Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Toast of New York - 1937

“The Toast of New York” (1937) turns character actor Edward Arnold into a romantic lead. This alone makes this uneven movie a delight.

Based on the true life and financial skullduggery of 19th century entrepreneur James Fisk, Jr., Edward Arnold plays Fisk the Robber Baron with the aplomb of a swashbuckler. In tow are Cary Grant and Jack Oakie as his junior partners. They follow his lead from scheme to scheme like courtiers to a king.

Both, interestingly, play their roles in a subdued, understated manner. To some extent, their parts as written are subordinate to Edward Arnold’s bombastic Jim Fisk, but one expects more broad playing from Oakie in his stooge-like character. He is unusually restrained.

Cary Grant even more so. He is deferential to Mr. Arnold in business matters, and carefully avoids confrontation in a personal matter -- Mr. Arnold’s new friend, lovely Frances Farmer. She is the showgirl, Josie Mansfield (who, incidentally had died only a few years before this movie was made), who Mr. Arnold takes on as his protégé, and probably, love interest. Their romantic involvement, with barely a suggestion of intimacy, is really left for us to assume. It’s not just the Production Code that prevents the movie from being more explicit about their relationship. Jim Fisk is so in love with money there’s little room for anything else in his life (though in real life he found time for both).

Josie Mansfield thinks so, too, but is so grateful to Mr. Arnold for the jewelry and the publicity for her career, that she takes great pains to ignore her attraction for Mr. Grant. Cary Grant, meanwhile, brushes her off with coldness bordering on anger, but it is just to mask his own attraction for her. He does not want to hurt his boss by running off with his boss’s showgirl.

Donald Meek has a great role as Jim Fisk’s fellow Robber Baron, Daniel Drew, the scripture-quoting cheapskate who wants to snatch the Erie Railroad from Cornelius Vanderbilt so bad he can taste it, and so enters into a partnership with the devil, Jim Fisk. Mr. Meek and Mr. Arnold are a study in contrasting temperaments (one reticent and cautious, one bold and risk-taking), physical types (one small and weak-appearing, and one large, appearing bolder still in uniforms the like of which might be worn by a vain dictator), and voices (the wizened whine of Meek, and the booming, barrel-chested baritone of Arnold). They are a little like the Laurel and Hardy of Wall Street.

Billy Gilbert has a minor role, too, as a frustrated photographer.

The movie begins at the outbreak of the Civil War, as Messrs. Arnold, Grant, and Oakie are playing a peddlar’s con game in the south. They are “outed” as Yankees, and make a mad dash for the Mason-Dixon line -- just over that bridge -- to escape certain death by vigilantes and the townspeople they cheated. Then Arnold decides smuggling cotton to the north, defying the Union blockade, would be a better racket. It is one of many speculative ventures that lead the trio from ruin to wealth, to ruin, to wealth.

The climatic scenes of the movie are the most dramatic, and involve Jim Fisk’s attempt to corner the gold market, sending Wall Street into a tizzy. His rivals are frantic on the floor, while Edward Arnold sneers over the merciless ticker tape. The price of gold rises and rises, and Wall Street shudders, storming over to Mr. Arnold’s place to kill the gold-eating monster. They don’t have to bother; President Grant (not seen in the movie) releases gold reserves and saves the day. (He should see the price of gold today.)

The montage of piling coins and falling stocks, with a ticker tape run wild are images not unfamiliar to the generation that watched this movie in theaters. It had been only some eight years since the Crash of ’29 brought their worlds down upon them, so what we might view as a quaint and possibly over-dramatic representation of the financial panic of 1869 was to them a personal reminder of human frailty and financial Armageddon.

But this is perhaps nothing in comparison to the mind blowing image of Edward Arnold as a romantic rival to Cary Grant. It’s Mr. Arnold’s movie, right down to the melodramatic ending, and one can’t help feeling glad he’s got the spotlight.


Grand Old Movies said...

"the Laurel and Hardy of Wall Street" - I'd love to see Arnold & Meek square off! haven't heard of this film, but thanks for such a terrific review - I'm going to check it out (just to see the unlikely rivalry of Grant & Arnold)

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I've been dying to watch this movie since I started reading about Josie for a potential post on Scandalous Women. Frances Farmer was so much prettier than the actual woman!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I hope you both get to see the movie soon.

Elizabeth, Frances Farmer was so much prettier than everybody. Unfortunately, she doesn't have much more to do in this film than be pretty. Grant doesn't have much to do but mope. It's Arnold's movie (and in a way, Donald Meek's as well).

Caftan Woman said...

It has to be 20 years since I last saw "The Toast of New York". My husband borrowed the tape from the library. It was a clue that he was starting to "get" me.

Your description of Arnold & Meek is perfect. They are a special treat to watch in the film.

DorianTB said...

Jacqueline, THE TOAST OF NEW YORK is one of those films that I've been meaning to catch up with, not only to see Edward Arnold as a romantic leading man. One of the few movie-related things I like even more than wonderful character actors (see my recent ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT post if you doubt me :-)) is an actor who's equally good in character roles AND leading roles! Your post is also a nice reminder of how lovely Frances Farmer was (boy, Jessica Lange really did have a striking resemblance to Farmer, didn't she?). I very much enjoyed your post. as always!

By the way, as I was updating my blog and listening to the big band music that usually plays in the background as I read AOMB, my husband in the other room was wondering where the great music was coming from. If you don't mind my asking, where do you get that lovely music, and how do you rig it so that the music automatically turns on when we readers are reading?

Judy said...

This sounds like a very interesting film - I saw Arnold and Farmer together in 'Come and Get It' at the Howard Hawks festival at the BFI earlier this year, where Arnold is also the male lead, though not very romantic in the later part of the film. Will hope to see this one too.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you all for stopping by. I think Edward Arnold is one of those character actors we recognize and appreciate for his solid supporting performances, but in this case I got a big kick out of seeing him in a leading role. He has such power in his performance, such strength and ability to take the lead. Were he a different body type he could have been a matinee idol.

Dorian, the background music on the blog comes from a site called -

You sign up, and there is a search engine where you can look for certain artists or certain songs, and then add them to a collection that you build. You can download this collection and just listen to it on your computer whenever you feel like it, or you can paste a code to your blog and then set it so that it starts automatically when someone opens your blog page.

Good luck.

Classicfilmboy said...

It's been years since I've seen the film, but I agree that it was nice to see Edward Arnold in a romantic leading role. If the film isn't great, it's certainly worth a look, and you did a wonderful job of examining it.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Filmboy. Always glad to have your take on a movie.

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