This vaguely threatening tagline can be found on the poster for “Johnny Come Lately,” a 1943 film starring the great James Cagney. I recently saw this poster and found basically everything about that tagline hilarious, in no small part because it’s very fun to read aloud in an old-timey radio announcer voice.
What struck me as interesting is that technically, it really isn’t all that different from today’s movie promotions. You often see posters or trailers with credits like “from the producers of…” or stars denoted as “Academy Award winner” or nominee.* The difference was that back in the day, they were just way less subtle about it.
* = I always love it when a trailer lists 4-5 actors who are all Oscar winners or nominees, and then one person who isn’t. To use something like Shape Of Water as an example, you have the list of Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, and Richard Jenkins all as past Oscar nominees or winners…and then poor Michael Stuhlbarg. It makes you think “hmm, maybe you should’ve worked a bit harder, eh, Mike?” (Of course, the irony of this example is that Stuhlbarg could or should have a couple of nominations to his name already, but c’est la vie.)
Personally, I think “Academy Award man” is a much funnier designation than boring ol’ “Oscar winner.” It’s both an accurate description AND it sounds sarcastic at the same time. Like, if Sam Rockwell drops a glass on the floor, I can see Leslie Bibb rolling her eyes and slow-clapping while going “nice work, Academy Award man.”
That said, wow, the ego on William Cagney. You don’t really see too many well-known film people nowadays who are famous just for being producers. Off the top of my head, I guess there’s Harvey Wei….oh, uh, um, er, ah, maybe he’s famous for something else now. Anyway, back in the day, you often had producers held up as stars in their own right, much moreso than directors. For instance, David O. Selznick was held up as the major creative force behind Gone With The Wind, whereas director Victor Fleming was more or less seen as a hired hand who got that difficult shoot across the finish line.
That was Selznick, however, a major Hollywood name with a long list of credits under his belt. By comparison, this was William Cagney’s first film as a sole producer, as the proprietor of William Cagney Productions. If you’re wondering, yes, William and James were brothers, and apparently they even looked virtually identical. Looks like Hollywood definitely missed the boat on a middle-aged version of The Parent Trap, but my main point is, ol’ William apparently couldn’t resist the urge to give himself a bit of extra promotion on Johnny Come Lately’s poster. After all, John Van Druten was only an accomplished playwright and screenwriter (he wrote Gaslight the very next year), and director William K. Howard had a long and distinguished career of over 50 movies. But yeah, it was definitely William Cagney’s production that “really makes the story tick.” Ah, nepotism!
I should note that I haven’t actually seen the film, and going just by Wikipedia plot summaries can be a fool’s errand. But it’s worth noting that “You’ll go for Jimmy as he goes all out for three gals in a jam” doesn’t really seem to be what the movie is about. Firstly, from a grammatical standpoint, that line seems to use the word ‘go’ one too many times. Secondly, as per Wikipedia, here’s the synopsis for Johnny Come Lately…
In 1906, Tom Richards (James Cagney), a drifter, arrives in Plattsville and befriends newspaper proprietor Vinnie McLeod (Grace George), who is battling the corruption of the town's leading citizen W.M. Dougherty (Edward McNamara). He takes over as managing editor of the Plattsville "Shield and Banner" and, despite initial resistance from the oppressed citizens, finally drives Dougherty out of town.
So I guess Vinnie (short for…Vinessa?) is one of the “three gals in a jam,” but it seems like Cagney is really helping the entire town rather than two unspecified other gals. Isn’t helping an entire town more of an impressive feat? Also, man, in this day and age of newspapers cutting staff left and right, journalism jobs were so plentiful back in 1906 that editorial posts could be handed out to even the common drifter. This still could technically happen — I applied for a writing job for a local paper in a small town in Northern Ontario years ago, and it quickly became apparent during the interview that the “writing job” was really running the entire operation. But still, at least at the time I had some experience on my resume; I didn’t just start hanging out with the paper’s owner and schmoozed my way to a gig. And I didn’t drift into town, I drove in via my super-cool Toyota Echo.
The IMDB summary is even better. It’s just “Newspaper man wanders about and helps older woman save her paper.” Brevity! Maybe instead of Johnny Come Lately, it should’ve been Johnny Newspaperseed, with Cagney wandering across America to bail out papers in all manner of small towns.
Whatever the summary, if this poster has inspired you to check out a no-idea-if-it’s-good 1940’s film, then be my guest. You can try to find the movie on….
…whoa, easy poster. I was just getting around to…
THIS IS FOR YOU!
They know it’s for them, poster! They appreciate all the hard work that went into the film, they really do! No, poster, what are you doing? Put down that knife! No poster, nooooooooooooo!
Fun fact: the porno version of this film is also titled Johnny Come Lately. He also, er, helps three women out of a jam, not to give away too many plot details.