One of the true Hollywood superstars, James Cagney is primarily known for playing gangsters; yet he was also a wonderful, idiosyncratic dancer who had precious few opportunities to show off his talents in musicals (although when he got the chance, he shined). Most of his career was spent at Warner Bros., where he was often among the top 10 male draws during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Cagney was born on New York City's Lower East Side in 1899. He was accepted into Columbia University but soon had to drop out because of lack of money. In desperation, he turned to show business hoping to make a living.
He went on to appear as an actor-dancer on the vaudeville circuit throughout the early to mid-1920s, until he made it to Broadway. Slowly, he ascended the cast lists, finally becoming the second lead in Penny Arcade. It was his big break. The show was made into a Warner Bros. movie (retitled Sinner's Holiday, 1930), and he came with the package. As he said in his autobiography (Cagney on Cagney), "I came out (to Hollywood) on a three-week guarantee and I stayed, to my absolute amazement, for thirty-one years."
He made only three more films in just one year before becoming a major star. The movie that catapulted him to the top and tagged him forever as a gangster was Public Enemy (1931). Cagney's gangster roles rank among the most memorable of that genre. In addition to Public Enemy, the best of his gangster films are Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), The Roaring Twenties (1939), and White Heat (1949). But Cagney excelled in many other parts. In some of his better early roles he played a taxi driver in Taxi (1931), a press agent in Hard to Handle (1933), and a boxer in City for Conquest (1940).
Aside from his films with Pat O'Brien (they made eight films together) and his gangster efforts, Cagney is perhaps best remembered and most loved for his few musicals. He first showed his peculiar stiff-legged dancing style in Footlight Parade (1933). He eventually appeared in four more musicals, two of minor consequence (Something to Sing About, 1937, and Never Steal Anything Small, 1959), the Bob Hope vehicle The Seven Little Foys (1955), and the masterpiece Yankee Doodle Dandy (1947), directed by Michael Curtiz. The movie earned Cagney a Best Actor Oscar and it made a fortune in film rentals.
Cagney's career slowed down considerably in the mid-1940s and 1950s. He had left Warners to set up his own production company, producing and starring in only one hit, Blood on the Sun (1946). In 1951 he made one excellent film about alcoholism, Come Fill the Cup, but despite some fine performances, his popularity had begun to fade. In 1955 his career suddenly turned around when he played the aging gangster in the Doris Day vehicle Love Me or Leave Me. He emerged yet again with a fine supporting performance as the impossible captain in the Henry Fonda hit Mister Roberts (Mervyn LeRoy, 1955).
It was a flurry of activity that unfortunately didn't signal a return to top box-office status. Except for an exceptional performance playing Lon Chaney in The Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), Cagney's films did not amount to much. He seemingly ended his career on a wonderful high note in Billy Wilder's little seen but highly regarded comedy, One, Two, Three (1962). Cagney walked away from Hollywood, retiring to his farm in upstate New York. He had been asked but refused to play Eliza Doolittle's father in the film version of My Fair Lady (1964). It wasn't until he suffered a stroke and his doctor suggested working as good therapy that he came back to the big screen in a featured role as the police commissioner in Ragtime (1981)
Though he looked old, there was still that unmistakable pugnacious voice punching out his dialogue. And what a thrill it was to see the name James Cagney on the marquee of a theater again, 50 years after Public Enemy. Relentless in his acting style, Cagney was never false in any of his films, whether or not his movies were badly written or directed. He remains a Hollywood treasure, an actor who usually outclassed the vast majority of his films.
--SCOTT & BARBARA SIEGEL, from
The Encyclopedia of Hollywood.
A selection of James Cagney films.
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A selection of James Cagney in books.
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