City for Conquest (1940)

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*. Nothing says you’ve gone back, way back, in time like having a derelict in the role of chorus, offering up his poetic paeans to the great city. Now there’s a character we haven’t seen in a while. Today we have less sympathy for the down and out, and for poetry.
*. Frank Craven’s smug “Old Timer” is often cited as a “parody” of his Stage Manager character in Our Town (also 1940), but I’m really not sure this was the intent. He’s a comic figure here, but I don’t think he’s meant to be seen ironically. He speaks the truth, smugly, because he still has a shirt on his back.

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*. I think this is important because the movie is dated in other ways that I find make it hard to watch today.
*. It’s based on a novel that has also dated. Meaning it was a melodramatic stab at the Great American Novel: a sociological panorama taking in all walks of life, from high to low. The film is a celebration of that life, of the relentless struggle upward. And should our heroes fall, then even that may be a Howellsian “rise,” a moral triumph.
*. So what should be a tragic tale — Peggy no longer has her name in lights but is back where she started and stuck dancing in a sleazy burlesque show, while Danny is blind and working a newsstand — is presented as a happy ending. Hey, at least they still have the shirts on their back!
*. There’s an interesting cast, especially in the supporting roles. Anthony Quinn is slick and slightly alien-looking as Murray Burns. Elia Kazan only acted in a couple of movies, this being one of them, and he’s pretty good. I wonder if he was responsible for writing that great line he delivers after he gets shot.

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*. Cagney is great as usual, and for once has a female lead who can hold the screen against him. Ann Sheridan may not have been a great actress — aside from her ability to turn on the waterworks here — but she had presence. A lot of that can be chalked up to beauty. Judging beauty is always a personal call, but Sheridan definitely had it. She came to Hollywood as a beauty contest winner and was dubbed “The Oomph Girl” (which she didn’t like), but it’s the intelligence and knowingness in her face that makes her irresistible. It’s like she knows this is all good fun and not that important. That sort of assurance makes her seem more natural, and hence more attractive.

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*. Yes, I’ve got a bit of a crush on her.
*. Sadly, her part isn’t much. In her big early scene with Cagney where she reveals her burning ambition to make something of herself (and he reveals his total lack of the same), there’s the potential for a very interesting dynamic. But Peggy settles back into convention, from being the abused ingénue (“Gee this is the first time I’ve ever signed a contract! I’m so excited I can hardly write!”) and even rape victim (which I think is clearly what happens), until finally going back to her roots, and her steady guy. She is, after all, still his “goil.”

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*. My goodness but the chorines at the Follies Burlesque are scantily dressed! I’m surprised those outfits made it by the censors. They’re barely covered up! This must have been the equivalent of Showgirls in its day.
*. As Richard Schickel notes in his commentary, it’s funny to see Cagney, a great dancer, giving up the floor to Sheridan. He could have put on a show. Meanwhile, Quinn wasn’t a dancer at all and his work with Sheridan was doubled.
*. Once again with the convention of the boxing manager protecting his fighter from the leg-weakening debilitations of the fairer sex. Peggy is another Delilah, cutting down and blinding her Samson in a manner just “like his ancient namesake.”

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*. A “well-made plot” can be self-defeating. It becomes predictable, formulaic. Structural matters are foregrounded and seem too obvious. Danny’s and Peggy’s parallel rise to becoming names in marquee lights is too neat. But it’s the ending that is the real problem.
*. The movie takes far too long to wrap up. When Cagney is blinded there is still over half an hour to go, and he doesn’t get back together with Peggy until the final seconds. So instead the finale is given over to Edward’s symphony, which allows Max Steiner to go all out but which just isn’t that interesting.
*. Schickel nails it: “basically this movie stops stone cold and we hear a concert . . . it’s slowing down what is meant to be a fairly lively movie.” It has to be there to complete the structure of rise and fall and rise, but how much do we care about Eddie? His triumph seems like a consolation prize, given where Danny and Peggy have arrived.

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