This post was written for the James Cagney Blogathon hosted by R.D. Finch at The Movie Projector, the week of April 8-12, 2013. I’ll be linking directly to several other entries, when relevant, throughout.
James Cagney was already riding high as one of Hollywood’s top ten box office stars by the time a new version of the old Cagney came to theaters with G Men in May 1935.
Cagney had exploded to stardom as gangster Tom Powers in The Public Enemy in 1931. The charismatic actor sustained that stardom in a series of releases in which his characters were not exactly model citizens. These were titles such as Blonde Crazy (1931), Picture Snatcher, The Mayor of Hell, Lady Killer (all 1933) and others, which found the tightly wound actor playing fast talking con men or barely reformed criminals that kept you off balance for the duration of each film. Even in a musical, Footlight Parade (1933), we got the same live wire Cagney who left you bracing for whatever he might do next.
The enforcement of the Production Code beginning on July 1, 1934 seemed poised to kill off this pre-Code bad boy forever. In the section of the Code concerned with “Crimes Against the Law” it was stated: “These shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with a desire for imitation.”
Gangster movies had been snuffed out, but long live the Crime genre!
Cagney’s Brick Davis is an unsuccessful lawyer at the open of G Men. After tossing the always sleazy Edwin Maxwell out of his office, he is paid a visit by his old college roommate, Buchanan (Regis Toomey), now a G-man. When Buchanan notes the dust on his law books, Brick explains that he’s failed at law because he refuses to become a shyster. No “blackmailing or ambulance chasing” for him. He saw it all when he was a kid on the East Side and he doesn’t want to return to those back alleys.
If Warner’s had released G Men prior to Code enforcement this would sound like the type of set-up which would soon find William Powell, Warren William or another leading man blurring the law until he were defending gangsters or, earlier, bootleggers. Cagney’s Brick has all the charm, and then some, to cross that line and keep our sympathies, but with the Code now firmly in place Brick’s going to have to follow another path.
Buchanan tells his old buddy that he wishes he would drop this law business to become a G-man. He leaves him with an application for the Department of Justice. Brick is polite, but flips the paper away, unimpressed, after Buchanan departs.
Boy, Regis Toomey sure had low billing in this one. He used to play leads. Doesn’t seem very healthy for his Buchanan.
Buchanan’s early exit winds up being all the encouragement Brick needed to fulfill his request. After the pine box marked “Buchanan” is packed off to Washington, Brick returns to his office to complete the application.
But Brick has one bit of business he must attend to before he departs for Washington himself. He winks at Ann Dvorak’s showgirl once inside the cabaret before heading to the back to see his benefactor, McKay, or Mac (William Harrigan), who had saved Brick from the gutter when he was young. Given the timing of G Men, Mac plays an important part. He’s a career criminal, at this point of the movie still technically boss of all of the crooks who appear in G Men, but he’s also the man who backed Cagney’s Brick to an education that cost him in the neighborhood of $20,000.
“Chicken feed when you like a guy,” Mac says of his investment in Brick.“I’ve been in rackets all my life. They don’t pay off—except in dough."
Brick tries to prepare Mac for disappointment, but Mac surprises him and gives his blessing to Brick’s new career path. “That puts me on the other side of the fence from you,” Brick tells him. No matter, Mac explains, as he’s getting out of the rackets and planning to settle down anyway.
Our Code approved hero, Brick, is allowed this loose connection to the underworld. Even if the biggest boss of them all is more or less his father figure it doesn’t matter because Mac has reformed himself and is getting out of the game for good.
That leaves Brick to deal with the baddies he bumps into on the way out of Mac’s office. There’s Barton MacLane as Collins, the outrageously cocky Leggett (Edward Pawley), noted for his fondness of keeping a fresh gardenia pinned to his chest at all times, and somewhat quieter, but equally menacing, Gerard (Russell Hopton).
“Remember to keep your tin badge in Washington,” Collins says to Brick. “If you come around here sticking your puss in our affairs you’ll get a belly full of this,” he adds while pointing his gun at Brick's gut.
Brick arrives in Washington and immediately gets off on the wrong foot with his superiors. Trailing G-men McCord (Robert Armstrong) and Farrell (Lloyd Nolan) down the hallway he listens as McCord puts down the latest round of applicants. He wants cops with street experience; they’re giving him book smart lawyers instead.
Scoffing at the highlights of Brick’s own application while in conversation with Farrell, McCord mocks Brick’s fraternity. “Now isn’t that sweet? Phi Beta Kappa.” It's all any Cagney character could stand!
“What’s yours, flat-foota-copper?” says Brick from behind, stopping the pair in their tracks.
