The Time of Your Life
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Based on William Saroyan's 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Time of Your Life (1948) was a labor of love and family affair for James Cagney, who starred as Saroyan's barroom philosopher Joe. Cagney's sister Jeanne co-starred, and his brother William produced. There's not a lot of plot in The Time of Your Life, just a group of quirky regulars at a San Francisco waterfront bar sitting around talking. There's Nick, the bartender (William Bendix); Kitty, a streetwalker (Jeanne Cagney); Harry, a dancer (Paul Draper); and a garrulous old-timer who calls himself Kit Carson (James Barton) and spins tales of the Old West. At the center of it all sits Cagney's champagne-swilling Joe, who encourages all these losers and dreamers to live their dreams.
After enduring the confines of a Warner Bros. contract for a dozen contentious years, Cagney had struck out on his own in 1942, forming a production company with his brother William and making a financing and distribution deal with United Artists. Their first two films, Johnny Come Lately (1943) and Blood on the Sun (1945) were modest successes but not huge hits. Cagney next worked as an actor for hire in 20th-Century-Fox's 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) to earn money for his next independent production. Both Cagneys were fans of Saroyan's play, and thought it had the potential of being a successful film, both critically and financially. They bought the screen rights for $150,000, after Saroyan had reportedly turned down larger offers from Warner Bros. and M-G-M. The Cagneys did minimal "opening up," transferring The Time of Your Life to the screen more or less intact, and rehearsing it for two weeks before shooting. James Cagney later complained that director H.C. Potter and cinematographer James Wong Howe ended up ignoring and changing the blocking they had done during the rehearsal period, costing the production money. But if Potter's direction was uninspired, at least it didn't interfere with the Cagneys' concept of what they wanted the film to be.
However, at sneak previews of The Time of Your Life, audiences responded negatively to Saroyan's original philosophical ending, so it was changed and reshot as a more action-packed climax featuring Cagney. That cost an additional $300,000, which the production could ill-afford. Cagney was unhappy about the change, but he really wanted, and needed, a hit. Even with the new ending, however, audiences still didn't respond favorably. Worse, some critics felt the normally kinetic Cagney was miscast. "The tiger of the screen sits down," complained one French critic. Most reviews of The Time of Your Life were respectful, even laudatory, but many critics felt the play didn't really work as a film. "For all its genial disposition and its capacity for attracting the prize awards, the play lacked dramatic foundation," wrote Bosley Crowther in the New York Times. The Time critic warned, "They have done so handsomely by Saroyan that in the long run everything depends on how much Saroyan you can take." Cagney partly blamed himself for the film's shortcomings. Years later, he told biographer John McCabe he felt his performance didn't measure up to that of Eddie Dowling, who played Joe on Broadway. "My God, did he project the charm! That is what he was loaded with. Charm. It fooled me into thinking the play was better than it was."
Saroyan had no complaints. He loved The Time of Your Life. After seeing it, he wrote Cagney a long letter, full of praise, calling the film "one of the most entertaining and original movies I have seen....you and your associates have expertly edited and translated into the medium of the motion picture a most difficult and almost unmanageable body of material."
Unfortunately, the public did not agree. The Time of Your Life was a flop, and the failure marked the end of the Cagneys' deal with United Artists. However, the studio system was changing economically, and Bill Cagney was able to strike a favorable deal to take their production company to, of all places, Warner Bros. There, Cagney's next film would give him the critical and financial success he needed. Not only was he back at his old studio, he was back doing what the public thought he did best: playing a gangster, one of the fiercest, most psychotic of all his gangster characters, Cody Jarrett. The film was White Heat (1949), and Cagney, like Jarrett, was back on "top of the world," but on his terms, not Jack Warner's.
Director: H.C. Potter
Producer: William Cagney
Screenplay: Nathaniel Curtis, based on the play by William Saroyan
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Editor: Walter Hannemann, Truman K. Wood
Costume Design: Courtney Haslam
Art Direction: Wiard Ihnen
Music: Carmen Dragon, Reginald Beane
Cast: James Cagney (Joe), William Bendix (Nick), Wayne Morris (Tom), Jeanne Cagney (Kitty Duval), Broderick Crawford (Policeman), Ward Bond (McCarthy), James Barton (Kit Carson), Paul Draper (Harry).
by Margarita Landazuri