Davis, de Havilland, Flynn, Cagney, Bogart ...

Davis, de Havilland, Flynn, Cagney, Bogart ...

Monday, December 10, 2012

Overlooked at the Oscars -- Part One

"Made it, Ma!  Top of the world!"  But NOT at the Oscars...
Most classic movie lovers have seen it ... all lovers of classic gangster movies have seen it.  Did the Oscar voters of 1949 have their eyes and ears closed?  I'm highlighting one scene in James Cagney's White Heat, an incredibly powerful scene, that even as a stand-alone should have put him in the running for best actor of 1949, and I'm not even talking about the incredible now-iconic ending.  White Heat is considered by many, including me, as Cagney's greatest dramatic performance, and as the movie that tops all of the great classic-era gangster movies.  The golden age of Hollywood was known for its snubbing of these films at Oscar time, and this was the worst brush-off of all.

White Heat is a near-perfect crime drama.  It's only flaw lies in a few distracting and unnecessary scenes of modern FBI surveillance techniques.  However, the riveting story, the top-notch direction of Raoul Walsh, the performances of every member of the cast, and particularly Cagney, pushed those scenes way into the backdrop.  As Cody Jarrett, the sociopathic head of a criminal gang, and a son who clings to his aging outlaw Ma with disturbing overtones of mental incest, Cagney brings all of his many talents to work.

The scene which showcases the best of Cagney takes place in a prison dining hall.  Cody has been fearful for his Ma's life, and asks a recently incarcerated acquaintance about her.  The result is nothing less than startling.  It is known now that Cagney asked Walsh to just begin shooting the scene, not revealing what he intended to do with it.  He only asked that two strong guys be placed on either side of him at the table.  You cannot mistake the genuine shock on the faces of not only the extras, but also co-star Edmund O'Brien. They didn't have to act with this one.  Cagney's chilling reaction is delivered in a way that attendants at an insane asylum might easily recognize as the behavior of insanity.





Cagney was not even nominated for best actor, nor was Walsh for best director, nor the movie itself.  White Heat was totally excluded from the Oscars, except for one failed nomination for the story.  Broderick Crawford won best actor that year for All the King's Men, and although it was a very good movie, I do not believe it deserved  the top award of Best Movie.  While Crawford's performance was quite good, Cagney's was superb.  It is inexplicable to me that Cagney was completely passed over.  (If you are a fan of the classic gangster movies, see my series "Mobsters, Pals and Skirts" -- posted on this blog in April, 2011.)

My next installment in "Overlooked at the Oscars" will deal with another hard-to-believe loss in 1996.

31 comments:

  1. I' m not really a James Cagney fan but, I did enjoy him in this film His character, Cody Jarrett, is one of the best classic movie bad guys you will find on film. Cagney's wife, is played very well, by one of my favorite actress Virginia Mayo. The final scene of White Heat, is one you will not soon forget.

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    1. Oh that final scene, Dawn! Magnificent! I heard a movie reviewer once say that when Cody Jarrett went out with the incredible explosion, that was the end of the great era of classic gangsters. I agree with him. I know you aren't really a fan of those movies, but even so appreciate it. And Mayo certainly was good as his wife!

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  3. You could not have picked a more apt choice for your Overlooked at the Oscars series than this one. It's amazing that Cagney wasn't nominated, but his performance is now better known than Broderick Crawford's is (as good as it was). Interesting how the gangster, noir and horror films from the era are now better remembered and celebrated than the more prestigious titles.

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    1. White Heat is a movie I always thought was robbed, Kevin. You make a good point about appreciation of these movies in their own time as opposed to ours. I think the studios and bigwigs of that era knew those movies would make money, but had no idea of the quality of the product. Neither did reviewers and many rather snobby money sources, so the advertising and promoting were not done as they would be for more "respectable" films.

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  4. I'd be tempted to call it genre bias, except Cagney did get nominated for 'Angels With Dirty Faces.' How would you compare the two?

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    1. Good question, Rich...that too is one of my absolute favorite movies, and he was the perfect Warner Brothers gangster, as always. Who could forget that scene in the death house?! I think his White Heat character, just in my opinion, was more difficult to play. Cagney was older, and the character could not be sold with the wonderfully dapper look of 1938 or with Cagney's famous mannerisms of shooting the cuffs and his quick choppy walk that changed with age. Cody Jarrett was insane, but Cagney didn't resort to over-the-top acting to show it. Also, in White Heat he was able to give to a true sociopath some pathos (the Greek word roots are showing!) I do still believe genre bias was in play still in 1949. Very few movies of that genre were Oscar-recognized until really the 70's, I think with the Godfather. Thanks for coming by, Rich!

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  5. Becky, gangster movies and other thrillers so often don't get the kudos they deserve, and I agree that WHITE HEAT is so much more deserving. I was impressed with Virginia Mayo, too, having mostly seen her comedies with Danny Kaye and Bob Hope -- the girl had range! That scene in the prison with the bad news about Cody's mom is one of the most unnerving example of grief in any film. BRAVA, Becks -- I look forward to Part Two!

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    1. Thanks so much, Dorian. I think Virginia Mayo played her part wonderfully -- not many Hollywood beauties would want their first scene in the movie to show them snoring!

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  6. Becky, I think I would have nominated Cagney for WHITE HEAT, but not the movie. Then again, I'm not a big fan of any of the actual 1949 Best Picture nominees. It's a great idea for a film post series!

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  7. Rick, I am a big fan of "The Heiress" and "12 O'Clock High" of 1949. My pick would have been "White Heat," but frankly would have been happy with "12 O'Clock High" would have been a good win to me. I'm glad you like the idea of the series. I needed a good idea! I've been short on those lately!

