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This film is subtitled "The Life and Times of Jimmy Walker." The film was copyrighted once, on July 1, 1957, by two claiments: Hope Enterprises, Inc. and Scribe Productions. Beau James opens with a prologue, narrated by Walter Winchell, in which New York City is compared to a seductive woman, a metaphor that is used throughout the film in Winchell's intermittent voice-overs and in the lyrics of its theme song, "Will You Love Me in December." The voice-over epilogue by Winchell consists of the final paragraph from Gene Fowler's biography of Walker. James J. "Jimmy" Walker (1881-1946) was the one-hundreth mayor of New York City. The son of a man active in New York City political circles, Walker entered politics after a brief stint on Tin Pan Alley during which he wrote the 1908 hit song "Will You Love Me in December." Walker was elected mayor in 1925 and reelected in 1929. Judge Samuel Seabury began his investigation of Walker's administration in 1930, calling Walker to testify in the summer of 1932. Walker was not formally charged with wrongdoing and was still popular with his constituents, but resigned his office in August 1932 to avoid further scandal. Soon after, he left the United States to live in Europe.
Although the film ends with "Allie" and Jimmy deciding not to divorce, the Walkers did divorce in 1933, after which Walker married singer Betty Compton, his mistress of six years. Compton did not marry another man during Walker's troubles with the Seabury Commission, as the film suggests, but was married briefly prior to meeting Walker. In 1935, Walker returned with Compton to the United States, where he was greeted by crowds of cheering New Yorkers. Compton divorced Walker in 1941 and remarried shortly after, but she and Walker remained close until her early death at age 40 from cancer. Walker died two years later, in 1946. According to Fowler's biography, Walker returned to the Catholic Church, from which he had long been estranged, following his divorce from Compton.
A Hollywood Reporter news item dated August 1947 reported that Fowler, then in the process of writing Walker's biography, was turning down offers of up to $500,000 for the screen rights to his forthcoming book because he wanted to produce the film himself. There is no indication, however, that Fowler was involved in the production of this film, which was made ten years after the publication of his book. According to a Los Angeles Times article published in August 1956, in order to ensure accuracy and avoid lawsuits, the producers paid clearance fees of up to $7,500 to a number of individuals, including Janet Allen "Allie" Walker, Betty Compton's mother and Charley Hand's widow. Mrs. Walker reportedly approved of the story, asking only that a reference to her as "brittle" be removed and that Walker be treated more sympathetically in one particular scene. A modern source indicates that director Melville Shavelson and producer Jack Rose paid clearance fees totaling $50,000, while a biography of Bob Hope notes that Florence Compton stipulated that her daughter's real name be used in the film and requested that the actress chosen to play the role bear a physical resemblance to her.
According to publicity material contained in the AMPAS Library clippings file on the film, Shavelson and Rose went location scouting in New York City, but discovered that the only places frequented by Walker still standing were Yankee Stadium and City Hall. Although background footage was shot of New York City streets and of the crowds at Yankee Stadium and the St. Patrick's Day Parade, the majority of the film was shot on a soundstage. The technical adviser on the film, Harold Melnicker, had been an aide to Judge Seabury and participated in the legal proceedings against Walker. Vera Miles was given permission to appear in Beau James by Alfred Hitchcock, to whom she was under personal contract. Hitchcock required that Miles be dressed in white, black or gray, and, save for one scene in which she sings in a pale pink period costume, Miles wears nothing but these shades in the film.
Correspondence dated July 1956 and contained in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library indicates that the PCA was highly critical of the script's depiction of the relationship between Walker and Compton. The PCA asked the producers to "preserve some regard for the institution of marriage" by eradicating "any aura of romanticization" of the affair and went on to suggest that since the marriage of Walker and Compton "ended in dire tragedy," the producers might solve the problem by "introduc[ing] a note of strong foreboding" in the liaison. The script's happy ending, the PCA declared, "is a false note both historically and from the Code point of view." The Catholic Legion of Decency gave Beau James a "B" rating because the film did not depict Walker's return to his faith in his later years. According to a Daily Variety news item published in November 1957, Paramount paid a $1,500 settlement to Marion Sunshine, a vaudeville performer who recognized one of her songs in the sketch "His Honor, the Mayor of New York," which is performed in the film by Jimmy Durante. Paramount held the option on a Sunshine composition entitled "Little Jimmy, the Mayor of New York."
According to an January 18, 1957 Hollywood Reporter news item, the film was advertised with a "special TV subject," narrated by Bob Hope and featuring authentic newsreel footage of "major events occurring in Manhattan" during the 1920s. Although reviewers felt that Beau James was entertaining and captured the tone of Walker's era, the film was not viewed as particularly factual. Films in Review denounced the picture as a "whitewash of a lax and tainted public official," while Time magazine stated that its affectionate portrayal of a "whoopee-making clown" was "just as irresponsible as its taxpayer-take-the-hindmost hero." Following Shavelson's and Rose's The Seven Little Foys (1955), Beau James marked Hope's second appearance in a role with strong dramatic elements. Although Hope received generally favorable reviews for his performance, his biographers have noted that he was disappointed that his work in this film did not garner more critical attention; he never again attempted a dramatic role.