Watching 1939: The Roaring Twenties

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  The Roaring Twenties (1939)

Release date:  Oct. 28, 1939

Cast:  James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Priscilla Lane, Gladys George, Jeffrey Lynn, Frank McHugh, Paul Kelly, Robert Armstrong (uncredited)

Warner Brothers

Director:  Raoul Walsh

During World War I, three men meet in a foxhole and become friends: Eddie Bartlett (Cagney) who wants to go back to his pre-war job as a mechanic, George Hally (Bogart) who is a bit brash and wants to run a saloon, and Lloyd Hart (Lynn) who is college educated and wants to be a lawyer. When the war ends, Eddie returns home and can’t find work. Prohibition begins and Eddie gets mixed up with bootleggers. He also meets and falls in love with Jean (Lane), who doesn’t reciprocate his feelings, and gets Jean a job singing in a club owned by Panama Smith (George). The years go by and Eddie and George work together as bootleggers and Jean grows closer to Llyod.

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Cagney and Day: The West Point Story

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.

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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).

Cagney and Mayo in musical number "B'klyn"

Cagney and Mayo in musical number “B’klyn”

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.

All star musical finish with Hale Jr, Nelson,Mayor, Cagne, Day and MacRae

All star musical finish with Hale Jr, Nelson,Mayor, Cagne, Day and MacRae

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).

Cagney and Day in The West Point Story

Cagney and Day in The West Point Story

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 and Day rehearse for "Love Me or Leave Me"

Cagney and Day rehearse for “Love Me or Leave Me”

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.”

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This is part of The Movie Projector’s Cagney Blogathon. For more Cagney posts- visit

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Late to my own party…

Comet Over Hollywood is two years old!

The only problem is I’m late to my own blog anniversary party by three months…Comet’s birthday is actually in May.

Since I’m running so late I decided to tie my blog’s anniversary in with the Summer Under the Stars event Turner Classic Movies holds every August.

Bloggers Michael of I Shoot the Pictures and Page of My Love of Old Hollywood joked I should reenact the grapefruit scene in “Public Enemy” (1931) for one of my monthly beauty tips.

So as a special treat and thank you to my readers….

In the film “Public Enemy,” James Cagney, who is being celebrated today on TCM for Summer Under the Stars, smashes a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face at the breakfast table.

Apparently the scene was a joke Clarke and Cagney were playing on the film crew to see how they would react, according to IMDB. Director ‘Wild Bill’ Wellman decided to keep it in the movie.

It also created caused American women’s groups to protest Clarke’s abuse and for Cagney to stomach a lot of grapefruit when restaurant patrons would order it for him as a gag.

Though the scene is rather humorous and well remembered by film goers, Public Enemy is a very gritty drama with a disturbing ending.

The film is an example of how great and versatile an actor Cagney was: playing maniacal criminals to song and dance men.

Make sure to read out other posts on James Cagney during the TCM Summer Under the Stars blogathon at and for the month long classic film celebration!

Stop by back in September for another classic actress beauty tip.

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