Joe Sawyer

Black Legion

*This post is a part of the “What a Character” Blogathon over at Aurora’s Gin Joint  hosted by @citizenscreen!  Check out the rest of the great posts over there!

Birth Name: Joseph Sauers

Birthdate: August 29, 1906

Number of Films that Joe Sawyer Made with Humphrey Bogart: 6

The Lowdown

There were two actors that inspired me to start ‘The Usual Suspects’ portion of this blog. The first was a character actor named Ben Weldon. The second was Joe Sawyer. With a crooked nose, cleft chin, devilish smile, and a build like a brick house, Sawyer popped up time and time again in character roles in over 200 films and television shows.

While most people would probably recognize Sawyer from his recurring role as Sgt. Biff O’Hara on The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Sawyer’s unique look made him stand out to me immediately while watching Bogart film after Bogart film. Who was this guy? What’s his story? How many Bogart films was this guy in?

I actually had the chance to chat on the phone with Sawyer’s son a couple of months ago and he told me that his father was an independent contractor that usually hired himself out to studios for a week or two at a time – hence the smaller roles. While he wasn’t apparently a close friend with Bogart, they did both originate their roles in The Petrified Forest onstage together in New York, and on a few occasions they went out for drinks after a day of shooting.

While you may not recognize his name, I have no doubt that if you’re a fan of classic films, you’ll recognize Joe Sawyer’s unmistakable face!

The Filmography

The Petrified Forest – 1936

Petrified ForestSawyer with Bogart and Adrian Morris

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Sawyer plays Jackie, one of Bogart’s henchmen. A role he also originated on stage, Sawyer is a lot of fun in this small part, especially when he taunts Boze the gas station attendant. Sawyer plays Jackie with a wonderfully cruel sense of humor, and it’s pretty admirable that in between Bogart, Bette Davis, and Leslie Howard, Sawyer can hold his own. Plus, he gets to give Bogart the greatest introduction that he ever had in a film! You can read my original write up on the film here.

Black Legion – 1937

Black Legion

Sawyer plays Cliff, good friend and work buddy to Bogart. He’s great here as the borderline-intelligent bully that can cause a lot of havoc with just a little effort. He ropes Bogart into the violently anti-immigrant secret society known as The Black Legion, and it all goes downhill from there. Don’t we all know someone like Cliff? That guy or girl who’s incredibly likable one second, and then suddenly spouting some horrible ethnic joke or slur the next? You can read my original write up on the film here.

San Quentin – 1937

San Quentin

Sawyer plays Sailor Boy, the repeat offender who’s serving time with Bogart in San Quentin Prison, and he’s the real standout of the film. Sawyer and Bogart have great chemistry, and of all the films they did together, Sawyer gets the most chance to shine here. Sailor Boy is another role for Sawyer in which he gets to play the likable bad guy, and there’s a real glint of craziness behind his eyes throughout the film. You can find my original write up on the film here.

You Can’t Get Away With Murder – 1939

sawyer 2

Sawyer plays Red, a fellow inmate to Bogart, and for the only time in their collaboration, Sawyer plays a good guy. (You know, except that he’s a convict…) Red is doing his best to play life straight, but when the chance to escape comes up, he jumps at it. The plan eventually fails and everyone is shot or recaptured, except for Sawyer who’s left with an ambiguous ending after disappearing over a wall. Did they catch him? I hope not! After all those gangster and inmate roles, he deserves at least ONE successful escape! You can read my original write up on the film here.

The Roaring Twenties – 1939

Roaring TwentiesJames Cagney, Sawyer, and Bogart

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Sawyer plays The Sergeant, the tough as nails commanding officer who bullies Bogart during the war only to come face to face with him years later after Bogart has become a gangster in a bootlegging operation. The role is small, and Sawyer’s not given much to work with as far as his lines are concerned, but his side story with Bogart plays an integral part to Bogart’s overall character arc. Their final confrontation is one of the triggers that blows up the relationship between Bogart and Cagney. You can read my original write up on the film here.

Deadline U.S.A. – 1952

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The last collaboration between Bogart and Sawyer was Sawyer’s smallest role out of all six of their films together. He plays Whitey Franks, one of the henchmen for a gangster named Rienzi. To be honest, I don’t even remember if Sawyer has any lines here, as his job is to intimidate and rough up one of the witnesses against Rienzi’s. You can read my original write up on the film here.

