James Cagney

James Francis Cagney (born July 17, 1899, died March 30, 1986) was one of the most famous actors in film because of
his performances in a diverse array of roles. Cagney rose to fame through roles as gangsters in the 1930’s, most of them displaying pugnacious and brash “tough guys." Cagney's brilliance as a preformer is his acting versatility in many diverse roles and he received many awards both during and after his career for such performances. Starring in films from every type of drama, Cagney refused to be typecast. He earned three Academy Award nominations for Best Actor throughout his career for his work in films like Angels With Dirty Faces, Love Me or Leave Me, and for his portrayal of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, the only time Cagney won the award.

The Early Years (1899-1929)

James Cagney was the son of an Irish bartender and a Norwegian mother. Growing up on the Lower East
Cagney's rise to fame came through his "tough guy" roles he took on (http://tainted-archive.blogspot.com/2010/07/legends-james-cagney.html)
Side of New York City, Cagney helped support his family as a waiter, poolroom racker, and soon got into acting.[1] His first attempt at acting was when Cagney joined a Yorkville area revue as a female impersonator.[2] This brief stint led Cagney to audition for a Broadway play called Pitter Patter, where he was successful in getting the role. Cagney married one of the chorus line performers in Pitter Patter named Frances Willard Vernon in 1922. Both would travel around with the vaudeville circuit of the show, eventually moving to California in 1924 with the hopes of breaking into the movies. Cagney and his wife Frances tried to get work as actors, but were unsuccessful, and headed back to the stage on Broadway.

Cagney won the role of a young tough-guy in a three-act play called Outside Looking In; Cagney would later become the quintessential tough-guy in many roles he would later tackle in Hollywood. The play received positive reviews and Cagney seemed to be on the rise as a young actor. The next play he starred in almost caused him to quit show business after he was prematurely fired in 1927.[3] [4] [5] Cagney was determined though, and decided to star in the 1928 Broadway musical Grand Street Follies of 1928, where he also served as the choreographer (Cagney was a renown dancer). The show was a hit, prompting a sequel that Cagney also starred in called The Grand Street Follies of 1929.[6]

On to Hollywood (1929-1931)

Cagney was now an up-and-coming star in Broadway, being cast as the lead
James Cagney and Joan Blondell star in "Penny Arcade," later renamed "Sinners' Holiday" (http://www.earlydaysproductions.com/james%20cagney.html)
opposite actress Joan Blondell in Maggie the Magnificent and in another play Penny Arcade, which would be Cagney’s stepping stone into Hollywood despite failing to get work there before . Penny Arcade was unpopular among critics but Cagney and Blondell were a smash hit. Cagney referred to this play as the turing point in his life.[7] A then current Hollywood star named Al Jolson, who also came from a Broadway-background, took notice and bought the rights to Penny Arcade to make a film version of the play.
He then sold the film version to Warner Brothers with the stipulation that Cagney and Blondell be cast in the film. The film was released in 1930 and was renamed Sinners’ Holiday, and would become the first of many gangster-roles in film that Cagney would portray.[8] Cagney’s cocky attitude and strong personality made it easy for him to depict these gangster-like characters on screen and the studios took notice. After the release, Cagney signed a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers and soon began to star in more movies like Doorway to Hell (where he was cast as another gangster), The Millionaire in 1930, and Other Men’s Women.[9] Finally it was in the 1931 film The Public Enemy that Cagney broke out in
Cagney's first Hollywood smash-hit "The Public Enemy" (http://this.org/blog/2010/08/10/ezra-levant-greenpeace-criminal-organization/)
Hollywood.[10] He was cast as a ruthless Prohibition gangster who, in a memorable scene, smashes a grapefruit into the face of gang moll Mae Clarke.[11] If there everwas a time for a new star with Cagney's background, special talent, and unique appeal to turn up in Hollywood, the early thirties was that time.[12]

He had a kinetic sense of movement, garnered from his dancing experience, that was so important to the film
medium.[13] But more, he had the voice, the timing, the sense of how a scene should sound as well as look for the new talkies.[14] Cagney's appeal and popularity went beyond the mere finger-prodding, tight-smile-with-teeth-showing gestures that launched him into a new breed of tough-guy.[15] There was also that slightly nasal New York accent, the rat-a-tat delivery of his lines, and the way he could work a menacing nuance into an ingratiating question or aside.[16] Moreover, the public was getting tired of "pretty boys;" it wanted a new series of suave, handsome types in brittle comedies, insipid love stories, and easy-on-the-eyes musicals--Cagney was that guy.[17] His brash, determined personality thrived in gangster films like The Public Enemy, as well as in other films of different genres. Cagney continued to star in films that earned high praise throughout the early 1930’s, movies like Smart Money, Blond Crazy, Taxi, and The G-Men.[18]

