Curly), Dennis O'Keefe (Reporter).
BW-71m.

by Frank Miller VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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