Tough Guy: The Best of James Cagney

About a month ago, I was watching an early Cagney entry called Taxi! (1932), and in one early scene, witnessed the diminutive actor of Irish/Norwegian stock speaking Yiddish... not one or two words, mind you, but paragraphs.

And I thought to myself -- yet another reason to love Jimmy Cagney.

As if we needed any more.

In fact, Cagney learned that language fluently growing up dirt-poor on New York's Lower East Side in the early days of the twentieth century. But he had much more than language skills in his favor.

Though compact, he was scrappy and a natural fighter, often protecting his brother from neighborhood bullies. He eventually learned how to box, and became skillful enough to consider doing it for a living.

He also knew how to hustle and sell. He was in constant motion. From early days, he worked several jobs to support his family. Even once he'd made it in Hollywood, he sent his mother the majority of his earnings till the day she died.

Of course Cagney never mentioned that.

He did talk about the value of hard work and enterprise, stating in his usual down-to-earth way: "Where I come from, if there's a buck to be made, you don't ask questions, you go ahead and make it."

Independent and outspoken by nature, he was a dogged, ruthless negotiator with the studios.

He was also a family man, through and through. In Hollywood, a town where marriages come and go like the seasons, Cagney remained true and devoted to his wife, Frances, known as "Billie", over a sixty-four year marriage. Together they adopted two kids, and one of them, James Cagney Jr., became an actor.

Eschewing all the publicity and pomp of Tinseltown, Cagney loved the peace and tranquility of country life, places where, as he put it, "there were more animals than people." He and Billie would eventually retire to a bucolic horse farm in New York's Dutchess County for the last quarter century of his life.

As for his distinctive acting style, he was electric. A telling quote from him: "There's not much to say about acting but this. Never settle back on your heels. Never relax. If you relax, the audience relaxes. And always mean everything you say."

Though he brought off his unique on-screen persona with incredible finesse, you always felt Cagney was indeed on the balls of his feet, ready to spring like a bantam rooster.

Many who think of him as the screen's ultimate tough guy will be surprised to learn that in his first paying gig on the stage, he cross-dressed to play a lady of the chorus. He was secure enough in his masculinity to be not the least bit embarrassed.

In the twenties, Cagney started performing as a song-and-dance man in vaudeville, and in his film career, would always relish those opportunities when he was able to lay down his Tommy gun and showcase his distinctive style of hoofing.

Yet of course, it was a gangster film that first made him famous.

Originally, Cagney was slated for the second-lead in The Public Enemy (1931), alongside co-star Edward Woods, but director William Wellman had them switch roles after watching the first set of dailies. It was the right decision, as the film was a monster hit. Virtually overnight, James Cagney was a movie star.

He'd then work pretty much continually over the next three decades, retiring gracefully after starring in Billy Wilder's 1961 Cold War comedy, One, Two, Three. (Though many adore this film, I find it dates rather badly. Still, Cagney's bravura performance alone makes it worth seeing.)

Though tempted by many good offers (including Art Carney's role in 1974's Harry and Tonto, which netted Carney an Oscar), the star would only return to the screen one last time a full two decades later, in Milos Forman's "Ragtime" (1981).

This was partly in reaction to a minor stroke Cagney had suffered several years prior, which prevented him from pursuing beloved activities like painting and riding. It was felt that being in front of the camera again would lift his spirits. By all accounts it did, and the audience's spirits rose as well to see him.

With wife Billie by his side, James Cagney died quietly at the farm he so loved in 1986, just a few months older than the century.

In honor of his birthday this week, here are my personal Cagney favorites:

The Public Enemy (1931) -- This landmark film concerns Tom Powers (Cagney), a wayward Irish youth from Chicago's gritty South Side who becomes a big-time mobster during Prohibition, while his stable older brother Mike (Donald Cook) works a low-paying but honest job. As Tom's dark star soars ever higher in the gangland hierarchy, he and childhood buddy Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) leave a trail of blood in their wake, but ultimately this life of crime exacts its toll on Tom. William A. Wellman's The Public Enemy launched the film career of a pugnacious Irish-American from Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen who started out as a dancer, only to become the toughest tough guy of them all: Jimmy Cagney, never cockier than he is here. Since organized crime was a fairly new and frightening epidemic at the time, Wellman gives "Enemy" the stark feel of a purely cautionary tale. Both the famous grapefruit scene (just wait for it) and Tom's final homecoming still pack a wallop, and a stunning young Jean Harlow injects plenty of sex appeal as Tom's gal Gwen.

