Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Part of the Warner Bros. Pictures Tough Guy Collection
City for Conquest is an ambitious James Cagney movie given the full Warner treatment. Although it doesn't quite hit the mark on any of its four or five themes it gives them all a college try; it's become a favorite of Cagney fans. It is a gangster picture, a boxing picture, a "poetic" symphony-of-the-city epic, a starstruck show-biz career picture --- and for a finale it even tries to graft on the end of Charlie Chaplin's City Lights. Until this DVD release, City for Conquest was also a movie with a mysterious missing element -- an entire wrap-around framing story. I'll be scratching my head about that mystery a little further into the review. The bottom line is that City for Conquest is a unique end-of-the-Depression-years thriller with special performances from James Cagney and Ann Sheridan.
Young truck driver Danny Kenny (James Cagney) could be a top pugilist under the name Kid Samson, but he has neither the ambition for fame nor the desire to risk the kind of injuries that leave many fighters mentally impaired. His kid brother Eddie (Arthur Kennedy) wants to be a serious composer, and Danny's making just enough to keep him in music school. But Danny's girlfriend Peggy Nash (Ann Sheridan) follows up on her dreams of becoming a dancing sensation by teaming up with slick exhibition pro Murray Burns (Anthony Quinn). Disappointed, Danny tries to wait Peg out, but it soon becomes clear that he's losing her. To get money he answers the open invitation of honest promoter Scotty MacPherson (Donald Crisp) and goes back into serious bouts. On his side are his buddy Mutt (Frank McHugh) and a friendly gangster-gambler Googie (Elia Kazan) --- but big-time operators looking for a fix arrange for Danny to lose the fight by underhanded means.
City for Conquest is tailor-made for Cagney, almost too good of a fit, actually. If anything he's a bit old to play the 'young guy making good,' but that doesn't slow him down, especially in the impressively grueling boxing showdown. Danny Kenny is a nice guy who doesn't get an even break because the "Energy of the City", the living quality expressed with an overdone lyricism by his brother Eddie, is against him. Everybody in New York is evolving, changing, going after the Pie in the Sky; even the jailbird loser Googie (Elia Kazan in a pointedly ethnic role) can become a big wheel because he believes in himself. Danny isn't interested in getting rich or famous, which puts him out of synch with the city and the girl he loves.
An awful lot is packed into the City for Conquest script. Ann Sheridan's Peg Nash undergoes a full career arc from tenement hopeful to big-ticket headliner, but she unfortunately chooses a possessive, controlling partner. It's a great role for Anthony Quinn even if he's a villain; how many actors can say they got punched by James Cagney in a movie? Quinn's ruthlessness and cruelty is completely believable: He's a show-biz pro who doesn't want to make any false steps and the end of one scene implies that he rapes Ann Sheridan's Peggy. Peg crashes out of her big dream broke and unhappy and has to turn to burlesque dancing (hinted at; not depicted) to make a living. It's all because she feels responsible for Danny Kenny, who went into the ring to try and keep her.
Danny also fights to bankroll his brother Eddie, a visionary composer who writes stuff Danny doesn't understand but finds beautiful just the same. Danny gushes florid speeches about the spirit of the city "surging through the streets and the subways," yadda yadda, and we can tell he's supposed to be a combination George Gershwin and Robert Frost. Even when Danny's plans (and life) go horribly astray, he has the satisfaction of knowing that his sponsorship of Eddie has brought something important and beautiful into the world. In some ways City for Conquest is a picture Barton Fink might write, tossing all of his 30s Depression angst into a Hollywood salad. 3
City for Conquest has some marvelous scenes. Danny and Peg return to a neighborhood charity dance as celebrities. On several occasions Danny spars with the slimy Murray Burns. Elia Kazan contributes some excellent character business, in a more naturalistic acting style than is usually seen in the Warners stock player format. The only disappointment is that ace dancer Cagney never dances in the film, and even dance-trained Sheridan's footwork is only shown through doubles. Perhaps her time was considered too valuable to devote to dance rehearsal. All of these performance scenes need music, and we hear a few bars of practically every music cue in the Warner library. 1
The movie is also interesting for its melodramatic sentimentality. Danny and Peg come through their emotional upheavals mostly intact but the movie uses cheap contrivances to see that they don't get together at crucial moments. Donald Crisp insists that Peg is "no good" for Danny and sends her away. Naturally, she lives in miserable torment until she can see him again. Sheridan and especially Cagney handle this section of the movie beautifully -- the Max Steiner music certainly cues our emotional responses, but Cagney keeps things under control.
