Cagney, James

views updated Jun 08 2018


Nationality: American. Born: James Francis Cagney Jr. in New York City, 17 July 1899; brother of the actress Jeanne Cagney. Education: Attended Stuyvesant High School, New York; briefly attended Columbia University. Family: Married Frances Willard (Willie) Vernon, 1922, adopted children: James and Cathleen. Career: Acted in productions staged by Lenox Hill Settlement House during childhood; 1919—worked in vaudeville as chorus dancer and female impersonator; 1920—in chorus of Broadway musical Pitter-Patter; 1925—began playing leads on Broadway; 1927–28—opened the Cagney School of Dancing with wife; 1929—following success in Broadway musical Penny Arcade, contracted by Warners to appear in film version, retitled Sinner's Holiday; 1930—long-term contract with Warners; early 1930s—involved in Screen Actors Guild, later serving as vice president (1934–39) and president (1942–43); 1936—sued Warners over breach of contract and won; 1936–38—in two films for small Grand National Pictures; 1938—re-signed with Warners; 1943—formed William Cagney Productions with brother; 1953—final independent Cagney production A Lion Is in the Streets; 1957—directed film Short Cut to Hell; 1961—retired from acting; 1981—came out of retirement for role in Forman's Ragtime. Awards: Best Actor, New York Film Critics, for Angels with Dirty Faces, 1938; Best Actor Academy Award, and Best Actor, New York Film Critics, for Yankee Doodle Dandy, 1942; Life Achievement Award, American Film Institute, 1974; Honored for "Lifetime Achievement in the Performing Arts" by the Kennedy Center, 1980. Died: In Stansfordville, New York, 30 March 1986.

Films as Actor:


Sinner's Holiday (Adolfi) (as Harry Delano); Doorway to Hell (A Handful of Clouds) (Mayo) (as Steve Mileaway); Intimate Interview (Elliott)


Other Men's Women (Wellman) (as Ed); The Millionaire (Adolfi) (as Schofield); The Public Enemy (Wellman) (as Tom Powers); Smart Money (Alfred E. Green) (as Jack); Blonde Crazy (Larceny Lane) (Del Ruth) (as Bert Harris); How I Play Golf (Marshall)


Taxi! (Del Ruth) (as Matt Nolan); The Crowd Roars (Hawks) (as Joe Greer); Winner Take All (Del Ruth) (as Jim Kane)


Hard to Handle (LeRoy) (as Lefty Merrill); Picture Snatcher (Lloyd Bacon) (as Danny Kean); The Mayor of Hell (Mayo) (as Patsy Gargan); Footlight Parade (Lloyd Bacon) (as Chester Kent); Lady Killer (Del Ruth) (as Dan Quigley); Hollywood on Parade


Jimmy the Gent (Curtiz) (as Jimmy Corrigan); He Was Her Man (Lloyd Bacon) (as Flicker Hayes); Here Comes the Navy (Lloyd Bacon) (as Chesty O'Connor); The St. Louis Kid (A Perfect Weekend) (Enright) (as Eddie Kennedy); Hollywood Gad-About; Screen Snapshots One


Devil Dogs of the Air (Lloyd Bacon) (as Tommy O'Toole); G-Men (Keighley) (as James "Brick" Davis); The Irish in Us (Lloyd Bacon) (as Danny O'Hara); A Midsummer Night's Dream (Reinhardt and Dieterle) (as Bottom); Frisco Kid (Lloyd Bacon) (as Bat Morgan); Ceiling Zero (Hawks) (as Dizzy Davis); A Trip through a Hollywood Studio; Mutiny on the Bounty (Lloyd) (as extra)


Great Guy (Pluck of the Irish) (Blystone) (as Johnny Cave)


Something to Sing About (Schertzinger) (as Terry Rooney)


Boy Meets Girl (Lloyd Bacon) (as Robert Law); Angels with Dirty Faces (Curtiz) (as Rocky Sullivan); For Auld Lang Syne (Bilson)


