James Cagney’s third picture is an odd little number and it’s my choice for submission to the James Cagney blogathon hosted by The Movie Projector.
Cagney was on the brink of superstardom when he appeared in William Wellman‘s, Other Men’s Women (1931). His next film, Wellman’s, The Public Enemy (1931) brought him to the heights of fame and he never looked back. But today I do as it’s the lesser known, Other Men’s Women, wherein Cagney has a supporting role, that gets my attention.
Other Men’s Women, originally released as the (perhaps) more appropriate but less “pre-code-y,” The Steele Highway, is about two childhood friends, Bill (Grant Withers) and Jack (Regis Toomey) who work together as railroad engineers. Bill can’t quite get his life together due to his excessive drinking so Jack invites him to stay at his house with him and his wife, Lily (Mary Astor) in hopes the two can help Bill get his act together. Jack, a serious sort, never foresees his good intentions may go awry, but they do when Bill and Mary fall in love. As a result, the two men have a falling out, a violent one while on the train – and a tragedy occurs.
Expectation vs. reality:
I knew absolutely nothing about Other Men’s Women when I picked it as my choice for this blogathon but did so for two reasons. First, I am making a concerted effort to watch more pre-code films, a period I am vastly unfamiliar with. And second because this particular film has a lot of potential – on paper. With a title that suggests at least some debauchery I expected a fun viewing experience. Unfortunately, with the exception of a few scenes, the fun and debauchery never make a significant appearance or leave much of an impression.
The title – Although the title mentions “men” and “women,” (that’s why I expected a certain degree of “pre-code-y-ness”) as in more than one woman who belongs to more than one man, in truth only one man’s woman is in a position to live life in the fast lane, shall we say. And that woman is a minor player in the movie. Of the main players, only thoughts of debauchery occur. Lily (Astor) falls in love with her husband’s best friend but the love is never consummated. Lily is actually the “good girl” type who wants to be a proper wife to her husband, despite her feelings for another man. So there went that fun! By the way, so as not to seem exceptionally prurient, it was “Cagney debauchery” I looked forward to, not just run-of-the-mill immorality. I do have standards!
Along those same “debauchery” lines, the ones that are never crossed, there’s the fact the film starts off as if it’s a comedy – a potentially raunchy comedy as one of the earliest scenes is of one of the train engineers slapping a waitress’ derriere as he sits at the counter. There’s also some sassy exchanges between the players, which takes place in a few of the town’s local establishments so one does get the feeling in the early part of the film that Other Men’s Women is lighthearted fare or that the “fun and games” are sure to come. Instead the film takes a rather clumsy turn toward melodrama and tragedy. And I’ll add, I don’t get the final tragedy, which comes about through one of the character’s sacrifices, at all. The choices made by the characters are completely unrealistic. Perhaps it calls for another look although I can’t deny it’s an odd, weak script, which falls far short of the claim made by the film’s tagline…
A Fast Express on the Road of Entertainment!
There are special moments in this film, however, that make it worth watching. Those reasons – two – are Joan Blondell and James Cagney who light up the screen whenever they’re on it. As limited as their screen time is, they are memorable.
Blondell plays Marie, a gum-chewing waitress at the lunch counter where the train workers stop to get a meal and flirt while the train is in repose at the station. She’s also Bill’s off-again, on-again girlfriend – AND, I might add, the one character who I can count on to enjoy her “high-living” ways. I was particularly delighted by an exchange she had at the lunch counter early in the film as one of the men flirts with her …
Marie: [taking off her apron] Anything else you guys want?
Railroad worker at Lunch Counter: Yeah, gimme a big slice a’ you on toast, and some French-fried potatoes on the side.
Marie: [taking out her compact and powdering her face] Listen, baby, I’m A.P.O.
Railroad worker at Lunch Counter: [to the other railroad worker] What does she mean, A.P.O.?
Marie: Ain’t Puttin’ Out! Besides, I’m Bill White’s girl, and I’m a one-man woman.
Railroad worker at Lunch Counter: That’s a hot one, Marie.
Marie: Whattaya mean “that’s a hot one”?
Railroad worker at Lunch Counter: Didn’t I see you down ta Fishbeck’s Dance Hall with Elmer Brown?
Marie: Oh yeah. Elmer’s a kind of a cousin of mine.
Railroad worker at Lunch Counter: Oh! Some cousins are sure affectionate.
Marie: Nevertheless, he’s my distant cousin.
I ask you, does that not lead one to foresee a bit of decadence or iniquitousness? Well, anyway, Blondell is great – her delivery, her sassiness. She’s a pleasure to watch.
Then there’s James Cagney. He’s wonderful. His great physicality and charisma is in full display, whether we see him “prancing” along the top of the train cars or in formal attire at a dance hall. Cagney plays Ed “Eddie” Bailey, a railway engineer, and in that regard, a friend of Bill and Jack’s. My favorite scene, which I had to see twice, is at the aforementioned dance hall where all the locals enjoy an evening out in style with their best girls.
