Hard to Handle
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Shot in October - November 1932 on the Warner lot in Hollywood, at a relatively inexpensive estimated budget of $189,000, Hard to Handle (1933) was not an easy film to get started. First there was the title, which had at various times been called: A Bad Boy, The Inside and Hard to Hold . Then there was the star. James Cagney had proved himself to be "hard to handle" when he asked for, and was refused a raise in salary. Warner Bros put him on contract suspension and he retaliated by trying to get out of the contract altogether by offering to do three films for free. The studio refused. Doug Warren notes in his book James Cagney: "The director Frank Capra was assigned to arbitrate the Warner Bros Cagney dispute by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He was able to bring a reasonable offer to Cagney, who was holding out for a minimum salary of four thousand dollars a week, with annual increases that would bring his salary to fortyfive hundred dollars a week by 1935. Jimmy accepted the monetary offer but demanded that the contract state that he was to make no more than four movies a year and receive top billing in all of them. In September 1932 the new contract was signed by both parties. For the first time, Jimmy could feel like one of the studio big kids." Cagney was lucky. Just as Hard to Handle was shooting, the United States was feeling the worst of the Great Depression, especially at the box office. In November, movie receipts were so bad an industry paper headlined "Worst Week Motion Picture Industry Has Ever Seen." Where most studios were cutting personnel and/or salaries, it attests to Cagney's worth to the studio that Warner Bros gave the actor a raise.
Before the dispute Cagney had been slated to star in 20,000 Years in Sing-Sing (1933) but the film had already gone into production with Spencer Tracy in the lead role opposite Bette Davis, so he was rushed into Hard to Handle. Another problem was finding a leading lady. Carole Lombard, at that time under contract to Paramount, was approached to play the role of Cagney's girlfriend, the marathon dancer Ruth Waters. She turned it down. Instead, another Paramount star, Mary Brian, was hired and the brunette Brian was saddled with a blonde wig.
Then there was the writer Wilson Mizner. Known around Hollywood as one of that town's greatest wits, he had been a constant irritant for studio boss Jack Warner, who described Mizner in his autobiography as "playwright, adventurer, and lovable con man". Warner expected his writers, like all other studio employees, to arrive punctually at nine o'clock which Mizner never did. As Michael Freedland wrote in his book The Warner Brothers, "One of Jack's main targets was Wilson Mizner, a brilliant raconteur whom Warner was convinced was single-handedly robbing the studio tills of every penny taken at the box office. Mizner never seemed to produce anything, Jack announced one day and it was partly true, except that he came out with the best gags at the story conferences. "I don't pay anyone five hundred dollars a week for ad-libbing," he declared. "Do some work." Mizner's office was directly opposite Jack's. The day after the summary chastisement he could be seen sitting in the bright sunlight outside the office sharpening at least a hundred pencils. That, after all, was work." Cagney was especially fond of Mizner, saying "Some people are called characters and don't really merit the designation. Wilson Mizner was a genuine character, and great raconteur. We would go in for a story conference, but there'd be no conference. Everyone would just sit and listen to Wilson and all of it was delightful." Sadly, Mizner died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-eight on April 3, 1933, only two months after Hard to Handle was released.
The story of a press agent who'll promote anything and anyone suited Cagney well after having played a string of gangsters, something that always bothered the actor who always saw himself as a song-and-dance man. An allusion is made to Cagney's earlier role in The Public Enemy (1931) which made him famous when he smashed a grapefruit half into Mae Clarke's face. In Hard to Handle, he is called upon to promote grapefruit, complete with a song composed by Warren and Dubin called "Grapefruit Acres" which can be heard on the radio during the film.
Hard to Handle wasn't an important film for Cagney other than marking the beginning of his salary increase, but the reviews were positive. Mordaunt Hall titled his New York Times review from February 2, 1933 "Hard to Handle James Cagney, Alert and Fiery as Ever; Impersonates a Dynamic Publicity Agent in New Film". Hall wrote, "James Cagney's shadow burst into Warner's Strand [Theatre] last night as the dynamic publicity man in Hard to Handle, an adaptation of a story by Houston Branch. It is a violent, down-to-the-pavement, slangy affair which has many a mirthful moment...Mr. Cagney as Lefty Merrill leaps from the frying pan into the fire, from the fire into the frying pan and lastly from the pan to the kitchen floor...The episodes fly by like the wind, or as fast as Lefty Merrill runs in several of the episodes...And like virtually all Mr. Cagney's pictures, there is no time for pausing. The picture must go on, and on it goes."
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner; Houston Branch (story)
Cinematography: Barney McGill
Art Direction: Robert M. Haas
Music: Cliff Hess (uncredited)
Film Editing: William Holmes
Cast: Myron C. 'Lefty' Merrill (James Cagney), Ruth Waters (Mary Brian), radio announcer (Allen Jenkins), Lil Waters (Ruth Donnelly), Marlene Reeves (Claire Dodd), Charles G. Reeves (Robert McWade).
by Lorraine LoBianco
James Cagney by Doug Warren
Hard to Handle: James Cagney, Alert and Fiery as Ever; Impersonates a Dynamic Publicity Agent in New Film by Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times February 2, 1933
The Warner Brothers by Michael Freeland
My First Hundred Years in Hollywood by Jack Warner