Saturday, May 26, 2012

Stubs - Taxi

TAXI (1932) Starring: James Cagney, Loretta Young, George E. Stone, Guy Kibbee Directed by Roy Del Ruth. Screenplay by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright. Run Time: 69. Black and White. U.S. Drama, Romance

James Cagney stars in this “swiftie” made the year after his explosive turn as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy. Cagney plays Matt Nolan, an independent cabbie in New York City, though he appears to drive for Gramercy, based on the name on the door. Independents like him are being put out of business by Consolidated, a rival cab company that uses mobster tactics to get their way.

The first victim we see is Pops Riley (Guy Kibbee). Pops is warned by Buck Gerard (David Landau) that Consolidated is moving in and taking over his location, which is front of a fish restaurant where his daughter Sue (Loretta Young) works as a waitress. She witnesses her father being hassled and encourages him to fight back. And he does. Then Buck has one of his boys, Bull Martin (Nat Pendleton), drive a truck in Pops’ cab, destroying it. When Pops confronts him, Bull pushes Pops down to the ground, but when he starts to leave, Pops caps him.

In a swift courtroom scene, Pops has already been convicted and is sentenced to ten years in Sing Sing. In the audience are Sue and another waitress from the fish joint Ruby (Leila Bennett). The next time we see Sue is back in the restaurant where she waits on Matt, his friend Skeets (George E. Stone) and Matt’s younger brother Danny (Ray Cooke). Sue has just returned from seeing her father, who has already died in prison. (This movie does not let grass grow under its feet). Matt invites Sue to speak at a rally of the indie cab drivers, but when she does, Sue speaks of finding a peaceful solution to the rivalry with Consolidated, as she has seen what violence did to her father.

The next day, the paper’s headline pronounces the end of the taxi wars. But Matt is still sore about Sue upstaging him and he along with Skeets and another cabbie confront her outside the fish joint when she gets off work. But Sue doesn’t care that Matt is still mad and doesn’t confront him. While she climbs the stairs to the Elevated train, Skeets admires her pins (legs), but Matt says he’s through with her.

That is until the very next shot, when Matt and Sue are seen in line for a movie with Skeets and Ruby. What? Wasn’t Matt just mad at her a second ago? The film spends no time showing us any character development or change of minds; just like a shark it has to keep moving forward or die. Matt and Sue go to the movies and then go dancing, where they almost win a foxtrot contest, but lose out to a couple which includes William Kenny (George Raft), who Matt naturally gets into a fist fight with when he loses. This is one of the many times we see Matt lose his temper and either hit someone or start to hit someone. Even his loving gesture to Sue is a raised hand like he’s going to slap her if “I think you really mean that.”

It is not surprising that Matt has a quick temper, since this movie has no time for anything that’s not fast. Their whirlwind romance is often put off course by Matt’s quick temper. Even when he’s trying to keep it under control, say on the way to get the marriage license, Matt nearly gets into it with a fat, pre-occupied man on the elevator (Sam Rice), who steps on Matt’s feet and nudges him with his arms. The man on the elevator turns out to be the marriage license clerk.

At about this point in the film you might forget this film is called Taxi, as there hasn’t been mention of one for several scenes. But I digress.

We know Matt and Sue get married, because next we see them they are at a party with Skeets, Ruby, Danny and Danny’s date Polly (Polly Walters) celebrating the nuptials. Seated not too far away is Buck and Marie (Dorothy Burgess). Marie gets Sue’s attention and the two of them meet up in the ladies’ room. Marie convinces Sue to get Matt out of the club before he and Buck get into it. But Sue doesn’t move fast enough and Matt and Buck do get into it. But when Buck comes at Matt with his switchblade, Danny comes between them and he gets murdered. Buck manages to escape, but Matt wants revenge.

We see Sue and Matt at home one night. Matt is working extra hard to raise money for Danny’s tombstone and when he leaves to “check the tires” on the cab, Marie comes to visit Sue. In a case of twisted logic, she convinces Sue to help Buck get the money to escape. Her logic is that if Matt finds Buck he’ll kill him and become a murderer, too. Now Sue goes along with this and gives her Danny’s tombstone money if you can believe it.

Matt, as you might have guessed it, tested the tires by going out to purchase Danny’s tombstone, which will cost the $100 Sue has just given away.

Before Marie can leave the apartment, Skeets and Ruby show up. Skeets takes particular notice of Marie and goes to tell Matt that Buck’s girl has been in his apartment. He catches up to Matt just as he’s leaving the monument makers. He tells him that Consolidated has offered both of them jobs and to buy their hacks (Oh, yeah this is a movie about cabdrivers). It is an offer Matt does refuse. Skeets also tells Matt that he just saw Marie in his apartment.

