“If I were thirty years younger.”
To see Marjorie Main look James Cagney up and down with a hunger in her eye and deliver that line is alone worth the price of admission to this enjoyable Cagney Brothers production released thru United Artists. Johnny Come Lately was the first co-production released by Cagney and his brother William.
Thanks in great part to actress Grace George playing opposite Cagney, this is a hard film not to like. Grace plays an eccentric elderly small town newspaper owner who takes the time to help those less fortunate including railway tramps, out of work vagrants and wayward souls. Tramps like Arthur Hunnicutt who we see during the opening of the film scoring a free breakfast from Grace via her house keeper Hattie McDaniel.
Into the small town comes James Cagney as a traveling vagabond. When Grace comes across him she welcomes him into her home only to find he’s been arrested shortly afterwards and being ushered off to the road gangs. She intervenes on his behalf after learning he is an out of work newspaper man. Cagney takes a shine to the old girl and her attitude in life to help others and right the wrongs that go on in her small town. Wrongs most notably created by her competitor in news William McNamara who has all but run Grace out of business. He’s shady, surrounds himself with thugs to do his bidding and plans on running for office. He soon begins to pressure Grace into publishing his own propaganda.
Time for the Cagney we all pay to see step in.
Complicating matters are the fact that Grace’s niece, Marjorie Lord and McNamara’s son Bill Henry are young and in love. A lover’s spat is sure to follow when Marjorie sees what lengths her beau’s father is prepared to go to in order to pressure her lovely Aunt to toe the line. With Cagney taking the reigns of the small town paper, he quickly gets under the skin of McNamara leading to the inevitable threats of bodily harm that don’t sit well with our iconic tough guy.
In the middle of the film is some great banter between Cagney and Hattie. When she catches him reading the local papers to catch up on what goes on in the small town, she demands to know why he didn’t just ask her as she knows perfectly well all he’ll need to know. This is followed by a kitchen scene where the duo spar over her cooking and a tasty pork chop. The main reason this film is successful is because of the winning combination of Cagney opposite three women who all hold their own against the pint sized legend.
Hattie rules the house, Main runs a local brothel and has the goods on Cagney’s opponent though the “code” whitewashes the whole brothel bit, and finally Grace as the aging girl who steals Jimmy’s heart and wins over the viewing audience as well. It’s worth noting that Grace George was a long time star of the stage who made her one and only film here at the age of 64.
The first half of this film directed by William K. Howard has that melancholy feel to it that reminds me a bit of Sullivan’s Travels. Cagney’s early scenes of the wondering soul are gentle and when he matches up with Grace, they have a warmth that resonates with the audience. Once the plot moves along and we see Grace struggling to keep her home and paper from the bank and McNamara it’s hard not to recall the sentimental feeling one might get while watching It’s a Wonderful Life. The film goes off that track a bit over the last half with the standard Cagney good guy vs. the bad guy plot devices but by the time the ending came around I had to wonder could Cagney have been an Angel all along? “Johnny Come Lately and gone so soon.”
Makes for an interesting thought.
This was one of the few Cagney films that has actually eluded me over the years but thankfully it turned up on an Olive Films DVD release that I finally acquired. Get yourself a copy and enjoy a softer side of Cagney that plays rough when he has to and a trio of leading ladies that match him scene for scene.