Monday, 11 July 2016

HOT & BOTHERED — The Films of 1932 Blogathon: "Taxi!"

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Roy Del Ruth, Taxi! (1932) begins when veteran cab driver Pop Riley (Guy Kibbee) is forced to abandon his prime soliciting location by a company trying to control the taxi business in New York. While defending himself, Pop shoots and kills one of the company's gang and is sentenced to prison, where he subsequently dies. Some of the independent drivers call a meeting and ask Pop's daughter Sue (Loretta Young) to speak. Hot-tempered Matt Nolan (James Cagney), another independent cabbie, is furious with Sue when instead of urging the drivers to fight back, she tells them that violence will not be effective. Despite his anger, Matt starts dating Sue and eventually marries her.

After their marriage, the couple goes out to a nightclub with their friends Skeets (George E. Stone) and Ruby (Leila Bennett), as well as Matt's younger brother Dan (Ray Cooke). While there, Matt and Sue are insulted by Buck Gerard (David Landau), the man responsible for the attacks on the independent cab drivers. Sue is initally able to prevent her husband from responding, but on their way out, Matt gets involved in a fight with Gerard, who stabs and kills Dan. Matt refuses to tell the police who murdered Dan because he wants to take revenge himself. In an attempt to stop this from happening, Gerard's girlfriend, Marie Costa (Dorothy Burgess), begs Sue for money to get Buck out of town so that Matt never catches up to him. After learning about Marie's visit, he follows Sue to Gerard's hide-out. He bursts into the apartment, where Marie and Sue manage to keep Matt from Gerard long enough for the police to arrive. At the last minute, Matt empties his gun into the door of the closet room where Gerard is hiding, but the police discover when they open it that he has fallen into his death while trying to escape. Sue decides to leave Matt, although before she finally moves away, he begs her to come back and she agrees.

Matt Nolan [to Buck Gerard]: Come out and take it, you dirty yellow-bellied rat, or I'll give it to you through the door.

In early 1907, a young New York businessman named Harry N. Allen became incensed when a hansom cab driver charged him five dollars for a three-quarter-mile trip from a Manhattan restaurant to his home. Angered by this extortion, Allen launched the first gasoline-powered taxi fleet, which consisted of 65 French-made automobiles. His new motorized taxicabs quickly replaced the horse-drawn carriages with their faster service and more accurate fares (computed by mechanical meter). By 1923, the industry had grown to 15,000 vehicles and was dominated by several large fleets, including Checker Co. and Yellow Cab Co. With the coming of the Great Depression in 1929, thousands of unemployed New Yorkers used their knowledge of the city and their driving skills to get hack licenses. By 1931, over 73,000 men held hack licenses, allowing them to compete for positions behind the wheel of 21,000 cabs in New York. Soon, easy entry into this all-cash business led to an oversupply of taxis, resulting in traffic congestion, fare-cutting wars, low driver wages, inadequately insured vehicles and other unsafe and sometimes illegal activities.The city government increasingly realized that the number of cabs had to be decreased and that further regulation was necessary.

Reform began under Mayor James Walker, who announced in January 1930 a plan to franchise the operation of all cabs in New York to a single vendor, making it illegal to be an owner-driver. He reasoned that the monopoly would relieve congestion, elevate driver earnings by reducing competition and earn cash for the city. However, Walker's scheme was received unenthusiastically throughout the industry, leading the mayor to create instead the Taxicab Control Bureau, a government entity that instilled cooperation between fleets and independent cabbies by regulating both kinds of drivers. In January 1932, the bureau ruled that no taxicab could operate in the city streets without a license. The big cad companies viewed these actions with approval, but the independent drivers were sure the bureau was formed only to crush them and vowed to fight. Later that year, it was discovered that Mayor Walker was accepting bribes from two of New York's largest fleets to approve a single contractor for taxi service. After this information became public, Walker was forced to resign from office. Interim Mayer Joseph McKee abolished the Taxicab Control Bureau in December 1932, during a drive to restrain city costs in the midst of the Depression.

James Cagney as Matt Nolan in Taxi!
Only a few years after the profession of the cabbie was invented, popular media — including the Hollywood motion picture industry — began to reflect many aspects of this new occupation. Nearly a dozen silent films made between 1916 and 1920 portrayed cabbies variously as heroes, criminals and bootstrap successes. In 1928-1929, silent film mogul Mack Sennett hired Del Lord to direct a series of six short comedies starring English-born actor Jack Cooper as a taxi driver who gets himself implicated in all sorts of trouble, usually involving the wife of a jealous husband.