Matt rushes (what else would he do?) back to his apartment and confronts Sue, who tells him that she lent the money to Ruby so she can attend secretarial school, which is a lie and one of many she’ll tell Matt, the guy with the quick temper. Marie naturally ruins the lie by asking Matt for a ride to school with a stop on the way at the bank so she can get the money for the school. Just then, Skeets shows up. He has been tipped off as to the address where Buck is and tells Matt.

But Sue manages to lock Matt in their apartment and gets Skeets to take her to Buck’s hideout ahead of Matt. (Does nobody think to call the police?) Of course, Ruby is in tow and the three of them drive to Marie’s apartment building. Matt is not deterred and escapes down the fire escape and takes his own cab over to kill Buck.

Sue, leaving Ruby and Skeets in the hall, goes in and warns Buck that Matt is on his way. Buck who has already been seen packing, tells Marie to pack him a bag. (Hey, this movie has no time for continuity.) While Matt doesn’t know which apartment Marie is in, even though he scans the mailboxes, finding Skeets and Ruby standing outside one on the second floor is a dead giveaway. Matt busts down the door as Buck hides in the closet. Sue again lies to Matt and tells him that Buck is gone, but a packed bag on the bedroom floor is a giveaway that that is not the case. Matt knows Buck is hiding in the closet.

Now, you would not expect such a quickie film to contain such a famous line, but this one does. For anyone old enough to have seen someone do a James Cagney impression and impersonators doing Cagney impressions used to be very common on TV, they always do one line in particular: “MMMmmm, you dirty rat.” While that is not what Cagney’s character actually says, that famous line was bastardized from one he actually delivers in this movie in this scene: “Come out and take it, you dirty, yellow-bellied rat, or I'll give it to you through the door.”

But before Matt can make good on his threat, the police (yes, someone must have called them), show up. Sue suddenly cannot tell a lie and tells the cops that Matt is there to kill Buck and that he has a gun. But in true fashion, Matt pushes the police aside and empties the gun into the door of the closet. But when they break in, Buck is not there. Instead, he has fallen to his death climbing out the window in the closet. (Windows in closets were very common as light sources, so it is not just a plot convenience for there to be one.) We learn from a story in the newspaper that Buck fell to his death when he lost his balance.

In the last scene of the movie, Sue, now calling herself by her maiden surname, is packing up and moving away, her brief marriage to Matt apparently over. But before the moving men can get the last trunk, Matt shows up and kisses Sue. Marriage, at least for now, saved. And as Ruby yells out to the moving men, the love birds are going to again feather their nest.

And our quick taxi ride comes to an abrupt, but happy end.

There are really some things to like about this movie. Cagney of course, has charisma and star presence to burn. Like many early films, this one showcases Cagney’s energetic and forceful acting style at the time. The downside is that there is little for him to work with. His character, even though a lead, is pretty much one note throughout. We do get to see Cagney dance, but there is little of the humor that he was capable of bringing to a character.

Loretta Young is so pretty she is almost worth the price of admission. She actually gets to show some internal struggle, even though I can’t say I follow the logic of helping the man who killed your husband’s brother escape justice.

And that brings me to what is my biggest complaint about this movie, the screenplay. If the screenplay is good, you really don’t notice it. But this one must have been written in a speeding cab on the way to the set; it is so full of holes and illogic. The romance between Matt and Sue develops like a jump cut. While it is not uncommon for a couple to move from I can’t stand him/her to I love him/her, I’ve never seen one in which that movement is excised totally until this film.

I know that sound had only been around for a few years, but the novelty had worn off by then, The script though would make you think they just wanted to have people say things, no matter if they made sense or not. The best example of this is Ruby, who despite being a secondary character never seems to shut up. Throughout the film she is constantly talking, even if no other character is listening or engaged. She blathers on so much in a fairly monotone voice that you start to dread to see her show up on screen. Again, it comes down to the script.

And much of the drama in this film comes out of people doing stupid things. Why doesn’t anyone call the police and say the guy that you’re looking for is at this address? No, let’s tell Matt the hothead where Buck is. Or let’s go warn Buck that Matt is on to him, rather than call the police with Buck’s whereabouts. When the police do show up, you really have to wonder why. They are totally a convenience to bring the story to conclusion.

While I’ve read that this film was a big success for Cagney at the time, if you want to see Cagney at his best, there are other ones you should see and you might want to miss this Taxi.

Taxi is available at the Warner Archive Collection:

And on the Warner Archive Instant:

No comments:

Post a Comment