This post is part of the Breaking News: Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon. A complete list of all the bloggers participating in this event can be found at Comet Over Hollywood and Lindsay's Movie Musings.
"There are only two kinds of newspapermen--those who try to write poetry and those who try to drink themselves to death. Fortunately for the world, only one of them succeeds." - Ben Hecht (who ought to know)
In the opening and closing moments of Come Fill the Cup (1951) the camera pulls back from a sign showing seven neon dwarfs trudging merrily up a hill carrying casks of "Kentucky's Finest Whiskey." The presence of this sign opposite the pulsing city room of a newspaper underlines the pervasiveness of alcohol in the world of this film. The managing editor (played by Larry Keating, looking more dyspeptic than usual), oblivious to the sign outside his window, gruffly instructs a hesitant copy boy to clean out Lew Marsh's desk, once and for all. Going about his duties with chagrined resignation, the copy boy is brought up short when Marsh (James Cagney). the ace reporter for the Sun Herald, exits the elevator with a stiff gait that is carefully calculated to mask his inebriation. "Why so grim, Robby? Life isn't real. Life isn't earnest" says the older man to the lad with a gentle smile. Marshaling his forces, the reporter propels himself forward to his desk, determinedly typing out the lead "All the dead were strangers."
His editor, Julian (Keating), grimly pulls the sheet out of the typewriter, telling his reporter to forget it-- that story is dead. "Are you crazy? A plane crashes into a mountain. Forty people are dead and you say the story.." stammers the reporter. "That plane crash was five days ago," Julian sighs.
"What do you suppose happened to those five days?" Marsh asks, stunned and visibly smaller as he slumps in his chair. "You'll have to find out on your own time, Lew. You're fired."
This is the crackerjack beginning of a film that has not, I suspect, been seen by most viewers for decades nor, as far as I know, has it received a commercial release on DVD, a legal puzzle that invites further research. It is not a perfect movie, but it might have been a great one, and features a tantalizing, mature performance from Cagney that could have been more worthy of the man's remarkable talent. As it is, the movie offers a glimpse into a corner of human experience that was often masked in shadow in society during the period when the film was made.
All occupations have rituals, myths, and shibboleths that they share with members of their profession. We long for a tribe to belong to. In modern life that tribe is often found at work. So some of us wish each other a broken leg when beginning a shift, others get tattoos to show their solidarity in the emotional foxhole we call "work," and many speak a jargon all their own. With a specialized class like reporters, made up so often in the past by self-styled reprobates and rebels, the worship of John Barleycorn was once a central part of their ethos. A reporter's irregular hours, the haunting of gin mills in search of news--especially during Prohibition--and a belief that a shot of rye or a glass of beer made the tongue looser and the muse of journalism more inclined to smile were circumstances that contributed to this ritualized habit. In classic movies, it seems that these seasoned wise guys have seen too much of life; know too much they can't tell; and have had to pound out too many glib words too quickly. No wonder they drink.
The newshounds' love for the liberating taste of booze is a story element in films from Gentlemen of the Press (1929) to The Paper (1994) and beyond. While nothing so foolish or simple-minded as Prohibition has been tried in the real world since the '30s, society as a whole is drinking a bit less than it once did (in part because of more awareness of addiction and because there is a broader vista of reality-altering substances available). Liquid lunches went the way of carbon paper in most newsrooms and offices around the time that MADD emerged and the tax man began to look askance at midday meal write-offs on expense accounts. The two-fisted drinker of movie journalism past is now a rarer bird in real life, if not yet an endangered species. There's no accurate telling if today's reporters, coping with an industry facing the closures of papers and across the board cuts, might be tempted to take a nip now and again--but the charm of imbibing on the clock has lost its burnish, making films such as Come Fill the Cup all the more engaging.
Rather than simply celebrate the lively social lubricant that booze can be, as it often was too blithely depicted in movies of the studio era, Come Fill the Cup (1951) focused on the after-effects of all that forced gaiety and liquid courage on an individual--at least in the first half of its 152 minutes. The movie also bends enough ethical rules of "good journalistic practice" to make the Columbia Journalism Review wince...and perhaps smile fondly as we gaze back on the halcyon days when newspapers were the public's vital link to what was happening on the street as well as a sometimes tawdry but highly entertaining medium. Entertaining that is, if you were not a zealot for accuracy or objectivity.
