A Lion is in the Streets

Talkie of the Week: A Lion is in the Streets

USA 1953, 88 minutes, color, Warner Brothers Pictures. Director: Raoul Walsh, Written by: Luther Davis, Based on the novel by Andria Locke Langley, and loosely based on Huey Long. Cast: James Cagney, Barbara Hale, Anne Francis, Warner Anderson, John McIntire, Jeanne Cagney, Lon Chaney, Frank McHugh, Larry Keating, Onslow Stevens, James Millican

Plot summary: Peddler Hank Martin has a way with words and enters politics with the strong support of the simple  folks he has learned to manipulate with his slick charm and populist ideas. But his rise to fame comes as quickly as his downfall is inevitable.

Review: A Lion is in the Streets, produced by William Cagney, is a performance vehicle for his larger-than-life brother James Cagney. The plot, although haunting and engaging, circles around his main character Hank Martin and his scary rise to political fame in the South. Never mind if you feel reminded of All the King’s Men (1949, remade in 2006) and the real life story of Huey Long, the effect is the same, the overall storyline however is different, similarly excruciating, painful to watch but worthwhile nonetheless.

Fans of James Cagney may appreciate his bulldozing performance from beginning to end. For those who prefer a softer touch in conveying a roller-coaster of emotions, Jeanne Cagney delivers a breathtaking performance as one of Hank Martin’s most enthusiastic supporters, Jennie Brown. Barbara Hale supports James Cagney as Verity Wade, a schoolteacher from Pennsylvania who is spellbound by Hank Martin’s tricks and marries him. Like Jeanne Cagney, her portrayal is much more refined and soft-spoken than Mr. Cagney’s, but every bit as memorable and stirring. These two women alone carry so much of the important emotional side of the movie, it’s almost as if they allow the audience to breathe after James Cagney has finished one of his whirlwind scenes.

All in all, A Lion is in the Streets is not your mellow Sunday afternoon relaxation flick. It was made in the early 1950s and thus has comments on McCarthyism, political extremism and fanaticism incorporated in its every pore. The film is not, however, a period piece in the classic sense. It is rather contemporary in its approach and morale, and ends on a feeling of queasiness in our entertainment-thirsty times.

Available on DVD and VHS.

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