Not every great movie becomes a cultural touchstone. Some simply escape notice, some are obscured by time, and some are actively suppressed. In this column, Jared adopts a few orphaned films in need of a good viewing.
You might expect a story like that to fit the template of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, as a contemporary example, or Flash of Genius, as a modern one. Movies where an ordinary man values an ideal above himself, and uses only perseverance and compassion to bring a corrupt system to its knees. Great Guy does not fit that template. Those movies are humble. Great Guy has no business with humility. Even the title is a brag. And the titular guy of greatness has more in common with Eliot Ness or Sonny Crockett than he does with any kind of Capraesque underdog everyman. He doesn’t take his fight to the courthouse. He takes his fight to the streets. His fight, again, being the fight for accurate weights and measures. That is the fight that he takes to the streets.
There are several scenes of “shakedowns,” not of black market drug rings, but of regular market onion rings. He’ll visit a grocer to make sure their produce is being weighed properly, he’ll decline a bribe to overlook the discrepancy, and then, a fistfight will break out. But of course, these crooked poultry barons are just a symptom of an even greater injustice. And oh yes, this one goes all the way to the top.
This Chief Deputy of Ass-Kickings and Name-Takings is a scrappy Irish-American ex-boxer played by James Cagney, in a characteristically magnetic performance. Mae Clark (who was also paired with Cagney in The Public Enemy and Lady Killer) plays his equally pugnacious fiancée. Their romantic partnership brings out the softer side of Cagney. When he’s not out punching conspiracies into submission, he’s with her, picking out furniture, or arguing over where to eat, or making fun of her ugly hat.
“My best friend gets hit by a streetcar and winds up in the hospital; civil war in Spain; earthquakes in Japan; and now you wear that hat.”
Eventually, however, their conversations always turn to the subject of money. Sometimes it’s about the money they’ve saved up for their new life together, sometimes it’s about Cagney’s suspicion of Clarke’s employer. It turns out that his fiancée is the head villain’s secretary, because literally every woman in this movie is a secretary. And it’s representative of Cagney’s dedication to principle that he’s willing to sacrifice her gainful employment, in addition to a lucrative job offer for himself, in order to save the entire community from losing pennies on the dollar.
So where does this movie fit? It’s not a hard-boiled actioner, it’s not film noir, it doesn’t even really aspire to be an impacting drama. The stakes are far too low. One arena where you do take small stakes and inflate them into a crisis, is comedy. This film has the trappings of a tough police procedural, but it wears them like a mask. That said, Great Guy isn’t a comedy, either. In fact, any attempt to definitively categorize this film is a misunderstanding rooted in modern perspective. This film, like many others, embraces the “Golden Age” ideal that a well-made film should blend the elements of drama, comedy, romance, and intrigue. Director John Blystone blends these elements fairly evenly, but the lighthearted tint that he used with Buster Keaton, and Laurel & Hardy, shines through. The tone throughout is breezy, and the pacing is brisk. Actually, it’s too brisk. We’re talking iced tea on an autumn evening levels of brisk. This is one of the few movies James Cagney made outside of Warner Bros., and admittedly, it shows. The editing is choppy. Like its hero, the film itself is a bit rough around the edges. But I like ’em that way, don’t you?
Great Guy has some of the makings of a serial. It has a lovable hero, and it would have been fun to see him tackle other challenges, such as an insufficient postage racket, perhaps, and given its variance of tonality and strident pacing, it might have felt more “at home” as a series, with more room to breathe. Unfortunately, that would not be possible, since his jurisdiction only extends to crimes involving either weights or measures, he is essentially the Aquaman of detectives.