James Cagney (1899 -1986)

 

Biography from Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia:


The words used to describe him are often the same: "cocky," "pugnacious," "jaunty," "energetic." In truth, though, this unique movie star possessed an appeal that's not easy to identify. Cagney's surface gestures and mannerisms-many of them adopted from people he knew in the streets of New York's Lower East Side-are easy to catalog: the clipped speech, the hitching up of trousers, the aggressive body language. But his peculiar level of intensity, his capacity for introspection (which prompted longtime pal Pat O'Brien to nickname him "the faraway fella"), his ability to draw on previously unseen reservoirs of emotion ... these all mark him as a very special screen personality.

A "street kid" born into a lower-class family, Cagney earned his keep by work ing in restaurants and poolrooms before taking up performing on a full-time basis (initially as a female impersonator!) in the post-WW1 years. He married while still a young man, and with his wife Frances toured in vaudeville before securing parts in Broadway shows during the late 1920s. It was his stint as a small-time grifter in "Sinner's Holiday" that won him (as well as fellow cast member Joan Blondell) a ticket to Hollywood to appear in the 1930 film version produced by Warner Bros. Signed to a term contract, Cagney was assigned supporting roles in Doorway to Hell, Other Men's Women (both 1930), The Millionaire and Smart Money (both 1931) before getting his big break as bootlegger Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (also 1931), William Wellman's spectacular entry in Warners' series of gritty gangster films. Cagney's dynamic performance (including the famous scene in which he shoved a half-grapefruit into actress Mae Clarke's face), supplemented by excellent supporting players, incisive direction, and savage action, made the film a tremendous hit and rocketed him to stardom.

Of course, it took some time for that to sink in. The custom at Warners was to keep contract players busy, and Cagney was rushed into back-to-back star vehicles tailored for his tough-guy image-but often leavened with humor: Taxi! (in which he showed off his fluency in Yiddish), The Crowd Roars, Winner Take All (all 1932), Hard to Handle, Picture Snatcher, The Mayor of Hell and Lady Killer (all 1933) among them. He took a brief respite from the beer-and-bullets milieu to show off his terpsichorean talents as the theatrical producer turned performer in Footlight Parade (also 1933), in which he danced with top studio hoofer Ruby Keeler in the "Shanghai Lil" production number.

By 1935 several things had happened. Cagney wearied of his cookie-cutter tough-guy assignments, and lobbied for more money and better parts. (Always politically active-a troublemaker, in the eyes of Jack Warner-he was one of the founders of the Screen Actors Guild.) At the same time, the end of Prohibition signaled a change, with gangster pictures supplanted by crime dramas that glorified the good guys instead of the bad guys. Cagney was in the forefront of the new trend, playing a two-fisted FBI agent in "G" Men (1935). That year he also played devil-may-care aviators in Ceiling Zero and Devil Dogs of the Air (teamed with Pat O'Brien in both), and was most improbably cast as Bottom in Warners' allstar version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. By year's end, though, he'd ankled Warners in the middle of his contract.

Along with brother William (a sometime actor himself), Cagney set up his own production company at the independent distributing company Grand National Pictures. The ostensible aim was to personally develop and produce the kinds of pictures he couldn't get at Warners-and net him a piece of the action besides. But his first Grand National offering, Great Guy (1936), was distressingly similar to the Warners products he claimed to be tired of; aside from reuniting him with Mae Clarke, it added nothing to either his reputation or his bank account. A lavish (by Grand National standards) musical, Something to Sing About (1937), was more to Cagney's liking but went way over budget and failed to recoup its costs. With a third property tucked under his arm, Cagney slunk back to Warners with his tail between his legs.

Cagney and Ann Sheridan in Angels with dirty facesAngels With Dirty Faces (1938), developed for Cagney's Grand National unit by Rowland Brown, was given top production mounting by Warners and catapulted its star back into the limelight (earning him an Oscar nomination as well). Over the next few years, he was still assigned tough-guy material-such as The Roaring Twenties (1939), Each Dawn I Die and City for Conquest (both 1940)-but also got starring roles in Westerns (1939's The Oklahoma Kid), lighthearted adventure films (1940's Torrid Zone war films (1940's The Fighting 69th and 1942's Cap- tains of the Clouds and comedies (1941's The Strawberry Blonde and The Bride Came C.O.D Cagney climaxed his Warners stint with his favorite role, that of pioneering Broadway showman George M. Cohan, in the Michael Curtiz-directed biopic, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), which not only gave him plenty of opportunities to sing and dance, but also was designed to be a patriotic morale booster for war-weary audiences. It was a rousing success on both counts, and earned Cagney his only Academy Award.

Cagney still yearned for his independence, however. He left Warners again in 1943, and starred in only four movies over the next five years: Johnny Come Lately (1943), an evocative story about the travails of a small-town newspaper, which in one scene revealed his skills as a sketch artist; Blood on the Sun (1945), which featured Cagney as an American reporter stationed in Japan before Pearl Harbor; 13 Rue Madeleine (1946), a documentarystyle story about O.S.S. agents in war-torn Europe; and The Time of Your Life (1948), a tepid adaptation of the William Saroyan play about colorful characters in a waterfront dive. He went back to Warners for an Indian Summer gangster picture, White Heat (1949), a commercial success that, among other things, put the line "Top o'the world, Ma!" into our pop-culture lexicon, and showed that he was still as vigorous as ever.

Cagney in rare form in Angels with dirty facesCagney's 1950s pictures were a mixed bag, beginning with 1950's Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye and West Point Story. There were many bright spots: In 1955 he played gangster Martin "the Gimp" Snyder to Doris Day's Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me (picking up another Oscar nomination), the hilariously odious ship's captain in Mister Roberts and a happily hoofing George M. Cohan for one delightful scene in The Seven Little Foys Bob Hope's biopic of stage star Eddie Foy. He directed one film, 1956's Short Cut to Hell a remake of Alan Ladd's This Gun for Hire produced by his good friend A. C. Lyles, but that single experience sated his curiosity about wielding the megaphone. He played silent-screen great Lon Chaney in a fanciful but well-made biopic, Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), and appeared in the musical Never Steal Anything Small the potent Irish terrorist drama Shake Hands With the Devil (both 1959), and The Gallant Hours (1960, as Admiral Bull Halsey). At this point, he became more vocal about retiring, and went out in fine style as the frazzled Coca-Cola executive stationed in West Berlin for Billy Wilder's marvelous comedy One, Two, Three (1961). It was a uniquely dynamic performance, and his last screen appearance for 20 years.

Content to sit in his Martha's Vineyard home and paint, Cagney came out of retirement in 1981, claiming that his doctor had ordered him to do something to stay active. Obviously ill, puffy, and fatigued, Cagney nonetheless delivered a service able performance as a crusty police commissioner in Milos Forman's Ragtime (1981). He appeared before the cameras only once more, in the teary telefilm Terrible Joe Moran (1984). In 1974 the American Film Institute gave him its Life Achievement Award in a nationally broadcast ceremony; he was chipper and charming, and even danced up the steps to the podium to receive his award. The following year, he wrote an autobiography, "Cagney by Cagney."

Copyright ©1994 Leonard Maltin, used by arrangement with Signet, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc.

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