The Law of Contact

Great Guy (December, 1936)

James Cagney in Great Guy

Released December, 1936: There is crime and excitement in the Department of Weights and Measures as James Cagney takes charge.

Directed by John G. Blystone

The Actors: James Cagney (Johnny 'Red' Cave), Mae Clarke (Janet Henry), James Burke (Patrick James Aloysius 'Pat' Haley), Edward Brophy (Pete Reilly), Henry Kolker (Abel Canning), Bernadene Hayes (Hazel Scott), Edward McNamara (Captain Pat Hanlon), Robert Gleckler (Marty Cavanaugh), Joe Sawyer (Joe Burton), Edward Gargan (henchman Al), Matty Fain (henchman Tim), Mary Gordon (Mrs. Ogilvie), Douglas Wood (the Mayor), Gertrude Astor (party guest), Bobby Barber (grocery clerk), Sammy Blum (political party chief), Lynton Brent (reporter), Jack Byron (party guest), Eddy Chandler (meat clerk), Walter D. Clarke Jr. (bit part), Kernan Cripps (deputy), Patrick Cunning (Patrick Guest), John Dilson (city editor), Lester Dorr (Canning's Chauffeur), Jim Farley (Police Desk Sergeant), James Ford (party guest), Dwight Frye (man), Bud Geary (party guest), Gertrude Green (nurse), Carlton Griffin (Deputy), Ben Hendricks Jr. (party guest), Al Herman (Deputy Marks), Arthur Hoyt (furniture salesman), Bert Kalmar Jr. (bit part), Jane Keckley (caffeteria customer), Ethelreda Leopold (Burton's girlfriend), Robert Lowery (Mr. Parker), Murdock MacQuarrie (Mr. Marvin, Canning's client), Wally Maher (gas station attendant), Frank Mills (party guest), Bruce Mitchell (Policeman at accident), Edmund Mortimer (party guest), William J. O'Brien (meat clerk number 2), Frank O'Connor (detective), Dennis O'Keefe (party guest), Jack Pennick (truck driver), Jack Perry (party guest), Kate Price (woman at accident), Henry Roquemore (Mr. Grady the store manager), Jeffrey Sayre (sugar clerk), Dick Scott (deputy), Lee Shumway (Mike the policeman).


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Tough guy James Cagney is always a joy to watch, no matter if he is the good guy or the bad guy. He has made several quality films as each. In this movie he is the chief deputy of the weights and measures department in New York City. Sounds sexy and exciting and dangerous, doesn't it? No? You don't think that Cagney can pull it off? Then you don't know Cagney! He is the last honest man in a city run by the movers and shakers - the politically connected businessmen and polititians that keep the city running, and keep their pockets full of money.

When his boss is run over by a car and hospitalized for a long time, Red Cave (James Cagney) is promoted to chief deputy of the city's weights and measures department. Red goes to visit his boss in the hospital, and learns that the boss thinks he was deliberately run over to prevent him from exposing corruption in the city. Red is excited about his promotion and wants to take his girlfriend to lunch at the Ritz to celebrate. His girlfriend is actress Mae Clarke, who became famous 5 years earlier when playing opposite James Cagney in 'Public Enemy,' when in an iconic scene at the breakfast table Cagney improvisationally shoves half a grapefruit in Mae's face, and storms out of the house to meet Jean Harlow.

So anyway, he picks up his girl and tells her that they are eating at the Ritz, and she tells him that they are on a budget so that they can get married, and the Ritz is out. In his toughest voice, Cagney informs her that he is the boss, and they are eating at the Ritz. In the next scene we see them filling their tray at an inexpensive cafeteria . . . oh, the power that beautiful women have over tough guys! She even forces him to have a large helping of spinach, over his protestations. The weaker sex . . . equality of the sexes . . . as a guy, I would love to be equal with women, but I don't think we will ever achieve it! But back to our movie . . .

Before meeting his girl for lunch, as he is starting his day as the new chief deputy, he tells the others in the office that corrupt merchants in the city are bilking innocent house wives out of big money every year, by cheating them a penny here and a penny there. He informs us that American households spend 40% of their total income on food . . . wait a minute, I've got to stop the movie again . . . keep eating your popcorn, but think about spending 40 cents out of every dollar that you earn on food . . . no wonder there were so few 'chubby' folks back then. It was too expensive to get out of shape. Today we spend between 5 and 15% of our income on food. Food is so inexpensive that we have no problem gorging ourselves on many times the amount of food actually needed to sustain us . . . <Jimbo shakes himself firmly> . . . sorry, I just got off on a little tangent there . . . I'm back now.

So Cagney and his partner head for some undercover shopping, and easily find a grocer that is putting false bottoms in trays of strawberries, so that a 'full' box is only a bit over half full. He finds a meat counter where the chicken has a heavy lead rod inserted into it while it is being weighed, so that he pays for a few ounces more than the chicken actually weighs. Then he finds a gas station that sells him five gallons of gas, but when he measures it himself, it turns out to be only a little over four gallons. (May I take another side trip? It is 2011, and every Saturday morning I walk at the local shopping mall with a fellow that is 83 years old, and worked at a gas station as a young man. He tells me that gasoline was terribly difficult to get and expensive during those days, but kerosene was cheap and available. The owner of this gas station would dump 50 gallons of cheap kerosene in the gas storage drum after each gasoline delivery, mixing it with the gasoline. Okay, I'm back now).

Cagney is approached by the local political boss and offered a political job with a pile of money if he would just lay off the local businessmen that were only trying to earn a living. He refuses, and later gets picked up by a couple of thugs that beat him up, dump booze over him and leave him by the street in a seemingly drunken stupor. When he is picked up by the police, they discover that a man of his description has held up a local business, and they book him for drunken disorderly and robbery. While he is at the police station, the political boss comes in, and claims that Cagney is not the man that did the holdup, and that he should be let go. But his words to Cagney let him know that this is the kind of trouble he will have if he keeps pushing on the local merchants. Cagney is unfazed, and continues his push to clean up the neighborhood, and even his girl friend eventually leaves him because he is so stubborn about exposing the corrupt businessmen.

Now I won't expose any more of the plot, but you get the idea. How far will Cagney have to go, and what will he need to endure if he insists on being an honest investigator? Today we enjoy much more honest businesses, and the deception that does occur is much more well hidden in the myriad of 'small print' that surrounds any purchase. But deceptive marketing practices still happen today, and will probably continue until the end of time. The question is, how far should an honest man go when he discovers deceptive practices? To great bodily and financial harm and ruin? To the death? The answer is one that each person must decide for themself, there is no absolute right or wrong answer. Can you tell that I have strong but mixed feelings about this? We all see 'wrong' once in a while during our journey through life. What should we do when we see it? What is our responsibility? Why didn't I watch a light comedy instead of this crime classic? . . . Pass the popcorn, will ya please? I gotta think a bit . . .