Footlight Parade (1933) -- Musical producer and performer Chester Kent (Cagney) gets the idea to produce short musical prologues for the still fairly new "talking pictures", but the competition keeps stealing his ideas. Finally, with the help of loyal assistant Nan (Joan Blondell), and young leads Bea Thorn (Ruby Keeler) and the high-born but show-biz crazy Scotty Blair (Dick Powell), Kent arranges a private, three day performing marathon to outfox those pesky rival producers. The result is sustained musical comedy magic. In Parade, the proven formula of breathtaking Busby Berkeley choreography and the winning Powell-Keeler combination is further augmented by an energetic, infectious Cagney, who dominates throughout in an all-too-rare song and dance role. Memorable, pre-code numbers include the priceless "Honeymoon Hotel" and "By A Waterfall." This is one parade you'll certainly want to join.

G-Men (1935) -- When his best friend, FBI agent Eddie Buchanan (Regis Toomey), is gunned down by gangsters, James "Brick" Davis (Cagney), a street-smart lawyer whose education was bankrolled by a broadminded mobster, decides to become a "G man" himself. Viewed with skepticism by his superior, Jeff McCord (Robert Armstrong) for his underworld associations, Davis gets a chance to prove himself when he's asked to help nab the same gang that dispatched his pal. His two love interests, a bar hostess (Ann Dvorak) and a hospital nurse (Margaret Lindsay), land him in a tangle and also help amplify the theme of divided loyalties. After solidifying his reputation as Hollywood's number-one bad guy, Cagney played a straight-edge lawman in this gangland drama, a huge hit for Warner Brothers and great publicity for J. Edgar Hoover's fledgling department, which had only recently granted officers the right to bear arms (a big plot point in the film). Cagney is mesmerizing as Brick, prudent and principled but also tough as nails and willing to throw his weight around. Don't miss this underexposed classic!

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) -- Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly, two young hooligans on the make, are caught stealing, and only Jerry gets away. As the years go by, the reform school-hardened Rocky (Cagney) enters a life of crime, becoming a famous and feared gangster, while Jerry (Pat O'Brien) ultimately sees the light and enters the priesthood. While maintaining affection for each other, criminal and priest must compete for the souls of a new generation of hoodlums in the neighborhood, played by the Dead End Kids. "Angels" represents the peak of the gangster picture genre that Warners developed and refined in the thirties, when the age of Capone was still fresh in people's minds. Cagney, whose screen career had been launched seven years before in "The Public Enemy", perfects his rendition of the crook with a heart of gold, and his close real-life friend and colleague Pat O'Brien (they'd appear in nine pictures together) counters him perfectly as the mellow, morally upright Father Connolly. Meanwhile Humphrey Bogart, in full villain mode, is deliciously slimy as Rocky's "business partner". Whatever you do, don't miss that ending!

