Jimmy the Gent (1934) is one of those lightning fast Warner Bros. titles of the 1930s, running just 67 minutes with star James Cagney machine-gunning dialogue at such a pace that it feels like half that time. Headlines of the day provide the basis for this farce that is boosted by a lively supporting cast who ham for maximum laughs. The weakest link in Jimmy the Gent is actually Cagney’s equally well-known leading lady, Bette Davis.
You can’t entirely blame Davis as this is another one of those subservient roles that she especially hated early in her career. By this time her breakthrough performance on loan to RKO for Of Human Bondage (1934) loomed especially near, with her being named for that part even before Jimmy the Gent was released. This is a footnote for her, but a part that works well for Cagney in a title that deserves to be better remembered.
Perhaps the one sore spot for Jimmy the Gent is knowledge that it could have been even better had Joan Blondell played the part as originally planned. Cagney and Blondell had already been paired a half dozen times since Sinner’s Holiday (1930) brought them both from Broadway and they would be teamed again in a feature for the final time in Cagney’s next movie, He Was Her Man (1934). Health problems forced Blondell out of Jimmy the Gent with Bette Davis announced as her replacement in December 1933. Perhaps that’s why Cagney plays Jimmy but Davis is playing Joan, a character much better suited to the Blondell persona.
In addition to pace, Jimmy the Gent has all the ingredients that are especially loved about Cagney and Warner Bros. movies from this time. Call it lowbrow or, more euphemistically, of the people, Jimmy the Gent is all about Jimmy (yes, Cagney) becoming a gent for the express purpose of winning back Joan (Davis), a former employee and romantic interest who fled to Jimmy’s classier competitor, Wallingham (Alan Dinehart).
Jimmy the Gent opens with an escalating series of violent disasters punctuated by two trains racing towards one another and crashing head-on. It sounds terrible, but is so over-the-top that you're already chuckling. The common element to each bit of tragedy is the headline-worthy death of a wealthy victim who has left no heir. Jimmy and Wallingham are, as the story’s original title called it, heir chasers.
"Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and New York have known heir chasers for some years," the Milwaukee Journal reported in 1932 after the activity was discovered in their city for the first time. "When a chaser finds an heir he bargains for a big cut." Cagney's Jimmy Corrigan puts it in even plainer English than the Journal when he explains to a couple of new recruits, "Lying around the banks in this country is a lot of money, millions of dollars, wills and legal heirs that can't be found. Well, I find them. And for a small commission, never more than fifty percent, I put them in touch." What if no heir can be found? Cagney, smiling wide says in sarcastic tone, "Well, then I let all that nice money go to waste, see." Not a chance. An heir is either found or created.
Jimmy runs his business in an office populated with secretaries who have names like Jitters and whose own English ain't too good neither. He has a sidekick, Louie (Allen Jenkins), who takes his lumps playing Larry to Cagney’s Moe. Jimmy’s temper is quick to explode and he’s not above smashing the glass pane of his door with objects thrown at Louie or just repeatedly smacking his congenial underling to get a point across. “If I didn’t need you to introduce me to them guys out there," Jimmy says just prior to meeting those new recruits, "I’d put the boots to you.”
Despite how deep of a gutter Jimmy Corrigan seems to have crawled out of, he values his employees and, since this is a Warner Bros. film, even feels it is his patriotic duty to keep them employed as he explains with a bit of the New Deal propaganda typical of the studio during the early Roosevelt era. When Louie suggests a few extra informants on the inside could keep them from having to hire so many “mugs” as foot soldiers, Jimmy explodes: “What! And throw all them nice boys out of work? What becomes of the NRA, what becomes of liberty, what becomes of democracy?”
Jimmy finds out what the competition is all about when he bursts into Wallingham’s office hoping to see Joan. He’s seated in the outer office with a copy of Vanity Fair and a cup of tea. It’s more tea and a Yachting magazine in the next waiting room before being called into Joan’s office where Wallingham himself soon appears to offer Jimmy yet another cup of tea. Cagney’s stomach gurgles over small talk that Wallingham is allowed to dominate. The differences between the men are best shown when Wallingham suggests Americans don’t take their food seriously enough. “I think it depends on how much you can get, don’t it?” Cagney replies. The refined Wallingham chuckles and remarks, “Clever,” dismissing Jimmy as anything but.
When Joan’s phone rings the two men are left alone and Jimmy wastes no time in getting to the point. He hands over the Barton job, a case he stole from under Wallingham’s nose with the aid of one of his informants, and in return asks Wallingham to make him into a gentleman. “How long will it take a mug like me to learn how to talk your kind of lingo?”
Wallingham and Joan then disappear for most of the middle portion of the movie while Jimmy and company handle the Barton case on the sly from start to finish. This also allows Cagney and Jenkins to interact with a fine supporting cast headed by Arthur Hohl, playing the missing Barton heir who has changed his name because he’s wanted for murder; Mayo Methot as the witness to that crime, and Alice White, no longer a star but delightful in one of her typical air-headed character roles of the period.
