Plot: Lefty (James Cagney) is a hustler who jumps from one get rich quick scheme to the next, but his latest scam seems foolproof. He hosts a dance marathon with some serious prize money, but he has managed to rig the contest and his romantic interest Ruth (Mary Brian) is lined up to win. And she does indeed win, but Lefty’s crooked partner runs off with the prize cash. Ruth’s mother Lil (Ruth Donnelly) is determined to keep Left out of her daughter’s life, unless he can prove he can support her. She packs up and leaves for New York with Ruth in tow, while of course Lefty follows and hopes a change of scenery can mean new schemes to design. But can a small time hustler strike it rich in such a big city, suspicious landscape?
Entertainment Value: Hard to Handle opens with an impressive dance marathon scene, then veers into an outlandish narrative that lets James Cagney’s charm shine, which is good since the story isn’t spectacular in this one. This is going to appeal more to fans of con-man cinema than anyone else, as watching Cagney’s scams unfold and backfire is one of Hard to Handle’s main draws. I especially love when a scheme goes south, only for Cagney to twist things around in some silly fashion, turning an absolute failure into a new opportunity. The spirit of the huckster is all over the movie, so while the movie is over the top at times, it almost seems believable, as Cagney’s Lefty has an authentic texture as a con-man. If you need realism however, the wacky tale of Lefty isn’t likely to keep you reeled in. I had fun with Hard to Handle, it might not be an all time classic, but it was a fun, brisk watch.
The main reason Hard to Handle is worth a look is the presence of James Cagney, who turns in a fun performance in the lead role. A less interesting lead could have sunk this movie, but Cagney is up to the challenge and while he gets by mostly on charm, the role works well. Lefty is all about charm, so Cagney might not deliver one of his better turns, but his charisma ensures the character is fun to watch. I think his performance is the main draw of Hard to Handle, as his presence elevates a lot of the material and keeps the picture interesting. Ruth Donnelly is also quite fun as Cagney’s rival, with some of the best moments coming when the two exchange banter. I wish the movie had more scenes between the two, as the dialogue is humorous and the two performers really raise their efforts in those sequences. The cast also includes Mary Brian, Allen Jenkins, Claire Dodd, and Robert McWade.