Doris Day and James Cagney seem like an unlikely screen team.
But Cagney regarded Day as a great actress, however their first teaming in “The West Point Story” wouldn’t show it.
On the surface, “The West Point Story” (1950) isn’t much to look at.
It’s a run-of-the-mill Warner Brothers comedy full of double crossing, dancing and music.
But what makes it special is it’s cast: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo and three actors still relatively new to Hollywood: Doris Day, Gene Nelson and Gordon MacRae.
Broadway director Bix Bixby (Cagney) is down on his luck, because he has a problem with betting on horse races. Gambling prevents him from getting a good show and from marrying his sweetheart Eve (Mayo).
Bixby is persuaded by a producer to help put on a show at West Point Military Academy, because the producer wants his nephew, Tom (MacRae) to leave the Academy and come perform on Broadway. The show the West Point men are putting on is all men, since there were no girls on campus, complete with Alan Hale Jr. playing a princess.
Coming from a Broadway background, Bixby has a hard time understanding that the cadets can only rehearse their play around their school schedules. After butting heads with cadets and school officials, Bixby is thrown off campus and is invited back only if he enrolls as a cadet. He does, having difficulty adjusting to military discipline.
Forty-five minutes in to the movie the first appearance of Doris Day as Hollywood actress Jan Wilson who Bixby discovered and made a star. Wilson is supposed to help boost Bixby’s career by replacing Alan Hale Jr. as the “Princess” in the show.
And of course, while Jan and Tom are singing and walking along Flirtation Walk, they fall in love. She wants to quit her career and he wants to leave West Point and it seems like all of Bixby’s plans will fall apart…
But in the typical Warner Brother’s musical fashion-everything ends happily with an elaborate musical number.
I’m a fan of every actor in this film but will admit this isn’t any of their best. And Doris Day agrees.
“I had already been in a film with Jimmy (Cagney), but that was a real idiot picture,” Day says in her autobiography. “Almost all my scenes were with Gordon MacRae and Jimmy’s scenes were with Virginia Mayor. I couldn’t possibly tell you about the plot. Zero. Gordon was a cadet and Jimmy was a Broadway hoofer. End of memory.” (154).
It is probably one of James Cagney’s most forgotten films. Day doesn’t sing any good songs, and Nelson isn’t in it nearly enough. Cagney is hot headed and yells a lot, but we get to see some of his famous, excellent dance moves.
Cagney is remembered for his 1930s roles as a gangster, but he shows his versatility in films like “West Point Story” with his comedic and musical expertise.
“West Point Story” is also notable, because it is one of two films Cagney starred in with Day- setting the stage for a successful film for both of them: “Love Me or Leave Me”(1955). The film is a biopic about singer Ruth Etting (Day) and Cagney as her gangster husband, Marty Snyder.
Cagney probably didn’t have a high praise for “West Point Story,” but he certainly did for Doris Day as well as “Love Me or Leave Me.”
Sunny Doris Day and gruff James Cagney seem like an unlikely pair, but the two have excellent screen chemistry and respected each other off the camera.
“The first time I saw Doris perform, it affected me as I had only been affected twice before in my life,” said James Cagney in a written passage in Day’s autobiography “Doris Day: Her Own Story.
Cagney continues to say those two times were when he saw actress Laurette Taylor in the play “The Glass Menagerie” and Pauline Lord in the play “Anna Christie” (155).
“So what Doris has, and all the good ones have, is the ability to project the simple, direct statement of a simple, direct idea with cluttering it,” he said. “That’s what she brought to ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ which is a movie I rate among the top five of the 62 pictures I made.
“Doris and I have both had long careers in films, and I’m sometimes asked how to account for this longevity. Not easy. A lot of very talented people have very short careers. One factor is certainly timing. I came along during a tough time when gangsters and prohibition had captured the front pages and become a kind of romantic aspect of those times.
“Doris came along when we were beginning the postwar era, and there was something about her that caught the mood and fancy of those times. It could very well have been that I never would have made my way if I had come along a couple of years later.
“And the same holds true for Doris. Who knows?….As an actress, she perfectly illustrates my definition of good acting: just plant yourself, look the other actor in the eye, and tell him the truth. That’s what she does.”
This is part of The Movie Projector’s Cagney Blogathon. For more Cagney posts- visit http://themovieprojector.blogspot.com/p/blog-page.html
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