Made for the fledgling Grand National studios while Cagney was in the middle of a spat with Warner Brothers, GREAT GUY manages to capture much of the spirit of a good Warners programmer. It certainly helps that Mae Clarke and Edward Brophy, along with several other Warner Brothers stalwarts, are in the cast. Clarke as Cagney's long suffering girlfriend and Brophy as Cagney's lovable and friendly old boxing rival, and both are good. The script may not crackle with the energy of a true Warner's, but it earns some credit for trying, and director John G. Blystone keeps things going at a good clip.
As for Cagney, well, the opening few minutes are a perfect example of why Cagney was such a great star. We see two other actors, one playing a secretary and one a hospitalized government worker, both overplaying their parts as if it talkies had just arrived. Then in walks Cagney, smooth as a silk tie, doing what he does best, giving a natural performance that just oozes with his own personality and energy. Battling corruption as the chief inspector of the Department of Weights and Measures (a Warners plot if ever there was one), Cagney gets to crack wise, push people around, and be on the winning and losing ends of several physical altercations. Even though there is nothing here Cagney hadn't done before, audiences must have been happy to see it all again, as it GREAT GUY was Cagney's return to the screen after a 12-month absence while battling with Warners over his contract.
Grand National could not hope to provide the kind of production values Cagney was used to at Warners, and the lack of background music, along with some of the acting I mentioned, sometimes makes this feel like it was filmed in 1931 rather than 1936. However, while not one of the man's great films, GREAT GUY still remains a fine Cagney vehicle. He would make on more film at Grand National (SOMETHING TO SING ABOUT) before resolving his differences with Warner Brothers. - JB
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
According to The Films of James Cagney, while Cagney was with Grand National, Warner Brothers was developing several projects to lure their top box office star back. One of them was JOHN DILLINGER, OUTLAW. It was to star Humphrey Bogart as Dillinger and Cagney as FBI agent Melvyn Purvis. Think about that a minute. What a movie that might have been!