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.
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.
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).
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.