Proof That It’s Pre-Code:

  • Well, our protagonist is a scumbag.
  • Titular Jimmy won’t fire people because he’s ‘doing his part’. USA! USA!
  • A wee bit o’ bigamy.
  • And that image above is the raciest thing here.

Ten minutes into Jimmy the Gent I began to sink into my chair. I hadn’t seen the movie before, but I’d seen a dozen just like it. Wise guy hero, tough as nails girl, villain who pretends not to be. Even Cagney’s hair looks familiar.

Some days I try to figure out what works in a movie for me and what doesn’t. I try to picture a film like water– flowing from one point to the other, liquid and free, sometimes deep, other times a trickle. Sometimes crystal clear, sometimes murky. Sometimes full of flotsam and debris. Sometimes full of sewage.

Jimmy the Gent fits in at the end there. It’s a film that sloshes around unpleasantly.

James Cagney stars as Jimmy, a huckster who finds heirs to fortunes. Yeah, this includes even when their technically wasn’t an heir– sometimes they “just pop up.” And after an opening montage consisting of rich people dying left and right, we know that business is good.

It’s even gotten the point that Jimmy can identify an ambulance’s siren and know which hospital it belongs to, but that brings him no pleasure. You see, his girl has run off and joined the competitor.

Well, he can't hear anything in this scene, but I'm sure you understand.

His girl is Bette Davis, who seems to have the worst goddamn luck when it comes to Pre-Code films (with the rare exceptions, the latter barely containing her). She’s run off and joined his rival, who does the same line of business only with a more posh touch. His rival’s company breaks for tea time.

Cagney begins to think that the posh angle is what Davis left him for, so he tries to class himself up. Nothing doing, he’s still a scumbag. So he soon decides to give up one ill-gotten check and Davis is back in his arms. Happily ever after.

God, okay, I can’t fault the performances. No one ever seems to find as much glee in malciousness than Cagney does, and it’s obvious that Bette Davis is aching to climb out of this picture. She’s just waiting for someone to throw a rope down from off screen. Allan Jenkins is the only actor who manages a laugh, and definitely caught my interest as someone I should write about in length sometime in the future– after all, he’s been in five movies I’ve reviewed already, but I haven’t even mentioned him yet. Next time I’ll try and get a picture better than the one above where he appears to be attempting to ride someone.

Now, for a real kick, check out this New York Times review of the film from when it was originally released. First, I’d like to apologize for not fitting the word “emolument” into this review. And, second, I like that they specify that Cagney doesn’t hit a woman in this picture. This is apparently because his use of a grapefruit in relation to Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy caused a huge outcry… which I suppose I’ll have to discuss a bit more when we get to that one.

Of course, if you ever try to put a grapefruit in Bette's face, don't expect to have an arm left afterwards.

What that review doesn’t specify and didn’t need to specify is that the film’s patriotic undertones are pretty consistent with Depression Era ideals– the wisecracking ace has both more smarts and a bigger heart than the guys at the top who look down at him. I don’t blame the film for having these values, but it’s just tiresome to see them so relentlessly beaten over the head here.

Over and over and over again. I really hope the next time I see a movie with this plot they think of something interesting to do with it.


Danny is a writer who lives with his lovely wife, adorable children, and geriatric yet yappy dog. He blogs at, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.


ralpheeb · April 30, 2014 at 9:27 pm

I totally agree. I could not even get past the first twenty minutes. Just not good..

    Danny · May 2, 2014 at 9:48 am

    It’s weird seeing a bad Cagney picture, but he’s just so damn grating in this one.

justjack · August 13, 2014 at 1:04 pm

I dunno. It started really strong, and then got weaker as the film went on, but even so, I think I still “like” it. Don’t tell me you didn’t laugh when Wallingham said, “I’ve tried so hard to make you…….really mine.”

The script is terrible, but the cast is outstanding, and when all is said and done, the Warner’s ethos [just] carries the day for me. Maybe if you think of it as sort of a 3 Stooges kind of movie–in other words, don’t worry about the plot, but revel in the characters–you can find a way to enjoy it?

    Danny · August 15, 2014 at 9:55 am

    No idea, man. This is one of the ones that I get flak for not liking, so maybe I’ll have to try it again with that mindset at some point.

Vidor · August 30, 2017 at 8:58 pm

Merna Kennedy has a small part in this one, one of Cagney’s secretaries. Best remembered as the female lead in Charlie Chaplin’s “The Circus”.

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