Ed ‘Eddie’ Bailey: [eying up his girl before they go out on the dance floor] Baby, you look like $700 tonight, I’m tellin’ you!
Ed then does a magnificent shuffle step toward the dance floor – light on his feet (as if he’s not touching the floor), fast as lighting and in pure Cagney style. I was reminded of why he’s my mother’s favorite actor. She’s told me countless times he’s one of the few who could do everything and anything. Well, we see it here, albeit for too brief a moment. It’s certainly easy to see why his star would shine so brightly right after this picture – as (arguably) the greatest tough guy the silver screen has ever seen. But, as I described the wonderful scene of his shuffling step, I recalled Cagney’s quote, “Once a song and dance man, always a song and dance man. Those few words tell as much about me professionally as there is to tell.” Our greatest tough guy was magic in motion, in all manner of ways.
Now back to the film and another downer – after one is enchanted by the talent and appeal of both Cagney and Blondell, the main players in Other Men’s Women look that much more ordinary. Or, rather – outright dull. Yes, that even goes for Mary Astor who’s bland at best in this, which is a disappointment as she’s so great in so much. And watching both Withers and Toomey, as Bill and Jack, is sometimes mind-numbing. The best word I can think of to describe their performances is stiff. And not in the “debauchery” sort of way. (Sorry, couldn’t resist). The most interesting aspect of either role/performance is the fact they both love gum and are always giving people a stick of gum with a, “Have a little chew on me…” offer of appreciation. Gum…that’s all I can come up with. It makes one wonder what the picture would have been like with Cagney and Blondell in the lead roles. And a better script. And less spotty direction. And…a few other things.
I’m not alone in my views in regard to Other Men’s Women. The following is noted in a TCM Spotlight article on this film…
“In her autobiography A Life on Film, lead actress Mary Astor called Other Men’s Women, “a piece of cheese,” though she did single out “some damn good actors – James Cagney, Joan Blondell – in small parts.” The film was so unmemorable for Cagney that he even fails to mention it in his autobiography, Cagney By Cagney, skipping from a discussion of The Doorway to Hell (1930) to The Public Enemy.”
That said, I’m glad I saw this film and would watch it again for the few moments of great cinema it offers. I’d urge you to do the same. In case you’re interested, Other Men’s Women is included in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume 3 available through the TCM Shop. Until you’ve had the opportunity to watch, have a little chew on me.
Please go to The Movie Projector to read a lot more about the life and career of the legend that is James Cagney. Or else, you dirty rats…
I’m with you on this one, I think it’s impossible to watch today and not wish for more Cagney (and Blondell). Why are you showing me Grant Withers when this talent is bursting out. Eh, hindsight 20/20 and all, but sometimes it seems obvious. Enjoyed your article and reminder of this one which I truthfully haven’t seen in too long. Probably keep it that way for now.
Yeah, I get that. Next time I’m just going straight to the Cagney/Blondell scenes. Plus I honestly didn’t get the ending – WHY??? Bothered me.
Thanks, Cliff for stopping in!
Very enjoyable post. This is one Cagney film I have not seen, but the fact that Grant Withers is starred….well, I figure that Cagney and Blondell HAD to steal the show! Most interesting!
Thanks for stopping in. They absolutely steal the show in with just a few scenes.
“APO — Ain’t puttin’ out.” Can you imagine anyone saying that in a movie before 1970? That’s why I love pre-code. Nice review!
Thanks so much! I LOVED that line! Thought I might start using it on twitter or something. And her delivery is perfection so it adds even more sass.
Regis Toomey grew into one of my favourite character actors, but – oh, my word! – he had a lot of growing to do from the early sound years. I can’t go through that again!
On a happier note, wouldn’t it have been fun to have Cagney take you dancing?
I can’t say I’m familiar with Toomey’s work at all. Could be I’ve seen him and haven’t realized it was him. Must look into that!
That’s a MUCH happier note. I would have ADORED dancing with him.
Where you might have seen Toomey to better advantage: His Girl Friday, Meet John Doe, The Big Sleep and TVs Burke’s Law.
Great review, as usual. By the way, I nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award.
OH MY! How sweet – THANK YOU!! I’m not familiar with that award. I really appreciate that and thanks for being so supportive!
It’s always a disappoint to watch a film with a favorite actor and find that they only play a minor role, while the leads are inept and boring. You’re mom was right: Cagney could do everything and anything. Loved reading your funny asides.
Thanks, Kim. I’m glad you “got” my asides. Yeah, I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed and some parts of this were difficult to get through. Can’t love every film. Thanks for stopping in!
Ack, too bad it wasn’t a home run. But you’ve provided us readers with a wonderful review.
Also, I love this word: pre-code-y-ness
Lol. Yes, I plan to write to Merriam-Webster about that. I knew all of you would know exactly what I meant. 😀
Glad you enjoyed this.
