Hard to Handle

The weather was some kind of wonderful this past Sunday afternoon. Granted, it was hot. So while I partly retreated inside the historic Silent Movie Theatre for some shade, I was merely there to catch a glimpse of “The Seven Deadly Sins of Pre-Code” series put on by The Cinefamily. Already having shown a particular pre-code for greed, pride, envy, lust, and wrath within the previous weeks, gluttony was next on the list. The film that was picked in correlation was Hard to Handle (1933), which stars James Cagney, Mary Brian, and Ruth Donnelly.

After getting my ticket scanned, I stepped into the dim atmosphere to find a seat. There were plenty of spots still open, but I somehow found myself settling towards the back. A miscellaneous assortment of clips were projected on the screen (the only one that fully caught my attention was a scene from a silent film “western” that featured an all-animal cast… alas, I can’t seem to find any trace of it online), accompanied by a live DJ set. I sat looking around the room, never having gotten a good look at it before. Posters were hung in a row on both sides, featuring portraits of the very well-known silent film stars.

Right on the dot, two presenters walked up to the front and introduced themselves. They began talking about the series, and why this particular film was chosen for the sin of gluttony. For the latter, as I remember it, Cagney’s character keeps coming up with ideas on what to sell to the public (that he shouldn’t be selling in the first place), which eventually leads to greed and the over-indulgence of certain products as a result of fads.

This movie also pokes fun at Hollywood in a way (southern California is despised by Ruth Donnelly’s character), and we see that Cagney isn’t in his renowned gangster role. He’s always running away from conflict, and is a joy to watch. One of the presenters also mentioned the subtle reference of grapefruit in the film, which refers back to the famous scene where Cagney smushes half a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face in The Public Enemy (1931). She went on to mention, because of that, Cagney couldn’t go to a restaurant without getting served grapefruit for a while.

The audience kept giggling all throughout the duration of the film, and someone behind me was full on cackling at some parts. I was nearly disappointed when no one seemed to be reacting to Cagney making his distinct wacky sounds, but my faith was restored not even a split-second afterwards when his continuing high-pitched “hmms!” were followed by startled laughter. I actually saw this film for the first time on TCM just a few weeks ago, and I don’t remember laughing as much (or at all) in comparison to seeing it on the big screen right then and there. To me, it’s still so oddly fascinating how different your own reception can be when watching a film with other people. I also loved finally getting the chance to see a projection of a Cagney film, and all I can do is hope that there will be more screenings of his other films popping up soon.

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