Coming six years after Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945) broke new ground by taking drinking seriously, this Warner Brothers film was directed by the largely unsung but often effective Gordon Douglas, (Them!, The Detective, Between Midnight and Dawn, Chuka, and many more) and the black and white scenes in this movie were beautifully captured by cinematographer Robert Burks' camera work. The story was inspired by real life elements and a new consciousness about the issue of alcoholism in the wake of the war, new methods of treatment such as Alcoholics Anonymous, and a general shift in attitudes toward booze. The movie is at its best when dealing with the struggle of drinkers grappling with their demons, following Lew Marsh's journey through the dark night of his soul.
This movie material was, in characteristic Warner Brothers' fashion, "torn from the headlines." The studio bought the dramatic story from Cagney friend, writer Harlan Ware. Crafted into a screenplay by White Heat collaborators Ben Roberts and Ivan Goff, the film was based on the life of the editor of the Hearst-owned Los Angeles Herald Examiner from the '30s to the '50s, James H. Richardson. A legend among his peers, Richardson is remembered today as a gutsy newsman who baited Bugsy Siegel, once fielded a phone call from someone involved in The Black Dahlia mystery that sent a shiver up his spine, and was uncommonly determined "to get someone to spill his guts" when it came to big cases covered by the paper. Richardson also reportedly had what was known as "a hollow leg."
|Above: Jim Richardson of the Los Angeles Examiner.|
Cagney, whose blistering performance in White Heat (1949) had gone largely unheralded by critics and the industry while making big bucks for the studio, had entered the new decade still looking for a role that might satisfy his desire to play a more nuanced human being, closer to his private self. He had seen his attempts to shake off the gangster image continually frustrated, even though performances in his own productions, such as Johnny Come Lately (1943) and The Time of Your Life (1948), had met with less than enthusiastic popular and critical acclaim. Perhaps he saw this project as a chance to blend his kinetic energy, sardonic outlook, and intelligence into a recognizable human being on screen at last. The bittersweet memories of his own days as a copy boy on a New York newspaper, and the sometimes futile attempts to escape ourselves may also have colored his approach to the character he created in this story.
Soon after his dismissal, Cagney's character is lingering at the bar across the street from work and soaking his self-disgust and regret in 100 proof. The reporter's girl, Paula Arnold, follows him there to comfort and confront him. Phyllis Thaxter, giving feminine angst and prim, well-dressed gentility a bad name in her flat performance as the woman's page editor and love interest, is not a match for Cagney physically, emotionally, or chronologically (Cagney was 52 and the refined Thaxter was two decades younger than her leading man). In other roles, this actress was effective, but watching her performance here, I kept imagining the glorious resonance that an Ida Lupino or Ann Sheridan might have brought to this part. Those were dames who made me believe they could make it in a man's world like the press room. Struggling to find the right words, Paula offers her sincere, naive belief that with her help, and possibly a home they could build together, he could lick his addiction to alcohol.
Go away, he tells her. "Find a healthy young man with a spine all the way up." Paternalistic, world-weary, a bit superior, and longing to loosen his ties to this last, loving connection to someone associated with the boundaries of "normal life," Marsh does the kindest and most expedient thing to rebuff her. He bristles a bit when she mentions home. "Home, home? Don't you realize, I am home," he contends, as he gestures with a drink in his hand to the dim surroundings, long bar, and comforting rows of bottles. The only companion who brings out the wordsmith in him, apart from the glass in front of him, is a bartender, as he speaks truthfully and philosophically to his undemanding companion, Al (Oliver Blake) in this scene:
Shaking and belligerent as he cadges a shot of rye, an inhuman, guttural moan emerges from his throat as he raises a drink to his lips. He staggers out into the street after his offer to sweep up and clean glasses for another shot is rejected with a contemptuous laugh by the barkeep. Unsteady, but focused on that next shot of booze, he stumbles into a lean whippet of man on the street (Jimmy Gleason) mumbling a request for a quarter from him. Marsh wobbles away and collapses in the street once the man acknowledges that he knows what he is going through while pressing a quarter in his hand. In the most obvious (and laughable) bit of irony in the film, as he lies in the street, Lew is almost crushed under the wheels of a Sun Herald delivery truck that screeches to a halt inches short of his fallen form on the pavement.