The Oklahoma Kid (Lloyd Bacon) (as Jim Kincaid); Each Dawn I Die (Keighley) (as Frank Ross); The Roaring Twenties (Walsh) (as Eddie Bartlett)


The Fighting 69th (Keighley) (as Jerry Plunkett); Torrid Zone (Keighley) (as Nick Butler); City for Conquest (Litvak) (as Danny Kenny)


The Strawberry Blonde (Walsh) (as Biff Grimes); The Bride Came C.O.D. (Keighley) (as Steve Collins)


Captains of the Clouds (Curtiz) (as Brian MacLean); Yankee Doodle Dandy (Curtiz) (as George M. Cohan)


Johnny Come Lately (Johnny Vagabond) (William K. Howard) (as Tom Richards); Show Business at War (March of Time); You, John Jones (LeRoy) (as Air Raid Warden)


Battle Stations (as narrator)


Blood on the Sun (Lloyd) (as Nick Condon)


13 Rue Madeleine (Hathaway) (as Bob Sharkey)


The Time of Your Life (Potter) (as Joe)


White Heat (Walsh) (as Cody Jarrett)


The West Point Story (Del Ruth) (as Elwin Bixby); Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (Gordon Douglas) (as Ralph Cotter)


Come Fill the Cup (Gordon Douglas) (as Lew Marsh); Starlift (Del Ruth) (as himself)


What Price Glory? (John Ford) (as Captain Flagg)


A Lion Is in the Streets (A Lion in the Streets) (Walsh) (as Hank Martin)


Run for Cover (Nicholas Ray) (as Matt Dow); Love Me or Leave Me (Charles Vidor) (as Martin "Gimp" Snyder); Mister Roberts (John Ford and LeRoy) (as Captain); The Seven Little Foys (Shavelson) (as George M. Cohan)


Tribute to a Bad Man (Wise) (as Jeremy Rodock); These Wilder Years (Rowland) (as Steve Bradford)


Man of a Thousand Faces (Pevney) (as Lon Chaney Sr.)


Never Steal Anything Small (Lederer) (as Jake MacIllaney); Shake Hands with the Devil (Anderson) (as Sean Lenihan)


The Gallant Hours (Montgomery) (as Adm. William F. "Bull" Halsey, + pr)


One, Two, Three (Wilder) (as C. P. MacNamara)


Road to the Wall (doc) (as narrator)


Ballad of Smokey the Bear (voice only)


Arizona Bushwhackers (Selander) (as narrator)


Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? (Mora—doc) (as voice of Everyman)


Ragtime (Forman) (as Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo)


Terrible Joe Moran (Sargent—for TV) (title role)

Film as Director:


Short Cut to Hell


By CAGNEY: book—

Cagney by Cagney, New York, 1976.

By CAGNEY: articles—

"How I Got This Way," as told to Pete Martin in The Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia), 7, 14, and 21 January 1956.

"Interview with James Cagney," by Philip Oakes in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1958–59.

"James Cagney Talking . . . ," in Films and Filming (London), March 1959.

On CAGNEY: books—

O'Brien, Pat, The Wind at My Back, New York, 1964.

Sennett, Ted, Warner Brothers Presents, New Rochelle, New York, 1971.

Dickens, Homer, The Films of James Cagney, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1972.

Offen, Ron, Cagney, Chicago, 1972.

Bergman, Andrew, Cagney, New York, 1973.

Freedland, Michael, James Cagney, London, 1974.

Wallis, Hal, and Charles Higham, Starmaker, New York, 1980.

James Cagney dans l'objectif, Paris, 1981.

Clinch, Minty, Cagney: The Story of His Film Career, London, 1982.

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

Warren, Doug, James Cagney: The Authorized Biography, London, 1983; rev. ed., 1986.

Schickel, Richard, James Cagney: A Celebration, London, 1985.

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

McCabe, John, Cagney, New York, 1997.

On CAGNEY: articles—

Kirstein, Lincoln, "Cagney and the American Hero," in Hound and Horn (New York), April 1932.

