Since St. Patrick’s Day is upon us (where does the time go?) we thought the time was right to catch our readers before their mandatory Guinness benders (and seriously, the Retro Set hopes ALL of you have a Guinness bender today– we love ourselves a good drink) and celebrate our Irish-American heritage by means of the Warner Archive Instant. Our monthly roundup of Warner Archive picks celebrates five of classic cinema’s favorite Irish actors in a selection of their lesser-known films. You may not have seen these before, but even if you have, they’re definitely worth another look.
Sorry, guys. No Finian’s Rainbow this time.
“You dirty rat!” Pre-code Cagney is always sure-fire fun, and Roy Del Ruth’s Taxi is no exception. Cagney’s films with Ruth are saucy, sassy, tough talkin’ features (Blonde Crazy, Lady Killer) full of ornery one-liners, double entendres, and plenty of machine gun fire. Taxi is no exception and is a film nothing like its title suggests: let’s just say that Jimmy Cagney in not Judd Hirsch. When a group of thugs try to take control of New York’s taxi racket, cabbie Cagney isn’t having it and starts an uprising against the mob. Loretta Young, ravishingly beautiful in the full bloom of her youth, is the moral center that becomes spitfire Cagney’s conscience. It’s also the film that gave Cagney his legendary line “You dirty rat!” Although it’s one of the most misquoted lines in movie history, as he actually says “you dirty yellow-bellied rat.” (And anyway, Cagney speaking Yiddish is a far more memorable moment in the film.)
The Catered Affair is the anti Father of the Bride. Sacrificing light comedy and fairytale idealism for urban reality, Gore Vidal’s adaptation of the Paddy Chayefsky teleplay is a kitchen sink drama that, while definitely dated, still packs an emotional punch. Bette Davis is a working class Irish immigrant whose daughter (Debbie Reynolds) is getting married (to a very young Rod Taylor). Davis’ husband, Ernest Bornigne, is a cab driver who has scrimped and saved enough money to own his own taxi cab–his life’s dream–but it clashes with Davis’ dream to lavish the money on her daughter and give her the grandest wedding possible. What results is a complex character piece, about thwarted desires and broken dreams, brought to the screen with visceral urgency. Watch the film for Barry Fitzgerald as Davis’ boozy Irish brother, whose being uninvited to the wedding is an especially poignant highlight, and for the always excellent Ernest Borgnine who is fresh from his success with Chayefsky’s Marty.
OK, so this film sounds like a total misfire, but it works in a wonderful ‘Only-Studio-Hollywood-Could-Get-Away-With-This’ kind of way. Director John Ford’s biopic about aviator turned Hollywood screenwriter Frank Spig Wead is a genuinely likable albeit highly un-factual film with John Wayne as Wead and Maureen O’Hara as his fighting Irish rose of a wife. Wead was a good friend of Ford’s, so it’s no wonder this film get’s the uber sentimental treatment, and Ford casting Wayne is actually a good idea: he’s obviously having fun in this film, and his chemistry with O’Hara is once again terrific. And while it’s always fun to watch Wayne and O’Hara spar and sparkle, the main reason to watch this film is because it’s as close as you’ll get to seeing what John Ford really thought of himself: Ward Bond plays director John Dodge who is a hat-wearing, pipe-smoking, scowl-faced curmudgeon. AKA: John Ford’s doppelgänger.
A mixed bag film noir, Jean Negulesco’s crime drama in fact crosses several genres making Nobody Lives Forever a film that should be seen for it’s dynamite cast and their top-notch performances. It’s a tried and true story: con-man fleeces wealthy heiress only to fall for her resulting in the proverbial tangled web we weave. Negulesco, a legendary noir filmmaker, is a bit nebulous here, and that languorous pacing doesn’t serve the story well. But John Garfield as the con-man and Geraldine Fitzgerald as the widowed heiress absolutely carry the film on their perfectly formed shoulders. Fitzgerald in particular proves to be more than a match for the always brilliant Garfield, with her innocent yet subversive performance.
So, you probably really liked this movie the first time you saw it when it was called Angels With Dirty Faces. But you know what? A winning formula is a winning formula for a reason, and like most of our picks this month, you’re watching this film for its super star-wattage…not the story. Just swap the ’30s duffs of Dirty Faces with army fatigues of WWI and here’s what you get: Cagney is the newest addition to the Irish 69th infantry with chip on his shoulder and fire in his eyes–which leads him straight to disaster. It’s Pat O’Brien to the rescue as the army’s chaplain who leads Cagney’s road to redemption. Fighting 69th is highly melodramatic…but how can you resist classic cinema’s most famous Irishmen together onscreen? (Oh yeah … sorry, George Brent. I forgot, you’re in this film too and you’re Irish. Bless.)