Those wonderful classic film loving bloggers: Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin, and Silver Screenings are once again hosting this fun and interesting look at villains in classic films. My post today is one of many for this, the last day of their blogathon. Please be sure to stop by their sites and read about other famous movie villains and the incredible, and possibly indelible performances by the actors and actresses who performed those infamous roles.
White Heat, made in 1949, a Warner Bros. production, is a tense crime noir film. It starred James Cagney, doing what he did best, playing an evil criminal. However, what makes his portrayal of Cody Jarrett different is that this time, Cagney’s criminal is crazy, aka psychotic and a lot of it is due to his overwhelming attachment to his “Ma”.
In researching the background for White Heat, I found out that it was first an original story by Virginia Kellogg, who had been a reporter for the LA Times and may have been influenced by actual criminals she heard about while working for the newspaper. There was also a theory that she based her criminal Cody Jarrett and his Ma on a real life crime family of the 1930s, Ma Barker and her sons. While the FBI claimed that Ma Barker was an evil, criminal mastermind some of the people who knew her said she couldn’t organize a family breakfast so there were some doubts as to how much she was involved in her sons’ criminal activities. Ma Jarrett, however, in White Heat, is in on the robberies, doesn’t blink an eye when Cody decides to “plug” someone, and is full of advice as to how he can avoid the “coppers”.
We first meet Ma(remarkably played by Margaret Wycherly) as she is fixing some food for Cody and his gang. They’ve just gotten back to their hideout from a train robbery-yes, a train robbery in 1949!-that has made the national headlines. We also meet Cody’s stunningly beautiful wife, Verna(excellently played by Virginia Mayo) as she is snoring in one of the bedrooms. In a foul mood, she gets up when Ma asks Cody to order Verna to help her. We immediately see that the two main women in Cody’s life don’t like each other. It’s not a loud, shouting match form of dislike but an icy relationship with bickering between the two women. Suddenly, Cody begins to whimper, grabbing at his head, and stumbles to the floor, Verna and the gang watch helplessly but Ma knows what to do. She quickly gets Cody up, gets him to a bedroom, has him lie down on the bed, and begins to massage the back of his neck and head, murmuring to him all the while to be still and to calm down. Ma’s care does the trick, and Cody comes out of his severe attack. He even sits on her lap like a small boy would do, but the censors had that scene cropped to only shoulder and head shots of the Wycherly and Cagney. Ma pours him a shot of whiskey which he drinks. She toasts him as he drinks that shot, “Top of the World, Cody!” That toast becomes a catch phrase throughout the entire movie. Here’s a clip of Ma caring for Cody during his attack.
More of Ma in the film: after the gang has moved to a Motor Court to live at, and despite Cody ordering none of them to leave, Ma disobeys by driving to a Farmer’s Market to buy her “baby boy” some strawberries. Her car is spotted by an undercover cop who is in contact with the Federal authorities stationed in LA and he puts a “tell”, a white rag around the back bumper of Ma’s car, so the Feds and local law enforcement will be able to follow her back to Cody and the gang. What the cops don’t know is that Ma is very sharp-eyed and soon knows she is being followed. With a lot of turns and using her wits, she is able to dodge the police. However, they eventually find the car at the Motor Court and there is a shoot out as Cody, Ma, and Verna escape in one car, leaving the rest of the gang to scatter. At a drive-inn movie, Cody hatches his plan to escape the cops, and with Ma’s agreement, he flees. Ma takes over when she and Verna are interrogated by the Feds, feeding them the pre-planned false alibi to keep Cody out of jail for the train robbery. One key thing I noticed in this section of the movie is that Verna, eyeing a suitcase full of train robbery cash, coos to Cody how they could spend that money and that she’d love a full-length mink coat. At the Motor Court, when we see Verna again, she is admiring herself by standing on a chair, in order to see her full self modeling her mink coat. Cody comes in and asks her where Ma is. Verna flippantly tells him that Ma is out shopping for strawberries for him. For her snarky answer, Cody shoves Verna off the chair! Fortunately she lands on the bed, shocked he’d do that to her. Then we see Ma at the market and she too, is wearing a full length mink coat! How telling that the one thing the bad guy’s wife wants he also gets for his ma!
