Wednesday, February 20, 2013

City For Conquest: Cagney gets some angst

This is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon. Who doesn't love the films of the '40s? Click HERE and check out all of the wonderful entries about some of the greatest (and best loved) films ever made

CITY FOR CONQUEST (1940)
For my money, the James Cagney of the 1930s is one of the greatest movie stars of all time. It's hard to find anyone who comes close to his personal charisma, charm, danger, grace and magnetism (not to mention talent). His cheerful amorality was irresistible and, no matter what side of the legal fence he was on, you had to love him. This was one guy who you just knew spent almost no time contemplating his navel. He was all action.

After the watershed year of 1939, Hollywood films took on a heavier tone and even Cagney, who was always fast on his feet, was slowing down a bit (although at 40 he got himself into fine fighting shape for this film).


City for Conquest is the perfect Warner Brothers story. Based on the novel by Aben Kandel, it is set in familiar Warners social commentary territory - the throbbing streets of New York City's poor, the city that rewards the strong and devours the weak. This time up, the neighborhood is Forsyth Street and Delancey.
The Story
Danny Kenny is a regular guy who is content with his lot as a truck driver. He boxes on the side and could be a champion, but Danny is not particularly ambitious.  His two passions are his girl, Peggy Nash (and who wouldn't be sweet on Ann Sheridan?) and the musical education of his talented brother, Eddie (Arthur Kennedy in his screen debut). Danny decides to enter the fight game as "Young Samson" to get money for Eddie's future. After all, the kid is not truck driver material.
Danny and Peggy share their dreams for the future
Eddie Kenny: that kid's got something
But Peggy has a passion, too. Not content to win neighborhood dance contests, she sees her name in lights on Broadway. She has ambition and is not all that pleased that Danny seems to have none. One night, at a local dance contest/beet soiree, Peggy meets professional dancer Murray Burns (well played by an oily, scene stealing Anthony Quinn). Murray promises her the fame she wants and Danny sees that, if he is to keep Peggy in his life he will have to step it up. He promises to use his fists to beat a path to success for both of them.

Could Cagney fight without Frank McHugh at his side?
So, Peggy dances, Eddie composes and Danny fights, but suffer they must. Peggy turns down Danny proposal of marriage. The lure of fame and fortune are too strong. Burns turns out to be a heal who abuses Peggy, and Danny - oh poor Danny. A shady opponent rubs rosin dust in his gloves and blinds Danny after a brutal 15-round fight. Only Eddie fulfills his dream and writes a symphony of the city, one filled with all of the heartbreak, longing and glory that Danny, Peggy and Eddie know all too well. The ending? More about that later.
Anthony Quinn comes between Jimmy & Ann
This film holds a very special place in my heart. Before I saw it (as an impressionable, tender-hearted teen) I was already a Cagney fan, but this one cemented my total adoration for him. Ann Sheridan also wowed me here and I still haven't recovered. Those first loves always stay with you to some degree. So, maybe it's not a masterpiece, but I was never one for masterpieces.

Cagney went on record saying he was quite disappointed in the film. Directed with a poetic touch by Anatole Litvak, it might have fallen short of Cagney's expectation, but it gives him a chance to give of his most moving, heartfelt and deep performances. John Garfield is already on the payroll, Bogart is rising and Brando, Clift and Dean are coming.

Chief Pleasures
James Cagney and Ann Sheridan
Cagney and Sheridan are one of my favorite screen couples. She is one of the few actresses that could hold her own with him. She had his number but was sweet on him anyway. He never got all mushy, but you knew he was crazy about her. They compliment one another perfectly and when he tells her that she will always be his girl, well, you know he means it from the bottom of his heart.

That old Warner Bothers Gang of Mine

I always feel warm and cozy when Frank McHugh, Donald Crisp, George Tobias, Jerome Cowan, Lee Patrick and Joyce Compton are on hand. I'll bet Cagney and Sheridan did, too.

Faux-Gershwin Score
That overture! Thanks, Max Steiner, for channeling your inner Gershwin and giving us that inner city heart-on-the-pavement rhapsody in blue collar (known as the Magic Isle Symphony).

Great Trivia Question
Who played Goggi Zucco in City for Conquest?
Yup - that's Elia Kazan in one of his only 2 movie roles. I've won a few trivia contests with this one!

Best Tear-Jerker Ending
So, this is how it all winds up. Danny, now nearly blind, is working at a newspaper stand. The night Eddie debuts his symphony at Carnegie Hall, Danny prefers to listen on the radio. He has sacrificed his sight for his brother's dream. 

