|Sue Riley Nolan
George E. Stone
|Released by Warner Brothers | Directed By Roy Del Ruth
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- If you’ve ever wanted to see a woman get slapped around, well, you’re messed up. But this movie has it in spades.
- Loretta Young undresses in a completely shoed in way.
Taxi!: Life During (And After) Wartime
“I feel like being bored and you do the job better than anybody I know.”
Today is my second wedding anniversary. It’s probably not something that sounds wholly relevant to a movie called Taxi! as neither of us ever got involved in a paid motorized transportation, but that’s because the heart of the movie isn’t really in taxi drivers– it’s the story of one of those guys in the front seat in New York City, his life and troubles. Specifically in terms of his troubles is his wife, who thinks he should cool his temper a bit.
But that temper may be well earned in a city that seems determined to crush an independent taxi driver like Mike Nolan (James Cagney). The movie opens with a major taxi syndicate, cheerfully named Consolidated, deciding it’s time to put the city’s independent taxi drivers out of business by force. They wreck the cars of anyone who stands up to them and even a few who are just minding their own business. Their cruelest target is Pop Riley (Guy Kibbee), a rotund Irishman who’s worked his corner for years. The syndicate, led by Buck Gerard (the always ominous David Landau), orders Riley’s taxi wrecked. He retaliates with the only power he’s got– unloading a revolver into the bully’s back.
Papa Riley’s daughter, Sue, doesn’t take it too well, especially after her father dies in jail after the incident. Nolan, who’d been advocating retaliation by the independent cab owners, is blindsided when she instead takes the stand in front of the gathered cabbies and begs them to settle their fight. Mike is infuriated, but her plea works and soon the war between the cabbies is settled peacefully. The battle, however, continues to shape their lives well after Riley is put in his grave.
Mike and Sue bristle at first, but soon find themselves on a date to go see a movie. It’s a Warner Brothers picture, naturally, but it’s snoozer romance with those melodramatic romantic pronouncements. Sue marvels as the leading man plants a kiss. Mike sneers, “You call that making love?” and lands a big one on her. She shakes him off, but can’t hide her sense of amusement at his ploy.
This is probably the best moment in the movie as it’s the most heartfelt, detached from the early and later scenes of violence and heartbreak. Using a stodgy, imaginary Warner Brothers film as a counterpoint for Cagney’s own sex appeal is an inspired touch, and Young’s reaction sells it. In crafting this scene in a movie theater (mimicking where everyone watching Taxi! in 1932 surely would be themselves sitting), the movie uses Cagney’s kiss to show how Sue and Mike’s love is more real than the movies. Which is a funny implication for a movie, but that’s part of Taxi’s charm: it’s just as cocky as Cagney himself.
And it’s Cagney that makes Taxi! so remarkable. Still a young star after the recent blockbuster success of The Public Enemy, he’s clearly trying out all of the angles of his screen persona. He’s a wiseacre, sure, but a wiseacre who can speak Yiddish, do a nice soft shoe, and freely express his emotions, from rage to grief. One scene in the movie, as Cagney cries over his dead brother, is probably the most jarring to modern audiences used to ‘action movie masculinity’. Rather than shed a single tear of anger and grief or getting down on both knees and shouting ‘no’ to the heavens while rain pours down, Cagney’s character just bawls. He buries his head in Sue’s shoulder and she grasps him; it’s intimate and deeply honest.
That speaks well to the beginning and middle sections of Taxi which tries its damnedest to capture the New York Irish-Catholic experience during those early days of the Depression. The Irish, then often considered as undesirables (which is a polite way of putting to be frank), were stuck on the lowest rung of the social ladder, in crap buildings and crummy jobs. This situation has clearly had its effects on Mike, who’s quick to pick a fight over even minor offenses. This drives Sue nuts since his behavior as a giant child doesn’t exactly make it easy for them to assimilate. On the way to the courthouse for their wedding license, Mike even punches in the hat of the man issuing the licenses. Not the best idea.
Mike’s temper eventually leads to the hot water she’d feared when a fight between him and Gerard (after Gerard implies that he knocked up Sue out of wedlock) results in Mike’s brother’s untimely death. This is where the sobbing kicks in and the film threatens to go off the rails. Because, while Cagney can do a mean sob, he’s also a mean S.O.B. (I’m ashamed of that sentence, too, don’t worry.) He refuses to name the killer to the police, preferring instead to hunt Gerard himself and execute revenge as only a brother can.
Sue is naturally opposed to Mike’s hellbent quest to become a murderer himself, and when Gerard’s girlfriend, Marie (Dorothy Burgess), pleads with her for the money to help Gerard escape the country, Sue obliges. Upon learning that Sue has given the money he’d saved for his dead brother’s tombstone to the man who murdered him, he slaps her. She pulls a gun on him, and he develops a frightening smile; he knows it’s unloaded.
I’ve heard accusations of misogyny leveled at Taxi before and, well, yeah, I can see it. While older movies for the most part used spousal abuse as an instant villain marker just as they’re apt to do today, rampant misogyny was undoubtedly a part of Cagney’s early screen persona. From the grapefruit in The Public Enemy to the hair pulling in Lady Killer, Cagney’s ability to tow the line between abuse and slapstick made him wholly unique. But there’s no playfulness in the slaps in Taxi; Sue’s betrayal creates real anger and frustration, making the abuse from Cagney, like much of Taxi, towing that thin line between uncontrollable anger and romantic hope.
