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…