Cody’s false alibi is to claim that he was in Springfield, IL the same date as the train robbery, and that he committed a hotel robbery in Springfield. Cody is sentenced to 3 years in the State Penitentiary in Joliet. What he doesn’t know is that the Feds don’t buy his alibi and have planted an undercover cop in the prison, Fallon(great performance by Edmund O’Brien) to become pals with Cody and find out about the train robbery. Before Fallon arrives at the prison, his boss Philip Evans(John Archer) fills him in on Cody Jarrett’s mental make-up. Cody’s father was also a criminal, went insane, and had to be locked up in a mental institution where he died. The same fate happened to Cody’s older brother. When Cody was a kid, he’d fake severe headaches to get his Ma’s full love and attention. Sometime in his late teens, the headaches became real. Ma is the only person in the world that Cody trusts and loves;she is the force in his life.
Ma makes a drive to IL to visit Cody in the stir. She tells him that Verna has run off with Big Ed(Steven Cochran) one of the gang members. Ma knows this info will hurt Cody, but one gets a sense that she is pleased to tell him, to reinforce her opinion that Verna is no good for her son. Ma vows to get Big Ed for Cody, but Cody, sensing doom, warns Ma to leave Big Ed alone, but his warnings fall on deaf ears. Here’s a clip of one of the film’s most famous scenes, when Cody, at a prison meal, goes berserk when he finds out news about his Ma. This is a spoiler alert if you’ve not seen White Heat so skip this scene’s clip in case you want to see the movie without knowing all about it beforehand!
More Spoilers! Two more key scenes about Ma, though she’s not in them. Cody reveals to Fallon, after they’ve broken out of the state prison, that he walks around a lot outside at night due to insomnia and the only thing that soothes him is to talk outloud to Ma-he feels her presence though she isn’t there. In the film’s fantastic climax, Cody’s plan to rob a chemical plant’s payroll has gone horribly wrong, the cops have him cornered, his gang is dead, and he climbs atop one of the chemical holding tanks. He is defiant, not caring that what he is standing on top of is flammable stuff. Fallon decides to be the one to shoot Cody down but not before Cody has shot holes into the various pipes fitted into the top of the chemical tank which causes flames to shoot out and upward all around him. Before the final fatal shot from Fallon and the literally explosive ending, Cody yells, “Top of the World, Ma!” That scene’s clip is here.
Being a mom myself, to 7 kids, ages 12-23, I feel I know a thing or two about motherhood. Mothers develop a close bond with their babies, but over time it has to change for the sake of the kids;so that they’ll be able to succeed in the world on their own, and hopefully start up and maintain their own successful families. In studying this film and Ma Jarrett, I saw a mom who hadn’t lessened her bond with her son. Instead of trying to plead with him to stop his bad life choices, she joined him! She is somewhat of Cody’s Greek Chorus in the first two-thirds of the film: telling him what he could do, warning him about Verna, the gang members, how to avoid the cops and prison time. Cody is the only person she really displays her emotions to. Everyone else sees a cold-hearted mom who can think logically, albeit in a criminal bent, as to what the gang’s next steps should be. Only Cody gets to experience the loving nurturer.
Margaret Wycherly is excellent as Ma Jarrett. Wycherly was a former stage actress, appeared in some silent films, she is best known for two roles as moms: in 1941’s Sergeant York, where she did get nominated for Best Supporting Actress for playing Mother York to son Gary Cooper as Alvin York, and then as Ma Jarrett to son James Cagney, as Cody Jarrett in White Heat.
White Heat is often lauded as one of director Raoul Walsh and actor James Cagney’s best films. It is available on dvd and I nabbed my copy from our local library. It airs from time to time at TCM so keep a watch for it to be on the schedule in the future. For a look at a criminal and his villainous Ma, seek out White Heat!!