Potamkin, H. A., "The Personality of the Player: A Phase of Unity," in Close-Up (London), March 1933.

Durant, John, "Tough on and Off," in Collier's (New York), 31 August 1940.

Current Biography 1942, New York, 1942.

Cole, Lester, "Unhappy Ending," in Hollywood Quarterly, October 1945.

Brown, John Mason, "Cagney Rides Again," in Saturday Review (New York), 1 October 1949.

Tynan, Kenneth, "Cagney and the Mob," in Sight and Sound (London), May 1951.

Parsons, Louella, "Cagney's Year," in Cosmopolitan (New York), June 1955.

Miller, Don, "James Cagney," in Films in Review (New York), August/September 1958.

"Yankee Doodle Dandy," in Newsweek (New York), 22 April 1968.

Haskell, Molly, "Partners in Crime and Conversation," in The Village Voice (New York), 7 December 1972.

Lawrence, K. G., "Homage to James Cagney," in Films in Review (New York), May 1974.

McGilligan, Patrick, "Just a Dancer Gone Wrong: The Complication of James Cagney," in Take One (Montreal), September 1974.

Kandel, Abel, "James Cagney: Man of Principle" in Close-Ups: The Movie Star Book, edited by Danny Peary, New York, 1978.

"The Conversation: Studs Terkel and James Cagney," in Esquire (New York), October 1981.

Kroll, Jack, "James Cagney" and "Cagney vs. Allen vs. Brooks" by William S. Pechter, in The Movie Star, edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.

Buckley, M., "James Cagney," in Films in Review (New York), March 1982.

Cieutat, M., "Tribute to a Good Man: James Cagney ou l'ambivalence de l'Amérique," in Positif (Paris), April 1982.

Sklar, Robert, "L'Acteur en lutte: James Cagney contre Warner Bros.," in Filméchange (Paris), Summer 1983.

Hagopian, Kevin, "Declarations of Independence: A History of Cagney Productions," in Velvet Light Trap (Madison, Wisconsin), no. 22, 1986.

Obituary in New York Times, 31 March 1986.

"James Cagney Succumbs at 86: Quintessential Film Tough Guy," obituary in Variety (New York), 2 April 1986.

Martin, Adrian. "On the Significance of James Cagney," Filmnews, vol. 16, no. 2, May 1986.

Buckley, M., obituary in Films in Review (New York), June/July 1986.

McGilligan, Patrick, "Yankee Doodle Diary," in Film Comment (New York), July/August 1986.

Tracey, G. "James Cagney as Immigrant Icon," Michigan Academician (Ann Arbor), no. 3, 1993.

McClelland, D., "Cagney and Hayward: The Greatest Team that Never Was," Classic Images (Muscatine, Iowa), no. 263, May 1997.

Norman, Barry, "Why Cagney Is Always Top of the World," Radio Times (London), 9 August 1997.

* * *

Jimmy Cagney was a natural actor with an astonishing range. As Bottom in Reinhardt and Dieterle's A Midsummer Night's Dream, he demonstrated that he could play comedy effectively. He was Lon Chaney in Man of a Thousand Faces, and twice played George M. Cohan, winning an Academy Award for Yankee Doodle Dandy, and repeating the role in 1955 for The Seven Little Foys. But his specialty was Irish tough guys: prizefighters, gangsters, bootleggers, and racketeers.

In 1931, a year after his film career began, Cagney created the definitive portrait of a tough, swaggering movie gangster in Wellman's The Public Enemy. Fifty years later, and in failing health, he gave Milos Forman an equally memorable portrayal as New York police commissioner Rhinelander Waldo in the film version of E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime. The swagger was still there, and the charisma. As early as 1939, critic Otis Ferguson paid tribute to Cagney by noting that it would be "hard to say what our impression of the total American character would have been without him."

