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The Warner Mob
With the Depression pushing the studio toward bankruptcy, Warner Brothers had to resort to crime—and crime paid so well that the company was able to recruit the toughest guys that ever shot up a sound stage.
December 1983 | Volume 35, Issue 1
They became America’s most wanted criminals. The studio called them Murderer’s Row.
The Public Enemy was, of course, the movie in which Cagney, as Tom Powers, spits beer into the face of a cowering bartender, Mae Clarke gets a grapefruit in the face, and Jean Harlow tries hard to act sophisticated. It is also the movie with one of the most chilling climaxes ever—the corpse of Tom Powers, bound like a mummy, crashes through his mother’s front door while the phonograph plays “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.” After The Public Enemy, screenwriters wrote specifically for Cagney’s personality. Kubec Glasmon and John Bright, who wrote the screenplay for The Public Enemy, were instructed by Zanuck to study Cagney’s mannerisms and make use of them in future films that would transcend the gangster genre. Like prospectors panning for gold, they sifted Cagney’s traits for useful nuggets. When it was discovered that this Irishman could speak Yiddish, they promptly wrote a scene into Taxi! (1932) to show off his linguistic abilities. Cagney’s dancing skills (acquired in vaudeville) were also exhibited: as the lead in Footlight Parade (1933), he showed that his hoofing was as expert and as idiosyncratic as his acting.
Cagney was a big money-maker for Warner, and he knew it. By staging a series of unprecedented walkouts, the star kept increasing his salary. By 1936 he was making $4,500 a week. That year, fed up with formula scripts and exhausted by the assembly-line pace, he found a loophole in his contract and left the studio—adding insult to injury, it is said, by cursing out Jack Warner in Yiddish. The former Jack Eichelbaum would not have been amused. Two years later the movie mogul chose to forget their differences and offered Cagney a mind-boggling $150,000 per picture to come back.
Cagney’s success at squeezing money out of Jack Warner may be attributed to his general nonchalance about his acting career. As he often reminded interviewers, it was just another job: “Acting is not the beginning and the end of everything.” That assertion placed him in marked contrast to John Garfield, for whom acting was the beginning and the end. Garfield saw himself as a stage actor and would never have joined the Warner Mob if he hadn’t been betrayed by his old gang in New York.
The studio removed the last shred of ethnicity from his name: Julius Garfinkle of the Bronx, who had been Jules Garfield on Broadway, now metamorphosed into John Garfield. He was promptly cast as Mickey Borden in Four Daughters. The character of Mickey might well have been Garfield himself: “His dress is shabby, but he is fortunate that his carelessness adds to his attractiveness. His manner is indolent, his expression wry, almost surly. His humor is ironic. When he smiles (which is seldom) his demeanor is sardonic. Mickey Borden doesn’t think well of himself or the world. Poverty has done the trick.” Garfield, who was always superb at playing Garfield, gave a stunning performance. The New York Times said his delivery was “so eloquent that we still aren’t sure whether it’s the dialogue or Mr. Garfield who is so bitterly brilliant.”
Garfield became a star with his first film. He had planned, he said, to return to the stage, but this sudden success was hard to throw aside. In an attempt to unite celebrity and integrity, Garfield inserted a clause into his new seven-year contract that allowed him to return to Broadway every other year. That clause (used only once) may have reassured him that he was still a serious actor, but to Jack Warner he was just a new commodity to be profitably exploited.
In the next two years Garfield starred in such second-rate gangster films as They Made Me a Criminal (directed for some reason by the choreographer Busby Berkeley), Castle on the Hudson (a carbon-copy remake of 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, which was produced a few years earlier), and East of the River. Garfield provided these trite melodramas with the color and drive they would otherwise have lacked, but he recognized their worthlessness—as did the critics.