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JAMES CAGNEY'S GRAND NATIONAL PICTURES 'GREAT GUY'


Great Guy 1936 Score: ***
GREAT GUY: Perhaps James Cagney left Warner Brothers for Grand National Pictures to change his image. After all, the first of two films is titled GREAT GUY, and in most of his previous ventures he's either a gangster, an endearing con artist or both. It's ironic that GREAT GUY didn't differ much from what he became famous for — only instead of conning or playing tricks on people he's protecting them as the new Chief Investigator for the Bureau of Weights and Measures...

Doesn't sound exciting on paper, but the first half makes use of Cagney's quick wit charm and especially his intrepid attitude as he cleverly reveals a crooked delicatessen and gas station for cutting and thus charging customers more money — during the Depression. The actual plot in a picture without much of one is connected to how he got the gig in the first place — the friend he replaced had been severely injured by mysterious thugs, so while cleaning up the city he's got them to contend with, all leading to a third act taking place almost entirely at an upper class society party, giving our man a chance to strut around in his usual devil-may-care rhythm to out-maneuver both intellectuals  and crooks.

The Grand National Logo: the big hand unveiling the leetters
But tough mug Joe Sawyer (THE KILLING) makes for a difficult bulwark. There are wild spurts of rat-a-tat dialogue with only a few punches pulled. And last but not least, the major difference between Grand National and Warner is the quality. If watching Cagney's films in order, you'll suddenly come across this duo hintered by grainy aesthetic and snapping, crackling audio.

But no matter how the screen looks in any of these older projects, and with fast-motion opening credit music straight out of an antique cartoon short, Cagney mesmerizes with the kind of spontaneity lacking in other actors of that era, and still remaining relevant in style and substance. And remember, not long before his reign there was nothing but Silent Films — until "modern" technology and actors like Jimmy Cagney put an end to that.
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