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.

Like many contemporaries, Cagney suffered at the hands of his Warner Bros. bosses. They worked him almost mercilessly, intending to wring every possible dollar out of their investment. Cagney made five films each in 1931 and 1933, four in 1934 and six in 1935. 1932, however, was different, because that’s when the notoriously stubborn actor staged the first of several walkouts over money.

The studio eventually caved, but Cagney’s experiences led him to help found the Screen Actors Guild in 1933. (He was Guild president for two years, starting in 1942.)

James Cagney: “Professional Againster”

Overall, Cagney was politically liberal – some insisted radical. But that would change as he aged, in part due to the influence of his close friend, arch-conservative actor Robert Montgomery.

Of his walkouts, Cagney remarked in his autobiography, “I walked out because I depended on the studio heads to keep their word on this, that or another promise, and when the promise was not kept, my only recourse was to deprive them of my services.” (Cagney by Cagney, James Cagney, Doubleday, 1976)

Cagney’s stubbornness extended from entire pictures to specific lines of dialogue he felt were wrong for him. The extremely charitable star even resisted making charitable contributions when they were mandated by the studio. Production chief Jack Warner reportedly was the one who nicknamed the pugnacious performer “the Professional Againster.”

Cagney Wins Oscar as Best Actor in Yankee Doodle Dandy

Throughout the 30s, Cagney’s output ranged across many genres – from gangster epics to comedies like Blonde Crazy and musicals including the remarkable Footlight Parade, featuring Busby Berkeley-staged set-pieces and Cagney’s trademark tap dancing in classic numbers including Shanghai Lil.

But the star hit his professional stride in 1942, earning the Academy Award as Best Actor for Yankee Doodle Dandy. As real-life stage legend George M. Cohan, Cagney electrified audiences with his tap dancing and especially, moving dramatic scenes — in particular one with Walter Huston as Cohan’s father.

In revisionist times, the film has been criticized as simple-minded patriotic blather. And it’s true the film was partly intended as a morale-booster for an America just entering World War II. But Yankee Doodle Dandy was also a superior entertainment, boasting Cohan’s famous musical repertoire, Cagney’s high-energy performance and a heart-tugging storyline.

In his Oscar speech, Cagney said, “I’ve always maintained that in this business, you’re only as good as the other fellow thinks you are. It’s nice to know that you people thought I did a good job. And don’t forget that it was a good part.”

James Cagney Was Extremely Private in Real Life

Offscreen, the intensely shy James Cagney kept his own company, maintaining a few warm friendships – notably with fellow Irish-American actors (and frequent co-stars) Pat O’Brien and Frank McHugh. He was so private that Cagney’s pal O’Brien called him the “faraway fella.”

As a couple, Jim and his wife Willie Cagney lived quietly. Their need for solitude even meant the curious banishment of their two adopted children, Jim and Catharine (“Casey”) to a specially-built guest house. Biographer and Cagney friend John McCabe claims the children were effectively raised apart from their famous dad because of the actor’s need for absolute concentration at home while studying his lines. (Cagney by John McCabe, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1997)

White Heat Produces Classic Movie Line

In 1949, Cagney ended a decade-long hiatus from gangster roles with what many consider his best. As the psychotic Cody Jarrett, Cagney in White Heat is a mother-obsessed killer whose fiery death atop an exploding oil refinery produced one of the most famous lines in movie history:

“Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”

By the 50s, the visibly aging Cagney nonetheless remained a vital screen presence. He played a sadistic supply boat captain in the wartime dramedy Mister Roberts, based on the Broadway hit. Cagney reprised the George M. Cohan role for the Bob Hope vehicle The Seven Little Foys, which included a memorable tabletop tap dance with Hope. He was a controlling, violent gangster involved with Doris Day in Love Me or Leave Me. And he brought authority to the role of silent film star Lon Chaney in the fictionalized film biography Man of a Thousand Faces.

James Cagney Walks Away From Films

1961 brought a huge turning point in Cagney’s life. He played a Coca-Cola executive in the Cold War comedy One, Two, Three for director Billy Wilder. But Cagney hated the multiple takes (50 in some cases) and the deliberately fast pace of the dialogue. He also intensely disliked co-star Horst Buchholz. After more than three decades, Cagney decided he didn’t need the movies anymore. And he walked away.

Cagney, who’d developed a love of farms while visiting relatives as a child, retired to one he’d purchased years earlier north of New York City. He and Willie also spent time in Los Angeles and on Martha’s Vineyard.

In 1974, Cagney delighted the audience at his American Film Institute lifetime achievement tribute, telling the crowd, “I never said ‘Mmm, you dirty rat.’ What I actually said was, ‘Judy, Judy, Judy!’” Thus he poked fun at two lines never uttered in films — the first misattributed to him, the second to Cary Grant.

Cagney’s Final Two Performances Anti-Climactic

In failing health, Cagney made two film appearances in the early 1980s, as his health began to fail. In director Milos Forman’s Ragtime, he played a police commissioner, opposite old pal friend Pat O’Brien. And finally, in the television movie Terrible Joe Moran, Cagney was an invalid former boxer.

In one touching scene, he watches on television some old footage of himself in the ring. In fact, the clip is from Cagney’s tenth film, 1932’s Winner Take All.

But by then, the real-life fight had gone out of James Cagney. After surviving a stroke and battling diabetes, Cagney suffered a fatal heart attack on Mar. 30, 1986, at his farm north of New York City. James Cagney was 86.

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