In mid-1931, Warner Bros. screenwriters Kubec Glasmon and John Bright penned Taxi!, a dramatization of the then-current taxi wars in New York City.The duo  had recently received an Academy Award nomination for Best Story for The Public Enemy (1931), a hugely successful gangster film starring newcomers James Cagney and Jean Harlow. Taxi! was adapted from a play written for the stage by Kenyon Nicholson and titled The Blind Spot. In a prefactory note to the text, Nicholson explained: "The setting of this play is that part of New York City which lies between 34th and 40th Streets, west of Eighth Avenue. The characters are the 'younger generation' of the noisy, overcrowded section. They are not crooks or gangsters, but honest, hard-working young people who live their lives to the fullest, obeying the tenets of this own moral and ethical codes as religiously as do their more fortunate brothers and sisters of Park Avenue."

The male lead in Taxi! was naturally offered to James Cagney, who was building a reputation as Warner Bros.' resident "tough guy" after his success in The Public Enemy. A former vaudeville performer, Cagney made his screen debut in Sinners' Holiday (1930), his first of seven pictures with Joan Blondell. With the overnight popularity of The Public Enemy, Cagney began to compare his pay with his peers, thinking his contract allowed for salary adjustments based on the success of his films. Warners disagreed, however, and refused to give him a raise, which prompt Cagney to move back to his native New York. When Blonde Crazy (1931) also co-starring Blondell became another hit for Cagney, the studio finally relented and increased his salary from $400 to $1000 a week. Taxi! was his first film upon returning from New York.

Loretta Young and James Cagney
Joan Blondell was initially cast as Sue Riley, but was forced to withdrawn from the production due to scheduling conflicts with Union Depot (1932). The role was eventually assigned to Loretta Young, who, at the tender age of 19, was already a screen veteran. She had begun her Hollywood career in 1917, when she and her two sisters were employed by Paramount as extras in silent films. Ten years later, she signed with First National Pictures, which became a subsidiary of Warner Bros. in November 1929, and went on to co-star in such films as Loose Ankles (1930), The Devil to Pay! (1930) made on loan-out to independent producer Samuel Goldwyn and Platinum Blonde (1931).

The supporting cast of Taxi! included a variety of Warners "stock players." Successful Broadway actor Guy Kibbee, who was featured with Cagney in Blonde Crazy, The Crowd Roars (1932) and Footlight Parade (1933), was hired as the ill-fated veteran cab drive Pop Riley. Polish-born George E. Stone, assigned to the role of Matt's friend Skeets, built a career out of playing the leading man's best pal, from his dramatic performance in Little Caesar (1931) to his support of Chester Morris in the Boston Blackie series of B-films produced by Columbia Pictures during the 1940s. Stone and Cagney later appeared together in the costume drama Frisco Kid (1935). Character actress Leila Bennett was cast as Sue's friend Ruby, while stage performer Dorothy Burgess portrayed Marie Costa, Buck Gerard's female companion. The role of Buck Gerard was given to David Landau, who died just three years later from a stroke.

James Cagney and George E. Stone
To direct Taxi!, the studio hired Roy Del Ruth, who had also helmed Blonde Crazy. Beginning his Hollywood career as a writer for Mack Sennett, Del Ruth later directed his first short film, Hungry Lions (1919), for the producer. In the early 1920s, he transitioned to features with such early efforts as The Cat's Meow (1924), Hogan's Alley (1925) and The Little Irish Girl (1926). Del Ruth delivered several more titles before having the distinction of directing The Desert Song (1929), the first color picture even released by Warner Bros. According to Box Office and Exhibitor magazines, Del Ruth was the second highest paid director in Hollywood between 1932 and 1941, helming a series of hits including Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935), Born to Dance (1936) and Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937).

Production on Taxi! began on September 16, 1931 on the Warners lot. Cagney had to be taught how to drive for his role in the film. Because he had been a New Yorker who could easily rely on public transportation, there was no real need for him to learn to drive until this time. In later years, he would admit that he never became a particularly good driver. Ironically, in his next movie, The Crowds Roars, he played a race car driver. Cagney also had to learn how to smoke cigarettes for Taxi!. Smoking was a common practice in films at the time, but Cagney was able to avoid much of this during his career. While he loathed smoking, his wife, Frances "Billie" Vernon, smoked a pack and a half a day for more than 50 years. However, she learned ways of keeping herself free of tobacco odor and smoked only in a special room at home. When Cagney was forced to smoke in a picture, she would coach him in the essentials and how to fake inhaling.