Cagney learned the American character on the streets of New York. When he played Irish tough guys on the screen, he was able to draw on his own youthful experiences. Cagney began his performing career as a hoofer in a show called Every Sailor at Keith's 86th Street Theatre, then, in 1920, he landed a specialty dance in the show Pitter-Patter. His future wife, Frances Willard Vernon, was in the chorus line and after Pitter-Patter closed, they joined to form a dance team called "Vernon and Nye." His first important acting assignment came in 1925 when he was cast with Charles Bickford in the Maxwell Anderson play Outside Looking In.

In 1929 he played opposite Joan Blondell in Maggie the Magnificent, and subsequently in Penny Arcade. Al Jolson procured the rights for this play and then sold it to Warner Brothers. Cagney and Blondell were part of the package, and so Cagney went to Hollywood, where Penny Arcade became Sinner's Holiday. A year later he had the lead in The Public Enemy and was on his way to becoming a star.

His great talent was confined by the apparently stereotyped roles he often played over the next 25 years, but no one could do them better than Cagney. He perfectly understood the characters of the punks he portrayed, from the raw and brutal ambition of Tom Powers to the psychotic complexity of Cody Jarrett in White Heat, 18 years later.

In his portrayal of "Gimp" Snyder for Charles Vidor in Love Me or Leave Me, Cagney drew upon all the vitality and charisma of his old gangster roles to present the melancholy figure of a man who loves and respects a woman, Doris Day's Ruth Etting, whose sense of decency he is incapable of understanding. Cagney takes a modest melodrama and gives it an almost tragic dimension as Snyder attempts to reform but is finally driven crazy by his jealousy and shoots the piano player (Cameron Mitchell), who is his rival.

Rat-a-tat-tating those famous feet like machine gun fire in his musicals, Cagney was a whirling dervish whose finest performances, even in nonmusicals, seem choreographed. Both his upbringing in Hell's Kitchen and his vaudeville trouping inform every step this sui generis takes. Unlike other male superstars of Hollywood's Golden Age, Cagney was unafraid of returning to his gangster roots throughout his long, kinetic career. Only an actor unconstrained by image considerations could deliver as chilling a portrait of psychopathy as his migraine-plagued Mama's boy, Cody Jarrett. By contrast, think of the roles Gable, Stewart, Tracy, and Grant chose after their mass appeal hardened around their personas. Bringing humanity to his criminals and moral uncertainty to his good guys, Cagney created the myth of the streetwise cynic, who could just as fatefully be recruited to walk the straight and narrow or stride through a police lineup with attitude to burn. The only characterizational common ground was an energy-level unknown to the rest of us. In One, Two, Three, a virtuoso collaboration with Billy Wilder (then intended as Cagney's retirement film), the performer propels the Cold War farce forward and flies past topical references that date the film, as if his acting were independent of tired plot mechanics, as if his personality could simply burn through familiar gags until the audience is left only with the distilled essence of Cagney. One wishes this vital actor had accepted Jack Warner's offer to play Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady, a museum piece that would have benefited from his irreverent cock-of-the-walk strut.

Whether tackling bad guys on-screen or battling the Brothers Warner offscreen in his heyday, Cagney always placed his convictions in the forefront. Going independent at a time in the forties when such ventures were considered suicidal, Cagney's production company created some lovely films, such as Johnny Come Lately, before going down fighting. But bucking the odds has always been a signature move on Cagney's part, whether knocking himself out to put on a show in Footlight Parade or sizing up Ann Sheridan on a rubber plantation in Torrid Zone. Not only could he jump in the job pool from G-Man to America's most wanted but he could also enliven Shakespeare or impersonate Adm. "Bull" Halsey in The Gallant Hours with the same self-confident droit du seigneur. Whereas less versatile stars played storybook versions of heroism, Cagney always scrapped for his honor because he was not a to-the-manner-born savior like John Wayne but a conflicted hero who had to arrive at virtue by sometimes battling his own instincts. Jimmy Cagney embodied the personal charisma of star acting during Hollywood's Golden Era. His abilities were unique, and his classic films are forever marked by his personal brilliance.

—James M. Welsh, updated by Robert Pardi

James Cagney

views updated Jun 27 2018

James Cagney

James Cagney (1899-1986) inaugurated a new film persona, a city boy with a staccato rhythm who was the first great archetype in the American talking picture. He was a true icon, and his essential integrity illuminated and deepened even the most depraved of the characters he portrayed.

