2014 Film Essays

From The Archive: James Cagney Innovates Mischievous Smirking in ‘Lady Killer’


Two years after the famous grapefruit scene in The Public Enemy, James Cagney and Mae Clarke teamed up again for Roy Del Ruth’s 1933 film Lady Killer. While the gangster/comedy flick features Cags early in his career, the directorial style offers little more than snappy one-liners and exuberant bravado from its star.

Dan Quigley (Cagney) works as a movie theatre usher and loses his job after talking smack to a confused elder and her innocent pup. As the first of several episodes highlighting Quigley’s rebellious nature, it seems more like a 30s version of Punk’d. He laughs hysterically at his own jokes, thus giving off a Hollywood Boulevard crazy vibe rather than someone trying to earn a few bucks. It’s not long until Quigley observes a young dame (Clarke) drop her purse and he subsequently pseudo-stalks her (“Yep, you’re the doll”) only to be invited inside her swanky pad. Like a true criminal, he swiftly ends the sensuous stare down and shows interest in a card game nearby. After dropping a fresh fifty dollars, Quigley discovers the mob trapping but puffs out his chest and offers to help boost their business. His sharp tongue makes more sense on the street, but he doesn’t seem to mind insulting numerous gangsters on their own turf.


What follows is the most prolific and natural rise to stardom that you’ll see in a gangster picture. Curiously, Lady Killer is more comedic and less gangster, which as the kids would say “isn’t very gangster.” Quigley essentially says, “Heya fellas, would ya mind making a few more dollars?” and the gangsters say, “Why sure, stranger, and why don’t be our boss as well. Gee, you sure are swell.” The actual dialogue differs slightly than my paraphrasing, but there’s little story between the initial meeting and the group running a nightclub and casino. All in all, the early vignette is both hilarious and rich with classic Cagney smirks.


Once Dirty Dan and the boys start earning real cash, the gang tails wealthy patrons for potential heists. Quigley pretends to get nailed by a passing vehicle and actually gets invited into a mansion for a little R & R. Meanwhile, his “doctor” shows up for a little recon, but they severely injure the butler who ultimately dies. “Whoa,” says Dan (not really) as he splits with his gal for Tinseltown. Given his combative personality, Quigley gets anxious when a mysterious fellow approaches upon their arrival in Hollywood, but it turns out that he’s looking for movie extras. Armed with a sparkling personality and time to write himself hundreds of fan letters, Dan Quigley becomes a Hollywood star (!) and sports a most amazing pencil mustache complimented by pre-Elvis chops. Top of the World!


I actually fell asleep briefly near the conclusion of Lady Killer but not because of Cagney’s performance or the frantic pace. There’s plenty of fun within the swift 76 minutes although director Del Ruth fails to massage the connective tissue. As a result, the entire production is stiff and his leading ladies are vastly underutilized. The talented Margaret Lindsay stars as an actress named Lois Underwood, but she’s yet another victim of Quigley’s selfishness and he literally tosses her out of the picture. Visually, Del Ruth rotates between wide shots and close-ups, thus creating an even more rigid framework devoid of any real style or vision. He seems to be saying, “Here’s Jimmy Cagney for 76 minutes. Isn’t that enough?” No…no, it’s not, but Cags managed to put on a decent show.

Stream Lady Killer on Warner Archive Instant and follow Q.V. Hough on Twitter