Review: Taxi! (1932)
There are some films that would have would have all but faded into obscurity were it not for a single line of dialogue. In these films, the characters and situations aren’t amongst cinema’s most cherished and the film’s title may not hold any cultural capital for most people. However, through the bizarre contrivance of verbal communication, certain scripted expressions take on a life of their own and manage to endure far beyond the popularity of the actor who delivered the line. A person with enough exposure to visual media is likely to recognize lines like “Top of the world, Ma!” without necessarily knowing that this is a reference to James Cagney in White Heat (1949). But Cagney doesn’t say “Top of the World, Ma!” at the end of White Heat; he actually says “Made it Ma. Top of the world!” In many instances such as this, as a line becomes absorbed into the language’s verbal lexicon of stock phrases, it gets muddled and altered a great deal. To use a related example; for decades the standard Cagney impersonation would involve saying ‘You dirty rat, you killed my brother’ even though James Cagney never said this exact phrase on screen. Cagney did say “Come out and take it, you dirty yellow-bellied rat! Or I’ll give it to you through the door!” at the end of a movie called Taxi! (1932). In this film, Cagney does play a taxi driver who is out for revenge after his brother gets knifed in the back, however the accusation ‘You killed my brother’ is never uttered by Cagney or anyone else. This is probably the most famous line of Cagney’s career and, even though he never actually said it, this phrase eventually became the primary channel through which one would communicate Cagney-ism.
Taxi! is another one of those early Warner Brothers potboilers starring James Cagney, but unfortunately it isn’t as memorable as The Public Enemy or White Heat. Based on a stage play by Kenyan Nicholson, Taxi! dramatizes the then-topical issue of unregulated taxi companies waging war against one other on America’s city streets, routinely resulting in intimidation, destruction of property and loss of life. In the early 1920s, the owner of Checker Taxi had his home in Chicago firebombed and subsequently moved his company’s headquarters to Kalamazoo, Michigan. In the opening few minutes of Taxi!, we witness an elderly cab driver named Pop being threatened by the stony-faced Buck Gerard (played by David Landau) who sternly advises the cabbie to give up a street corner he has worked for over thirty years. A few moments after Pop refuses to relinquish his territory, a massive truck intentionally crashes into his parked taxi and an altercation between the two drivers ends with the elderly cabbie shooting the truck driver. And with that Taxi! is off and running, and this initiating action soon brings together Pop’s daughter Sue Riley (played by Loretta Young) with Matt Nolan (played by Cagney), the hotheaded young taxi driver who will champion Pop’s cause. Later when Matt confronts Buck Gerard in a nightclub, a fight breaks out and in the frenzy Buck fatally stabs Matt’s brother. That dirty rat.
From the onset, Taxi! is intended to be loud and shocking even though it seems pretty tame by today’s standards. During the title sequence there is no musical orchestration to ease the audience into the world of the film, instead Taxi! innovatively begins by blaring a harsh cacophony at us: honking horns, traffic sounds, construction noises which all meld into the sound of a welder’s torch being used at the taxi company’s garage. It seems the novelty of recorded sound still had a shine to it in 1932. As a Cagney picture, Taxi! feels constricted by half-measures. Sure he plays the same type of quarrelsome young man we see in The Public Enemy, but Taxi! goes back and forth between being a revenge plot and a romantic drama about Sue Riley getting cabbie Matt Dolan to curb his violent temper. In the end the film tries to have it both ways; Matt Dolan takes his revenge for his murdered brother, is exonerated in the death of Buck Gerard and, inexplicably, gets Sue to take him back just before the credits roll. At which point I felt slightly cheated out of one of those fantastic Cagney death scenes, like the climaxes of The Public Enemy or White Heat. Nevertheless, Taxi! is certainly worth the timeof any Cagney fans out there – but, for everyone else, it probably isn’t worth the effort.