The Roaring Twenties (1939)- Eddie Bartlett (Cagney), Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn) and George Hally (Humphrey Bogart) are three doughboys who meet in a trench during the First World War. Returning to the States with the armistice, Eddie soon drifts into lucrative underworld commerce brought on by prohibition, eventually teaming with his old foxhole buddies in a vast bootlegging operation. But with greed rearing its ugly head, the whole enterprise is ill-fated. A breakthrough for director Raoul Walsh, this classic boasts electric performances from both Cagney and soon-to-be star Bogie. Consistent with most Bogart portrayals from the thirties, his George Hally is a low double-crosser who puts the screws to the honorable (in his way) Eddie. Consistent with most Cagney roles, Eddie gets his revenge. "Twenties" is a worthy swan song to the glory days of the gangster picture--and just wait for that immortal closing line of dialogue.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) -- A meeting with F.D.R on the eve of our country's entry into World War II prompts an aging George M. Cohan (Cagney), America's most revered showman, to look back on his colorful life, from the lean early days touring the country with his parents and sister in vaudeville (Walter Huston, Rosemary de Camp, and Jeanne Cagney -- Jimmy's real-life sibling), to later heady, happy times as our country's most prominent songwriter/performer, who stirred love of country through the first several decades of the twentieth century. Director Michael Curtiz's idealized homage to Cohan's life and legacy was perfectly timed to raise our spirits as we entered World War II. This exuberant slice of Americana is Cagney's show entirely, netting him his only Oscar (after all those gangster roles!). The actor began his career as a song-and-dance man, and here he gets to prove it, in a series of rousing, nostalgic numbers that keep the rich Cohan legacy alive. Walter Huston stands out in a sterling supporting cast playing George's loving Dad. Good enough to watch any old time, but a must for Independence Day. Go ahead -- wave that flag!

White Heat (1949)- Film follows twisted path of one Cody Jarrett (Cagney) a hardened career criminal whose profound mental illness manifests itself in blinding headaches and an intense mother fixation. His psychosis doesn't hold him back from an aggressive spree of robbing and killing, however. When Cody winds up in jail on a relatively minor charge, the authorities place undercover cop Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien) in his cell. Later, when the two are sprung, Hank joins the Jarrett gang, and from the inside, starts to accelerate Cody's undoing. Raoul Walsh's dynamite gangster picture is so much more than a re-tread of the early thirties gangster classics that made Cagney a star. Here we are less concerned with the cat-and-mouse aspects of the story (though they are plenty diverting) and more focused on the progressive mental disintegration of the central character. Cagney is outstanding as Jarrett, a man whose own demons may consume him before the police finish the job. Electrifying stuff, and a Cagney peak.

Love Me or Leave Me (1955) -- Aspiring singer Ruth Etting (Doris Day) works as a taxi dancer at a Chicago nightclub when she's spotted by smitten, street-wise Marty Snyder (Cagney), a thuggish laundry owner with big-time underworld connections. Through his brutish, heavy-handed interventions, Ruth becomes a star of stage and screen. She then weds Marty out of obligation, though secretly she loves her one-time accompanist Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell). As the years go by, Marty's strong-arm tactics and need to control Ruth cast a dark cloud over her happiness and career. A far cry from the wholesome, gee-whiz brand of MGM musicals from the '50s, this daring biopic of the real-life Etting-"America's sweetheart of song"-is remarkably candid about the sleazy opportunists who inhabit the showbiz world. Day is smashing as Etting, a shimmering talent who sacrifices love and independence for the promise of fame. Her turbulent relationship with the limping, repugnant Marty, brilliantly portrayed by an Oscar-nominated Cagney, goes from bad to catastrophic, all hinging on her reunion with Johnny, played by the agreeably forthright Mitchell. The story is gripping, but so are Day's sexy, impeccable renditions of torch songs like "Shaking the Blues Away."

Mister Roberts (1955) -- Adapted from Josh Logan's Broadway hit, this service drama tells of Lt. Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda), an officer on a WWII cargo ship, desperate to see action, who instead has to cope with irascible, by-the-book Captain Morton (Cagney). Roberts is frustrated by life aboard the SS "Reluctant," but thankfully, Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon)-"in charge of laundry and morale" -- is on board to provide him and the crew with some much-needed laughs and sympathy. Returning to the big screen after an eight-year absence, Fonda successfully recreated his indelible stage role in "Mister Roberts" under the superb direction of Ford (along with Mervyn LeRoy), though Ford and Fonda literally came to blows just weeks into shooting! Young Lemmon must have been humbled by the cast line-up for this film: Fonda, Cagney, and the legendary William Powell (in his final on-screen role as a philosophical ship doctor). Yet his manic energy was ideal for Pulver, and Lemmon held his own with Hollywood's best, winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Cagney is also aces as the touchiest of skippers. All aboard for Mister Roberts!

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