*The Usual Suspects is an ongoing feature on The Bogie Film Blog where I take time to highlight some of Bogart’s best collaborators. You can read the rest of the entries here.

James Cagney

Cagney Bogart Roaring Twenties PS

Name: James Francis Cagney, Jr.

Birthdate: July 17, 1899

Number of Films James Cagney made with Humphrey Bogart: 3

The Lowdown

Although I’ve always enjoyed James Cagney, it wasn’t until I began to write for this blog that I discovered my true love for the man. Rivaled only by Bogart as far as onscreen charisma is concerned, James Cagney could steal every scene and command every frame that he was in with just a few menacing words, a well-timed comedic line, or just the right smile – a smile that could often combine joy and danger. The man was bursting with an endless stream of energy that seemed to be contagious to any cast that surrounded him.

Cutting his teeth in vaudeville as a dancer and comedian, Cagney would go on to work with Warner Brothers in what would turn out to be an incredibly fruitful, but often tumultuous relationship. With films like The Public Enemy and White Heat, Cagney left behind the defining example of what it meant to be an onscreen gangster – tough, unnerving, funny, and always on the edge of emotional explosion.

Cagney made three films with Humphrey Bogart, and I have to say that I really love all three – even the one that gets the most flak from the critics and modern day TCM viewers (The Oklahoma Kid). With great pleasure, I add James Cagney to ‘The Usual Suspects.’

The Filmography

Angels with Dirty Faces – 1938

Cagney OBrien AngelsCagney with Pat O’Brien
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Cagney plays Rocky Sullivan, a small time hood that grows up to be a big time criminal. It’s a wonderfully charismatic performance from Cagney, and it’s the film that makes me think there might need to be a Cagney Film Blog when I’m done with Bogart. Cagney is able to pull off an incredible amount of likability from the viewers even while we watch him do some pretty terrible things to his friends and to the kids that he begins to mentor. A really good film is elevated to great just by the delivery of his final lines in the movie. Even though we see nothing but a quick glimpse of his hands, that last scene still has a deeply moving and painful tone that haunted me for days afterwards. Cagney said that he chose to play his final scene with enough ambiguity that the audience wouldn’t know his real motivation for what he says and does. The choice was genius. You can read my original write up on the film here.

The Oklahoma Kid – 1939

oklkidcag

Cagney plays western outlaw Jim Kincaid, and although the real ‘bad guys’ in the film spend their time doing MUCH worse things than Cagney, the law seems to only want to pursue him. For all of the bad things that I’d heard about this film, I thought that Cagney played a great cowboy. Bogart reportedly referred to him as the mushroom because of his oversized hat, but just take a look at Bogart’s hat:

oklkidbogiehat

Was the wardrobe department out of mediums that day, or what? Other than the chapeau snafus, Cagney is endlessly watchable here and seemed to be enjoying himself as he flirts, cons, shoots, and rides his way through the film. I’d say it’s a must see Cagney film as he really seems to be having fun. You can read my original write up of the film here.

The Roaring Twenties – 1939

Bogart and Cagney

Cagney plays Eddie Bartlett, a WWII vet who returns home only to find that an honest job with a decent paycheck is all but impossible to get. So what’s a man to do other than to turn his talents towards an illegal bootlegging operation? Cagney gets to run the gamut from celebrated soldier boy, to big time gangster, and then all the way down to flat broke drunk. Cagney’s charisma is off the charts and every moment he’s on screen you just can’t take your eyes off of him. He looks great in a uniform, a tuxedo, and a bum’s clothes. He can switch from coy and charming one minute, to fierce and ruthless the next, and it always plays believably. His comedic timing is perfect and there’s wonderful chemistry with the entire cast. You can read my original write up of the film here.

*UPDATE* – You gotta check out this rare clip that Judy posted on her Movie Classics blog of Cagney in a screen test!  What a great moment!  Linkety-link.

‘The Usual Suspects’ is an ongoing feature on the blog that highlights some of Bogart’s best collaborators. You can find the ever-growing list of names here.