Thursday, April 11, 2013

The James Cagney Blogathon: Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950)


The following is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The James Cagney Blogathon, which is being sponsored from April 8-12 by The Movie ProjectorFor a list of the other participants and the films discussed, please click here.


In 1949, after several years of independent filmmaking with his producer brother William (which produced such duds as Johnny Come Lately [1943] and The Time of Your Life [1948]), actor James Cagney returned to Warner Bros., the studio that had made him famous with the moviegoing public.  His comeback film was White Heat (1949), a rip-snortin’ gangster saga directed by Raoul Walsh that stands today as one of Cagney’s greatest films.  Warner’s made the Cagney brothers an offer they couldn’t refuse: if Jimmy agreed to star in Heat, WB would give William Cagney Productions (their independent company) a sweetheart co-distribution deal that would allow them to pay off their losses (the previously mentioned Time of Your Life was in the hole to the tune of $500,000).

Cagney had played gangster and gangster-types in many movies since his film debut in Sinner’s Holiday in 1930.  But Jimmy wasn’t overly fond of being typecast as such (every actor enjoys the opportunity to flex his thespic muscles) despite the fact…well, he was so damn good at playing them.  In 1936, when Cagney left Warner’s for an abbreviated two-picture stint at studio upstart Grand National, one of his big box office successes upon his return to WB in 1938 was Angels with Dirty Faces…another well-acknowledged Cagney classic.

In between White Heat and the mostly forgettable musical The West Point Story (1950), Cagney made what was essentially his last true gangster flick (Jimmy plays a hood in 1955’s Love Me or Leave Me—but that’s primarily a vehicle for Doris Day), Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950).  While the film as a whole doesn’t completely jell, the movie contains one of the actor’s most interesting performances…and since it rarely seems to turn up on TCM it’s definitely worth seeking out if you come across it.

Cagney plays sadistic gangster Ralph Cotter, who as the film opens is doin’ his boardin’ with the warden at a county work farm with his partner, a man named Carleton (played by an uncredited Neville Brand).  Ralph has arranged—with the help of a slightly crooked guard named Cobbett (John Halloran)—to take an extended leave of absence from the farm, and in his escape, Carleton is shot and wounded by the guards.  Cotter puts a bullet in Carleton’s brainpan to make sure he doesn’t talk, and when he reaches the area where the getaway car awaits finds Carleton’s sister Holiday (Barbara Payton) with rifle in hand, picking off the guards shooting at Ralph.  (Holiday is unaware that Ralph has plugged her brother, and Cotter is apparently too polite to volunteer the information.)

With the help of Holiday and getaway car driver Joe “Jinx” Raynor (Steve Brodie), Cotter continues his recidivist ways once on the outside; he robs a grocery store (shooting the store’s owner, who later joins Carleton in the Great Beyond) and earning the enmity of Vic Mason (Rhys Williams), the individual who bankrolled Ralph’s escape.  The weaselly Mason sics a pair of cops on Cotter—Inspector Charles Weber (Ward Bond) and Lt. John Reece (Barton MacLane)—and to Cotter’s dismay, Weber and Reece relieve him of his new ill-gotten gains because they are crookeder than a dog’s hind leg.  Drawing on Jinx’s expertise as a radio operator, Cotter arranges for Weber and Reece’s next shakedown to be recorded…and to keep the two corrupt flatfoots (flatfeet?) in line, he enlists the services of another grifter, a lawyer named Keith “Cherokee” Mandon (Luther Adler).  Ralph, Cherokee and Jinx engineer a heist in which they relieve a local racketeer named Romer of his substantial take from various criminal enterprises—something the crooked fuzz bemoan because they were originally on his payroll.

Though it seems that Ralph is on top of the world (ma), he makes that fatal mistake that all hoods make—he’s become infatuated with a socialite named Margaret Dobson (Helena Carter).  He’s been advised by his counsel (Cherokee) to run fast, run far because her father—industrialist Ezra Dobson (Herbert Hayes)—can make things mighty uncomfortable for all of them.  So Ralph, being a sensible chap, takes his lawyer’s advice.  No, of course he doesn’t—he winds up marrying Margaret, which naturally pisses her father off to the point where Daddy uses his influence to have the marriage annulled.  Because Ralph turned down some $25,000 in payoff money, however, Ezra has had second thoughts about his new son-in-law: he thinks Cotter is just the husband Margaret needs, and is going to allow him to manage her considerably substantial holdings.

Ralph does not get the chance to make the smooth transition into responsibility.  Holiday, with whom Cotter has been housekeeping since his prison break, has heard all about the Margaret situation…but what’s worse, she’s heard from Cobbett that Ralph was the guy what croaked her brother.   She deposits a bit of lead into Ralph in retribution, and the entire criminal enterprise comes a-crumblin’ down (Ralph’s tragic tale is told in flashback as Holiday and the rest of Cotter’s “gang” stand trial).

