Cast & Crew
When Louie Ricarno, a handsome, dapper young Chicago gang leader, is called in for questioning by Captain Pat O'Grady, he denies having anything to do with a gangland murder but refuses to take Pat's advice to quit the rackets before he is killed. Louie soon becomes the underworld boss of an entire city, dividing the territory into zones confined to the rackets of separate mobs that pay him for protection. Sometime later, Louie falls in love with Doris, unaware that she and Louie's second-in-command, Steve Mileaway, are in love. When Doris agrees to marry Louie, he decides to quit the rackets and retire to Florida, where he plans to write his autobiography. On the way to their new home, Louie introduces Doris to his beloved younger brother Jackie, who is attending a military school under the assumed family name of Locarno. In Florida, while Louie happily learns to play golf and finishes his memoirs, Doris becomes bored and yearns for a return to the excitement of Chicago. Meanwhile, squabblings by various factions of Chicago's underworld turn into a gang war which Mileaway is helpless to stop. After Louie turns down Mileaway's urgent plea to return to Chicago to take matters in hand, gangsters Midget and Rocco arrange to have Jackie kidnapped to force Louie to return. When Jackie is approached by two henchmen, he senses that something is wrong and runs away, but is hit by an oncoming truck and dies. Shattered by the loss of his brother, Louie returns to Chicago to seek revenge against those responsible, while Doris secretly rekindles her affair with Mileaway. With the help of two of Jackie's friends, who identify the attempted kidnappers, O'Grady learns who planned the kidnapping and warns Louie not to get involved, but Louie has Midget and Rocco killed. After O'Grady arrests Louie, he brings Mileaway in for questioning. Telling Mileaway that he knows about his affair with Doris, O'Grady coerces Mileaway into confessing to killing Midget in self-defense in exchange for Louie's release and keeping the affair secret. Unknown to Mileaway, however, Louie has been charged with another murder. Louie escapes from the city jail and, with the help of his chauffeur Tommy, eludes both the police and rival gangsters. Sometime later, Louie has become restless and lonely in his shabby boardinghouse hideout and asks the local paperboy to buy a sandwich for him. After the boy delivers the sandwich, O'Grady comes to see Louie and warns him that he should give up or be killed by his rivals, who certainly will have deduced where he is hiding. After O'Grady leaves, a waiter delivers an unordered tray of food. Knowing that his rivals now are waiting outside, Louie glances at a picture of Napoleon Bonaparte, with whom he has always identified, puts on his hat and coat and walks outside with his head held high.
Best Writing, Screenplay
Doorway to Hell
He didn't have to knock on studio doors. He and Joan Blondell came to Hollywood with three-week contracts at $500 a week to transport intact the qualities they brought to a Broadway melodrama, Penny Arcade, retitled Sinners' Holiday. Hardly had it finished shooting than he got another three-week contract for another gangster quickie: The Doorway to Hell (1930). In his second film, Cagney was billed sixth, playing the street-smart right-hand man to Chicago crimelord Lew Ayres. If it were more memorable, it would be remembered for its spectacular miscasting. Even Cagney couldn't resist remarking in his memoir, Cagney by Cagney, how ridiculous it was to have one of the prettiest young men in Hollywood cast as a ruthless, murdering gangster baron, a latter-day Al Capone.
It only makes sense if you recall that Ayres was just coming off All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and was hot at the box office. In fact, his name did sell enough tickets to put the film in the black. It's not just Ayres' prettiness that works against him it's his misplaced sensitivity. Soft, refined, wistful, he seems at odds with his character's world. The script calls for his crimelord to want to get out of the crime biz and, like Capone, retire to his Florida mansion after his kid brother comes to grief because of his crimes. Ayres' gangster comes to life only once, summoning emotive quality when he drives through his old neighborhood, bitterly recalling how his siblings died of tuberculosis contracted by drinking milk bought from a filthy shack near the tenement in which they lived. Otherwise, though, he seems to keep wishing he were somewhere else as an actor.
What life the film has comes from Cagney, saddled with a ridiculous name, Mileaway, more suitable to a racehorse. He never seems to wish he were anywhere but in the moment. Filled with cocky street smarts, and an abundance of the energy the film sorely needs, he's the news here. Mileaway is a bit of a heel, climbing through the ranks, but two-timing his boss with the latter's girl. As played by Dorothy Matthews, we can sympathize with the poor floozy. She's obviously much more comfortable with Cagney's confident operator than with her remote boyfriend and, later, husband. In a desperate phone call from Florida, she tells Cagney how she's bored to the point of feeling buried alive, and what a downer it is hanging around with Ayres' suddenly occupationless dud she likens to an ex-champ. The trouble is we never were convinced he was a champ, at least not a gangland champ. It took Hollywood a while to figure out the Godfather persona Edward G. Robinson's Capone surrogate in Scarface (1932) usurped the gang throne from Osgood Perkins, an actor better suited to playing the Godfather's lawyer!