Born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the son of James Francis Cagney, an alcoholic bartender and saloon proprietor, and Carolyn (Nelson) Cagney, a housewife, James was one of seven children, two of whom died in infancy. When he was eight, his family moved uptown to the Yorkville section, then a working-class neighborhood of Germans, Irish, Italians, and Jews. Cagney credited his mother for the fact that, unlike a number of his childhood friends, neither he nor his brothers slipped into a life of crime. Nevertheless he learned to use his fists in street fights and even achieved a modest success as an amateur boxer. Wearing a mask of toughness for self-protection, the young Cagney was in fact a thoughtful, keen observer of life in the teeming city streets. He later drew on his recollections to create the screen roles that earned him worldwide fame.

Cagney was also a hard worker who took on a variety of odd jobs to help his struggling family and a dedicated student. Among his siblings he was closest to William, who was later his associate and adviser in Hollywood, and Jeanne, who acted in a number of his films. After graduating with honors from Stuyvesant High School in 1917, Cagney enrolled in Columbia University, but he had to withdraw after a year when his father died, at age forty-one, from Spanish influenza.

Broadway Debut

Cagney was working as a package wrapper at Wanamaker's Department Store when a fellow clerk told him about an opening in the chorus of a revue at Keith's 86th Street Theater. Cagney had no formal training as a dancer, but he moved well and learned quickly. He was hired, and, ironically, the future tough guy of gangster pictures first appeared on stage in drag. Cagney made his Broadway debut on 29 September 1920 in the chorus of a revue called Pitter Patter. Also in the chorus was a young woman named Frances Willard Vernon, who was called "Billie." She and Cagney married early in 1922 and they remained happily wedded for the rest of Cagney's life. They adopted two children. In an abortive first attempt to try his luck in films, Cagney moved to Los Angeles, where he and Billie opened a dance studio. When that failed, they toured for three years on the small-time vaudeville circuit as a song-and-dance team called Vernon and Nye.

In September 1925 Cagney made his debut on the legitimate stage as a hobo in the play Outside Looking In. Impressed with Cagney's performance, George Abbott cast him as the lead, a hoofer in a speakeasy populated with Runyonesque guys and dolls, in the London production of a big hit, Broadway. Although Cagney was fired when he refused to simply provide a copy of Lee Tracy's original performance, he went on to understudy the lead in the Broadway production and eventually played a small role. His major break came in 1929, when the esteemed playwright George Kelly chose him to play a swaggering urban roughneck in Maggie the Magnificent. Cagney and Joan Blondell, as a wisecracking, gum-chewing flapper, received positive reviews, and later the same year both were cast again as colorful lowlifes in Penny Arcade, a melodrama about murder in a carnival setting. After a screen test, Warner Brothers hired Cagney and Blondell to recreate their roles in the film adaptation, Sinner's Holiday (1930). Cagney was thirty when he arrived in Beverly Hills, California, in April 1930 to launch a career that would endure for more than three decades.

Proletarian Image

Cagney was in exactly the right place at the right time. Unlike well-spoken stage actors who were imported to Hollywood in the first years of talking pictures, Cagney had an unreconstructed city-streets accent. His natural speech and movement proved to be ideally suited to the new medium. The movie-going audience could more readily identify with Cagney's proletarian image than with actors who had immaculate diction and a patrician manner. Short, decidedly ethnic in face and voice, he lacked the glamour and sex appeal of romantic leading men. Rather, he inaugurated a new film persona, a city boy with a staccato rhythm who was the first great archetype in the American talking picture. Quick, savvy, and feisty, he bristled with urban energy, swinging his arms when he walked and jabbing the air with his fists.