Peggy, whose dreams have been crushed after Murray tossed her aside, approaches Danny at the news stand. Seeing his condition, she breaks down. But Danny is philosophical. He tells her that he is happy because he knew that one day she would walk up to him here; he knew that because, no matter what, she would always be his girl.
And she is. And together they listen as Eddie dedicates his music to his big brother Danny.

The Warners Gang is all there, more or less, but now it is 1940. Everything is a little darker, a little heavier, a little older. But beautiful, still. Noir is falling, and war is coming. Goodbye, old friends.

40 comments:

Rick29 said...

"Peggy dances, Eddie composes and Danny fights, but suffer they must." What a brilliant, concise description of this movie! You've certainly done justice to one of Cagney's best from the 1930s. You gotta love the cast!

Patti said...

Such a great post! I quite adore James Cagney too...he's one of my 6 "loves." What an actor!! He gave brilliant performances in nearly everything he ever took on...hard to believe he only won 1 Academy Award.

Anyhow, it's not often one gets teary-eyed in a James Cagney flick, but this one sure will do it. It's such a great film.

Oh, and that score...beyond beautiful.

Wonderful post about a wonderful movie. Nice addition to the blogathon.

The Lady Eve said...

Chick, I haven't seen this movie..why? I can tell by the way you (brilliantly) describe it that I would love it. Had I seen it as a teen, though, I'd probably still be weeping. Great stuff, Chick, can't wait to see this film. And listen to Steiner's 'rhapsody in blue collar'...

KimWilson said...

OOH, this is one Cagney film I missed. It sounds rather dramatic and he's not playing a gangster, so something must be wrong. LOL Entertaining post--always love reading your witty descriptions.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Rick! I am a sucker for that Warner Brothers factory product.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Patti. Oh that ending - I still tear up just thinking about it.

FlickChick said...

I hope you come across it, Lady Eve. It's typical, yet untypical, Cagney. He and Ann Sheridan are just the best.

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Kim. I'd say it falls short of classic, but it has all of the ingredients I am a sucker for. A good film for a cold day, a couch and a blanket. Oh - and some tissues.

Caftan Woman said...

Like you, my first visit with the gang in "City for Conquest" was in my teen years and, oh, how I lived and agonized every moment - and how I still cry at that ending. Your "Goodbye, old friends." made me weep as well.

FlickChick said...

Oh, CW - you are a woman with a tender heart!

said...

I haven't watched this movie yet, but, being James Cagney my favorite actor, I'm now anxious to watch it. The 1940s were an amazing decade for movies!
Donald Crisp is always pleasant to watch. I love Ann Sheridan in I was a male war bride. And Elia Kazan, wow! How cool he is acting here!
Kisses!

R. D. Finch said...

I first saw this when I was in college and had taken a couple of film appreciation courses, and the snob in me rather looked down on it. When I recently saw it for the first time in many years, however, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It may have its share of corn (the whole Arthur Kennedy subplot, while essential, still seems to me a cliche version of "Golden Boy"), but it's also a very entertaining movie. That's in large part due to Cagney playing such a sympathetic, self-sacrificing character for once. After reading this and seeing your enthusiasm for Cagney, I'm really looking forward to your thoughts on "The Roaring Twenties" for the upcoming Cagney Blogathon.

John/24Frames said...

Great job Chick! Not your typical Cagney role but the film still contains much of what Warners does best. And what a great supporting cast including Elia Kazan which is a real treat. It's not the greatest film or one I would think to put on at a moments notice but it is always entertaining.

Page said...

FlickChick,
Arthur Kennedy and Anthony Quinn sure are getting a lot of love for this Blogathon then you go and add that talented rascal Cagney to the mix.

I love this film for all of the reasons you've mentioned here. A great cast, script. I can't think of one thing I would change about it. (Well, maybe a bit longer)

I really enjoyed your review. Good to see another Cagney fan who chose to show him some love for the Blogathon.

Page

FlickChick said...

Le - if you like Cagney, you will love this film. He is as tender as we always knew he could be (but in a tough way, of course!).

FlickChick said...

R.D. - agreed about the cheese, but I love cheese! This is a real Warner Brothers stretch for me - first this film, then the Garfield event followed by your Cagney event!

FlickChick said...

John/24 - when you have a crush (like I do on Jimmy), you put it on at a moments notice!

FlickChick said...

Page - I always have love for Jimmy (but don't tell Cary).

