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James Cagney
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The St. Louis Kid

The St. Louis Kid

In The St. Louis Kid (1934), his nineteenth picture, James Cagney plays a truck driver who gets embroiled in a "milk war" between a trucking company and striking dairymen - a topical subject of the time. The trucking company is determined to maintain its milk shipments even though the dairymen are on strike. When a dairy worker is murdered, Cagney is accused of the crime and must find the real killer to clear himself. He also must rescue his kidnapped girlfriend (Patricia Ellis) in this zippy little film which runs barely over an hour.

Production began on July 16, 1934. On July 19, Warner Bros. production chief Hal Wallis sent director Ray Enright a memo, which read in part: "Your first two days' dailies, generally, look very good. The action is good and your set-ups are OK but there is one major criticism and that is in Cagney's characterization... I know that, when he first read the script, he objected to playing another tough character and I can see that he is doing his best to soften him up and make him as much of a gentleman as possible...It is true that we don't want to play him as tough as he usually plays these things as there is naturally an objection to slugging dames and all of that stuff today but, at the same time, we don't want to lose Cagney's real characterization which is a semi-tough character... It is going to hurt the picture considerably unless you change immediately."

In a follow-up memo, Wallis wrote: "I want you to call me...when you get this and let me know if you are directing the picture or if Cagney is directing it." A snide remark, to be sure, but it illustrates the power struggle that often went on as both the studio and the star battled over shaping the star's on-screen persona.

As for Cagney, he later wrote in his autobiography on a tangential issue: "By the time I was ready to do The St. Louis Kid, I was so fed up with walking in and punching people again and again that I called in the makeup man and had him wrap my hands in bandages. In the picture's opening scene, I come out of a courtroom with my hands in this mummy wrap and let it be known to my perennial sidekick, Allen Jenkins, that I was through hitting for him... For the rest of the picture I went around hitting people with my head, all of this in a specific way to vary the old punching formula. I can still hear the reedy voice of St. Louis Kid's producer, 'When are you going to take those bandages off and start punching right?' This gentleman rather failed to understand what I was trying to do. In his book, I was simply trying to foul up his living."

The New York Times joked of Cagney's new punching technique: "He now uses his brain in the most direct fashion he can think of." Some critics complained that the picture would have been far more interesting if it had delved more deeply into the politics of the milk wars, but almost all admired the film's fast pace. Many also noted that the movie inverts a memorable feature of some of Cagney's previous films: "The St. Louis Kid shows James Cagney receiving a cuff on the jaw from his leading lady instead of giving her one," observed Time. "He can take it as well as dish it out," said The New York Times. "He permits himself to be slapped vigorously by Patricia Ellis, [and his] response is limited in violence to what the cinema literateurs picturesquely refer to as a dirty look."

Supporting player Allen Jenkins, a fixture in working-class Warner melodramas and comedies of the era, appeared with Cagney five times, usually as the comic sidekick. In the book Warner Brothers Presents, film historian Ted Sennett wrote vividly of Jenkins: "Cabbie, gangster, manager, sidekick, he had the battered but tenacious look of the urban animal who had been around - and intends to stay around."

Co-star Patricia Ellis, a now-forgotten actress of low-budget 1930s Warner Bros. movies, was a last-minute replacement for Ann Dvorak, who had herself replaced Margaret Lindsay.

Producer: Samuel Bischoff (uncredited)
Director: Ray Enright
Screenplay: Warren Duff and Seton I. Miller; Frederick Hazlitt Brennan (story "The Perfect Week-End")
Cinematography: Sid Hickox
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Music: M.K. Jerome and Bernhard Kaun (uncredited)
Film Editing: Clarence Kolster
Cast: James Cagney (Eddie Kennedy), Patricia Ellis (Ann Reid), Allen Jenkins (Buck 'Bucky' Willets), Robert Barrat (John Benson), Hobart Cavanaugh (Mr. Richardson)

by Jeremy Arnold



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