Cagney, James (1899-1986)

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Cagney, James (1899-1986)

One of the greatest tough-guy personas of twentieth-century film, James Cagney worked hard to refine his image to meet his responsible Catholic background. The result was a complex set of characters who ranged from the hard-working immigrant striving to make his way in America, to the American hero of Cold War times who fought to preserve our way of life against Communist infiltrators. Cagney's various personas culminated in one as different from the others as can be imagined—he began to play characters on the edge of (in)sanity. It is his image as a tough guy, however, that is most enduring.

In 1933, during the filming of Lady-Killer, Darryl F. Zanuck sent a memo to his crew of writers in which he detailed the studio's requirements for the Cagney persona: "He has got to be tough, fresh, hard-boiled, bragging—he knows everything, everybody is wrong but him—everything is easy to him—he can do everything and yet it is a likeable trait in his personality." During the 1930s, Cagney's uptempo acting style—the rat-a-tat-tat of his reedy voice—and his distinctly Irish-puck appearance, created a decidedly lower-East side aura. He was a city boy.

Cagney was born in New York City on July 17, 1899. Although studio publicity promoted stories about a tough east-side upbringing and life above a saloon, Cagney was, in fact, raised in the modest middle-class neighborhood of Yorkville. Two of his brothers became doctors. On screen, however, Cagney played tough guys—characters who were immigrants fighting to fit in identified.

Public Enemy, Cagney's first starring role, remains famous for an enduring still of Cagney, with lips pursed, hair awry, and eyes enraged, smashing a grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face. But it was Tom Powers' contempt for assimilation that alarmed educators and reformers. In 1932, armed with the Payne Fund Studies, a group of reformers feared that immigrant youths over identified with certain screen stars and surrendered their parents' values for falsely "Americanized" ones. In his popularization of the Payne report, Henry James Forman echoed these fears when he identified one second-generation Italian youth's praise for Cagney: "I eat it. You get some ideas from his acting. You learn how to pull off a job, how he bumps off a guy and a lot of things."

Because of the uproar from reformers and the ascendancy of President Roosevelt and his accompanying call for collective action, Warner Brothers shifted their image of Cagney. He no longer embodied lost world losers but common men fighting to make it in America. And Cagney's image of fighting to make it spoke to New York's immigrants (Italians, Jews, Poles, Slavs), who in 1930 comprised 54.1 percent of New York City's households. From 1932-39 (a period in which he made 25 films), Cagney represented an ethnic in-between. As an Irish-American, he was an icon for immigrants because he represented a complex simultaneity—he was both a part of and apart from Anglo-Saxon society. In a series of vehicles, Cagney was the outlaw figure, a character who did not want to conform to the dictates of the collective, and yet, through the love of a WASPish woman or the demands of the authoritative Pat O'Brien (the Irish cop figure in Here Comes the Navy [1934] and Devil Dogs of the Air [1935]) Cagney harnessed his energies to communal good.

Regardless of how Cagney's image was read by immigrants, sociologists, and reformers, he was not happy with how he perceived Zanuck and the Warner Brothers' script writers had structured his persona. A devout Catholic and a shy, soft-spoken man off-screen, he was tired of roughing up women and playing street punks on screen. Three times (1932, 1934, 1936) he walked off the studio lot to protest his typecasting. In March 1936, Cagney won a breech of contract suit against Warner Brothers, and later that year signed with Grand National where he filmed Great Guy (1936) and Something to Sing About (1937). Unfortunately, neither effort changed his persona, and with Grand National falling into receivership, Cagney returned to Warner Brothers.

To enhance Cagney's return, Warner Brothers immediately teamed him with old pal and co-star Pat O'Brien in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938). As Rocky Sullivan, Cagney received an Academy Award nomination and the New York Critics Award for best actor. The film's most memorable scene features Cagney's death-row walk in which his "performance" switches the Dead End Kids' allegiances from one father figure (Cagney) to another (O'Brien). It is an explosive moment of ambiguity in which a character destroys his reputation for the audience in the film (the Kids) but gains, through his sacrifice, saintliness from the audience in the theater (largely immigrant).

By the 1940s, Cagney's image had radically changed under the pressures of the Martin Dies' "Communist" innuendoes. With war raging in Europe the competing images in Cagney's persona (the anarchic individual at odds with the collective; the Irish-American trying to make it in WASP—White Anglo-Saxon Protestant—society) were transformed into a homogenized pro-United States figure. The plight of the immigrant was replaced by Warner Brothers' all-American front to the Axis. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) culminated the change as Cagney was galvanized into a singing, dancing super-patriot. Cagney won an Academy Award for this dynamic performance.

Following a second try at independence (United Artists, 1943-48), the post-World War II Cagney struggled to maintain a contemporary persona. Much of his New York City audience had grown up and moved to the suburbs. Too old and lace-curtain Irish to remain an ethnic in-between, the post-war Cagney bifurcated into two types: a strong-willed patriarch or a completely insane figure who needed to be destroyed. White Heat mirrored the switch in emphasis. No longer was Cody Jarret fighting to realize the immigrant dream; instead he fought a mother complex.

On March 18, 1974 more than 50 million Americans watched Cagney accept the American Film Institute's second annual life-time achievement award. Although he had fought Zanuck, Wallis, and the studio's construction of his "tough, fresh, hard-boiled" image, he embraced it during the tribute. In his acceptance speech Cagney thanked the tough city boys of his past: "they were all part of a very stimulating early environment, which produced that unmistakable touch of the gutter without which this evening might never have happened." James Cagney died on Easter Sunday, 1986.

—Grant Tracey

Further Reading:

Forman, Henry James. Our Movie Made Children. New York, MacMillan, 1933.

Kirstein, Lincoln (as Forrest Clark). "James Cagney." New Theater. December, 1935, 15-16, 34.

McGilligan, Patrick. Cagney: The Actor as Auteur. San Diego, A.S.Barnes, 1982.

Naremore, James. Acting for the Cinema. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1988.

Sklar, Robert. City Boys: Cagney, Bogart, Garfield. New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1992.

Tynan, Ken. "Cagney and the Mob." Sight and Sound. May,1951, 12-16.