A few weeks back, we noted that in late 1931, Carole Lombard, who had been at Paramount for slightly more than a year, rejected a loanout to Warner Brothers to co-star opposite James Cagney in "Taxi!", a part that eventually went to Loretta Young (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/65901.html). However, that may not have been Lombard's only chance to have worked with Cagney.
According to the Internet Movie Database, Lombard turned down a co-starring role in another Cagney film, "Hard To Handle," released in early 1933. This information isn't in the Lombard biographies written by Larry Swindell or Wes D. Gehring.
By late 1932, Carole was presumably wiser about the workings of studio business than she was earlier, when she deemed a loanout as a demotion of sorts. If she rejected going to Warners, this time it may have been because she had something better on hand at her home studio. She was making "No Man Of Her Own" with Clark Gable (on loanout from MGM) at this time; it would come out a few weeks before "Hard To Handle," and Gable was to date Lombard's best-known leading man.
If that was the case, she probably made the correct choice. Of course, if Miriam Hopkins had not turned down the "No Man Of Her Own" part over billing (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/38343.html), perhaps Lombard would have headed over to Warners.
So who ended up as Cagney's leading lady in "Hard To Handle"? Bette Davis? Nope. Ann Dvorak? Wrong. Joan Blondell? Incorrect. The answer is...Mary Brian.
Brian, born Louise Byrdie Dantzler in Corsicana, Texas in 1906, had a film career of some note. Her debut was as Wendy Darling in the 1924 "Peter Pan" (studio officials shaved two years off her age to make it seem she was a juvenile). She also appeared in "The Virginian" with Gary Cooper, the 1931 version of "The Front Page" and many other films. Nicknamed "The Sweetest Girl In Pictures," Brian rarely acted after 1937. She gained a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and died near the end of 2002.
In "Hard To Handle," Brian is attractive, but otherwise doesn't make much of an impression. That's left to Ruth Donnelly, at left above, portraying her mother (even though Donnelly was less than a decade older than Brian). Here, both mother and daughter are schemers, sort of along the lines of Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt in "Heartbreakers" some years back. (Note their matching outfits, a recurring theme throughout the film.)
Donnelly, a splendid character actress, beautifully plays a woman comically hardened by Depression cynicism. (An example -- Brian: "Honest people exist." Donnelly: "Not in Southern California.")
In this game of con or be conned, Cagney portrays a Los Angeles press agent/con artist ("The mass is a cow. It must be milked") whose partner has run off with the profits from a crooked dance marathon...including the money Brian's character (and Cagney's girlfriend) thought she had won. She and her mother flee to New York (paying for the trip by selling off their landlady's furniture), where Brian becomes a successful model. Cagney moves east to repay the money through a series of schemes.
Had this movie been made 75 years later, perhaps he would have come up with the concept of "natural male enhancement" (http://jblaque.livejournal.com/364530.html), although "smiling Bob" may not be smiling now after details of the scam were revealed in court.
Cagney, shown in a script conference on the set with director Mervyn LeRoy, who would later direct and produce Lombard's "Fools For Scandal" at Warners (that's Cagney's dog wistfully staring up at his master), is energetically excellent; his comedic skills are often overlooked, but he made quite a few comedies, especially in pre-Code days. This was his first film since going "on strike" against Warners over being put into too many gangster roles. The studio acquiesced, which explains the wording on the poster below.
The movie's title was likely an in-joke, but so were some other things in the film. Cagney's character is signed to promote a Florida land scheme called "Grapefruit Acres," bringing to mind his famous scene from "The Public Enemy" in 1931. (Before signing on, Cagney's character had told the executive that he "had never seen a grapefruit.") The executive, whose slutty daughter seduces Cagney, high-tails it to Brazil when the scheme is discovered, and Cagney is left holding the bag and sent to jail in his stead. We then see Donnelly -- at home with Brian -- noting Cagney's fate while she's at the piano, playing one of the biggest hits of the 1920s and a tune still recognizable to 1933 ears..."The Prisoner's Song."
It's fascinating to imagine this film had Lombard played Brian's part. Just by force of personality, she might have made more of an impression on screen, and working with pros like Cagney and Donnelly might have boosted Carole's comedic skills a bit ahead of schedule. Ah, what if...