James Cagney in Lady Killer (1933)


(director: Roy Del Ruth; screenwriters: Lillie Hayward/Ben Markson; cinematographer: Tony Gaudio; editor: George J. Amy; cast: James Cagney (Dan Quigley), Mae Clarke (Myra Gale), Margaret Lindsay (Lois Underwood), Raymond Hatton (Pete), Russell Hopton (Smiley), Leslie Fenton (Duke), Douglas Dumbrille (Spade Maddock), William B. Davidson (Movie Director), Henry O’Neill (Ramick); Runtime: 74; Warner Bros.; 1933)

“A crisp James Cagney comedy vehicle.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A crisp James Cagney comedy vehicle, at a time when the 34-year-old actor was at the peak of his stardom. The film plays like a spoof on Hollywood and on Cagney’s previous roles in gangster films as a tough-guy for Warner Bros., and the result is a very funny film.

Dan Quigley (Cagney) is an usher in the Strand Theater in New York, where he gets fired for insubordination. The inside joke about the Strand is that is the cinema where Warner Bros. showed all their film openings in the 1930s, including where Lady Killer opened.

When Cagney returns a woman’s purse he finds in a hotel lobby, he gets invited into a fixed card game. When he figures out the scheme these crooks are running, he cuts himself in with the gang and they start making fast money under his innovative schemes for robbing houses and doing petty crimes around the city. Myra Gale (Mae Clarke) is the gang’s gun moll, whom he falls for. Mae is the one who became famous after Cagney put a grapefruit to her face in Public Enemy. He makes fun of that scene when he is at the train station and decides that he wants to go to California for the grapefruits. The two seem to have a good chemistry working together.

The leader of the gang is Spade Maddock (Douglas Dumbrille), adorned with one of those typical 1930s villainous mustaches. He also has the perfect gangster sneer prevalent for that time period.

Things get heavy for the gang when they rob a rich widowed lady’s house by having Cagney fake a car accident and have one of their gang members pretend he’s a doctor who takes him into her house for treatment. The gang comes back later after Cagney cases the joint and they conk the maid over the noggin pretty hard to steal the jewelry. Cagney wants out protesting the gang’s rough stuff, refusing to get involved with murder; but, it is too late for him to make a clean break. One of the gang members (Hatton) gets picked up for questioning and rats them out. When Spade finds this out he plugs him and the gang disperses.

Mae and Cagney go to Hollywood, but at the train station Cagney gets picked up by the Los Angeles police for questioning about the New York robberies. When he gets held on suspicion of robbery charges, he calls Mae to bail him out with the money he stole. But she meets Spade and skips out on him to Mexico.

After Cagney is released from jail because of insufficient evidence, he is given 48 hours to either get a job or get out of town. Spoofing how a lot of stars were found on street corners, Cagney is spotted on the street for his rough, unshaven look and asked to be a gangster extra in a prison film. He makes the best of this break by writing himself fan mail, thereby showing the studio executives he is popular with the fans. He soon rises in the studio, becomes a star, romances a famous starlet Lois Underwood (Margaret Lindsay), and is sitting pretty on top of the world.

In one amusing scene, Cagney resents a movie critic’s unfair criticism of him and of Lois, so he confronts the critic and makes him literally eat his words by stuffing his column down his throat.

Cagney’s old troubles come back to haunt him when Spade, Mae, and the gang come to Hollywood and try to blackmail him into casing the star’s houses for them. He gives them $10,000 with the purpose of getting them out of town before they tell the cops how involved he was in the New York robberies. But they renege on their promise and continue robbing houses, including Lois’s. Furthermore, they frame him on the Underwood job and then bail him out to take him for a one-way ride. But Cagney tips off the cops to follow him and he becomes a hero shooting it out with the gang. He even gets to marry Lois Underwood.

A breezy feature, showing Cagney in his true light during the Depression era of escapist films. It was in films like this one that Cagney gave his audience hope things could get better for them. This is strictly a star vehicle film and one that is well-suited for Cagney’s talents.