Cagney became a star in his fifth film, The Public Enemy (1931), a landmark gangster saga that chronicles the rise and fall of a daredevil kid from the slums who slugs his way to the top of the underworld. As Tom Powers, Cagney is subversively charismatic. Playing a ruthless, misogynistic hoodlum, his most famous gesture is shoving a grapefruit in the face of a nagging mistress. Cagney is both brutal and appealing, a combustible combination that incited the disapproval of censors.

Following The Public Enemy, Warner Brothers exploited their new star by assigning him to a succession of low-budget films with urban settings. He was not always cast as a criminal. For instance, in Taxi! (1932), he is the leader of independent cabbies in a taxi strike; in The Crowd Roars (1932), he appears as a self-destructive racecar driver; and in Winner Take All (1932), he is a prizefighter. But he was slotted into the mold of a fast-talking proletarian with a touch of the con artist, and only a few films in this hectic phase of his career offered relief from routine roles, which Cagney increasingly resisted. In Footlight Parade (1933), as a hard-driving impresario who stages splashy theatrical prologues for film palaces, he at last demonstrated the musical skills he had honed in vaudeville. In Max Reinhardt's spectacular version of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), a unique departure for Cagney as well as his studio, Cagney delivers a vigorous low-comedy performance as Bottom, but in the same year, he was forced to appear in five other films cut to the measure of conventional studio formulas.

By the end of 1935, Cagney was drained from overwork, complaining about the recycled scripts he was handed, and bruised from fighting with Jack Warner, his intransigent boss, for a higher salary. Determined to exert greater creative control over his career, Cagney left Warner Brothers and, with his brother William, set up a small, independent company, Grand National Pictures. While the two films Cagney made under this new arrangement were neither commercial nor artistic successes, they clearly indicated how he wished to present himself. In the revealingly titled Great Guy (1936), he plays a staunch crusader determined to correct fraud in the weights and measures bureau. In Something to Sing About (1937), he is a bandleader who engagingly sings and dances his way to Hollywood stardom.

Returned to Warner Brothers

In 1938, Cagney returned to Warner Brothers, where, playing a fast-talking screenwriter, he co-starred with his good friend Pat O'Brien in Boy Meets Girl. He and O'Brien eventually made eight films together. Later in 1938, Cagney achieved one of his greatest successes, as a recidivist hoodlum in Angels with Dirty Faces. Returning to his old neighborhood, Cagney's character, Rocky Sullivan, is idolized by a local youth gang. After he is sentenced to death, his boyhood pal, now a parish priest played by O'Brien, urges him to sacrifice his "honor" by pretending to walk the last mile as a coward, thereby demolishing his image as a hero in the eyes of the gang. Cagney's virtuoso shrieks and screams leave the viewer uncertain whether the character is faking, as the priest requested, or is truly frightened. In The Roaring Twenties (1939), he plays another criminal with an atavistic drive to conquer the underworld, and again he has a bravura death scene, this time enacted in snow on the steps of a church. Both Angels with Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties have a valedictory aura while casting a nostalgic glance at the roles he played early in the decade, but Cagney was fated to return on-screen to a life of crime.

Yankee Doodle Dandy

Throughout the 1930s, as he animated a series of antisocial characters and fought for his independence from the studio system, Cagney maintained an active profile in politics. A staunch Franklin Roosevelt Democrat, he was a prominent and often outspoken Hollywood liberal. Although Cagney never joined the Communist party, from time to time the right-wing press painted him red. In the early 1940s, long before the McCarthy era, when actors were branded for their real or imagined political dereliction, Cagney and his brother felt the need to establish his patriotism. The project they selected to "cleanse" his image was a highly sanitized portrait of the fabled entertainer and true-blue American, George M. Cohan. In Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Cagney sheds all vestiges of his psychotic crime-movie persona to give a sentimental, charming, high-spirited performance in which he sings and dances with a captivating verve. He won the Academy Award for best actor and regarded the film as both a personal and a professional vindication. Buoyed by his triumph, he departed Warner Brothers for the second time.

