MOD Movies: Cagney, Crawford and Montgomery Before the Code
'Taxi,' 'Untamed,' and 'The Robert Montgomery Collection'
"Taxi" (Warner Archive), a 1931 picture with a wound-up James Cagney as a wise-guy cabbie, is two-fisted Warner street drama that burns rubber through the first twenty minutes as a cab company uses mob-style tactics to take over the streets from the independents. The taxi war of those opening scenes, where tactics range from old-fashioned intimidation to demolition derby stunts, promises a scrappy little film of underdogs versus the syndicate in urban combat via 1930s cabs. And yeah, "Taxi" is scrappy, thanks to a pugnacious Cagney (the term has never been more apt; he picks a fight with almost everyone who catches his attention), but the film takes an unexpected turn early on when the "war" (as the headlines keep screaming) is settled in arbitration, and the film shifts gears into a romance on the verge of blowing up, a courtship that keeps derailing into Cagney's street brawls and arguments with Young, and then gets pushed into a matter of vengeance. Cagney, of course, refuses to tell the cops who killed his brother; he's going to take care of this one himself.
How can you refuse a film that embraces non-violent arbitration and still gives a pass to Cagney taking revenge? But the best part of the film is Leila Bennett as Young's best friend, a career waitress with a non-stop stream of conscious commentary and a world-weary delivery that just gets funnier every time she opens her mouth and talks about past romances that, invariably, ended in disaster, leaving her sadder but apparently no wiser.
Also starring Cagney is "Frisco Kid" (Warner Archive), a mix of costume adventure and urban drama set in San Francisco's Barbary Coast, circa 1950s. The film is from 1935, after the production code, but Cagney's energy is something the code couldn't harness.
Joan Crawford is "Untamed" (Warner Archive). That's how I imagine the tag line of her sound debut, which careens from an exotic jungle drama with Crawford as the wild child daughter of an oil baron working in the wilds of South America to a romantic drama set in the high life of New York society, where Crawford transforms from Bingo, an impulsive girl raised as a sexy tomboy in short dresses, to Alice, heiress of an oil fortune in love with Andy (Robert Montgomery), a man who is both penniless and a regular on the society social circuit, appearing at every party and nightclub gathering in evening clothes. Where Crawford is all force of nature unleashed, uninhibited and fearsome and the most powerful personality in the film (it takes a figure of no less physical presence than Ernest Torrence, who plays Uncle Ben, to stand up to her), Montgomery is the easy-going, non-confrontational city boy, whose friendly acceptance of everyone may be how he became the eternal society guest (that and, at least as far as the girls are concerned, his boyish good looks).
The 1929 film, directed by Jack Conway, is actually quite spry and snappy compared to many of the early sound efforts of the same era, and Crawford is clearly in her element in the talkies, delivering often silly lines with the conviction of a spirited naïf or the flash of a fearsome society lady who has mastered surviving two very different jungles.
"Untamed" elevated Robert Montgomery to leading man status. "The Robert Montgomery Collection" (Warner Archive) presents eight more films made after his leading man debut, including six pre-code features, all made for MGM. He was a light lead, to be sure, no heavyweight, but like a lot of stars of the period, the man cranked them out and he had the charm to carry it off. In most of the films he's the star attraction, opposite second-tier starlets, but in "Faithless" (1932), he takes second billing to Tallulah Bankhead, who plays a socialite trying to hold on to her wealth through the depression.
This four disc collection also features "Shipmates" (1931), with Montgomery as a young naval seaman and his "Untamed" costar Ernest Torrence once again making his life difficult; "The Man in Possession" (1931), a period comedy directed by Sam Wood with Montgomery as the black sheep of a proper British comedy; "Lovers Courageous" (1932) and "Made on Broadway" (1933), both with Madge Evans, and "But the Flesh is Weak" (1932), directed by thirties journeyman Jack Conway and starring Nora Gregor and Heather Thatcher. The last two films in the set are not pre-code at all; they come from later in his career, as his star rose and he got bigger films with stronger casts. In "Live, Love and Learn" (1937), he plays a struggling painter opposite Rosalind Russell as a rich society girl (the cast also features Robert Benchley, Monty Woolley and Mickey Rooney), and in "The Earl of Chicago" (1940) he's a former rum-runner looking to go straight and Edward Arnold is the one-time confederate he sent to prison and now wants back in his organization.
Available exclusively from Warner Archive:
MOD stands for "Manufacture on Demand" and represents a recent development in the DVD market, where slipping sales have slowed the release of classic, special interest and catalogue releases. These are DVD-R releases, no-frills discs from studio masters, ordered online and "burned" individually with every order. You can read a general introduction to the format and the model on my profile of the Warner Archive Collection on Parallax View here and on the MGM Limited Edition Collection on Videodrone here.