powered by AFI
The name West Point calls up images of great leaders. Names like Grant and Patton and MacArthur. It brings to mind young cadets in uniform and rigorous training. But song and dance isn't something normally associated with the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Nor is it the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of screen icon James Cagney. Nevertheless, these two worlds collide in The West Point Story (1950), a musical set at the famed military academy and starring James Cagney.
Because of his talent for playing lowlifes in films like The Public Enemy (1931) and White Heat (1949), Cagney's lasting film image is that of a gangster. What's often forgotten is that Cagney won his only Academy Award in the role of song man George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and that he actually began his acting career in vaudeville and in Broadway choruses. A small part in the play Penny Arcade led Cagney to Hollywood in 1930. He was brought west by Warner Bros. for a big screen adaptation of the play, renamed Sinner's Holiday (1930) (cast mate Joan Blondell also made the jump from stage to screen in this production). But it wouldn't take long for Cagney to find his niche in Hollywood. That came with the 1931 release of The Public Enemy and Cagney's defining screen mobster, Tom Powers. Yet, regardless of his tough guy persona, Cagney always considered himself a song and dance man and welcomed the chance to dispel his gangster image. Along with Yankee Doodle Dandy, there were Cagney pictures like Footlight Parade (1933) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) where guns and crime didn't play into the action. But once again in 1949, as Cody Jarrett in White Heat, Cagney took on a role that would forever link him with the gangster genre. Still, despite the success of White Heat, or perhaps because of it, Cagney was determined that his next movie would be a musical.
And he jumped into the idea whole-heartedly. The story has it that one night after White Heat was finished, Cagney suggested to his wife and former vaudeville partner, that they perform their old act for friends. She challenged him to do it right then, on the spot. And so he did, only forgetting one line. After that, Cagney got busy planning his musical (he would have cast, script and director approval) and eventually found inspiration in a familiar place - the life of George M. Cohan. Cagney remembered that in preparing for one of his musicals, Cohan had been allowed to live as a cadet at West Point for a week. Thus the plot for The West Point Story was born. In the film, Cagney plays an out of work Broadway director roped into putting on the annual West Point student show "100 Nights" (so called because it's performed 100 nights before graduation) by a producer who believes his nephew (the show's writer) has talent. At West Point, Cagney runs into a few problems with the rules (mainly they interfere with his rehearsals) and is forced to live as a cadet for the remainder of his stay.
Joining Cagney in The West Point Story are Virginia Mayo as his girlfriend, Gordon MacRae as the writer and Doris Day as the star of the show. Cagney and Mayo were both coming from White Heat, their first movie together. But because Cagney needed time to have dances choreographed and to practice the numbers, he moved on to make Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950) between White Heat and The West Point Story. During the filming of Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, Cagney practiced with a stand-in for Mayo under the direction of choreographer John Boyle. Cagney's temporary dance partner (who he referred to simply by her last name Godfrey in his autobiography) was also said to have helped choreograph B'KLYN one of the best numbers in The West Point Story. But her efforts remained uncredited, much to Cagney's regret. He called the dancer, "one of the uncredited Hollywood crew people who made the pictures what they are." But using a stand-in caused more problems than just missing credits. It seems the young dancer, was lighter and smaller than Virginia Mayo. And at 5'6" Cagney wasn't a big man. So dancing with the heavier Mayo put a twist in the dance steps. As Mayo remembered, "[it was] a little problem, yes, that looked quite big at the time because I was a good head taller than the young lady choreographer and weighed a lot more. But we worked it out." Which meant that Cagney ended up wearing heels to make up the height difference. Apparently Cagney also had issues with dance director Le Roy Prinz, who in the actor's opinion "didn't know one foot from the other. He hated me," Cagney said. "He knew I was on to him."
But co-star Doris Day didn't hate Cagney. And the feeling was mutual. In The West Point Story, their first movie together, Cagney was immediately struck by Day's talent, saying, she had "the ability to project the simple, direct statement of a simple direct idea without cluttering it." Cagney was delighted to be paired with Day again in Love Me or Leave Me (1955), the real life story of torch singer Ruth Etting. In this picture, for the first time since 1939, Cagney would receive second billing to Day's starring turn. But billing didn't matter much when it came Oscar time. Love Me or Leave Me picked up one Academy Award, for Best Writing, and netted six more nominations, including a Best Actor nod for Cagney.
Looking back, Day would remember The West Point Story only as "an idiot picture" in which most of her scenes were with Gordon MacRae instead of Cagney. But Cagney himself would reflect on it more fondly, saying, "it's one of my favorite pictures. Cornball as all hell, but don't let anyone tell me those songs by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn aren't worth listening to. They were worth dancing to."
Producer: Louis F. Edelman
Director: Roy Del Ruth
Screenplay: Charles Hoffman, John Monks, Jr., Irving Wallace
Art Direction: Charles H. Clarke
Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Costume Design: Milo Anderson, Marjorie Best
Film Editing: Owen Marks
Original Music: Ray Heindorf
Principal Cast: James Cagney (Elwin Bixby), Virginia Mayo (Eve Dillon), Doris Day (Jan Wilson), Gordon MacRae (Tom Fletcher), Gene Nelson (Hal Courtland), Alan Hale, Jr. (Bull Gilbert), Roland Winters (Harry Eberhart), Jerome Cowan (Mr. Jocelyn).
By Stephanie Thames