A stint in a drunk ward of a hospital follows, with Marsh suffering the tortures of the damned while strapped in bed as he dries out, surrounded by others in various states of distress. Leaving the hospital many weeks later, the chastened man vows not to return, even though the realist in him understands his doctor's reluctance to believe him fully. Cagney, seated on a bed and looking up with his head cocked to the side as he discusses his chances with the medico, has a touching simplicity. In this somber but hopeful moment he conveys a taciturn grace and wariness, reminding me how often this electric, "tough guy" actor's quieter moments in movies conveyed so much vulnerability in past performances, particularly in wordless sequences (i.e. The Roaring Twenties, The Strawberry Blonde, Each Dawn I Die, City for Conquest). [Small wonder that one of the first times the actor received an accolade in print was from no less than Algonquin wit Robert Benchley, who once wrote a paean to Cagney's work during a ten minute interval on stage in the 1925 stage production of Maxwell Anderson's "Outside In" when the young performer spoke no lines, but held the audience in the palm of his expressive hand].
The eloquence of Cagney's performance in these scenes was not merely an actor's imagination. Just as the hitching of his trousers and characteristic squirming shrug and sniff was drawn from hoodlums he had known in the rough areas of NYC, his knowledge of alcoholism was experienced first hand, as he revealed in a 1956 interview, when he described how he had watched his father's demise at age 43 in 1918 after a long struggle against the drink. Stints in hospitals, including one time when young Jim had to sign a commitment order for his gentle, dipsomaniac father to Blackwell's Island insane asylum, were part of his youth. "Because my father ran a saloon, my whole family had a fix against booze. Booze was the heavy in our house--the evil that lived with us." When his mother, who was pregnant with his sister Jeanne Cagney and already had four boys to raise had to have her husband committed, only to have him die after a two day nightmarish end, she reportedly pleaded with her eldest son, "But will someone please tell me in God's good name what else I could have done?" Naturally these intensely harrowing family memories informed his work from then on, something that must have been part of the character he wove into this film. While the scenes of degradation are compelling as enacted by Cagney, his nuanced depiction of the man's chronic tension after he becomes a sober, "dry drunk" is also tinged with a realism familiar to anyone who has lived with this issue in their lives.
Emerging tentatively from the hospital into the outside world, Lew Marsh encounters Charley Dolan, the thin older man who spoke to him with compassion on the street, beautifully played with terse sensitivity by veteran character actor Jimmy Gleason. Reminding him that he rode in the ambulance with him, he explains that they are both members of a big club and takes him home to share his spare but neat tenement flat. Asking Marsh what made him decide to dry out this time, Cagney explains that he heard a kind of whirring sound all around him as he lay in the street, threatening to envelope him. It was unlike anything he had experienced before. Flop houses couldn't do it, losing his job or his girl didn't make him stop drinking, but it was a sound that got him, he confesses. "Angel feathers," Charley calmly explains. "Lots of fellas quit 'the club' when they hear it."
Interestingly, the bond between Lew and Charley, who are both aware of an unopened bottle of scotch as a "quart of conscience" kept deliberately in the kitchen cupboard as a reminder of their struggle, is far more compelling than the more conventional relationship presented in this film between Lew and Paula. The two actors play these roommates and reformed drunks with obvious relish, investing their sometimes teasing, often tense exchanges with an affectionate intensity that makes the two of them the emotional center of this film. I longed to see more of their domestic life as roommates. Initially, the pair work side by side on a construction crew, losing themselves in hard work that sweats out much desire to stray, making them too exhausted to look for trouble anyway.
After Marsh is sorely tempted to crack open the scotch when he spies a headline trumpeting Paula's marriage to the newspaper owner's nephew, Charley suggests that it is time that Lew "do what he was born to" by taking up his reporter's pencil again. He proposes working with his brain at last, not just his hands. Yet it isn't just the fact of his former love's marriage that has shaken Marsh. "Who are we kidding, who are we kidding?!" cries Lew. "I wanted a drink before I saw the paper. There is never a minute I don't want a drink...right now, I could lie under a Niagara of whiskey and guzzle it dry. And tomorrow be back in the gutter." Concerned, his roommate finds a way to intercede with the management without his knowing it. A small job offer eventually comes from the newspaper, now that Marsh "has taken the waters."