Aurora, I do agree it would be great to see more of Cagney and Blondell in this, but must say I still love the grittiness and quirky atmosphere of this early Wellman film. For me Mary Astor and Grant Withers are both excellent and the train scenes are great, even though I must agree that the ending doesn’t make a lot of sense! Enjoyed your piece a lot and, on a side-note I am so impressed you managed to find a poster of this film – I’ve spent ages seeking one in the past and drawn a blank!
I love that you enjoy this, Judy. Probably the best part of blogging is considering other’s views to look at a film differently. I get the quirkiness. Especially in the beginning but I really didn’t view it as gritty. As I noted, I do plan to see it again – give it another shot and see what happens. My perspective changes so who knows.
Funny you should mention the poster. When I searched “posters” I found nothing but in searching for other images of the film, there it was. I ADORE movie posters so that’s always a hoot.
Thanks much for stopping in.
I enjoyed your lively look at this often-less-than-lively film, which does tend to bog down whenever Cagney and Blondell were not onscreen. They’re always the best reasons to watch their films, even if they were only supporting players. Sometimes watching Cagney in his early roles gives you a sense of how ‘Public Enemy’ might have come across if William Wellman hadn’t had the smarts to switch the actors in their roles in his film.
Glad you enjoyed this. I didn’t want to give it a gloomy “look” and since I really was a bit disappointed by the lack of pre-code-y-ness – hence lively. I break out in hives thinking of anyone but Cagney in “Public Enemy.” IMagine how it must have been to watch footage of this film and think, “WAIT A MINUTE, THAT GUY JUMPS OFF THE SCREEN!” Anyway, that’s what I would have thought.
Aurora, the title and poster do lead one to anticipate something naughty and steamy, don’t they? I’m not familiar with this film, but I get the clear impression from your post that it doesn’t deliver what it suggests it will. As I read, I couldn’t help thinking of “Flying Down to Rio,” which has Astaire and Rogers in supporting roles and a pair of dullards in the leads. Your description of Cagney’s physical, “light on his feet” acting style seemed right on the mark. And it sounds like Joan Blondell plays exactly the kind of sexy, sassy character she did so well at this early point in her career. (Loved the double entendre in the dialogue you quoted.) Even if the film isn’t prime Cagney, it’s still fun to read about these rarities from the days before he became a star.
Thanks, R.D. This is definitely worth a look and I love your comparison to “Flying Down to Rio.” Wish it had occurred to me!
Being a Joan Blondell fan, the highlight of this film is her APO line, just classic JB. Grant Withers also made SINNER’S HOLIDAY wiht Cagney. Not suprisingly, he is all but forgotten today while supporting actor Cagney is iconic.
The APO line made me literally laugh out loud. Then I sat back and waited for the rest of the movie to be as enjoyable. Of well – but again, I’m glad I saw it.
I can’t disagree with any of your thoughts here, Aurora, and you do a great job of pointing out the film’s flaws. I may respond to it a little bit more because I come from a railroad family, so I liked the whole railyard setting. The thing I’ve found about a lot of these 1930s programmers is even when they don’t reach their potential, they’re so fast paced and short, that one never has the chance to feel bored or cheated. It may not be a particularly good movie, but one hasn’t made a huge time commitment and there’s usually a scene, or dialogue, like the lunchroom scene you quoted, that make it worth watching.
I actually liked therailroad setting as well. Should have noted that. And, I also agree with your other comments – that’s why my bottom line is that I’d see the film again and recommend it. You just said it all so much better than I did! Thanks so much for your comments.
I haven’t seen this one, Aurora, but I admire you for picking a picture you hadn’t seen for the blogathon. Sorry to hear it didn’t live up to your expectations for pre-code-y-ness – the title does stir the imagination, though. Your review is thoroughly enjoyable even though the movie clearly isn’t!
Thanks so much! I try to do that often – choose films for blogathons that I haven’t seen because it gives me an excuse to see them and I can’t put it off. Although this wasn’t that good it was still worth a look and I’m glad I saw it. I feel that unless we watch less stellar films we can’t appreciate the great ones.
I haven’t seen this one, but I really enjoyed your review of it. I think it’s great you hadn’t seen it before the blogathon, so it’s a fresh take on a “new” film for you. Very thoughtful, and I may have to check this one out for myself, even if it’s a bit of cheese 🙂
Thanks so much. I’m glad you enjoyed my take. I recommend it, as I noted. And it definitely was a fresh look, which I enjoy doing for these events.
I also must watch more pre-codes. The oldest Cagney film I’ve seen was The Public Enemy, so this one I still have to check.
Well, you are already in the mood for the Mary Astor blogathon! 😉
Don’t forget to WATCH my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
I am a big Cagney fan but have only seen this film once for a reason and I doubt I will ever see it again. In my humble opinion, the best Cagney/Blondell pairing is in Blonde Crazy if you ever get a chance to see it.
James Cagney best leading lady to me has always been the “Oomph Girl,” Ann Sheridan. Angels With Dirty Faces and City For Conquest are two great films. Both are NYC films which makes them special to me. We even get to see Elia Kazan the actor in City For Conquest.