Hard to Handle (1933)
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His schemes always fail - a dodgy dance marathon where his partner runs off with all the money, a treasure hunt on the Sea Breeze pier where the winner is to find $5,000, only there is no prize but the thousands of seekers let loose wreck the pier (a hilarious scene)!! One of his schemes does take - a cold cream that doesn't absorb into the skin becomes Velvet Reducing Cream and Lefty becomes an instant millionaire!! Now Ruth is hesitant - she liked the old "go get 'im" Lefty and feels his head may be turned by his wealthy lifestyle and now wants to wait a few months before accepting his marriage proposal.
That is all the time needed for vampy college student beauty Marlene Reeves (gorgeous Claire Dodd who else) to try to get her red nailed fingers into him. If only Claire Dodd could have got her man just once - her smarts and cunning matched his and even though Ruth said to Lefty of New York "this is my town, not yours" Dodd's slinking made Brian look like a country bumpkin. I also couldn't understand those matching mother daughter outfits either - quite odd!!! But Miss Dodd was always destined to be the scintillating other woman and what an "other woman" she was.
Cagney didn't like being restricted to "dese, dem and dose" type roles - although even today they are elevated by his emotional honesty and sheer dynamism. He walked out of "Blessed Event" (I'm glad - I don't think Lee Tracy could be bettered) claiming he was doing too many movies for too little pay. "Hard to Handle" was his return movie and even though he played yet another scrapper - similar to his Bert in "Blonde Crazy" - at least he was getting more pay!!!
Ruth (Mary Brian) is in love with Cagney's character, but Ruth's gold-digging mother Lil (Ruth Donelly) wants to make sure Ruth marries money. When Cagney is doing well, Lil's all for him as a future son-in-law. When he's not, she's after a photographer - " a 25000 dollar a year man" - as she describes him. The girls dress alike and Lil is always referring to herself and her daughter as "we", as in "we love you" or "we can't marry a pauper like that". Cagney plays an advertising promoter whose ideas sometimes work and sometimes don't, but always to comic effect. This film is not on DVD or VHS, so chances are you've never heard of it. Another interesting tidbit - Ruth Donelly and Mary Brian are actually only about ten years apart in age, yet play mother and daughter pretty effectively. Highly recommended for the silliness of it all.
Say now, is it really possible that those Depression era dance marathons went as long as eight weeks or more?!!! That's how the picture opens while introducing the entire cast of principal characters. I thought it was a neat touch that the occasion had it's own marathon foot specialist. Kind of makes sense doesn't it?
Throughout the story, Cagney's character comes up with scheme after scheme, making lemonade out of every lemon thrown his way. The entire film is a hoot, the only problem being it's not commercially available, so you'll have to be lucky to catch it on a cable channel or source it through a private collector. It's worth it though to catch an early Cagney flick, even if you have to rewind the picture a number of times to understand all the dialog. Cagney's lines are so quick you can't catch them all the first time around!
He has some great scenes: In one, he runs down flight after flight of a winding staircase.
Mary Brian is the nominal leading lady. She's OK. But Ruth Donnelly is really Cagney's co-star here. Playing Brian's avaricious, canny mother, she is hilarious. Nobody can put one over on her. If anyone tries, she'll bounce right back. She'll change her tune. She'll double-cross and triple-cross to get what she wants for herself and her pretty daughter.
Donnelly was a reliable supporting performer in more movies than anyone could easily count. Rarely did she get such a role. She grabs it and runs with it. She and Cagney are fantastic together. It's a shame they were never teamed again.
Here the Blondell role is split in two and Cagney deals with a mother/ daughter duo of Ruth Donnelly and Mary Brian. Like Blondell, Donnelly gives as good as she gets from Cagney.
Donnelly and Cagney were roughly the same age and Brian was about six years younger than Cagney. Ridiculous now when you think about Donnelly and Brian being mother and daughter. No film maker could get away with that casting now.
There's no real story to this film, Cagney moves from one con to another, skirting ever so close to illegality. Donnelly and Brian are alternately for and against him and not at the same time either at certain points.
It's a film that relies solely on the charm of Jimmy Cagney which is considerable. And it's the stuff Cagney was disputing with Jack Warner over.