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    1. My grammar suffered in that reply, didn't it? LOL!

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  8. Becky, an apt choice--an actor nearly every classic movie fan loves, giving the definitive performance of the type he was best known for, and he doesn't even get an Oscar nomination. To me Cagney just trounces the competition for this year. I absolutely agree that the scene in the dining hall is one of the great scenes in movies (although most people recall the amazing finale better). Cagney should have won the Oscar for that scene alone. However, as far as the acting Oscars go, Elia Kazan once said that it's the character that wins the Oscar, not the actor, and I think that until pretty recently that was exactly right. At the Oscars, victims beat villains nearly every time. And even Cagney never played a meaner villain than he does here!

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  9. Hi R.D.! I have never heard what Elia Kazan said, and you are quite right -- it did once have a lot to do with the character, but now it does seem to be tending more to the popularity or trendiness of the actor, not always, but often. Your statement that victims beat villains nearly every time is right on! Too bad!

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  10. I adore Cagney and his performance in "White Heat" transcends generations.

    Becky, I think you have a book here in "overlooked at the Oscars".

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  11. What a great way to put it, CW -- "transcends generations." Too true. Yes, I can see it now -- a big pyramid of books in a bookstore window -- "Overlooked at the Oscars" by Rebecca Barnes.....*dream*

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  12. I agree with you completely Becky, and Cagney should have won a Best Actor for this role. As has been pointed out, crime-dramas and films-noir don't fare well at Oscar time, and you can add westerns to that lot. Regardless, Cagney's role is well remembered, Oscar or no.

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  13. Christian, you read my mind. One of my parts of this series is going to be about a couple of great westerns shunned by the Oscar powers-that-be!

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  14. I did see this many MANY years ago, Becky, when Channel ll and CBS showed movies late into the night. I think I saw every old movie ever made, now if only I could remember them....

    I enjoyed reading your post and I think I do remember the fabulous ending. Yeah, Cagney was terrific in this. There's never any accounting for the mysterious ways of the Academy. Although I do like Broderick Crawford in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN very much.

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  15. It was fun back in the day when you got movies on the 4 channels all night and not infomercials. I liked Broderick Crawford too, just not as much!

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  16. Yup, Cagney shoulda gotten an Oscar for this role, especially for his performance in the scene where he finds out his mother has died.

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  17. Becky - as a Cagney fan I agree with you 100%. This performance was so bold and fearless and the culmination of all that went before it. Snubbed indeed!! Great post, my dear.

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    1. Glad you agree! Thanks for the kind words, Chick!

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  18. Becks, you know I love this film. BTW I grew up near the area of the refinery which was the Shell plant in Torrance California. It was Huge and sat between Vermont Ave and what was to become the Harbor Freeway Like most of old So Cal It's all gone now, on the former site is Alpine Village, and a mess of Condos.

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    1. Oh good Lord, Paul -- an Alpine Village and condos! How sad. You know, I'm a fanatical Shakespeare lover, and the villainous Richard III is my favorite of his characters and plays. I read an article about the inn in England where Richard spent his last night before the Battle of Bosworth where he was killed. It was falling apart, naturally, but some idiots were able to buy the site, tear down this still-existing piece of history, and build a Travelodge on the site. A Travelodge! Made me sick.

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  19. Well, it could have been worst It could have been a Motel 6! Just remember Century City in, So Ca used to be part of 20th Century Fox's back lot.If thats not bad enough, the condo complex built on the old MGM back lot is called (I'm not making this up) Raintree County. And people wonder why I moved to Idaho.

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    1. Raintree County ... *sob* As Shakespeare said, "What fools these mortals be."

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  20. Becks, it gets worst. Last time I was back down in So Ca (last spring)I could not believe how bad things have become. The once great RCA Music Center of The World on Sunset Blvd is gone. Along with The Paramount Scoring Stage, and Todd AD's Scoring Stage. There was even talk about tearing down the Capital Records studios (thank God that did not happeen) . Avco Cinema Center, the place thatwas the home for the openings of films like star Wars, Alien, and The Turing Point is closed. Wilshire Blvd in Beverly Hills once you pass Rodeo Drive is full on empty store fronts drive father into LA and the road is so full of potholes and cracks, I've driven on better dirt roads in Baja California . Sunset Blvd east from Vermont Ave is almost a no mans land and the one that really kills me is Baldwin Blvd in Arcadia CA. near Santa Anita racetrack. It looks like something right out of Blade Runner.

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  21. Now I'm getting depressed! "right out of Blade Runner" LOL! Indianapolis used to have a fabulous amusement park, Riverside, and it sat for years falling apart, looking just like a ghost town. Now its a McMansion desert of all alike huge houses with postage stamp yards. I preferred it as a ghost town! It's hard to see the old treasured places just destroyed and forgotten...except by us!

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  22. Arcadia CA is being taken over by people fresh from China who could care less about CA or becoming Americans. one of their favorite things is to buy up houses tear them down and build Mc Mansions. The flavor of one of the best areas in So Ca has changed for the wors..There are very few signs in english and if you go from Alhambra down Main Street where it turns into Las Tunas to Baldwin there is at least 100 Asian Wedding shops on both sides of the street. At one time Becks this area was used for locations for the high school years of The Wonder Years, heck they shot just around the corner from where I was living. I came home from work to find a full blown Chapman Crane parked in front of my house, so of course I had to crash the shoot. BTW Fred Savage was a nice kid , and Danny Stern (who was the shows narrator ) was directing.

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