James Cagney - 8/14
One thing James Cagney wasn't was the typical Hollywood star. He wasn't strong and silent or tall and dark. His tough guy wasn't just tough; he was all attitude. Who else could get away with twisting a grapefruit into his girlfriend's face? But the life he lived and the character he played couldn't have been more different. James Cagney left the New York ghetto not as a gangster but as an actor and dancer. He was known to write poetry as he awaited his call on the set. Off screen he was quiet and introspective but once the cameras rolled, Cagney went off like a brick of firecrackers all at once. On screen and off he was the poet of the underworld.
Cagney's first impression of Hollywood was "no different than any other vaudeville stop, though the weather was nicer. It was a nice place to hole up for awhile and do another show." Being a movie star was a job - but there was good weather and a decent paycheck.
The Golden Coast of California was a much different world from the congested crime ridden neighborhood that Cagney grew up in. Born in 1899 on the lower east side, Cagney developed a thick skin and a tough attitude. He became a boxer, winning pocket money in bare fisted bouts. He always claimed that the rhythm of a fighter was the basis of his dancing skill. If you watch him dance, you'll see that he wasn't far wrong.
One day on his way to an amateur match his mother stopped him. Cagney later claimed that she wouldn't let him go-that he'd have to lick her first before she'd let him out the door. And that was the end of his boxing career. He became a dancer and joined the chorus.
On stage he was teamed with Joan Blondell and her no-nonsense attitude complemented his hard headed toughness. Together they left Broadway for the Hollywood and debuted together in Sinner's Holiday (1930). Sound was new to Hollywood and Hollywood had just discovered a unique sounding star with an Irish brogue and a gangster's slang.
Although he later became famous as one of Hollywood's quintessential gangsters (along with Edward G. Robinson), Cagney at heart was always a song and dance man. He was never anything less than masculine, and each of his musical roles has a bit of his gangster attitude--witness his ruthless director in Footlight Parade (1933), or his rooster-like strut in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1941). Cagney illustrated the close relation of a suave killer on the dance floor and a ruthless killer in the underworld. When he met Fred Astaire, a Hollywood talent he admired, Cagney swelled with pride, "You know Freddie, you've got a touch of hoodlum in you !"
"Casey would waltz with the strawberry blonde and the band played on" - The Strawberry Blonde (1941) was a nostalgic look back at the "gay 1890s." While shooting the film, Cagney's mother came to visit and director Raoul Walsh quickly cast her as an extra in the beer garden scene. Watch the scene to see who James is really taking orders from.
While Cagney could look affectionately back to a simpler past in The Strawberry Blonde, Yankee Doodle Dandy made later that same year was a flag waving patriotic sign of its time. Playing the real life entertainer George M. Cohan (writer of "Give My Regards to Broadway," and "Over There"), Cagney let loose a musical tour de force. The dynamic performance won him the Best Actor Oscar®.
How could this gangster type prove so convincing in a musical? Quoting George M. Cohan himself, Cagney simply told audiences "Once a song and dance man, always a song and dance man."
But let's get back to those gangster parts. Frank Sinatra once asked Cagney how his villain could always be so attractive to audiences. "Francis," Jim responded, "always sprinkle the goodies along the way. Be as tough as you want but sprinkle the goodies for laughs here and there. 'Cause anything they can laugh at they can't hate."
It was his fifth film. Edward Woods had been cast in the leading role but director William "Wild Bill" Wellman felt that the lead didn't have enough of the gutter qualities that a supporting player had. He switched the two actors and Cagney had his shot at a starring role. It was The Public Enemy (1931), a juicy role that Cagney savored. His gangster was sadistic, shocking but also funny. Platinum bombshell Jean Harlow played a brazen harlot and together they made the picture a box office hit and set the standard for gangster flicks.
He was tough. He was tense. A dirty rat had killed his brother. Cagney's gangster was brutal, a loose cannon, volatile and dangerous. In The Public Enemy he smashes a grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face. In Lady Killer (1933) he hauls Clarke out of bed by her hair and drags down a hallway. The audiences cheered him on. Hollywood couldn't allow the bad guy to be so successful, so in G-Men (1935), the studio bosses remade their newest star from gangster into a government man. As a good guy, Cagney could kick just as much butt, but was more acceptable as a do-gooder.
By 1938 Cagney and his off-screen pal Pat O'Brien discovered a winning combination in Angels with Dirty Faces. In the film they play childhood friends; Cagney grows up to be a gangster, O'Brien a priest. The counter point became a standard Hollywood plot device, two friends forever separated by their fate. With the Dead End Boys in supporting roles and a young Humphrey Bogart, Angels has a realistic feel and a universal scope.
No one else in Hollywood could play a gangster like James Cagney. But after Angels it was 11 years until he would play one again. When Cody Jarrett arrived, Cagney sensed the possibilities of the complex character. Cody was a shrewd cold blooded killer with a swollen Oedipal complex. He needed his mother and without her was helplessly impotent. Raoul Walsh directed the incendiary White Heat (1949) with Spartan style. The film is a rare gem and the final scene remains one of the most memorable in all of Hollywood. Cagney was the undisputed champion of the gangster film. He made it, "Ma, Top of the World!"
A gentleman and a scholar, James Cagney devoured books and wrote while he waited for his scenes. Joan Blondell once asked him what he was writing and he responded in verse:
"Making verse I cannot help
As a pregnant female her brood must whelp
Each will come in it's given time
So there's naught to do but write and rhyme."
It wasn't what you'd expect from a gangster.
In 1933 the Screen Actors Guild was born and Cagney was elected to the board of directors. He stayed clear of the Hollywood party scene to instead enjoy his leisure hours with his best friends Pat O'Brien, Spencer Tracy and Robert Montgomery. After World War II, Cagney led the Hollywood Victory Committee across the country to make personal appearances joined by Joan Blondell, Claudette Colbert, Bing Crosby, Cary Grant and Bob Hope.
In March of 1974 James Cagney was honored with AFI's Life Achievement Award. The stars came out to celebrate the toughest gangster, among them were Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Doris Day, Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye, Mick Jagger and John Lennon. A diverse crowd and one that stands as a testament to the range Cagney appealed to.
Watching his films, too, you'll see a parade of stars. In a career that spanned over five decades from the 1930s to the 1980s, James Cagney worked with generations of actors. From Edward G. Robinson to George Raft; Bette Davis to Rita Hayworth; a young Humphrey Bogart took supporting roles on his own way to gangster stardom and in City for Conquest (1940), future director Elia Kazan plays a small role.
James Cagney defied expectations, he wasn't what he appeared to be. He seemed tough and hard, but he was known to travel in separate cars from his wife because she smoked and he hated cigarettes. His sensitive side is seen in one of his later poems, written in his twilight years:
Why do you weep poor old man?
It hurts me when you weep.
I weep for the long lost wonderful years
I once thought were mine to keep.
by Jeremy Geltzer
* Films in bold type will air on TCM