The ending of the film goes for a bittersweet heart-tug that almost but not quite works; we can tell, and I'll bet that 1940 audiences could tell, that the movie overreaches and stumbles. (Real spoiler, honest) Cheating gamblers have fixed it so Danny is blinded in his big bout, and he spends the rest of the film humbly accepting the fact that he took his chance and lost and is now out of the running for both Peg and a normal life. Peg self-destructs and degrades herself by sinking to a lower level of show biz. Why exactly she must do this remains another plot convenience, as we'd think there must be some other dancer in need of a partner with her record of success. 2
Anyway, the last reel gives us Eddie's overblown "majestic symphony" concert to counterbalance the lower-class boxing ordeal from act 2. Danny listens to the concert on the radio from his newsstand and Peg finally shows up. He squints, trying to see her through his detached retinas or whatever. The music rises as he says noble and generous things about her, and she's crushed to tears. It's an almost exact re-think of the end of Chaplin's sublime tearjerker City Lights. For lovers of Cagney and Sheridan, it's just as effective.
Savant saw City for Conquest several times on television as late as the 1980s, in a mutilated form which I think has now been corrected for the first time, and without any mention on the packaging or extras. Just as Peg and Danny embrace, the movie previously cut in mid-musical crescendo to a set of end credits, chopping off its finish almost as abruptly as old copies of Kiss Me Deadly. Later on I noticed that the beginning of the movie was crudely spliced as well, and there were a handful of places in the middle of the picture with rough jump-cut mismatches.
A 1980s film collector's magazine had the answer, but made a big error: The writer said he knew that City for Conquest originally had a kind of Our Town Stage Manager character who appeared at the beginning of the film to introduce the story, popped up several times to comment on the action like a Greek chorus, and then provided a farewell speech at the end. The writer thought the "Old Timer" character was played by Walter Huston, but it turns out that the actor in the role was really Frank Craven -- the original Stage Manager from Our Town both on Broadway and in the 1940 Sam Wood film.
Frank Craven's Old Timer is a cantankerous homeless bum who spouts semi-poetry while being told to "move along" by various New York cops (including Ward Bond, a nice touch). He's first seen rhapsodizing on the Brooklyn Bridge about the millions of human dramas unfolding on the streets of the city. He observes Danny, Peg and Googie as kids on the crowded streets. He's later glimpsed commenting on Danny Kenny's fate at the boxing match. That big interruption at the end simply dissolves to the Old Timer's frazzled face so he can sign off City for Conquest with another wry statement or two about the human condition. Frankly, the movie could have done without the Old Timer entirely, as he doesn't blend well with the other material and gets in the way of our direct involvement with Danny and Peg, especially at the end. Even more pointedly, City for Conquest already has one poetic blabbermouth, the Eddie Kenny composer character. The Old Timer is just too much.
The new disc restores all of these scenes, which amount to three or four minutes of material. But it doesn't answer the mystery of why they were removed in the first place. The restored scenes drop a notch or two in quality, indicating that the 35mm elements for City for Conquest were cut, so the change wasn't just made for television. Any number of reasons might be the correct one, although going to all that effort just to lose 3.5 minutes doesn't support the idea that the cuts were made to save time.
Savant of course jumped to all kinds of paranoid conclusions to explain why Warners mutilated City for Conquest for subsequent runs. Was Frank Craven blacklisted, and did the studio want his likeness gone from the movie? Well, no, Craven died in 1945, before the HUAC brouhaha began. Did someone at Warners think that the populist poetry was too Pinko? Well, maybe. The Old Timer doesn't spout any Red propaganda, that's for sure, but some "real American" might object to the scenes of homeless guys gathering around fires set in rubbish bins. Maybe. No proof.
So help clear this up, somebody, and make Savant eat his liberal suspicions!
Warner's DVD of City for Conquest is part of their Warner Bros. Pictures Tough Guy Collection. The transfer is excellent with little wear or image loss (beyond the slight generational contrast of the restored sections). The audio track is in great condition.
The special features menu starts with a play option called "Warner Night at the Movies," which allows one to play five short subjects as a vintage warm-up for the main feature: A newsreel, a short subject Service with the Colors, a cartoon Stage Fright and trailers for City for Conquest and The Fighting 69th. The only lame idea in this stack is including the City for Conquest trailer -- which will spoil the movie we're about to see.