Lew, in a rapid turnaround accompanied by one of Warner Brothers' beloved montages of whirling headlines marking the passage of time, begins anew, finding a way to "bury himself in the job" just as he once did in a bottle. His friend Charley remains concerned, especially since there is little else to occupy his mind and hands when his roommate is away from the news room. The pair will remain roommates, though Charley, silently observing his friend (and eventually employer) away from the hubbub of work at home, warns him repeatedly of the tightrope he is treading as he paces around their new, more comfortable apartment.
In one outburst that Gleason makes into a small symphony of well-played emotional ping-pong with his scene partner, Charley blurts out, "One of these days you're gonna explode, Lew. I been around a long time. Seen the elephant and burnt the owl. I know what goes on inside. It tears me apart to see you coming in here night after night with the screaming meemies. Edgy, all wound up, still fighting the same old battle." Duly noted, comments Marsh to Charley, without promising any change in his hard-driving, work-centric manner. Watching the skilled and natural interactions of this pair, I was struck--not for the first time--that Hollywood took such character actors as James Gleason for granted for far too long. I believe that his work in this movie ought to have earned him at least a nomination from the Academy Awards.
One irony of this scene is that, despite the pleasure of watching Cagney and Gleason working so deftly together, in the original story by Harlan Ware, Charley Dolan was an African-American. Cagney, well aware of the racism he had seen in Vaudeville and Hollywood, was earnestly interested in seeing this cast as the author intended, giving a Black actor a chance for a substantive role. Unfortunately, according to screenwriters Roberts and Goff, studio chief Jack Warner would not countenance the idea of mixed race roommates living under the same roof, speaking to one another as equals.
As eventual city editor on the Sun Herald, Marsh has succeeded in recovering his former status. He still asks the switchboard operator (Kathleen Freeman) to marry him each time they see one another. Lew mocks the clueless college-bred newsman who asks him for an angle on covering a button convention by telling him "show them your zipper!" He greets the timid night editor with tolerance for his fondness for animal stories, and bites his tongue when the man hopes that Mr. Ives (the publisher, played with fulsome bluster by Raymond Massey) sees the feature with favorable eyes. Still, glimpsed through the venetian blinds in the offices, those neon dwarfs still go about their business, never ceasing to tote those containers of liquor up and up the hill endlessly.
Unfortunately, this is the point when the movie begins to veer away form a character study of a man whose vocation is his life to become something more trivial and overly familiar.
Lew Marsh's way of coping with that psychological longing and tickle at the back of his dry throat is simple. Whenever possible, he has hired other newspapermen who have fallen prey to alcoholism and lived to tell the tale. This penchant for giving people another chance catches the eye of Raymond Massey, who selects Marsh to apply his skills as a "practical psychologist" to the problem of his nephew, Boyd Copeland (Gig Young). Copeland, who is continuously described as a "boy" (Young was 38 at the time, and looked it) is said to be a talented composer--if he could only finish that concerto thing he keeps pounding out on the piano at 4 in the morning. Mumbling under his breath about how "the jug" makes you "pay and pay and pay" over time for all your sins and experience, Lew is soon flying to the remote lodge of the Ives family, where "Boydie," the heir to his family's fortune is in dire need of sobering up after he shows up at the family manse with several serious knife wounds.
After lots of coming and going, Boyd, "the happy drunk," (accompanied by a dog called "Nameless" who looks like an underfed Lassie reject) makes those around him sorry they were ever born. Despite his recalcitrance and Marsh's misgivings, he winds up in the care of Marsh and Charley Dolan back at their bachelor digs. In a kind of good cop-bad cop teaming, Charley coaxes Boyd toward weaning himself off the bottle, while Marsh impatiently believes it is a pointless exercise until the man chooses sobriety. Boyd's involvement with a Mexican singer who is also the inamorata of a gangster (Sheldon Leonard, who looks as though he wishes he were elsewhere) is thrown into the story as a meaningless monkey wrench.