Cagney and his brother established William Cagney Productions, and their films were distributed by United Artists. As in his first hiatus from studio domination, Cagney's second group of independent works is revealing and disappointing. In Johnny Come Lately (1943), he plays a journalist at war against corrupt small-town politicians. In Blood on the Sun (1945), he is another crusading reporter, determined to thwart Japan's plans for world conquest. In marked contrast to his hyperactive performances in urban pictures, he is a sedentary barroom philosopher in William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life (1948).

White Heat

Devoting most of his time to farming on Martha's Vineyard and in Dutchess County, New York, Cagney made few films during the World War II years. Eager to abandon his con man persona, he was unable to create a potent new image, and he began to resemble an actor from another era who had settled into comfortable semi-retirement, working only when it suited him. Then, at the end of the decade, he returned again to Warner Brothers to make yet another crime picture. In White Heat (1949), as a trigger-happy, mother-dominated outlaw who suffers from blinding headaches, he gives the most intense performance of his career. Grown stout and homelier than ever, Cagney is electric-the performing energy unaccountably held in reserve since Yankee Doodle Dandy released at fever pitch. Curling up on his mother's lap, slugging his greedy, two-timing mistress, barking orders to his dim-witted henchmen, evading the law as if in retreat from the Furies, he proffers his most physical performance. The role afforded him his two most bravura acting moments: in prison, when he learns of his mother's death, he cracks up operatically, and at the end, just before the gas tank he has climbed upon explodes, he exultantly shouts, "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!"

White Heat inaugurated a final Cagney renaissance, during which he freelanced among a number of major studios. As in his heyday in the 1930s, the quality of his material varied, but Cagney was clearly eager to accept challenges. He appeared in musicals, including West Point Story (1950), The Seven Little Foys (1955), and Never Steal Anything Small (1958); war comedies, including What Price Glory? (1952) and Mister Roberts (1955); Westerns, including Run for Cover (1955) and Tribute to a Bad Man (1956); a soap opera, These Wilder Years (1956); and biographical dramas, playing Lon Chaney in Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) and Admiral William F. Halsey, a World War II hero, in The Gallant Hours (1960). During the 1950s, he portrayed villains in only two films, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950), a strikingly mean-spirited film noir, and Love Me or Leave Me (1955), in which he is a tyrannical racketeer with a limp. Tellingly, these are his most persuasive performances of the decade. His final reprise of the sharp, confident persona he created in the 1930s is an effulgent display in One, Two, Three (1961), in which he appears as a take-charge representative of American capitalism in postwar Berlin. Along with Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday, this movie is among the fastest talking of American films, and in his ebullient staccato delivery, Cagney concedes nothing to his advancing age and weight.

After One, Two, Three was completed, Cagney at long last did what he had intermittently threatened throughout his career—he hung up his hat and retired to the life of a gentleman farmer in Dutchess County. As ever, he avoided publicity and fanfare, becoming increasingly reclusive and rarely venturing into public for fear of being recognized. He continued to receive acting offers but was tempted only once, when he was asked to play a cockney, Alfred P. Doolittle, in My Fair Lady. When he declined, the role was given to Stanley Holloway, who recreated his original Broadway performance.

In 1974 Cagney reemerged to accept the Life Achievement Award of the American Film Institute and, engagingly unassuming, claimed that acting was simply a job at which he had done his best. In 1976 he published Cagney by Cagney, a casual, sketchy account of his life and career in which he distanced himself from his crime-movie persona. Unable or at least unwilling to be articulate about technique, he maintained that he worked purely by instinct and that, to enliven the routine material he was often required to perform, he frequently improvised dialogue and behavior. For the first time, he addressed his political commitments and his gradual shift to the right.

In 1980 Cagney made the mistake of returning to films. Visibly aged, heavyset, and with a vacant look in his eyes, he gives an all but immobile performance as the sheriff in Ragtime (1981), an adaptation of E. L. Doctorow's novel (1974). Cagney died of heart failure on March 30, 1986 in Millbrook, New York.