His last con involved the marketing of grapefruit, from the man who made grapefruit tossing a national past time at breakfast/
Jimmy plays an idea man--sort of like a freelance promoter. While the summary on IMDb says he was a "con man" this is not the case--his ideas were honest at heart--he just knew how to bend the truth a little to sell an idea! When the film starts, there is a dance marathon occurring that Cagney has organized. It's a great success and Cagney's girl (Mary Brian) is about to win. However, Cagney's unscrupulous partner absconds with the money and he is nearly torn apart by the audience. Throughout the film, Cagney comes up with idea after idea and sells them to companies that manufacture face cream or sell land. The only idea that fails is a promotion to encourage the public to frequent an oceanside pier--you'll need to see how it backfires yourself! Throughout all these ups and downs and schemes, Mary's mother, played by Ruth Donnelly, is a real schemer herself. Her number one goal is getting her daughter married to the richest man possible--regardless of what they guy is like. When Cagney is down, she hates him and won't let Mary give him the time of day and when he is rich and successful, he's her "favorite future son-in-law". This is funny for a while, but she was so transparent and one-dimensional (and obvious "funny" character by design), that I soon found her to be the weakest character in the film--becoming a bit too predictable and monotonous.
But, whatever this character lacks or any other character for that matter, Cagney's intense energy more than makes up for it. And while the energetic and manic Cagney is all wrong for many films, it is perfect for this one (as well as movies like ONE, TWO, THREE). He single-handedly carries the film and is just a lot of fun to like. I really think his character works because while "full of blarney", he IS basically decent and honest! If he had been full of larceny, then his character would have been difficult, if not impossible to like--like Spencer Tracy was in The Show-Off (1934). And, in this case it was very easy to like him and want him to succeed.
Don't get me wrong he plays the script and follows his lines but as any actor has he has his own mannerisms and quirky ways.
This is the story of a con man who teams up with the usual blonde with one exception he gets the battleaxe mother too and she is exceptionally funny with it. Cagney laughs in every scene as he goes from one con to another. His energy is big, it's like he is dancing through this film.
The usual ups and downs, dumb blondes, twists and double crossings make this a short, energetic film a good one.
Overall funny film, fun and happy times.
If you're looking for Cagney as a toughguy gangster this isn't it, although the film takes some timely, self-aware potshots at Cagney's image including grapefruit jokes. Here his schemes are mostly harmless like rigging a dance contest, and he's as likely to be scammed as he is to make a big score. I can see how his fans might be disappointed, but Cagney was also a song-and-dance man and a self-depricating comedian. Gold digger comedies, like crime-genre and noir, are filled with amoral characters and backstabbing frenemies but played for laughs. It's easy to forgive shady motives when the leads are wholesome Dick Powell and sunny Priscilla Lane. James Cagney on the otherhand has electricity and an edge that plays for darker characters. Here he's forced to rely on charm and guile - you may be waiting for him to bust up the joint and rub out his enemies, but gold digger heroes are lovers not fighters. This isn't his best fit, but "date movie" Cagney is the nicer guy who doesn't smash citrus in women's faces.
Ruth Donnelly anchors the meandering plot as the most gold digger-y character in a gold digger comedy. What kills the film is the casting of elegant Mary Brian who mostly stands around looking pretty. Her "inverse barometer" reactions to Cagney's ups and downs would have played better with a more sexual screen presence. She represents the female sexual urge, while mother Donnelly represents the brain, conflicted over bad-boy Cagney's tumultuous circumstances. They dress alike because they metaphorically are one woman, but also because it's funny hanging a lampshade on their mother-daughter bear trap. The clever subtext is that Cagney can't win the girl until he figures out how to appeal to both women's sensibilities at the same time.
** (out of 4)
James Cagney plays a hustler who fixes contests where the winners get a small amount of money while he makes it rich. Once again we get Cagney playing a fast talker and for the most part the film remains entertaining, although it's certainly lite all around. Mary Brian is great as the love interest and Ruth Donnelly steals the show as her loud mouth mother. There's a nice spoof of the grapefruit scene from The Public Enemy.
As of now this one isn't available on DVD so you'll have to keep your eyes on Turner Classic Movies.