“What’s it’s worth to you to beat that rap and get the dough besides?” Jimmy asks Barton. “Say, you been belting the grape?” Barton responds, thinking Jimmy must be drunk to believe he can clear him of the murder charge and claim what is otherwise his rightful inheritance of $200,000.
Joan pays Jimmy a visit and is initially impressed by his effort to culture himself but sours later when discovering Jimmy’s clandestine involvement in the Barton case. Davis isn’t necessarily bad as Joan, just underwhelming in what is a small and thankless part that really didn’t suit her anyway. Many of her scenes are saved by Alan Dinehart as Wallingham, who is eventually revealed to be every bit of the scoundrel that Jimmy had originally suspected.
Cagney’s Jimmy is loud, ignorant, obnoxious, violent and underhanded when necessary. But pitting Jimmy against the easily reviled Dinehart character, a snob who looks down on everyone but is at the core even more self-interested than Jimmy, actually makes Cagney likable. Unlike his part in Winner Take All (1932), which finds Cagney playing just as much of an uncultured lout, the contrast against Dinehart in Jimmy the Gent gives us somebody to root against and good reason to root for Cagney. He plays fair with his love interest in this one, even emerging as a sympathetic figure towards the end, and his while his desire for self-improvement swelled his head in Winner Take All, Cagney is never any more corrupt than he started out as in Jimmy the Gent.
The fan magazines cheered Jimmy the Gent with Picture Play calling it “James Cagney’s best picture in months,” and Hollywood proclaiming it “the answer to the Cagney fan’s plea.” Photoplay said “If you can understand Jimmy Cagney’s triple-tongued lingo, you’ll probably like this humorous, hard-boiled story.” Even Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times begrudgingly chimed in calling the film, “a brisk, slangy piece of work,” and praising Cagney as “in fine fettle in this role.” I’m not quite sure why everyone was so relieved to see Cagney return to this type of part, since he’d been playing similar roles all along to this point. He brought just as much attitude, if not more, to his preceding few films, which included Lady Killer, The Mayor of Hell and Picture Snatcher (each 1933). Perhaps Footlight Parade threw everyone for a loop in between, but it's not like Cagney's a softie in that one.
Jimmy the Gent was Cagney’s first time working with Michael Curtiz, who later directed Cagney in two of his most beloved classics, Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Jimmy the Gent isn’t anywhere near that class, but it rates with those other early '30s titles I mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Cagney’s relationship with director Curtiz got off to a shaky start when the actor took it upon himself to have most of his head shaved for the part of Jimmy Corrigan. “When I heard I was going to play another one of those guys,” Cagney wrote in his 1976 biography, Cagney by Cagney, “I said to myself, ‘They want another of those mugs, I’ll really give them a mug.’” Cagney recalled “Mike Curtiz damn near fainted when he saw that shaved head.” Of Curtiz, he told biographer John McCabe, “Mike was a pompous bastard who didn’t know how to treat actors, but he sure as hell knew how to treat a camera” (119). Cagney respected Curtiz’ work but otherwise didn’t care for him.Jimmy the Gent began as what appears to be yet another unpublished story, The Heir Chaser by Laird Doyle and Ray Nazarro. It was put into development under that same title in the fall of 1933 as the next James Cagney and Joan Blondell film. During production it went under other titles, Blondes and Bonds and Always a Gent, before Warner Bros. finally settled on Jimmy the Gent, the best of the bunch as it naturally associates itself directly with star Cagney. Jimmy the Gent premiered nationwide March 17, 1934 and was received enthusiastically.
Jimmy the Gent is my favorite kind of James Cagney movie: Fun, fast, and a bit obnoxious. He is, as introduced by sidekick Louie, “a square little shooter,” despite his hot temper. When things are going Jimmy's way his manic nature makes him a charmer who’s hard to resist. He doesn’t seem like much on the surface, but if you listen to him he makes good sense. Cagney's Jimmy is a Depression-era hero who sees “all business as crooked,” adding, “There’s only two kinds of guys in business: Those who get caught and those who don’t.” He explains to Joan that his competitor Wallingham is the same as he is with “a smoother line,” but she can’t see past the surface and insists that “He’s a gentleman and you’re a crook.”
After the fun and maneuvering of the Barton case fills in the middle of the movie, it’s Alan Dinehart as Wallingham who steps up to help keep Jimmy the Gent moving towards its logical conclusion. Dinehart pulls the mask off Wallingham for our benefit, though Joan still isn’t allowed to see him for what he is. Dinehart’s lines take on multiple meanings, we hear one thing and Joan another, and he rolls his eyes over the back of her head at every opportunity, unable to contain his contempt. By the end of the movie he’s become so gross that Cagney can’t help but to emerge the hero.
Jimmy the Gent ranks near the top of the second tier of Cagney movies, up there with all but the best known Cagney titles of the pre-Code era. Speaking of that period you’ll find a contrary view of this movie by Danny Reid over at Pre-Code.com.
Jimmy the Gent is available from Warner Archive as a Made-on-Demand DVD-R. You can pick it up on Amazon here using my affiliate link (with my thanks for doing so). The screen captures used in this post come from my copy recorded during a past showing on Turner Classic Movies.