The problem with The Doorway to Hell is that it never really keeps the promise it makes to audiences, to jolt them out of their seats. It wanders halfheartedly through the soul-sickness of the character who should be a take-charge figure, but isn't. Cagney, on the other hand, is always fun, starting when, assigned to rub out a mob enemy, he snarls to a poolhall flunky: "Gimme my violin case, willya?" He's at home in the world of the film as the effete Ayres is not. Cagney also gets one of the two iterations of the script's reach for poetry ("You're gonna treat yourself to a handful of clouds if you don't watch your step."). Apart from the force lost by the simple act of repetition, Ayres' later reading of the same line illustrates graphically the difference between Cagney's snap and his sag. (A Handful of Clouds was the title of the story from which the film came and which served as the film's title in Britain.) The pared-down Warner esthetic that worked so well for its films ripped from tabloids, suited Cagney's rapid-fire approach.
Still, there are bits of elegance as we're reminded that the film dates from a time when men commonly wore tailored suites, collars, ties and hats. Cagney looks sharper than his boss. But while Ayres projected misplaced soulfulness, Cagney matched his rat-a-tat vocal deliveries, delivered with chipper wiseguy knowingness, to moves subtler than they may have seemed. There's nothing in The Doorway to Hell that's the equivalent of the little sidestep he executes when he meets Jean Harlow in The Public Enemy (1931), much less his ballet of death when he staggers down a street, body riddled with bullets, to expire on the steps of a church in The Roaring Twenties (1939), inspiring Jean-Luc Godard in Breathless (1960) among a host of other filmmakers.
But while psychologically his characters plant their feet confidently in the space around them, he always seems to be acting on the balls of his feet, ready for movement. The Cagney who became the urban gangster archetype, whose whole career seemed to be one long bravado-filled dance, through which he snarls and erupts with smiling, charming resilience and velocity, didn't begin with Public Enemy. It was right there from the start in his young punk bootlegger in Sinners' Holiday and his henchman, whom you keep thinking should have been running the gang, in Doorway to Hell. Cagney's performance wasn't lost on William Wellman, who recast Cagney from a lesser part to the title role in The Public Enemy, two films later. After which, of course, Cagney never looked back.
Director: Archie Mayo
Screenplay: George Rosener; Rowland Brown (story, "A Handful of Clouds")
Cinematography: Barney McGill
Film Editing: Robert Crandall
Cast: Louie Lamarr (Lew Ayres), Sam Marconi the florist (Charles Judels, scenes deleted), Doris (Dorothy Mathews), Jackie Lamarr (Leon Janney), Captain Pat O'Grady (Robert Elliot), Steve Mileaway (James Cagney).
BW-78m. Closed captioning.
by Jay Carr
Cagney by Cagney, James Cagney, Doubleday, 1973
Cagney: The Actor as Auteur, Patrick McGilligan, Da Capo, 1975
Cagney, John McCabe, Knopf, 1997
Doorway to Hell
Some contemporary sources refer to the film as Doorway to Hell. According to information in the file on the production in the Warner Bros. Archive at the USC-Cinema Television Library, the film's working title was A Handful of Clouds, which was also the title of the unpublished Rowland Brown story on which the film was based, and the film's release title in Britain. The phrase is spoken within the film by Robert Elliot who, as "Chief Pat O'Grady" warns Lew Ayres, as "Louie Ricarno" that any success he attains as a gangster will be like a handful of clouds.
The opening credits appear as headlines of newspaper stories. At the end of the film, after Louie exits his boardinghouse room, the sound of machinegun fire is heard on the soundtrack. Immediately after the start of the gunfire, page 214 of a book appears onscreen, with the closing passage reading: "The doorway to hell is a one-way door.-There is no retribution-no plea for further clemency. The little boy walked through it..." The lines from the book, as well as the film, close with the word "Finis [End]," which is how the character Louie ended his autobiography, thus leaving the impression that his dream of having the book published became a reality.
Although Charles Judels is listed second in the onscreen cast of characters as "Florist," he was not in the viewed print. The florist, who according to Warner Bros. casting sheets and the Variety review, was named "Sam Margoni," is mentioned in the film, and Louie speaks to him on the telephone, but there are no scenes in which Judels appears. According to a Warner Bros. file memo from musical director Erno Rapee to studio production head Darryl F. Zanuck, an extensive sequence at the beginning of the film was cut from the production. That sequence, which took place at a theater in which a play entitled Napoleon of the Underworld was being presented, featured Judels as well as other members of the cast. According to Warner Bros. casting sheets, the play within the film featured Maurice Black, Vivian Oakland and Paul Fix as "counterparts" of Louie, "Doris" and "Steve Mileaway." Other cast members who appeared only in the cut sequence were Tom Shirley and Peter Diggie.
In the first scene in the film, when Dwight Frye as the gangster "Monk" leaves a poolhall carrying a violin case, he answers a question about where he is going by saying "I'm going to teach a guy a lesson." Later, it is revealed that the case contained a machine gun that was used to kill another gangster. This May have been the first time that the popular movie gangland expression "teach a guy a lesson" was used onscreen.
Doorway to Hell received a Best Writing (Adaptation) Academy Award nomination. Modern sources add the following actors to the cast: Thomas E. Jackson, John Kelly, Larry McGrath, Dick Purcell, Cliff Saum and Jack Wise.