Farrell seems amused by Brick, but the young applicant and the seasoned McCord trade barbs and wind up professing their dislike for one another before this first meeting ends.
It will be awhile before these two will be able to stand one another.
We tag along with Cagney for his training, but in the meantime the outside world is feeding stories to our movie gangsters and presenting some very familiar tales to the moviegoers of 1935.
Breaking from the film for a brief timeline of actual occurrences:
June 17, 1933 - The Kansas City Massacre. Four lawmen murdered at a Union Station railroad depot in Kansas City when Vernon Miller’s gang attempt to free Frank “Jelly” Nash, a prisoner in custody of the Feds. The F.B.I. claimed Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd was one of the gunmen, though that does not seem certain today. Nash was also killed.
April 20, 1934 - Gunfight between John Dillinger’s gang, including “Baby Face” Nelson, and the FBI led by Melvin Purvis at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, WI. Two watchdogs bark as the agents arrive, but this was said to be nothing unusual. The Dillinger gang didn’t realize that they were surrounded until the FBI accidentally gunned down three civilians outside.
July 22, 1934 - Purvis and his team kill Dillinger outside of the Biograph Theater in Chicago. The outlaw was coming from a screening of Manhattan Melodrama.
October 22, 1934 - FBI agents led by Purvis gun down “Pretty Boy” Floyd near East Liverpool, Ohio.
November 27, 1934 - Baby Face Nelson and two FBI agents are killed in the Barrington gun battle just outside of Chicago.
February 20, 1935 - Production begins on G Men at Warner Brothers.
The public was fascinated by these national stories and generally absorbed every detail that the news outlets presented. They would have recognized the Kansas City Massacre being enacted when Leggett’s mob saves him from the clutches of the law at a railway station.
They would have seen the area of the map that Collins and company settled in, robbing banks along their way, and associated it with the infamous Mid-West reign of terror by the likes of Dillinger’s Gang and Pretty Boy Floyd.
In The FBI: A Comprehensive Reference Guide, Athan G. Theoharis goes so far as to say audiences would have connected the marked bank notes leading to to Leggett’s capture in the movie with details of the 1932 Lindbergh Baby kidnapping which had recently been revealed in the early 1935 trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann.
Cagney’s star-making turn back in The Public Enemy is often cited as an example when discussing the “ripped from the headlines” style made famous at Warner Brothers by then Production head, Darryl F. Zanuck.
Zanuck was well into his run at Fox by the time of G Men, but he had already written the apparently unpublished novel, Public Enemy No. 1, that G Men was based upon. In fact, Zanuck, under one of his more common pseudonyms, Gregory Rogers, would be tabbed for G Men’s sole Academy Award nomination. Rogers was a write-in candidate in the category Best Writing, Original Story at the 1936 Oscars. That story was adapted for the screen by Seton I. Miller.
G Men was directed by William Keighley, unfairly best remembered for later being pulled off of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) in favor of Michael Curtiz, but who wound up putting together a nice career with titles including: Bullets or Ballots (1936), The Prince and the Pauper (1937), Brother Rat (1938), Cagney again in Each Dawn I Die (1939), and again in The Fighting 69th (1940) as well as Torrid Zone (1940) and The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941). The former actor Keighley had worked with Cagney as far back as Penny Arcade, the Broadway production which originally brought Cagney and co-star Joan Blondell to the screen in the Warner Brothers adaptation Sinners’ Holiday (1930).
Known for his light touch, Keighley later directed the classic screen comedies The Man Who Came to Dinner and George Washington Slept Here (both 1942). Ann Sheridan, who appeared in both films, said George Washington co-star Jack Benny and director Keighley were “just two great people to work with” (Hagen 182).
While Cagney referred to Keighley as, “that good man,” in his autobiography and included him with a group of directors whom he said, “did their job to the fullest,” Cagney biographer John McCabe (who ghostwrote the earlier Cagney book) later wrote, “Jim did not much care for Keighley, regarding him as a poseur and a nice guy-phony” from the time of Penny Arcade back in New York (133).
Keighley’s light touch didn’t serve him well on G Men at first. A memo from Hal Wallis, who had followed Zanuck as executive producer at the studio, scolds Keighley for having Cagney play, “too much of a gentleman.” Wallis adds, “After all, he is supposed to be an East side mug who was put through law school by a lot of crooks and he is playing it like a white collared gentleman in a drawing room” (Behlmer 25). Biographer McCabe responds years later in Cagney: ”What Keighley could not possibly convey to Wallis is that no one was going to tell Jim Cagney how to play an East Side mug with some education” (133).
There’s no hint of the white collared gentleman in the finished product.
