Coming fast on the heels of James Cagney's resounding success as a singing and dancing theatrical producer in the musical Footlight Parade (1933), Lady Killer (1933) returned to the tried-and-true gangster genre in which he had made his name, this time a comedy with satirical jabs at Hollywood and the American Dream. The working title of the project was The Finger Man. Warner Brothers' title change was not without complications: playwrights Fred and Alice Mandel claimed to own the rights to the title Lady Killer for their stage play and even received a temporary injunction stopping the studio from using it. Early treatments of the film combined the tough gangster image with song-and-dance routines to capitalize on the popularity of his previous film, but this move was rejected by studio executives in favor of a more conventional image. The tap dancer of the early drafts was changed into a theater usher. Mae Clark, who had previously suffered the indignity of having a grapefruit shoved in her face in The Public Enemy (1931), returned to work with Cagney, this time to be dragged by her hair across a room and thrown out a door.
Reportedly, Cagney was frustrated by the studio-imposed gangster roles he was often required to play subsequent to his creation of the seminal figure of Tom Powers in The Public Enemy. An exceptionally intelligent and gifted actor, he longed for opportunities to demonstrate his versatility and range, including more work in the musical genre. Some have speculated that the new head of production after Zanuck's departure, Hal Wallis, was less enthusiastic about making musicals and didn't have as close a relationship with Cagney. Also, Cagney's relationship with the studio was already strained due to his two walkouts in 1931 and 1932, when he refused to work in protest of his relatively low salary and benefits, at the time a daring gesture since actors were tightly bound by studio contracts. In fact, in spite of his box-office clout, he was earning substantially less than many other stars at the same studio. His commitment to leftist politics at the time didn't help either, exasperating the conservative Jack Warner.
Although not one of Cagney's favorite films, Lady Killer was popular and critically well-received at the time of its release: a film critic in Variety wrote, "Crook angle is handled with a cheerful style of humor and there is a certain spirit about the Cagney character, played in his energetic way, that carries its own persuasive charm. Comedy is first rate."
Director: Roy Del Ruth
Producer: Henry Blanke
Screenplay: Ben Markson and Lillie Hayward
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Editing: George Amy
Music: Leo F. Forbstein
Costume Design: Orry-Kelly
Cast: James Cagney (Dan Quigley), Mae Clark (Myra Gale), Margaret Lindsay (Lois Underwood), Leslie Fenton (Duke), Douglass Dumbrille (Spade Maddock), Russell Hopton (Smiley).
by James Steffen