There’s also the matter of Sue’s best friend, Ruby, a woman whose droning voice and long winded stories could kill unsuspecting insects. She’s particularly unappealing, especially when the point to all of her stories seem to be about these guys who’ve ditched her over the years for doing exactly what she’s doing as she describes it. The only bright spot to her character is Skeets, Mike’s cabbie buddy who is completely corralled by her. In the same way that Mike dominates Sue, Ruby pushes Skeets around.
So with Cagney taking off in his taxi towards an almost certain fate and Sue racing behind to try and stop him, Taxi careens a bit from the intimate story of two people who try and must survive in spite of their worst tendencies to the story of one man’s revenge that feels just as cliched as those action movies I poked fun at a few paragraphs ago.
The film’s finale is egregiously pre-Code, with Cagney’s character emptying a gun into the closet where he knows Gerard is holed up right in front of the gathered police. Of course, Mike can’t kill Gerard and still escape to the film’s happy ending, so the police instead burst open the door to find that Gerard slipped and fell while trying to escape through a window, tumbling to his death. Since ‘attempted murder’ isn’t in the film’s playbook, Mike’s shooting spree goes unpunished.
The marriage between Mike and Sue is dissolved, at least temporarily, until he comes back and asks for her forgiveness. On one hand, he’s a brute who almost murdered someone and destroyed their lives… and it really seems like he hasn’t learned his lesson. On the other hand, you know, he seems to be a pretty decent guy besides that. It speaks well to Cagney’s ability to project both raw anger and sweetness that Mike comes across as even remotely endearing in the film’s finale, and it’s a tribute to Loretta Young that she can make Sue into such a wide eyed optimist throughout the movie, even after all the bad shit she’s been through.
While not one of Warner’s message movies like The Mayor of Hell or Heroes for Sale, it still spoke to the studio’s mantra to make movies for the people no one else was making movies for. It’s about the little guy versus the big guy and the problems of anger versus love. It’s a romance without being romantic, in a world set out to crush people like them because of who they are and how they make a living under the boot of a flailing capitalist system. Taxi!, in its own weird way, is the true Great Depression fairytale.
Hover over for controls.
Trivia & Links
- Taxi! is apparently the origin of one of Cagney’s most famous(ly misquoted) lines, as he yells at Gerard, “you dirty, yellow-bellied rat!”
- The film-in-a-film, Her Hour of Love, was made up for Taxi, with Donald Cook and Evelyn Knapp filming their scenes with preexisting costumes and sets. I can’t say I was too surprised when I heard this– was Donald Cook ever leading man material? Cook had starred with Cagney in The Public Enemy while Knapp had been with him in Smart Money. The marquee on the theater also advertises Five Star Final which starred the other big Warner Brothers gangster-actor (who had actually headlined Smart Money since this whole bullet point is a giant ‘six degrees’ thing), Edward G. Robinson.
- Glenn Erickson, the DVD Savant, notes about Cagney:
James Cagney seems to have a lifetime of energy and vitality at his disposal, and his screen persona projects charm aplenty. More than any other actor, Cagney personifies the enterprising, fighting spirit that would hopefully pull the country out of the Depression.
- Ferdy on Films talks about the film’s social undertones in delectable detail:
In an unusual tip of the hat to realism, an early scene has Matt listening to a Jew speak in Yiddish to an uncomprehending Irish cop. Cagney went to school with Jews and was fluent in the language. When he cuts in to the conversation and susses out what the man wants, he says to the man in Yiddish, “Did you think I was a gentile?” and replies to the cop’s skeptical question, “Nolan! What part of Ireland did you come from?” with a Yiddish-inflected, “Delancey Street,” a street Jews settled when they came to New York. At the time this film was made, Jews and Irish shared a similar experience as working-class immigrants who were near the lowest rung of American society, and as such, they were often paired in movies to suggest a social milieu audiences would identify immediately. With a plot built around the plight of the independent worker in a society that was fixed to favor big business, this suggestion of working-class solidarity would have driven home the social message with the subtlety that distinguishes this film and makes it relevant today.
- One last film connection for you: George E. Stone, who plays Skeets in this movie, would later play Toothpick Charlie in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. His death in that film is ordered by, you know it, George Raft.
- Greenbriar Picture Show talks a lot about Cagney’s charm and abilities (for good reason) and then explains one of the film’s lines that could easily get missed:
Precode speakers had this way of making ordinary language sound profane. Or was it ordinary? Case in Taxi! point: James Cagney refers to one guy as a “wet smack,” sneering that off as though it were basest obscenity. I don’t recall any wet smacks cropping up after PCA enforcement took hold in mid-1934, so why was that? Turns out there was good reason for the banishment, “wet smack” being British slang for masturbation, and a pretty commonly known, if not widely used term (for obvious reasons) in the UK. Movies here have commonly dealt words a lot heavier freighted over there … “bum” and “shag” come to mind. I’ve tried finding what “wet smack” meant in US utterance when Taxi! and precode thrived — did Cagney and WB scribes figure it for a sex barb as did the Brits?
Awards, Accolades & Availability
Comment below or join our email subscription list on the sidebar!