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Some people think that movie studios in the 1930s cranked out wall-to-wall wholesome entertainment, pictures on the order of Top Hat (1935) or anything featuring Shirley Temple and her amazing dimples. That type of movie was popular, of course, but Depression-era audiences were just as likely to find gangsters with Tommy-guns on the big screen. William Keighley's 'G' Men (1935) is a prime example of just how aggressive movies could be in those days. Keighley and his writer, Seton I. Miller, even slyly altered James Cagney's violent persona in order to meet newly-enacted Production Code standards while still giving the masses what they wanted.
Cagney plays "Brick" Davis, a lawyer who's put through law school by a powerful gangster (William Harrigan.) When Davis' friend - an FBI man who was not legally allowed to carry a gun - is shot dead, Davis joins the Bureau. Upon receiving his training, he travels to New York City and tells the mob, including his mentor, that he's coming to get them. Soon, Davis captures Public Enemy Number One (Edward Pawley) and wins the respect of his fellow agents. Later, when several G-men are shot dead (in a scene that's a close re-creation of the real-life "Kansas City Massacre" of 1933), a new law is enacted that allows FBI agents to use firearms.
Now we're talkin'! This was the crime movie equivalent of "virtuous" producers filming Bible stories because they could get away with illustrating the many types of sin complete with writhing bodies and sexual situations. As long as Cagney was ventilating criminals during his brutal outbursts, everything was hunky-dory with the Hays Office. So ventilate he did.
'G' Men was Hollywood's attempt to once again make heroes out of the good guys, after several years of audiences cheering for charismatic killers and thieves. Even though Cagney was originally one of those killers, his volatile acting style had a way of winning over viewers. Will Rogers once said of the actor, "Every time I see him work, it looks to me like a bunch of firecrackers going off."
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was thrilled with all the free publicity generated by 'G' Men. Hoover, of course, was a big blowhard who was never shy about promoting his own myth. He was eventually so taken with this sort of picture, he actually lobbied Franklin Roosevelt to let the FBI open its own movie studio. Roosevelt, needless to say, didn't think much of the idea.
Cagney's unexpected switch to the right side of the law was played to the hilt by Warner Brothers' publicity department. Given the tone of 'G' Men's newspaper ads, you'd think he was saving souls instead of merely shooting character actors: "Public Enemy Becomes 'Soldier of the Law'! Hollywood's Most Famous Bad Man Joins the G-Men and Halts the March of Crime!" The hyperbole worked wonders. 'G' Men was such a big hit, Warner Brothers would periodically re-release it to rake in a few more bucks.
It may have been way over the top, but not everything about 'G' Men was make-believe. There's a moment during the picture when Cagney's character is hiding behind a stack of logs while the bad guys fire away. It looks utterly convincing, and it should- Keighley insisted on using real bullets while he filmed it! Incredibly enough, this wasn't the first time Cagney had been shot at with live ammo on-camera. But it scared the hell out of him, and he decided it would be the last.
Three years later, while filming Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Cagney refused to stand for a one-shot when director Michael Curtiz insisted on firing actual bullets. "I got out of the scene," Cagney later said, "and Burke, the professional machine gunner, fired the shots. One of the bullets hit the steel edge of the window, was deflected, and went right through the wall where my head had been." Had Cagney played along with Curtiz, Angels with Dirty Faces, and a great actor's life, would have ended somewhere in the middle. And Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), for which both Cagney and Curtiz later won Oscars, might not have even been made!
Directed by: William Keighley
Screenplay: Seton I. Miller
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Art Direction: John Hughes
Editor: Jack Killifer
Principal Cast: James Cagney ("Brick" Davis), Ann Dvorak (Jean Morgan), Robert Armstrong (Jeff McCord), Lloyd Nolan (Hugh Farrell), William Harrigan (McKay), Edward Pawley (Danny Leggett), Regis Toomey (Eddie Buchanan).
BW-87m. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara