What is it about? : Safecracking ex-con Flicker Hayes double crosses the gang and goes on the run to sleepy fishing village Santa Avila. With him is Rose Lawrence, a down on her luck girl who wants to put her past behind her and marry simple fisherman Nick and settle down. As the mobsters approach, Rose finds herself attracted to Flicker and having second thoughts about the wedding.
The Call Sheet : James Cagney, Joan Blondell and Victor Jory, with Frank Craven, Sarah Padden, Harold Huber, Russell Hopton and John Qualen
Behind the Camera : Directed by Lloyd Bacon, Screenplay by Tom Buckingham and Niven Busch, Cinematography by George Barnes, Art direction by Anton Grot.
Snapshot Thoughts : He Was Her Man is one of the last gasps of the pre-code era, sneaking in mere months before the Hays Code came into effect. As a result we see a lot of the usual tropes of what we know as pre-code cinema, though played with perhaps slightly less conviction and perhaps a hint of uneasiness. James Cagney, as Flicker Hayes is a largely unlikable character who wrestles with his own smugness for most of the movie as to whether he should let Joan Blondell’s Rose into his life or just use her like he does everyone else. It all plays out with a muted sense of doom and downbeat realism that would all but vanish within the next year. As ever, the characters are not so clean cut, with everyone having some sort of shame or compromise in their closet. Flicker is a criminal so low that he double crosses his fellow gangsters for his own amusement then runs away to avoid the consequences. Throughout the movie he uses the people around him to protect himself, and even when his noble side emerges it’s linked to his self preservation. Rose, for all her dreams of married respectability, met her prospective husband while selling her body to make a living. She flatly states. he was “a guy in town for a good time. The bellhop introduced us. Figure it out for yourself”. It’s the chance of escaping her past and present, rather than love or commitment that pushes her toward marriage. Even the one supposedly good character in the movie, fisherman Nick is not without fault. Most glaringly, if he is such a pious hard working family man (he even lives with his mother) why was he visiting ladies of ill repute in cheap hotels? The whole sorry situation just adds up to a portrayal of a broken society, crippled by the Depression with lonely people desperate for any sort of comfort or solace in the darkness. It’s the drama between the principle characters that provides the most interest in the movie, alongside the timing of the film’s release, and the muted performances of the leads, giving He Was Her Man the nostalgic glow of the end of an era. It would be a long time before movies would be as adult as this.
Star Performances : Despite putting in a committed performance, James Cagney just isn’t displaying his usual magic in this movie, so the star performance honours have to go to Joan Blondell. It must have been difficult to be one of James Cagney’s leading ladies as he’s such a force of nature, an unstoppable firecracker of movement on the screen that it was difficult for anyone to keep up with his electric presence. Joan Blondell, probably more than anyone got as near to being his perfect screen partner, complementing his hyperactivity either with a peppy energy of her own or by a simple look of big eyed charm. They appeared together in seven films, of which sadly this is the seventh. Despite working together so often and having an obvious chemistry they are rarely thought of as one of the great movie partnerships. Great screen partnerships require a give and take and a sense of equality but when working alongside Cagney, I’d imagine just trying to keep up was the main concern. Overall, I’m not a massive fan of Joan’s more restrained performances (of which this is one), as her big eyes and round face give way to a kind of lost puppy dog look that gets a bit wearing. For example, in Union Depot the initial promise of her world weary character gives way to just standing around in the later parts of the movie. She just seems more comfortable playing a character that does something about her problems, rather than submissively giving in to them. She plays a similar sort of role in He Was He Man but thankfully she has a bit more to do and she manages to make the most of what was probably on paper another world weary victim role. She certainly saves the part by injecting bursts of emotion in key scenes and her simmering passion and confusion ensures she is just as much a focal point as Cagney. Though in the end, it’s so difficult to criticise a Joan Blondell performance as she’s just so likeable, and this movie despite its flaws is no different.