Because of the phenomenal success of White Heat, William Cagney purchased the rights to Horace McCoy’s 1948 novel Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye in the hopes that it, too, would achieve the same kind of positive b.o. as the earlier film.  Goodbye did very well on its initial release, despite the fact that it was banned in several states because—and this is one of the elements that makes the movie an interesting watch—of its hard-hitting subject matter and no-holds-barred violence for the time period.  The Buckeye State, for example, kept the movie out of sight from Ohio theatergoers by declaring it “a sordid, sadistic presentation of crime with explicit steps in commission.”  (Be sure to bring the kids for the matinee showing!)

McCoy’s best-known work is probably They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?—a 1935 Depression era novel that was brought to the big screen in 1969 by Sydney Pollack.  Both the worlds of Goodbye and Horses feature disreputable characters that are unabashedly on the take—in Goodbye, Ralph Cotter tells lawyer Mandon that he’s left a copy of the incriminating recording of Weber’s shakedown with his brother, “the only honest man in the world.”  (We get a glimpse of this paragon of virtue testifying at the trial shortly before the film calls it a wrap…and the brother is played by Cagney’s real brother William.)

The problems with the film have been attributed to both its direction and to the man who adapted McCoy’s book, screenwriter Harry Brown.  Gordon Douglas rode herd on the film, a journeyman known primarily for helming many of the Our Gang comedies and occasionally rising to the occasion with movies like Them! (1954) and Rio Conchos (1964) (Douglas also directed Cagney in 1951’s Come Fill the Cup, a movie that is also rarely seen but praised by a few as one of the actor’s best performances from the 1950s) but he doesn’t seem to be able to hold the material together the way an accomplished pro like Raoul Walsh could with White Heat.  (There are elements of Brown’s screenplay that don’t make a lot of sense—Cotter’s decision to marry Margaret seems to me more of a contrivance to hasten his downfall since it’s apparent the cops won’t get the job done.  Uneven shifts in the overall narrative and an unfortunately abrupt conclusion keep Goodbye from being a truly satisfying film.)

However, Cagney’s performance as the sociopath Cotter is extremely well-done; it’s intimated by several characters that Ralph is a bit cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs though Cagney is much more nuanced in conveying this, refusing to go the giggly “They-haven’t-got-Cody-Jarrett” route.  Luther Adler, a character veteran from many fine noirs (House of Strangers, D.O.A.), gives one of his career performances as Jimmy’s shady mouthpiece, and it’s amusing to see Ward Bond and Barton MacLane, Humphrey Bogart’s cop nemeses from The Maltese Falcon, as the dishonest lawmen here.  There are other standout turns from Rhys Williams (as the greasy Mason—because he works in a garage), William Frawley, John Litel (not a lawyer in this one), and Frank “King Kong” Reicher.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is remembered as actress Barbara Payton’s shining silver screen showcase—in fact, a biography of the tragic Payton by author John O’Dowd borrows the film’s title for the book.  The blonde starlet, after making a favorable impression alongside Richard Basehart in Trapped (1949), lobbied hard for the part that ultimately went to Marilyn Monroe in The Asphalt Jungle (1950) but was rebuffed.  Despite being untested as a screen presence Barbara held her own alongside the veteran Cagney; brother Bill even arranged for a weekly salary of $5,000 during filming.  But in the roles that followed—westerns like Dallas (1950) and Only the Valiant (1951)—Payton did not receive the opportunity to expand on the splendid work she did in Goodbye and soon found herself haunting B-flicks and programmers like Bride of the Gorilla (1951).  A series of failed relationships (Payton, married to actor Franchot Tone, started seeing Tom Neal on the sly…and that alone should clue you in on her bad choices in men) and a spiraling into substance abuse and prostitution shut the door on a promising career; Payton died of heart and liver failure in 1967.

Despite its Warner’s pedigree, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye eventually found a home in the video library of Republic Pictures (now owned by Paramount), where it was released on VHS in the 1990s and to DVD in 2002 (from Artisan Films).  The disc has been OOP for some time now, but because Olive Films has acquired most of the titles from the Republic/Artisan stable and given them new releases, perhaps a re-release of Goodbye will soon be in the works.  In retrospect, it’s good that they’ve waited—the UCLA Film & Television Archive has restored the Cagney classic, presenting the film to the public in March of 2011.

16 comments:

Ken Anderson said...

Thanks for highlighting in such great detail (love the behind-the-scenes into) a film I've yet to see and rarely, if ever, comes up in discussions about Cagney. Being a fan of B-movies, it pains me to say that I HAVE seen "Bride of the Gorilla," and your details about the life of aspiring actress Barbara Payton make me want to go on an Ebay book hunt at this very moment. Thanks for a funa nd informative read!

