Family & Companions
The American gangster film, and the output of Warner Bros. in its most influential decade, would be unimaginable without the contributions of James Cagney. One of talking pictures' first generation of actors, Cagney forever romanticized the figures of the criminal and the con artist with his jittery physical dynamism and breakneck staccato vocal patterns.
Raised in New York City's tough Yorkville neighborhood, Cagney was a veteran of settlement house revues, vaudeville and five years of Broadway when he came to Warner Bros. in 1930. Cagney, Bette Davis and Edward G. Robinson, all signed to long-term contracts during this period, became the core of the studio's stock company, which also included character and supporting players such as Alan Jenkins and Frank McHugh. After playing several featured roles Cagney attained instant and lasting fame with his role as vicious gunman Tom Powers in William Wellman's "The Public Enemy" (1931).
"The Public Enemy"'s story of a wisecracking hood who seemed to delight in violence indelibly stamped the gangster genre. Along with "Little Caesar" (1931) and "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang" (1932), the picture cemented Warner Bros.' position as a major studio. Between 1930 and 1941, Cagney made 38 films at Warner Bros. While most were crime and action dramas or comedies, quickly produced on modest budgets and featuring few other box office "names," many have become genre classics. Several, including "Angels With Dirty Faces" (1938) and "The Roaring Twenties" (1939), remain seminal works in American film history. Cagney reached a creative peak with "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942), a biopic based on the life of composer George M. Cohan. A sentimental masterpiece, the film drew on Cagney's prodigious dancing talents, largely unexploited at Warner Bros. (except for the marvelous "Footlight Parade" 1933), and brought him the Academy Award for best actor.
A series of well-publicized salary disputes at Warner Bros. led to Cagney's forming an independent production company, Cagney Productions. Headed by James and his brother William, a former actor, the firm was based on terms developed in James's last Warner Bros. contract and gave him unprecedented leeway in choosing vehicles and participating in profits. It proved a failure, releasing only three films through United Artists, but was nevertheless a path-breaking model which many others in the industry would soon follow.
In 1949 Cagney made an explosive return to Warner Bros. in the Raoul Walsh-directed "White Heat," playing Cody Jarrett, a violent, Freudianized update of the Tom Powers character in "The Public Enemy." Like the earlier film, "White Heat" was both profitable and enormously influential.
Throughout the 1950s Cagney played sardonic and often villainous characters for several studios, in films occasionally produced by Cagney Productions. The decade also saw his only directing assignment, "Short Cut To Hell" (1957), and his last musical, the uneven but sometimes delightful "Never Steal Anything Small" (1959).
After a bravura performance in Billy Wilder's ironic farce "One, Two, Three" (1961), Cagney retired. The following years saw him receive many honors, including the 1974 Life Achievement Award of the American Film Institute--the second such award ever given. His good friend and neighbor, director Milos Forman, lured him from retirement for "Ragtime" (1981), but Cagney's own desires to perform again were hampered by increasing ill health. He made only one more appearance before his death, the made-for-TV movie "Terrible Joe Moran" (1984).
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Short)
Broadway debut in chorus of "Pitter Patter"
Worked in vaudeville
Signed by Warner Bros.; film acting debut in "Penny Arcade" adaptation "Sinner's Holiday" (reviving role from stage version)
Achieved stardom in "The Public Enemy"
Broke with Warner Bros.
Formed production company with brother William Cagney; first film "Johnny Come Lately"
Sole film directing credit, "Short Cut to Hell"
Last film for many years, "One Two Three"; retired to a farm he owned
One-shot return to feature films, "Ragtime"