James Cagney – From Gangster to Patriotic Icon

Cagney’s Rise From Poverty to Stardom


A giant of the movies’ first half-century, James Cagney threw off the early shackles of typecasting to emerge as one of the screen’s most versatile and beloved actors.

He was the toughest of movie tough guys, bringing a maniacal menace and kinetic energy to performances that seemed to jump right off the screen.

James Cagney’s Acting Philosophy: Tell the Truth

Yet James Cagney, born and raised in poverty in New York City, surmounted that unwanted movie image as a ruthless gangster to amaze fans with a dancing virtuosity, a flair for comedy and a forceful, direct-acting style he once described in elegant simplicity to Pamela Tiffin, his co-star in One, Two, Three:

“You walk in, plant yourself squarely on both feet, look the other fella in the eye, and tell the truth.” (Cagney: The Authorized Biography, Doug Warren with James Cagney, St Martin’s Press, New York, 1986.)

James Francis Cagney, Jr. was born July 17, 1899, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. James Sr. was an alcoholic Irish-American bartender and amateur boxer. Cagney’s mother, Carolyn, was of Irish and Norwegian descent. The second of seven Cagney kids, Jimmy Cagney was a sickly child – something that ran in the family — two of his siblings died in infancy.

Later in life, he attributed the Cagneys’ ill-health to the poverty in which they lived.

Cagney a Self-Taught Hoofer

In 1918, the future actor enrolled at Columbia University, intending to major in art. But he dropped out after a semester, following the death of his father during the flu pandemic that year. He became the family’s chief breadwinner — and would continue to share his earnings with them the rest of his life.

Cagney took various jobs, including newspaper copy boy, junior architect, draughtsman and library employee. The former street fighter was also a talented boxer who considered turning professional – until his mother objected. He was also an excellent tap dancer, a skill he’d worked on since boyhood.

But it was big brother Harry who inadvertently put James Cagney in show business. Harry performed with the amateur theater troupe where Jim worked as a scenery boy. The younger Cagney had no interest in performing, but was a quick study and stepped in one night after Harry became ill. James performed flawlessly, having memorized the entire play simply by watching rehearsals.

James Cagney: A Man in Women’s Clothing

Later, James Cagney’s first paying gig was performed in drag, as a chorus girl in a revue called Every Sailor. He picked up the dance steps quickly and eventually worked for a decade in vaudeville and on Broadway. Throughout these years, Cagney sent home to his family much of the money he earned as a performer.

He met teenage chorine Frances Willard Vernon in a show called Pitter Patter. At first, he called her “Billie,” and later, “Willie.” They married in 1922. It was a devoted union that lasted 64 years, until his death.

In 1925, Cagney snagged his first non-dancing stage role, as a tough guy in Maxwell Anderson’s Outside Looking In. But he continued zig-zagging between Broadway and vaudeville, sometimes working as both actor and choreographer. He also ran dance schools to make extra money.

Bonding with Joan Blondell

At the end of the twenties, Cagney appeared in a pair of plays, Maggie the Magnificent and Penny Arcade, opposite sassy Joan Blondell. They became good friends and eventually co-starred in six Warner Brothers pictures in the early 1930s.

Both of those movie careers began when Al Jolson saw Penny Arcade, snapped up the movie rights for $20,000, then sold them to Warners with the stipulation Cagney and Blondell be retained for the film. Retitled Sinners Holiday, the finished melodrama put Cagney on the road to typecasting because he played a killer made sympathetic due to an unfortunate childhood.

Warners signed Cagney to a seven-year contract, and stardom arrived in the actor’s fourth picture, the 1931William Wellman gangster classic The Public Enemy. Originally cast as the nice-guy Matt Doyle, Cagney and co-star Edward Woods eventually swapped parts — with Cagney making the ferocious hood Tom Powers an icon of evil. Also in the cast: Joan Blondell, who’d eventually appear in six movies alongside her old pal.

The Public Enemy‘s Unforgettable Grapefruit Scene

The B-movie was a huge hit, memorable for many reasons but especially for the scene in which Mae Clarke, chiding Cagney one morning at breakfast, teases him about their previous night in bed. His response is to push a half-grapefruit into her face.

Cagney Busts Out of Hoodlum Roles to Enjoy Diverse Career

When The Public Enemy made James Cagney a star, the prototypically tough New Yorker quickly let his Warners bosses know he was a fighter – on and off the screen.

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