G Men worked its way around the Code by making Cagney and the G-Men the heroes of the piece. Barton MacLane is a total slime as the top gangster, Collins. Viewers will not “throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice” when the former is MacLane and the latter Cagney.
And so pinning a badge on Cagney allows Warner Brothers to release one of the most violent post-Code movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age. G Men is filled with gun battles, outright murder and includes a fiery explosion along with a fair amount of blood if your eyes are sharp:
While I doubt Brick Davis would have advanced any further than dropping his application in the mailbox were this not a movie, any real life cadet making it beyond that point likely would have found himself booted out of the Department if employing Cagney’s level of bravado in just about any scene. Robert Armstrong, in command of Brick as McCord, probably would have knocked that smirk off of anyone else’s face the first time it lit up in front of him.
But it’s Cagney and nobody messes with Cagney. Especially Robert Armstrong. And that’s all right.
Behind Cagney’s star power G Men was a critical and commercial hit. It not only contributed to popularizing the term “G-man,” it ushered in a brief cycle of G-men films that included titles such as Public Hero #1, Whipsaw (both 1935), 36 Hours to Kill (1936) and Midnight Taxi (1937).
G Men was not originally embraced by F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover or U.S. Attorney General Homer Cummings, but it became such a hit that the men soon approved of the entire cycle of films. When G Men was re-released by Warner Brothers in 1949 it was to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the F.B.I.
The version of G Men that plays today includes the brief 1949 prologue in which actor David Brian portrays the Chief of the Department and refers to the old film that he’s about to play for the cadets as, “the daddy of all F.B.I. pictures.” The Chief adds, “the cars are old and you won’t see women waring the new look,” but that the hoodlum is “the same today as he was then. He is still a public enemy.”
Wink, wink. Connecting Cagney’s past even more directly to his present, that 1949 re-release came in the Summer, only months ahead of Cagney’s celebrated return to the wrong side of the tracks as Cody Jarrett in White Heat, which premiered in early September.
Most of the other performances in G Men are strong as well. Collins was a breakout role for 32-year-old (that's all?) Barton MacLane, who’d continue to play a host of menacing characters throughout his lengthy career. Russell Hopton and Edward Pawley are both excellent as the other major gangsters. While it may be hard to believe that William Harrigan’s Mac begins as top ranking gangster, he is very effective in his father figure role to Cagney.
Robert Armstrong can grate a bit, but overall he comes across as passable as McCord, the straight-laced G-man. While I found him generally stiff, Armstrong really only bugged me in a couple of scenes and the blame for those may be better placed with director Keighley. The worst of those is Armstrong’s unrestrained laughter while Lloyd Nolan tosses Cagney around during training. Reel that in or commit that man. He was hard for me to like after that.
Lloyd Nolan is very good in what was his film debut.
There are only two women of consequence in the film. Margaret Lindsay, who is very sour as Armstrong’s sister being pursued by Cagney as potential love interest. Frankly, it’s hard to see why he’s even bothering through most of the movie. Still, Lindsay’s nurse has better social standing than Ann Dvorak’s cabaret performer. Dvorak is especially strong in her final scene. We could have used some more of her, somehow, in the middle of the movie.
After G Men James Cagney appeared in The Irish in Us and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both later in 1935. The following year Cagney sued Warner Brothers for breach of contract, a case he eventually won. He had appeared in a couple of films for the independent studio Grand National in the intervening years, but his next great film after G Men would not be until his return to Warner Brothers in 1938 for Angels with Dirty Faces.
G Men made it to DVD back in 2008 as part of the Warner Gangsters Collection, Volume 2, which also includes Keighley’s excellent Bullets or Ballots and Each Dawn I Die. It’s really a must-have set if you’re a fan of the Crime-Gangster genres, especially now that it’s so often deeply discounted on sites like Amazon.com.
As of this writing G Men will not air on Turner Classic Movies anytime in the near future. When it is next scheduled the date will appear just under the film title on the TCM database entry HERE.
Once more this post was written as part of the James Cagney Blogathon hosted by R.D. Finch at The Movie Projector, the week of April 8-12, 2013. You’ll find all of the participating writers and their websites listed HERE.
- Behlmer, Rudy, ed. Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951). New York: Viking, 1985.
- Cagney, James. Cagney by Cagney. New York: Doubleday, 1976.
- Hagen, Ray and Laura Wagner. Killer Tomatoes: Fifteen Tough Film Dames. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004.
- McCabe, John. Cagney. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1997.
- Meyer, William R. Warner Brothers Directors. New Rochelle: Arlington House, 1978.
- Theoharis, Athan G., ed. The FBI: A Comprehensive Reference Guide. Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1999.