Kevin Deany said...

A wonderful post on a wonderful film. Love the Steiner score in this one, though, admittedly, Arthur Kennedy gets a raspberry for worst on-screen conducting ever. A great contribution to the blogathon.

Samantha said...

Great job and such a wonderful post.
I have to see this movie again.

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Kevin. Yeah, Arthur Kennedy was kind of a pill here (come on - get out and make your own dough), but it can be overlooked!

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Samantha - so kind.

Dawn Sample said...

Mygoodness, another film I have not yet seen. Sounds like I need to stock up on some Kleenex, before watching..

Thank you for another wonderful review.

Classicfilmboy said...

A loving tribute to a film I have not seen. I agree that Ann Sheridan was a perfect romantic partner for Cagney, so I need to check this one out.

silverscreenings said...

Your post left me a little verklempt. A wonderful tribute to this movie.

I saw this only once, about a year ago, and I only saw the last half. So I was glad to catch up on the beginning with your post.

Thanks for a great contribution to the blogathon! :)

movieclassics said...

This is definitely the best of Cagney's boxing movies and a wonderful role for him - also a good role for Ann Sheridan and interesting how it intercuts her experiences as a dancer with his. I'm another huge Cagney fan and love your description of his "personal charisma, charm, danger, grace and magnetism' - absolutely!! Especially love the little clip you have included of him and Sheridan, and the taster for that amazing Max Steiner symphony. Has me wanting to watch it again - I only have the VHS which doesn't include the Frank Craven narration, as I think the DVD with those bits hasn't been released in the UK, but I will have to catch up with the full restored version. Judy

Gilby37 said...

You chose a great movie to illustrate the genius of Cagney as well as Warner Brothers. I too love a good WB flick with the "usual suspects" like Frank McHugh & Lee Patrick as costars. Ann Sheridan really shows her acting chops in this one. I think 1940's audiences often loved her "Oomph" but WB was an actor's studio and she rose to the challenge.

Aubyn Eli said...

I'm planning to do this one for the upcoming Cagney blogathon so it was great to hear your thoughts. I think that Cagney and Sheridan have enough talent to make any pairing of theirs into a must-see. And I agree with you that the Warners supporting cast will warm anybody's heart.

ClassicBecky said...

Forgive my tardy visit, Chick -- I hope absence has NOT made the heart grow indifferent! I LOVE this movie, as I do all of Cagney's work. You are so right -- the Warner Brothers magic and the presence of their marvelous character actors always made for movie heaven. With this particular story, you described it in one sentence that absolutely could stand on its own as a review! "So, Peggy dances, Eddie composes and Danny fights, but suffer they must." A piece of genius pithy writing, Chick! Loved this piece!

FlickChick said...

Dawn - thank you so much for stopping by. Yes - please do get the hanky before you watch.

FlickChick said...

Classic Film Boy - I love Ann Sheridan and had to control myself not to make this all about her!

FlickChick said...

Silverscreenings - aww, thanks for the kind words.

FlickChick said...

movieclassics - yes, the Frank Craven narration is best. It just adds that much more to the sentimental story.

FlickChick said...

Gilby - yes, Ann had Oomph, but she also had talent to spare. Plus she was so warm and endearing - a really special star.

FlickChick said...

Aubyn - I can't wait to read your post about this film. I am a little nervous because you are such a wonderful writer.

FlickChick said...

Becky - you are always worth waiting for. I have fallen behind on things myself these days, so I understand perfectly. Tanks for the very kind words.

David said...

You more than did this movie justice. Nicely done. Looking forward to your take on "The Roaring Twenties"!

DorianTB said...

Chick, I must admit I got my knowledge of James Cagney's films backward, in the sense that Billy Wilder's ONE, TWO, THREE was actually the first James Cagney movie I saw, and since then I've been more or less catching up with Cagney's films - or in a pinch, reading blog posts about his films by swell bloggers like you! Now I'm really interested in seeing CITY FOR CONQUEST from start to finish! I'm especially pleased to see the great cast includes one of Team B's favorite character actors, Frank McHugh! Heck, that poignant GIF with Cagney and the awesome Ann Sheridan alone had me weepy; can't wait to get ahold of the whole film sometime soon! Marvelous post, as always!

FlickChick said...

Thank you, David. Between this, John Garfield and The Roaring 20s, I am going to be knee-deep in the Brothers Warner.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Dorian. One reason I love this film so much is that Cagney gets to actually be romantic (in his own special way, of course).