Although he often tried to prove otherwise, Cagney, like most film stars, had a limited range. He could not sound or move like anyone other than James Cagney, city boy, but like most performers who attained his stature, in his own line he was definitive. He was a true prototypical American icon, and his essential integrity illuminated and deepened even the most depraved of his characters. He thought of himself as a humble song and dance man and an urban populist. The central irony of his career is that he is best remembered as a supremely skillful delineator of criminal psychopaths. Fittingly, his obituary in the New York Times (31 March 1986) hailed him as "a master of pugnacious grace."


Cagney, James, Cagney by Cagney, 1976.

Freedland, Michael, Cagney: A Biography, 1975.

McGilligan, Patrick, Cagney: The Actor as Auteur, 1982.

Schickel, Richard, James Cagney: A Celebration, 1985.

Sklar, Robert, City Boys: Cagney, Bogart, Garfield, 1992.


New York Times, March 31, 1986. □

Cagney, James

views updated May 11 2018


Born in New York City, James Cagney (July 17, 1899–March 30, 1986) was the son of an Irish bartender and his Norwegian wife. After graduating from Stuyvesant High School, Jimmy Cagney attended Columbia University. His show business career began in 1918 when he appeared in local vaudeville revues. This work led to his first role in a major Broadway show Pitter Patter in 1920. After an unsuccessful visit to Hollywood in 1922, Cagney danced with his wife, Frances Willard "Billie" Vernon, on the vaudeville circuit in New York. Cagney won critical notice for small stage roles and by 1929 he was a star on Broadway.

Cagney's movie career began with the Warner Brothers musical Sinner's Holiday (1930). The cocky redhead from the Lower East Side and Yorkville neighborhoods quickly became a movie star in the 1930s, often playing a fast-talking Irish-American tough guy. His roles in Public Enemy (1931) and Smart Money (1931) helped establish the gangster movie genre. Cagney was handsome, athletic, and versatile; his experience as a dancer was evident in his unique body movement and dynamic screen presence. But his ironic wit and comic talent led to a wide variety of roles, including those in Blonde Crazy (1931) and Taxi (1932).

Discontented with the Hollywood studio system, the independent New Yorker left Los Angeles for six months while renegotiating his contract in 1931. With his salary doubled, Cagney was one of the first Irish-American actors to achieve megastar status playing urban antiheroes. He had leading roles in nineteen films in the next four years. Depression-era audiences were charmed by the feisty big city wise guy in such hit movies as Winner Take All (1932), Hard to Handle (1933), Lady Killer (1933), and Jimmy the Gent (1934). His performance in Footlight Parade (1933) was among his most memorable. In this movie he played a light-footed Broadway stage director confronting the competition of talking motion pictures. Cagney danced and sang in three Busby Berkeley production numbers and was featured in the film's tribute to the National Recovery Administration, reminding Depression-weary viewers how much they depended on President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Its lavish budget and strong supporting cast distinguished Footlight Parade from most of the Hollywood dream factory movies Cagney made in the 1930s.

Cagney's performance in Comes the Navy (1934) helped that picture earn an Academy Award nomination for best picture, but many of his movies in the 1930s were less memorable. When Cagney teamed with his friend Pat O'Brien in nine movies, however, the Irish-American pair delighted audiences with their wit and energy. The restless Cagney left Warner Brothers in 1935 to work with independent film companies but returned to earn his first nomination as best actor in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). Among the best roles he played in the 1930s was his part as a Prohibition racketeer in The Roaring Twenties (1939).

While Cagney was often described as cocky or pugnacious, his movie star qualities were more difficult to define. Perfectly suited for the hard times of the thirties, he possessed a gritty character with clipped speech and restless body language that moviegoers found irresistible. His political consciousness, as a founder of the Screen Actors Guild, his criticism of Jack Warner's studio system, and his being a subject of a HUAC investigation in the late 1930s and 1940s, also suited the times.

James Cagney made more than ninety movies in his long and productive career, but he is best remembered for his tough guy roles in the fifty movies he made from 1930 to 1940. He retired to Martha's Vineyard in 1961 and received the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award in 1974. He died on March 30, 1986, at his farm in Stanfordville, New York.



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Peter C. Holloran

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James Cagney

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