This dark chapter has unnerved his uncle John Ives (Massey), his smothering mother (Selena Royle, in the most thankless role of her career), and led to a reunion of sorts for Marsh with ex-girlfriend Paula (Thaxter), who is now Boyd's quivering, uncertain wife, shilly-shallying about a trip to Reno. Gig Young, who was nominated as Best Supporting Actor by the Academy Awards for this role, is blessed with a generous, showy part as the erstwhile musical genius turned lush. With calculated nonchalance, Young makes the most of his part, showing how his underlying anxiety is masked by an annoying bravado that only Cagney's character seems to find intolerable. In actuality, the actor was reportedly the victim of rumors that he would be replaced during the production since the studio was not pleased with his work. Cagney is said to have taken the man aside, reassured him that he had his support, and given him a pep talk meant to point out that he needed to intensify his efforts if he wasn't going to be wiped right off the screen in their scenes together. Apparently, this trumpet call took root in the supporting player's portrayal. Young is rather listless in the scenes when he is meant to be charmingly gassed and vaguely wounded. However, he is truly distressing in the scenes when his character eventually struggles to kick the bottle cold turkey.
Bursting in on the contrite Boyd, Marsh struggles a gun away from the younger man, chiding him and then reminding him that this is it. "There's only one thing that really pulls a drunk up short. The sound of angel feathers. A peek into the void. You run away from life, but you run away from death too."
Real life aftershocks are inescapable for most who view this fine performance from Young, whose film career most often consisted of playing the appealing second man whose charm is not quite charismatic enough to distract the leading lady from choosing the more compelling leading man. As Cagney later commented, "I liked Gig," he said. "Most amiable young man, lots of fun. I was concerned about him, though. Some typecasting there. I think he was a little too fond of booze himself." As most readers know, the actor, who went on to give a remarkable, Academy Award winning performance in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), struggled with alcohol addiction until he took his own life in 1978 after murdering his decades younger fifth wife.
The last fifteen minutes of the story are hijacked by this plot thread (again, per Goff & Roberts, courtesy of Jack Warner's insistence that audiences had to have a gangster in a Cagney picture). A tragic car accident with Boyd and Charley follows with one rather obvious and maudlin moment that elicits a blaze of Homeric rage from Cagney's character toward a shattered, and finally sober Boyd (Young). The wrap-up of the story is as bizarre and unlikely as it was apparently hastily written. The denouement in the main action is so facile, I won't bother commenting on it.
In the most entertaining portion of this final sequence, however, Marsh mobilizes his newspaper staff, from the nightclub critic to the reformed drunk (Douglas Spencer) to beat the city's bushes looking for Sheldon Leonard, his bland henchmen, and the Latina temptress. Marsh even finds a way to mollify moviedom's favorite cop, James Flavin--even though in a key scene--the crusading editor deliberately prints a lie in a screaming headline guaranteed to "make someone spill his guts!"
While the latter part of the movie occasionally made me want to grab the phone away from Cagney and shout, "Get me rewrite!" the last line gave the story a satisfying fillip. Boyd and Paula are reconciled, papers are selling, the publisher is looking smug, and Lew Marsh is getting ready to roll up his sleeves behind his desk. Admonished gently by the boss to go home and get some rest and offering him a ride home, Cagney shrugs: "Don't you see, Mr. Ives? I am home." While the little men go on forever, carrying their load up again and again...
Please note: The title of this movie is from the 1859 Edward FitzGerald translation of the Persian classic, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:
Other reviews of this movie can be seen at Vienna's Classic Hollywood and Movie Classics.Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of SpringYour Winter-garment of Repentence fling:The Bird of Time has but a little wayTo flutter - and the Bird is on the Wing.
A postscript to this piece with more info about the film's status is here.
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Cornes, Judy, Alcohol in the Movies, 1898-1962: A Critical History, McFarland, 2006.
McCabe, John, Cagney, Da Capo Press, 1999.
New England, Inc., Playbills to Photoplays, Xlibris Corp., 2010.
Richardson, James H., For the Life of Me: Memoirs of a City Editor, Putnam, 1954.
Shafer, Jack, The Whiskey Rebellion: In Praise of Booze in the Newsroom, Slate, January 2, 2008,
Starr, Kevin, Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950, Oxford University Press, 2002.
Ware, Harlan, Come Fill the Cup, Random House, 1952.