James Cagney and Loretta Young
Taxi! marked the first occasion when Cagney danced on screen, as Matt and Sue enter a Peabody contest at a public ballroom. Cagney was perfectly at ease with his own Peabody dancing skills he had been an aficionado of the step from a young age but he knew that the scene needed the tension of a worthy competitor. Since no one at Warner Bros. seemed capable of dancing the Peabody well, Cagney was frustrated at the thought that he might have to spend hours teaching someone.

Suddenly, Cagney thought of his friend George Raft, who had recently arrived from New York for a try at Hollywood. Raft's innate dancing ability enabled him to find work as a dancer in nightclubs in his youth and later led to his success on Broadway. Aware that Raft possessed "ample knowledge" of the Peabody, Cagney asked him to play the competing finalist in the contest. The scene culminated with Raft being declared the winner and getting punched by Cagney in return. Raft would embark on his own acting career with a defining performance later that same year in Scarface (1932) and eventually co-star with Cagney at the end of the decade in Each Time I Die (1939).

As in The Public Enemy, several scenes in Taxi! involved the use of real machine-gun bullets. In his autobiography, Cagney recalled: "From my taxi I had to fire two shots out of the window and duck; then a machine gun would cut loose and take the window out over my head. The scene was played as called for with one exception: one of the machine gun bullets hit the head of one of the spikes holding the backing planks together. It ricocheted and went tearing through the set, smacked through a sound booth, ripped across the stage, hit a clothes tree, and dropped into the pocket of someone's coat! I was young enough to not consider this pretty dangerous activity." After this incident, Cagney outlawed the practice of using live ammunition in his future films.

Loretta Young and James Cagney
Taxi! also contains two famous Cagney dialogues. The first features the actor conducting a conversation with a passenger in Yiddish. A city boy from the Lower East Side (of Irish Catholic extraction), Cagney prided himself on having learned Yiddish in order to survive in the ghetto street culture. When asked if he is a Jew, he responds, "Vu den, a shaygetz? (What else, a Gentile?)." At that point, a policeman (Robert Emmett O'Connor), who knows Cagney, asks, "Nolan, what part of Ireland did you folks come from?" Cagney smiles broadly and in a Jewish accent says, "Delancey Street, denk you!" The second bit of dialogue features Cagney speaking to his brother's killer through a locked closet. He says, "Come out and take it, you dirty yellow-bellied rat, or I'll give it to you through the door!" The provenance of this sequence led to Cagney being famously misquoted by his impressionists as saying, "You dirty rat, you killed my brother."

Young, who reunited with Del Ruth in Private Number (1936), later confessed to having developed a crush on Cagney during the making of Taxi!. "I admired him so much, though I could never tell him so," she said. "I remember having this romantic dream about him [...] in which I was drowning and he rescued me." Young was also in awe of her co-star's acting skills, recalling that Cagney had "complete control over expressing the whole gamut of emotions with his eyes. He could accomplish with a glance what other actors need a whole bag of tricks to put over."

Taxi! opened at the Strand Theatre in New York on January 23, 1932 to positive reviews from critics. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times, for instance, considered that the film "moves along rapidly with good enough dialogue for the persons involved. [...] Mr. Cagney misses no chance to make his characterization tell. Loretta Young is sympathetic and able as Sue." Although the Variety reviewer liked the film, he was not pleased with the ending: "Taxi! speeds along interestingly until near the finish, where the script cheats Cagney of his revenge and thereby saves him from prison. It's a scenario compromise which will leave the majority of fans unsatisfied." Taxi! was a solid hit at the box-office, although it failed to surpass The Crowds Roars, released three months later.


This is my contribution to HOT & BOTHERED: The Films of 1932 Blogathon hosted by CineMaven's Essays from the Couch and Once Upon a Screen. To view all entries to the blogathon, click HERE.

 

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SOURCES: 
Cagney by John McCabe (2013) | James Cagney Films of the 1930s by James L. Neibaur (2015) | Taxi! A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver by Graham Russell Gao Hodges (2007) | James Cagney, Loretta Young Star in 'Taxi' | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review | Variety review

2 comments:

  1. My favorite scene in this movie is when he proposed to Young while they're dancing. So cute!

    That's interesting about having to fake smoke! I've checked out his autobiography a couple times kept not getting around to reading it. I just read the first chapter. Guess I need to add it to my summer reading list!

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  2. To view all the entries to our Hot & Bothered Blogathon, please go to this link: https://cinemavensessaysfromthecouch.wordpress.com/2016/07/09/hot-bothered-3/ Thanks.

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