In Lady Killer (1933) Dan Quigley (Jimmy Cagney) a movie theater usher, gets fired and drifts into a life of petty crime with a gang of con men and their slinky, hardboiled gun moll, Myra, played by the incomparable Mae Clarke. On the lam from the police and the gang who betrays him, Dan flees to California where he ends up as an extra in the movies, and then, presto, he’s a high-living movie star.
Cagney and Clarke seem to be having a swell time making this movie, building on their partnership which started in The Public Enemy (1931) when Cagney smashed a grapefruit into Mae’s face, 41 seconds that, for better or worse, has given Mae, a great but emotionally fragile actress, Hollywood immortality.
Growing up on the tough streets of New York, Cagney’s friends were Jewish kids who taught the Irish lad their mother tongue. Thus, in this wonderful little comedy, Cagney unexpectedly tosses off some Yiddish which roughly translates as: “My ass is killing me.”
Tom’s old gang shows up in Hollywood with a little blackmail in mind. Mae languidly drapes herself on Cagney’s Art Deco bed fully expecting Cagney to tumble to her charms. But Cagney is having none of Mae’s old tricks. As he packs her bag, Mae Clarke idly plays with her split ends, certain she can handle this mug. It’s a wonderful little moment, a skilled actress at the height of her powers, projecting sexual confidence with a simple reaction shot — acting is reacting! — that tells us everything we need to know about Myra, a tough dame who’s made her way in life through trickery and charm, exploiting men’s weaknesses, which are legion and obvious.
But Cagney explodes the way only Cagney could explode; he grabs Myra by the hair and, cave-man style, drags her across the snow-white rug, tossing her out of his apartment.
In Featured Player, an Oral Biography of Mae Clarke by James Curtis, Clarke fondly recalls Cagney, Lady Killer, and explains how this bravura scene was played.
This was like being back on stage doing tricks. No, he [Cagney] knew how, and I knew he did. He told me, “When I get my hand on the top of your head and my fingers in your hair, you just reach up and grab my wrists with both hands and then as I walk away, you’ll pull yourself.” I pulled my own weight. He wasn’t pulling my hair at all, he was only resting there. So by holding onto his wrists, I went with him. It’s a good trick.”
A good trick made believable by superb acting.