But there are several more regular extras. A new featurette is called Molls and Dolls: The Women of Gangster films, which clues us in that the Tough Guys marketing theme may have come about because there weren't enough bona fide gangster films to make a second Gangster box set. A radio show with Alice Faye and Robert Preston is included, as well as something new to the Warners discs, a studio party blooper reel called Breakdowns of 1940. These tend to be hilarious and un-P.C. and we applaud whoever sneaked them through the Warner Home Video legal department.
A big disappointment is Richard Schickel's audio commentary. He breezes through with maybe a half hour of viable stories on the stars and vague references to studio politics, and spends the rest of the time talking in generalities and telling us what we're seeing on screen. Schickel's a brilliant writer and an engagingly relaxed and articulate speaker (envy for that), but he doesn't take these commentaries very seriously. He makes no mention of the restored Frank Craven scenes. Perhaps Schickel just wasn't aware of them. It isn't like Warners' home video to ignore interesting stories like that -- even when they're controversial -- so I doubt that Schickel was asked to leave the subject alone.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
City for Conquest rates:
Supplements: Warner Night at the Movies 1940: Vintage newsreel, Oscar-nominated short Service with the Colors, classic cartoon Stage Fright. New featurette Molls and Dolls: The Women of Gangster Films; Breakdowns of 1940: studio blooper reel; Audio-only Bonus: 2/9/1942 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast; Commentary by Richard Schickel; Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 2, 2006
1. Kazan spent some of the 1930s as a Federally supported theater experimentalist. When his Googie character shows up as a bum, to be welcomed and helped by Danny and Mutt, it's as if he had wandered back to town after spending some time in a southern jail, or something.
2. Although this is probably a result of cramming too much story into too little running time. Peg's downfall is barely seen and many viewers may not be aware that she's debasing herself on a burlesque runway. The rape and Peg's general inability to stand up to Murray and defend her rights in the partnership seems to indicate that she lacks self-preservation qualities to back up her talent. For that matter, perhaps Murray really does carry her in the act ... is it all his skill and direction?
3. A note from "B", 7.04.06:
Dear Glenn: "In some ways 'City for Conquest' is like a big picture that Barton Fink might write, tossing all of his 30s Depression angst into a Hollywood salad."
Neither "Barton Fink" nor the Coen brothers have a fraction of the talent of the most insignificant technician who worked on City for Conquest.
This was the picture, per Cagney's memoirs, that put him off seeing his own pictures. The actor was an admirer of the Kandel novel and was excited about the production. He was very disappointed with the completed picture -- so much so that he wrote the author an apologetic note!
In Bosley Crowther's Sept. 1940 NY Times review of the movie, the reviewer mentions the framing material:
"...and just to give it a sort of soothing sublimity, it has Frank Craven, who lately did a similar job for Our Town, wandering around as a bum, turning up in the least expected spots, and passing philosophical
remarks about the sort of place New York is."
In the Times' cast list for the film, Craven is third-billed as "Old Timer." [The quotes are the Times'.]
Crowther also singles out Kazan: "Best of the supporting players is Elia Kazan, a Group Theatre boy, who does a gangster that would scare Eddie Robinson -- a cool, calculating stick of dynamite. We tremble to think what the Warners will coax out of this magnificent talent."
Anyway, as I regard the 4th of July in the way many people regard Thanksgiving, I wanted to drop you a line thanking you for all you do. You keep the flame pretty well. Best, Always. -- B.
4. A note from reader Allison Solow, 12.03.06:
Thank you for being the only source on the web to acknowledge what my husband and I saw last night when we watched City for Conquest -- that is, the framing device that has been restored after years of airing on local TV without the "Old-Timer" sequences.
While watching the opening on the Williamsburg Bridge (they show a sign before panning up), we were both stunned and wondered where this "new" footage came from. Not only was it hokey, it was also very poorly transferred to digital and jumped awkwardly. Did you notice DVD problems, too?
Every time the "Old-Timer" appeared, it felt intrusive and odd. He only integrated with the characters once -- when he scolded little Googie for stealing bread. Other than that, he's completely unexplained or unaccounted for.
I agree that Cagney may have had ambitions for this picture that he felt weren't realized. Still, as a Cagney fan, I love this old-fashioned wallow. Is it corny? Oh yes, especially when Arthur Kennedy goes off describing his symphony of the city, but what the hell! Thanks for your review. -- Allison Solow
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson