City for Conquest (1940) – full review!
Directed by Anatole Litvak (The Snake Pit (1948) & Decision Before Dawn (1951)) this above average boxing drama features an all-star cast that includes James Cagney Ann Sheridan Frank Craven Donald Crisp Frank McHugh Arthur Kennedy George Tobias Jerome Cowan Elia Kazan (that’s right the future Oscar winning director – On the Waterfront (1954)) Anthony Quinn Lee Patrick and the list goes on including lesser knowns who were uncredited like Edward Gargan. John Wexley’s screenplay was based on Aben Kandel’s novel. Its ending should leave a tear in your eye.
Cagney plays a truck driver who was also a Golden Gloves boxing champ in his youth; Sheridan plays his girlfriend. Kennedy plays Cagney’s younger brother a composer-pianist whose classical work isn’t appreciated by anyone but his older brother. McHugh plays Cagney’s friend and co-worker Tobias another who also runs the gym where Cagney still boxes to stay in shape. Kazan plays another former kid from the neighborhood that Cagney & McHugh run into right after he’s gotten out of jail so they help him a little. Craven only has a small cameo as a street bum. When Kennedy’s scholarship is cut in half Cagney enters the ring for the first time in 5 years to make up the difference. He wins and impresses (an honest!) boxing manager Crisp but Cagney believes that all boxers end up punchy old men and declines Crisp’s offer to make a career of it.
Out on the town celebrating his win Cagney & friends go to a nightclub where Quinn is the dance master. Since Cagney doesn’t dance he lets Sheridan go with Quinn and the two win a dancing competition. With stars in her eyes Sheridan pursues her dream to become famous dancing with Quinn after she’s told Cagney he has no ambition ’cause he’s happy just being a truck driver. To impress and provide better for Sheridan Cagney visits Crisp who insists he can make Cagney champ if he’ll let him call the shots. Cagney agrees and makes progress steadily rising through the ranks until he’s within a fight or two of a title fight. He then insists that Crisp get him a chance to fight the champ so that he can win back Sheridan from her now famous dancing duo with Quinn. Though Crisp would rather wait he does what Cagney asks. Kazan now a big success as a gangster bets Cowan $50000 that his old pal Cagney will beat Cowan’s champ. Cagney loses the fight and his sight through dirty tricks by the champ and his manager in the ring. Kazan gets even with Cowan but then gets the surprise of his life.
That’s really just the film’s first half even though it makes a pretty good movie (if somewhat incomplete) by itself. The second half is comprised of Cagney’s struggle to be useful again which inspires his brother Kennedy to strive for his dream of one day playing at Carnegie Hall. Sheridan is made to feel responsible for Cagney’s condition by Crisp and then ends up rooming with Patrick when she leaves Quinn’s employ. The film’s sentimental endings (there are two really) are both tearjerking and satisfying.