Stardom (1932-1942)

After portraying a number of tough-guys, Cagney got a break from such roles when he starred in Busby Berkely’s musical extravaganza Footlight Parade in 1932, giving Cagney a chance to show off his dancing ability on film, a trait he would use to win him an Academy Award later in his career. He also took on his first, and only, Shakespeare role playing Bottom in the 1935 film A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Cagney was one of the Top Ten Moneymakers in Hollywood for the first time in 1935.[19] He took a break from the spotlight from 1936-1937 mainly because Warner Brothers had violated his contract, the first of many disputes between the studio and Cagney, and he took Warner brothers to court. The dispute was soon resolved (one of the first times an actor had taken on a studio in court and won) resulting in Cagney’s return to the screen once again to play a tough-guy, Rocky Sullivan in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938).[20] He worked alongside Pat O’Brien,
James Cagney won his only Academy Award for his depiction of George M. Cohan in "Yankee Doodle Dandee" (http://www.morethings.com/fan/james_cagney/index.htm)

a close friend to Cagney, as well as Humphrey Bogart. Cagney earned an Academy Award for Best Actor nomination for his performance. During his first year back with Warner Brothers, Cagney became the studio’s highest earner, raking in $324,000.[21] He completed his first decade of movie-making in 1939 with The Roaring Twenties, his last film with Humphrey Bogart and it was also his last gangster film for ten years.

By 1942 Cagney was itching to do a role that the Warner Brothers studio had been dangling in front of him for almost two years.[22] There were some who thought his interest in doing the life story of George M. Cohan was sparked by his desire to set himself up as some kind of a super-patriot in order to rest once and for all the suspicions aroused by the U.S. government anti-communist HUAC witch hunters (HUAC, or the "House Committee on Un-American Activities," was an investigative committee of the United States House of Representatives that ratted out members of the Communist party in various facets of American society, one of those being Hollywood).[23] A film such as the proposed Yankee Doodle Dandy that praised American values and ideals could protect Cagney from HUAC believing he was a communist.

All in all, patriotism alone was not why Cagney was so eager to do the movie about Cohan.[24] The truth is that Cohan had always been one of Cagney's idols, and had actually met Cohan twice on Broadway.[25] Cohan himself was excited to see Cagney play the part.[26] Not only was he impressed with the younger star's vitality and versatility, but he liked the way he danced.[27] Cagney's quote reveals how much it meant to him to play the role:

  • The film, he later commented, had all the music and good nostalgia scenes. They were part of an America that people liked to look back on. It was an exciting picture from an actor's point of view. I had knocked around in all kinds of shows and knew that every actor of Cohan's generation had been influenced by him. Cohan had unbounded energy and an interest in everything. He was bright as hell and had a drive second to none. Writing, dancing, and acting--he was a triple-threat man, that's what made him interesting.[28]

Yankee Doodle Dandy was a phenomenal performance by Cagney, and critics were well aware of it as awards began piling up.[29] Cagney was nominated for--and won--the New York Film Critics Award for 1942, and it was not a year of poor films either.[30] He beat out Humphrey Bogart, who had given a superb performance in Casablanca, and Monty Wooley, who had starred in the classic role in The Man Who Came to Dinner.[31] Cagney did not stop at one award though. Jack Warner had said before the filming of Yankee Doodle Dandy, "It had Oscar written all over it."[32] He was right. Cagney took home the Best Actor of the Year Award from the Academy Awards in 1942, the first and only time he won the award. Almost overnight Jimmy's image changed from that of the tough mug to that of the spunky Yankee Doodle Dandy.[33] Although there were still a number of important roles ahead of him, the portrayal of George M. Cohan remained Cagney's favorite.[34]

Critical Appeal

Critics took note of Cagney's versatility and admired his eagerness to try different roles and add in his own beloved personality. Here are some reviews on some of Cagney's greatest performances, all of which highlight the actor's refusal to be typecast. On The Public Enemy:

  • It seems to me that Mr. Cagney is a rising young talking-picture actor to keep an eye on. He photographs well, his voice records effectively, he has an undeniable flair for getting inside a character and remaining there. Up to now, his characters have been what even he might call standardized and I trust he will do everything he can to keep from being forced into a gangster mold. Anyway, he's well worth watching.[35]
    • Robert Garland, New York World-Telegram

On Footlight Parade :

  • In addition to Cagney, who demonstrates his extraordinary versatility with an expert song and dance routine, the cast has Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Guy Kibbee, Frank McHugh, Hugh Herbert and a host of others. Those who weren't lost in the image of a silly plot were suffocated by the sheer vulgar lavishness of the piece.[36]
    • Thornton Delehanty, New York Evening Post

On Yankee Doodle Dandy:

  • Most of the magic... is conjured up by the consummate Cagney portrayal. He even looks a bit like Cohan at times and he has the great man's routines down cold. The point is that he adds his own individual reflections to the part, as should certainly be done in any dramatic impersonation of a celebrated figure. He has given many memorable and varied screen performances in the past, but this is nothing short of a brilliant tour-de-force of make believe.[37]
    • Howard Barnes, New York Herald Tribune

External Links

Cagney in Footlight Parade:

Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy:


Cagney, James (2005) [1976]. Cagney by Cagney. Doubleday. ISBN: 0-385-52026-3.

Dickens, Homer (1972). The Films of James Cagney. Secaucus, New Jersey: The Citadel Press. ISBN: 0-8065-0277-0.

Katz, Ephraim and Ronald Dean Nolen (2008). The Film Encyclopedia: The Complete Guide to Film and the Film Industry. New York: HarperCollinsPublishers. ISBN: 978-0-06-143285-9.

Offen, Ron (1972). Cagney. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company. ISBNL: 72-80934.

Warren, Doug; Cagney, James (1986). Cagney: The Authorized Biography (Mass Market ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN: 0-312-90207-7.

McGilligan, Patrick (1975). Cagney: The Actor as Auteur. New York: A.S. Barnes and Co., Inc. ISBN: 0-498-01462-2.


  1. ^ Katz and Nolen, Film Encyclopedia, p. 217.
  2. ^ Katz and Nolen, Film Encyclopedia, p. 217.
  3. ^ Warren,Cagney: The Authorized Biography,p.157.
  4. ^ Cagney, p. 34.
  5. ^ Warren, Cagney: The Authorized Biography,p. 60.
  6. ^ Warren, Cagney: The Authorized Biography,p.61.
  7. ^ Offen, Cagney, p. 36.
  8. ^ McGilligan, p.24.
  9. ^ Katz and Nolen, Film Encyclopedia, p. 217.
  10. ^ Katz and Nolen, Film Encyclopedia, p. 217.
  11. ^ Katz and Nolen, Film Encyclopedia, p. 217.
  12. ^ Offen, Cagney, p. 41.
  13. ^ Offen, Cagney, p. 41.
  14. ^ Offen, Cagney, p. 41.
  15. ^ Offen, Cagney, p. 41.
  16. ^ Offen, Cagney, p. 41.
  17. ^ Offen, Cagney, pgs. 41, 42.
  18. ^ Katz and Nolen, Film Encyclopedia, p. 217.
  19. ^ Warren, Cagney: The Authorized Biography,p. 114.
  20. ^ Warren, Cagney: The Authorized Biography,p. 123.
  21. ^ Warren, Cagney: The Authorized Biography,p. 130.
  22. ^ Offen, Cagney, p. 107.
  23. ^ Offen, Cagney, p. 107.
  24. ^ Offen, Cagney, p. 108.
  25. ^ Offen, Cagney, p. 108.
  26. ^ Offen, Cagney, p. 108.
  27. ^ Offen, Cagney, p. 108.
  28. ^ Offen, Cagney, p. 109.
  29. ^ Katz and Nolen, Film Encyclopedia, p. 217.
  30. ^ Offen, Cagney, p. 115.
  31. ^ Offen, Cagney, p. 115.
  32. ^ Offen, Cagney, p. 109.
  33. ^ Offen, Cagney, p. 115.
  34. ^ Offen, Cagney, p. 116.
  35. ^ Dickens, The Films of James Cagney, p. 51.
  36. ^ Dickens, The Films of James Cagney, p. 78.
  37. ^ Dickens, The Films of James Cagney, p. 170.