R. D. Finch said...

Ivan, a very balanced discussion of the film. You showed the film's weaknesses--its plot contrivances and strange turns--but also its biggest strength, which is its cast, headed by Cagney. Coming right after "White Heat," it inevitably suffers in comparison, but then it would be hard to come anywhere equaling that landmark film, which I suppose you could call Cagney's comeback. You're probably right that the film would have been improved by a more focused script and more distinctive direction. It's sometimes crazy what individual things in a movie stick with you after watching, but with this it was the incredible car the heiress drove. I had to look it up at a site called Internet Movie Cars Database (IMCDb.org), and it's a 1939 Delage, a French luxury car.

FlickChick said...

Ooh - Jimmy is so nasty in this film. When he smacks Barbara Payton around with a wet rag - well, let's just say its disturbing. Oh how that carefree gangster of the 30s has changed! Well, I guess crime aint what it used to be! Well done post about an interesting - but disturbing - film.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

When he smacks Barbara Payton around with a wet rag - well, let's just say its disturbing.

I'd seen the film one other time before this one...and I still forgot about that scene. Honest to my grandma, it made me jump.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

It's sometimes crazy what individual things in a movie stick with you after watching, but with this it was the incredible car the heiress drove. I had to look it up at a site called Internet Movie Cars Database (IMCDb.org), and it's a 1939 Delage, a French luxury car.

I did not know that! as the legendary Mr. Carson would say. Thanks for the info and thanks for hosting the blogathon, Mistah Finch!

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Being a fan of B-movies, it pains me to say that I HAVE seen "Bride of the Gorilla," and your details about the life of aspiring actress Barbara Payton make me want to go on an Ebay book hunt at this very moment.

I feel your pain, Brother Ken. (I've seen the movie, too...I mean: Lon Chaney, Jr. AND Raymond Burr? How could I not?) And while I've not read the Payton book, it was published by TDOY pal Ben Ohmart of BearManor Media fame, so it should be a goody (the site has a positive review from Laura Wagner, the Simon Cowell of classic film book reviews).

KimWilson said...

Ivan, why you have to point out that Ohio gave Cagney's film the brushoff? I've never seen this, but his character does sound cuckoo for Coca Puffs!

Judy said...

For my money, Cotter is probably the nastiest character Cagney ever played - he is electric, and the sadistic relationship between him and Holiday (Barbara Payton) is truly creepy. Sad that the actress's life went into such a tragic spiral after this fine performance. Excellent review, Ivan - I do also find the film very uneven and agree with you that Douglas doesn't really hold it all together here as a director.

I've seen this a few times, since, as with 'Johnny Come Lately', a couple of years ago it was shown almost constantly on UK TV - it seems as if a handful of Cagney titles are shown here endlessly while most of the others never get a look-in! It's also out on DVD in the UK on region 2, but just a bare bones release, I believe.

Kevin Deany said...

An interesting if flawed film, this could be the most unpleasant film Cagney ever appeared in. Like you said, it needed a stronger director to shape the material better. But still worth watching.

The Barbara Payton book is exceptional, but could be one of the most depressing biographies I've ever read.

Caftan Woman said...

I only saw this movie once and I was about 12 years old. Certainly not age appropriate! I think I had nightmares for a week. Gee, I'd like to see it again. What have you done to me?

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Ivan, why you have to point out that Ohio gave Cagney's film the brushoff?

Hey, if I can't have a little fun with the flatlanders now and then what's the point of blogging? :-)

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

An interesting if flawed film, this could be the most unpleasant film Cagney ever appeared in.

Cagney really does make what portions of the film work. I like his casualness to the crimes Cotter commits, as if it's just another day in the mines and by the way -- he'll have to pick up some milk and bread on the way home. A more effective nutcase than Cody Jarrett, but just not as effective a film.

Chris Vosburg said...

I may have mentioned it before, but can't resist doing it again:

You'll note that Cagney, especially in the first photo, has an abnormally high crown on his fedora, which it looks like Jimmy had custom made to give himself another inch or two in height.

I'm further convinced that Friz Freleng gave the diminutive "Rocky", the gangster character of the Classic Warner Bros Animation era an enormous crown on his hat, as a sly tweak at Cagney's vanity.

The Lady Eve said...

"Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye" is one I haven't seen. Though the movie sounds so-so, your post is anything but. I didn't remember why Barbara Payton's name was familiar (and not in a good way) until you mentioned Franchot Tone and Tom Neal. Yikes - Hollywood Babylon!

Classicfilmboy said...

Really terrific review of this film which I have not seen. Love the history behind the film, and it sounds like it's worth seeing for the lead performances.

said...

Since Cagney is superb in White Heat, I'll give a shot to this gangster swan song. Too bad it is not widely available, but seems interesting.
Don't forget to WATCH my contribution to the blogathon! :)
Greetings!