Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'Jimmy the Gent' (1934)

The title character of Jimmy the Gent is, of course, no gentleman, but I found it a little tough to take him as the charming rogue he's clearly meant to be. As Jimmy, James Cagney lays on his tough-guy accent so think that it's often hard to understand him, delivering every line with over-the-top smarminess and sleaze. At first he seems like the movie's antagonist, an unscrupulous businessman who tracks down unclaimed inheritances and directs them to their proper recipients, taking a healthy commission along the way, and not worrying too much if the money is actually going to the right person. Davis plays Joan, his former associate and former girlfriend, who now works for a more distinguished competitor, and is trying to distance herself from her criminal past.

Jimmy engages in every underhanded tactic he can think of to steal Joan back from her new employer (who soon becomes her new paramour as well), including launching an extremely convoluted scheme to claim an inheritance on behalf of a man who's wanted for murder (it involves several quickie wedding ceremonies). Jimmy's slimeball persistence is neither funny nor endearing, and Davis' typical sharp-tongued, no-nonsense presence makes Joan into someone who obviously shouldn't take any of this guy's shit. Her new beau turns out not to be much better, but Jimmy's scheme to expose his rival is hardly ethical or selfless, and when he takes Joan back in his arms at the end of the movie, it's only as the result of more illegal activity.

The retrograde gender politics of movies from the '30s are not exactly unexpected, and I'd be more forgiving if the rest of the movie were more entertaining or funny. But the plot is so haphazard and convoluted that it's distracting, and the humor is manic and broad (although I did like Alice White as Jimmy's dim-witted but chipper accomplice). Jimmy and his rival go to great lengths to sabotage each other while Joan, clearly smarter than either of them, ends up a pawn in their schemes. At the end, the winner takes the prize, another woman reduced to a trophy for men to fight over.

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