I think I’m starting to get won over by Jimmy Cagney.
My only exposure to Jimmy Cagney prior to this was through seeing some random cilps from Yankee Doodle Dandy somewhere, where he sang in a sort of Rex Harrison singspiel spoken-word thing that I always associated with “guy who can’t sing but they cast him in a musical anyway” and I turned up my nose. But then after seeing him first as an actor in Public Enemy, then as a dancer in Footlight Parade, and now in this, I’m starting to think I judged the fellow a little prematurely.
This role is a return to Jimmy Cagney as tough guy, Rocky Sullivan by name, whose fate is permanently set as a boy when he and his buddy Jerry try to rob a box car in a train yard. The cops chase them both, but Jerry outruns Rocky and makes his getaway. Rocky falls into the hands of the cops, and then a reform school, and from there into a fifteen-year stretch of crimes both big and small, interspersed with hops in and out of jail.
After one three-year stint in the slammer he comes back to the old neighborhood, in search of the corrupt lawyer who bribed him to plead guilty (Humphrey Bogart). Rocky is seeking his revenge, but while he’s back in town he looks up his old buddy Jerry (Pat O’Brien), finding that their youthful crime scared Jerry straight, and he’s now a priest at the church in their old street. Jerry has been making the kids in his parish his special crusade, hoping to steer them away from the petty crime and gang rivalries that steered his old buddy wrong; when he realizes that some of his young charges idolize Rocky, he enlists Rocky’s help in steering them straight. Rocky is all too happy to help, out of affection for his old friend. But the criminal world catches up to Rocky again, interfering with Rocky’s plans; and even worse, the kids in Rocky’s fan club seem impressed instead of scared straight. Jerry is forced to ask Rocky for one final sacrifice for their sake.
The kids in Rocky’s “fan club” were an interesting group; six teenage boys who often appeared together as “The Dead End Kids”. From what I’ve read, it sounds like they were “The Brat Pack” of the 1930s – a group of young actors who were all independently cast in the same play which granted them collective fame, leading to further work for the group entire. This film was actually first proposed as a vehicle for the Dead End Kids, in fact, instead of being a Jimmy Cagney feature; at this time, Cagney was trying to avoid “tough guy” roles. But the role of Rocky Sullivan was nuanced enough that Cagney was intrigued and took the part. It’s definitely a performance with more variety than he had in Public Enemy – there’s the bluster and cockiness of the street tough, but also quieter moments that flesh out the character. One moment that especially caught my eye came early on, when Rocky has first returned to find Jerry in the church, directing a rehearsal of the boys’ choir; as he waits quietly out of sight, listening to the boys singing a Latin hymn, Rocky gets a wistful look and starts singing along, quietly, despite himself.
Cagney’s last scene is also beautifully done – I can’t discuss it in detail without spoiling the film, so suffice it to say that the specific motivation for Rocky’s last actions in the film is a matter of some debate, and Cagney intended it to be that way. Even today – a few days after seeing the film – I still have questions, and it’s thanks to Cagney’s exemplary performance. He was of course nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars, and while he didn’t win, critics regarded it as one of his finest works.