Lady Killer Review
James Cagney goes Hollywood and picks up a moustache along the way. Lady Killer places Cagney in the unusual position of being a tough gangster-type for roughly half the film and a comedic, unlikely movie star in the remainder. Only someone blessed with his ample charisma and versatility could pull off the kind of role requiring the actor to dress up like a movie theatre usher, a moustacheless gangster, a chain gang prisoner, an Indian chief, a moustachioed Hollywood charmer, and a debonair lover with garlic breath. Against most odds, it's a largely effective foray into romantic comedy (plus three or four other genres) for Cagney and convincing early evidence that he was capable of far more than those gangster roles audiences loved watching him in.
His character in Lady Killer is Dan Quigley, who starts out as a non-conformist usher in an oddly militant theatre (owned by Warners!) and soon gets fired. Quigley finds a wallet, then finds Mae Clarke in a very pre-Code, skin-bearing dress and maneuvers his way into a racket that leads to running a night club. When a robbery goes wrong and a stoolie is shot at the club, Quigley and Clarke's Myra head west, first for Chicago and then Los Angeles. After arriving in a soppy California that hardly resembles the postcards, Dan finds himself arrested and ditched by Myra. He gets out of jail and drinks his way into the arms of Hollywood talent scouts, eventually charming movie star Lois Underwood (Margaret Lindsay). Quigley's own star rises with the help of a tireless fan letter campaign of his own doing. He's living well with Lois until Dan's newfound celebrity brings Myra and the old gang to town.
Cagney's moustache sort of becomes crucial in the delineation between his being a gangster and a movie star. Aside from how silly the actor looks with the pencil-thin line of hair, his moustache serves as a tool of sophistication. Or maybe it's representative of Hollywood phoniness. Either way, the new facial hair seems like an object of metaphor. The film makes sure to leave Quigley out of any major criminal activities, thus making him not that bad of a guy, but even Cagney can't totally let the viewer reconcile the idea that he's still a thug who magically gains an acting career. "So easy a gangster can do it," might read Hollywood's motto. Quigley's rise is hardly given a second thought in the picture, perhaps because it's intended as satire. One minute he's a scruffy drunk and the next he's on a studio lot dealing with loud and incompetent directors (a sharp inside jab from a studio anxious to keep its craftsmen in line). The advancement to magazine cover boy is just as quick.
With these dips in and out of various genres, calling Lady Killer a gangster movie is a bit of a stretch since Cagney's character neither begins nor ends the picture as such. He briefly detours into that area, but it's Myra the moll who's responsible. Mae Clarke had been on the sour end of half a grapefruit two years earlier in The Public Enemy, but her role here is significantly expanded from Cagney's starmaking vehicle. His quick kiss of Clarke's breast early in Lady Killer still seems provocative. Later in the film, she gets a little roughed up, as Cagney drags Clarke by her blonde locks across the floor and forcefully throws her out of the room. In another scene, he tosses a pineapple in her lap. That act is innocuously gentle, but James Cagney, Mae Clarke, and fruit have a certain history that makes one take notice of these things. If nothing else, the film is worth watching merely as a curiosity for those looking to see the interaction between Cagney and Clarke. The actress more than holds her own in Lady Killer, but she was never really able to overcome that notorious grapefruit scene in her career.
Cagney's other female co-star is Margaret Lindsay, who gets little opportunity to impress. A particularly funny scene occurs when Dan tries winning over Lois during her birthday party. He brings in a group of yodelers and a couple dozen spider monkeys, who then wreak havoc on the proceedings. Roy Del Ruth's economic direction prevents the sequence from fully breathing, but the hint of screwball remains memorable. Quigley also has an absolutely classic scene soon afterwards where Cagney gets to literally shove a bad review in a critic's mouth and demands he eat his words, in a restaurant mens room no less. It seems like this should perhaps be more well known because it's a scathing statement against critic gossip that still plays as unusually gripping. The scene functions both as comedy and eyebrow-raising commentary. These little interludes from the main plot tend to work better than the less interesting insistence on keeping Cagney a restrained good guy who's gotten mixed up with bad people. The actor's natural arrogance is better left unleashed instead of safely played for audience approval.
That being said, Lady Killer is a blast. Between Cagney's cackling dynamism and the abundant pre-Code naughtiness, the film is utterly fun entertainment. In thinking about what to include under the "Similar Releases" tab, it occurred to me that Cagney hardly did anything else that mixed his inherent toughness with that remorseless wink used so well for comic effect here. He excelled in comedies and musicals and, obviously, straight gangster films, but the combination found in Lady Killer, despite the questionable overall coherence of the film, seems unmatched. Since it was released in December 1933, just before the Production Code was enforced, Lady Killer was something like a last gasp before movies became significantly bowdlerized, and that fact seems to have escaped no one involved in the production. Out of the six films contained in Warner's most recent Gangsters Collection, this is the one crying out most for re-discovery.
Lady Killer is encoded for regions 1, 2, 3, and 4, transferred progressively on a dual-layered disc, and presented in the 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio. It is released both individually and as part of the Warner Bros. Gangsters Collection Vol. 3 (with Vol. 2 being newly retitled from its original incarnation as the Tough Guys set).
The transfer looks quite good indeed under the circumstances. A few brief instances of damage marks and some expected grain, but otherwise up to the usual high standard of Warner Bros. Contrast and sharpness aren't stunning, but they're more than adequate. I really see nothing worth complaining over here.
The audio is a single-channel English Dolby Digital mono track that's decent, if weak. Dialogue is mixed a little low in turns of volume levels, but it's reasonably clear. There is a hiss that may be audible depending on individual set-ups. It's slightly more prominent than what I heard on Picture Snatcher. These are common problems with films of this age, though, and most likely come from the original limitations of early sound as much as anything. Most viewers will be pleased with how everything looks and sounds, I'd imagine. Optional subtitles, white in colour, are available in English for the hearing impaired and French.
Drew Casper, a frequent contributor to Warner Bros. DVD supplements, provides a running commentary on Lady Killer, and his somewhat idiosyncratic style is on full display throughout. Casper likes to emphasise things that would normally seem inconsequential, but the academic method he uses comes across as informed and prepared. Aside from mangling the titles of a few Cagney films, including the insistence that Taxi! is instead known as Taxi Driver, Casper's commentary is a pretty good one that keeps the focus on Cagney, director Roy Del Ruth, and the pre-Code nature of Lady Killer.
Warner Night at the Movies looks once again at shorts from the studio's 1933 release year. A vintage newsreel about moving gangster criminals to Alcatraz (1:34) and a trailer for James Cagney singing and dancing in Footlight Parade (3:17) are followed by a pair of short subjects and a cartoon. Vitaphone musical short "Kissing Time" (21:49) is an operetta set in a Latin American village and starring Jane Froman, while "The Camera Speaks" (10:37) lets a silent movie camera with a face creepily superimposed on it reminisce about the good old days. The Merrie Melodies cartoon "The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives" (7:11) is the 1995 Turner Entertainment dubbed version, and also has a written disclaimer warning viewers that some of the material may be offensive to today's audiences. Presumably, this is a reference to some racially insensitive images and, perhaps, the burning of a Christmas tree, and not the idea that a young boy would jump in the lap of an overweight man who promises him plenty of toys back at his house in the middle of nowhere. A trailer for Lady Killer (2:30) is also included.