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Depression Lessons #9

James Cagney as chorus girl?!
Today’s Depression Lesson concerns chorus girl hunger.
Mabel wants to throw Minnie down a flight of stairs during the extended tap number. But put Mabel in a fedora in some greasy alley and call it hardboiled—art is born! Or at least “cinema history.” How else to describe that slyly overdetermined look in his eye? He’s the honeysuckle knuckle. Yes, James Cagney as chorus girl! The out-of-breath little bulldog, gnawing at the curtains. (He eats curtains for breakfast and shits thumbtacks.) Imploding/exploding rotating choreography, a screen presence momentarily in the shape of a tough guy—is he looking for trouble? Or the right shade of nail varnish? We can’t say for certain why in his personal life he did things like call his wife “Bill.” And yet, presence is legible… Sort of… Angry mincing ballerina steps as he circles his opponent. When Jimmy glims a beautiful dame, is he thinking about sex? Or wondering how he’d look in her cunning frock?
He turns the Kinsey Scale into a goddamned Möbius strip.
Mr. Twinkle Fists.
Bottom ponce with a pit bull stance.
Yes, on the spectrum of human sexuality, he was off the edge. But who was this unbroken hurricane against the crenulated fortress of mainstream consensus narrative? And why even now do his die-hard fans—gay, straight or what have you—resist the idea that James Cagney, America's greatest actor, was in no way "classic"? Are they fearful that, minus the baseline certainty of Cagney's tough-guy status, they themselves might suddenly evanesce?
"He just isn't, that's all."
Isn't what... the toughest street queen ever to bust out of the cansky?
Oh, yes, his every spasm lays waste to prison walls.
Movies are all people know—and Cagney's characters are Cagney. Well then, I say let's look closer at Jimmy's pre-Code incarnation. We have two—and only two—possible sources where history’s concerned. On the one hand, sanctioned mythology; on the other, reality-informed dispatches scribed by marginalized parties. (In essence, more truthful fantasies.)
Boundary-erasing fluidity flies under, around and over the censor’s dizzy bean. And therefore doesn’t register as “subversive.”
Walking, All Talking Freudianism. It went over our heads too. And so, amid a Hollywood product like 1932’s Taxi!, the unofficial story was written without readers to soak up this gay, Yiddish-speaking Irishman—wazzat?
Bits of comic business, playing fay for a laugh, was kidding on the square. We must now reinterpret the entire crime oeuvre of 30's 'noir' as performance art by a lavender gang, brought forth by the irresistible light of film itself to an audience not yet born.

Part of our on-going series Depression Lessons.

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