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JAMES CAGNEY
By Susan M. Kelly
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In a story line right out of a movie script, James Cagney, a street kid from New York’s Lower East Side, would blossom into one of Hollywood’s most unique and beloved talents.  His New York beginnings would give birth to many of the mannerisms that would make him famous, from the hitching of the pants to his unusual clipped speech, but his appeal would eventually extend far beyond those mean streets to the silver screen, where he would launch a career that would last for an astounding five decades.

Born to a lower class family in 1899, young Jimmy would take on a host of odd jobs to help make ends meet, including his first foray into performing, just after WWI, when he worked as a female impersonator.  While still in his early 20’s, he met and married the love of his life, Frances, and began touring in vaudeville before eventually landing on Broadway.  His performance as a small time grifter in “Sinners’ Holiday” earned him a ticket to Hollywood to appear in the 1930 film version by Warner Brothers.  Signed to a term contract, Cagney started off with supporting roles in films such as “Other Men’s Women” (1930) and “Smart Money” (1931).

1936 R95 James Cagney 8x10 Linen Premium Early 1930's James Cagney Dixie Premium PhotoThat same year he got his big break when he was cast as bootlegger Tom Powers in “The Public Enemy”.  Cagney’s performance, including the now classic scene where he smashes a grapefruit into Mae Clark’s face, instantly rocketed him to stardom, while at the same time tagging him with a gritty, tough guy image that would prove hard to shake.  Warners kept their newest star busy, rushing him into the back-to-back star vehicles “Taxi” (1932), “The Mayor of Hell” and “Lady Killer” (both 1933).  He broke briefly from his tough guy image to portray a theatrical producer turned performer in 1933’s “Footlight Parade”, a role which enabled him to show off his dance skills.

By the mid 30’s, Cagney was one of Hollywood’s hardest working and most popular stars.  Despite his new found fame, he had already grown weary of his many tough guy parts and showed the first inklings of his activist streak (he would later be among the founders of the Screen Actors Guild), lobbying for better parts and more money.  With the end of Prohibition came a change in Hollywood’s focus.  No longer were tough guy criminals portrayed as the heroes, and Cagney was finally able to break from the mold.  He eagerly ventured into the forefront of the new trend playing an FBI agent in “G Men” and an aviator in “Devil Dogs of the Air”, both in 1935. 

By the end of 1935, Cagney managed to escape from his Warners contract and with his brother, William, set up his own production company, Grand National Pictures.  Unfortunately, the studio was short lived.  After completing just two offerings, 1936’s “Great Guy” and the 1937 musical “Something to Sing About”, Cagney folded up shop and returned to Warners, duly shamed.  He didn’t come empty handed, though, bringing with him a third property which Warners would develop into 1938’s “Angels With Dirty Faces”, catapulting Cagney back into the spotlight and earning him an Oscar nomination.

1940 James Cagney Made in USA Arcard Card1930's James Cagney Editorial Bruguera Card/PremiumBack in the tough guy grind, he spent the next few years appearing in such films as “The Roaring Twenties” (1939), and “City for Conquest” (1940).  By this time, he was finally allowed to branch out and nabbed roles in westerns such as 1939’s “The Oklahoma Kid”, lighthearted adventure films like 1940’s “Torrid Zone”, war films (1940’s “The Fighting 69th”) and comedies (1941’s “The Strawberry Blonde”).  His final role for Warners would prove to be both Cagney’s personal favorite and his most acclaimed.  As pioneering Broadway showman George M. Cohan in 1942’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, Cagney showed off his singing and dancing abilities on the way to his only Academy Award.

Ever the restless soul, Cagney still yearned for professional independence and he left Warners in 1943.  It would prove to be a fateful decision as he starred in only four films over the next five years.  He returned to Warners for one more gangster picture, 1949’s “White Heat”, which returned some of the luster to his waning star as well as introducing the classic line “Top o’the world, Ma!” to film audiences.

The 1950’s weren’t quite as good to Cagney.  He worked steadily, but with mixed success, though there were some notable performances along the way, including gangster Martin “the Gimp” Snyder in “Love Me or Leave Me” (1955), which earned him another Oscar nomination.  He continued to show his great range, playing everything from the odious ship’s captain in “Mister Roberts” (1955), to George M. Cohan again, for one glorious scene in 1955’s “The Seven Little Foys”.  He made his only foray into directing with 1956’s “Short Cut to Hell” then returned to acting with a memorable portrayal of silent-screen great Lon Chaney in 1957’s “Man of a Thousand Faces”.

He appeared in a few more films in the late 50’s but after appearing in Billy Wilder’s wonderful comedy “One, Two, Three” in 1961, he declared that it was time to retire.  He would disappear from the screen for the next 20 years until 1981, when he enjoyed a triumphant return to the screen as the crusty police commissioner in Milos Forman’s “Ragtime”.  He appeared before the cameras one last time, at the tender age of 85, in the title role of the 1984 telefilm “Terrible Joe Moran”.

He died just two years later, leaving behind a legacy unlike any in Hollywood history.  He had been honored by the American Film Institute in 1974 with the Lifetime Achievement Award, and what a life it was!  He had worked his way up from humble beginnings and built up a remarkable career, serving as an influence to younger actors from Clint Eastwood to Malcom McDowell and an idol to millions of fans the world over.
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Susan M. Kelly is a freelance writer who lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey. 


Other James Cagney Pages:
A Tribute to James Cagney -- From Brad Lang's Classic Movies site