Monday, March 11, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Johnny Come Lately (1943) at the UCLA Festival of Preservation

Tonight's double bill at the UCLA Festival of Preservation focused on small-town Americana. JOHNNY COME LATELY (1943) and THE INSIDE STORY (1947) were each flawed but nonetheless quite entertaining, and they looked absolutely beautiful, presented in pristine 35mm restorations.

Best of all, Marjorie Lord and Marsha Hunt, the films' leading ladies, were on hand to share some memories about each film.

JOHNNY COME LATELY is the story of Tom Richards (James Cagney), a vagabond with newspaper experience who is bailed out of jail by an elderly newspaper owner, Vinnie McLeod (Grace George, in her only sound film). In return, Tom helps Vinnie revitalize her beloved paper and take on the town's crooked politico (William McNamara). A subplot concerns the rocky romance between Vinnie's spirited niece Jane (Marjorie Lord) and the politico's son (Bill Henry).

This production by James and William Cagney is an enjoyable portrait of life and battles in a small town, but the film lays on the treacle just a bit too thick with the sweetness of Grace George's character. Although Leigh Harline's score was Oscar nominated, it adds to the film's syrupy tone, particularly in the first half of the film. It's thus a relief when the vinegary Marjorie Main enters the scene as Gashouse Mary, a potential ally for Vinnie and Tom, and she takes no prisoners! It's a marvelous role for Main.

Humor and spice are also added by Robert Barrat (hilarious as Main's ketchup-obsessed sweetheart of days gone by), Margaret Hamilton, and Hattie McDaniel. Casts don't come much better than that! Supporting roles are filled by George Cleveland, Clarence Muse, Irving Bacon, Tom Dugan, Arthur Hunnicutt, and Victor Kilian.

This 97-minute film was directed by William K. Howard from a screenplay by John Van Druten. The screenplay was based on the Louis Bromfield novel MCLEOD'S FOLLY. The black and white cinematography was by Theodor Sparkuhl.

Marjorie Lord said she thought she might have been hired as she reminded the Cagneys of their younger sister Jeanne, who was an acquaintance of hers. She said that James Cagney was "charming" and a "gentleman," who would often practice dancing during breaks.

She said that at the time she made the film she had recently been in a theatrical production and was used to projecting to the rafters. When she and Cagney filmed the scene where she bandages him after a fight, after the first take he gently told her "Let's do it again, and this time stop acting." Though a bit taken aback, she quickly realized what he meant and toned her performance way down, performing the next take much more naturally and earning his praise. She said it was one of the most valuable acting tips she ever received.

She said the other greatest advice she received came from Judith Anderson when she appeared with Anderson and Helen Menken in a theatrical production of THE OLD MAID. One night she was very tired and let herself become overemotional and teary in a scene, annoying Menken. Anderson told Lord that "Actors control the scene, the scene never controls you."

JOHNNY COME LATELY had a VHS release by Republic in 1997. It has not been released on DVD.

As a side note, this was the fourth film seen in the past week which focused on the newspaper business! The other titles were TRY AND GET ME (1950), THE LAWLESS (1950), and HIGH TIDE (1947). It's been quite interesting seeing so many films of this type in close succession, and it's also been a wonderful few days at the UCLA Festival of Preservation!


Blogger Vienna said...

Thanks for reminding me of this Cagney film which I saw many years ago. As you say,what a great supporting cast - Hollywood was able to do this so often - they had so many sterling performers to choose from.
And you are so lucky to see Marjorie Lord speaking about being in the film.

12:30 AM  
Blogger Judy said...

This movie has often been shown on TV in the UK over the last few years - I definitely think it is a lesser Cagney film but, as you say, has a great cast. It must have been fascinating to hear Marjorie Lord's reminiscences, and thanks so much for sharing them! I do agree that Marjorie Main is excellent in this.

Your mention of Marjorie Lord reminds me, it struck me recently that quite a few of the actresses who starred opposite James Cagney are still with us - Olivia de Havilland, Joan Leslie, Doris Day, Barbara Hale who plays his wife in 'A Lion is in the Streets, Irene Papas from 'Tribute to a Bad Man', Dorothy Malone from 'Man of a Thousand Faces', Shirley Jones from 'Never Steal Anything Small' who is probably the youngest... and several others have only died in the last two years or so.

12:54 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for your input, Vienna and Judy -- so interested you each have seen this one. It was entertaining, even if I didn't find it completely satisfactory.

Judy, what a great point about Cagney's leading ladies. Many of them were quite young when they worked with him, weren't they?!

I was thinking, listening to both Marjorie Lord and Marsha Hunt, how remarkable it was to hear the firsthand memories of women who worked with actors like Cagney, Olivier, Garson, Rathbone, etc. etc. I'm so fortunate to be able to see them.

Best wishes,

10:21 AM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

This sentimental oldie is a favourite of mine and I've chosen to write about it for the upcoming Cagney blogathon. So happy to read your current thoughts on the film. You are always so enlightening, Laura.

10:31 AM  

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