James Cagney puts in a good performance despite playing a quieter and more restrained version of his usual screen persona. He skilfully runs a fine line between making the audience identify with Flicker as the hero of the movie whilst reminding us that he is not to be trusted. As the movie progresses and we naturally expect him to soften, Cagney’s use of body language and facial expressions keep us on our guard. Even in a comparatively minor film in his canon he gives a master class in screen acting. There really is no such thing as a lazy Cagney performance, he can never be accused of phoning it in. Other notables in the cast include Frank Craven as a duplicitous informant, Harold Huber and Russell Hopton as a convincingly mean pair of hit men and regular John Ford character actor John Qualen in a charming part (and one that for once doesn’t require him to be Swedish!) as a taxi driver. If you are particularly eagle eyed you can also see Billy West, former silent screen comedian and Chaplin impersonator in a one line part. I always get a kick out of seeing Hollywood veterans, all with storied careers of their own appearing in small parts in studio movies. Billy West doesn’t do or say much, but it was nice to see him get a pay cheque.
Technical Excellences: Actually not much to recommend in terms of technical innovation. As ever, Lloyd Bacon turns in a solid job at directing (is there such a thing as a badly directed Lloyd Bacon movie?) but in this case there’s not much to set He Was Her Man out from the crowd. There are some nice locations used in the film, shot in Monterey, California but even they are not used to their full potential. Rather than the fishing village seeming like a safe place hidden away from the outside world, it merely looks like any other Hollywood coastal location. So all in all, a solid yet uninspiring job done behind the camera. In fact, there was so little to inspire visually that I actually got a bit excited when there was a screen wipe used. I like screen wipes.
The Sublime: Joan Blondell’s character, Rose spends the first half of the movie supposedly torn emotionally over whether to marry the kind and dependable fisherman Nick, who she doesn’t really know or love, or flashy criminal Flicker, who she finds herself growing more attracted to. As a result of this mental confusion, and also the fact that the part is woefully underwritten, she doesn’t really do much other than do her best to look worried. The problem is, due to the script we are never too sure what she is thinking. She could be wondering who she really loves or worrying whether she left a pie in the oven; it’s all a bit vague. Thankfully there is a wonderful scene late in the movie where everything becomes clearer, and more importantly you can see that Joan Blondell, far from her usual bright and breezy screen persona has the acting ability to not only overcome poor material but also to convey great emotional depth. In order to save her from the two hit men, Flicker decides to tell her he was using her all along and was never going to take her with him when he left (which isn’t too far from the truth). The scene is played in medium shot, with the reaction from Joan (mournfully stating “I understand…I understand everything") in close up. In her close ups, Joan Blondell gives an unbelievably intense stare that conveys her hurt, disappointment and acceptance all at once. He leaves and she stands alone in the house, completely broken but managing to convey a sense of release also. She picks up her suitcase and makes her way back to her room. It’s one of the best bits of acting I’ve seem Joan do, at once vulnerable and tragic yet tinged with the inevitability of it all. Of course, the fact that Flicker has just unknowingly saved her life adds meaning to scene but she plays it beautifully. It seems that at about the time she made the movie, Joan was going through quite a lot of pretty heavy stuff in her own life, and perhaps her trials added to the emotional experience she could draw on for the scene.
The Ridiculous: The movie is played straight and as such everyone gives solid performances, and the script though under developed is treated with reverence. The only vaguely ridiculous member of the cast is the one residing on James Cagney’s top lip. Yes, Cagney sports an anaemic moustache in this movie and it’s...er distracting to say the least. He just looks so odd with facial hair, there’s an inherent wrongness to it. Like a clean shaven Clark Gable or Ronald Colman, or an unshaven Cary Grant, it’s just not right seeing Cagney with a moustache. It changes him from a no nonsense tough guy to a slightly oily con man (which is perhaps the point). Maybe it did suit the part, or maybe Warren William wasn’t available. Who can say?.
Is it worth watching? He Was Her Man is a very entertaining film despite its flaws. On one hand it’s the epitome of a solidly made B picture from a studio like Warners in the pre-code era. Star driven, with a fast pace and short running time, it does its job of diverting the attention from everyday matters. The plot, while fairly slight, has a genuinely surprising resolution which keeps you guessing (and just when you wonder what’s going to happen at the end, it suddenly becomes all about ice cream! Really!) Visually and artistically it’s nothing out of the ordinary, yet the whole effect is eminently satisfying. In my very first blog post a few years ago, I talked about how I was more interested in the films that slip through the cracks of the well known film star filmographies. He Was Her Man is exactly that, a solid James Cagney and Joan Blondell film that never gets talked about, by a director that never gets talked about. Not great, and by no means bad, just entertainment in its purest form. If you want to see such a movie, and find who indeed was her man, this one is for you.
Random Quote: “Deus Meus! I forget the ice cream! It will melt!”