Everyone loves a film with an exclamation mark in the title. I do, anyway.
The poster doesn’t have one, but the title card in the film print does. Taxi! (Roy Del Ruth, 1932) starts off by being rather inaudible. At first this seems like it could be simply a product of Warner Bros’ Vitaphone mono sound recording practice, that could be victim to quite a bit of distortion. But this is a perhaps thematic and plot-driven distortion. After an audiovisual cross-section of a Manhattan street with the title Taxi! plastered across the screen, and the typical overhead shot of skyscrapers, a newspaper closeup reveals WAR DECLARED! (‘rival taxicab companies contest bitterly for city’s business’), over which something screeches harshly. It’s like a telephone or radio signal that’s horribly blocked. From the next shot, it is revealed to be the voltage from a mechanic’s welding operation as he puts the finishing touches on some taxicabs. Then in the following scene, James Cagney’s taxi driver and baby-faced thug, Matt Nolan, speaks to a potential passenger in Yiddish for quite a while — untranslated. It doesn’t really matter than we can’t understand what he’s saying — he’s just hanging about in the bustle of the city.
The film has some great lines, and some great scenes for the early 30s. Loretta Young plays Sue Riley, and her best friend Ruby (Leila Bennett) declares: “I’ll marry any guy that’s got a clean car and shirt. And if it comes to a pinch I’ll marry him without the shirt.” Her character is played for laughs, targeted as more pathetic than, say, Una Merkel in any number of her sidekick roles, but very funny. And Sue is stalwart and single, too, until Matt Nolan seduces her. With a sly turn, we don’t see the seduction. One scene has Matt declare, “I wouldn’t go for that dame if she was the last one on earth. And I just got out of the navy,” and then next has them an item. Later there’s a cute snippet of Cagney doing some impromptu living room tap-dancing to impress her, alongside the sprightly George E. Stone.
Aside from the script, there’s footage of a brightly lit Times Square, complete with animated light advertising, and a typical shot of a cross section of a Brooklyn street and a rail overpass. Much of this could be real. Then, a shot of an underground subway station, and photography inside a subway car, with light flashing by outside the windows in a way that it never really does in a subway tunnel. This is obviously a set, and one used in other films, too — and there are some terrific scenes of dancing, drinking, indulgence, in the interior of a nightclub, and some great shadows.
Of course, as with an unfortunate number of men from that era, although more so in that this particular one is James Cagney, Matt Nolan is an absolute arsehole. It’s horrible how much Sue forgives him. It’s a fun film otherwise, but the relationship dynamic kind of makes it much harder to forgive, from this side of the screen.