Top of the world Ma! One of the all-time iconic movie tough guys. He appeared in some of the most violent and edgy films of his day. His wise-cracking staccato urban accent is instantly recognizable even today. Always controversial, many parents refused to allow their children to see films like White Heat. Paradoxically he was an accomplished song and dance man before he was a tough guy. Even after he found success he frequently appeared in light comedies like The Strawberry Blonde.
James Francis Cagney, Jr. was born July 17, 1899 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City. The 2nd of 7 children, 5 of whom lived to adulthood. He was frequently ill, probably due to the family’s extreme poverty. Graduating from high school in 1918, he enrolled in college expecting to major in art. These plans were dashed by the death of his father during the Spanish Flu pandemic that same year.
As a young adult, he held a variety of jobs from newspaper copy boy to night watchman. His introduction to films was mostly by accident. An accomplished tap dancer from youth, he began to work at bit parts in amateur productions and local plays. Sometimes subbing in for his brother Harry.
His mother, while admiring his talent, felt that he should give up performing and seek a “real” career. Cagney continued his vaudeville work, performing as a dancer, singer and comedian and met his future wife Frances Willard “Billie” Vernon in one of these shows. He married her in 1922 and they stayed together until his death.
Eventually performances in several plays and a successful turn as a dance instructor led to a regular gig in films with Warner Brothers. Appearing as a tough guy in a dramatic play called Penny Arcade with future star Joan Blondell. Critics loved their performances but panned the rest of the play. Sensing a possible hit, Al Jolson, now a producer, bought the film rights to the play with the stipulation that Cagney and Blondell reprise their roles.
Audiences reacted positively and Cagney’s film career was launched.
The timing couldn’t have been better for Cagney or Warned. Buoyed by the success of their gangster films, Warner decided to cast Cagney in a string of gangster pictures starting with 1930s The Doorway To Hell. The most famous being the villainous Tom Powers in 1931s The Public Enemy. This role effectively cemented the publics opinion of Cagney. Far from being a vaudeville hoofer, he would forever be seen as either a sneering psychopath or a hard case anti-hero.
A scene so infamous for it’s cruelty it’s still referred to as THE grapefruit scene.
Subsequent films like Angels With Dirty Faces, Each Dawn I Die, The Roaring Twenties and White Heat only added to this persona. The public couldn’t get enough of new tough guy Cagney. While he played a variety of other styles, even appearing in the Shakespearean comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the public was lukewarm at best to these attempts to broaden his performances.
Feeling like he was being restricted by the menacing roles he played. Cagney frequently attempted to break the tough guy mold and tried his hand at the comedies and musicals he had excelled in while on the vaudeville circuit. Some such as The Strawberry Blonde and Yankee Doodle Dandy are fine performances and excellent films. He actually preferred making comedies and musicals. He also felt like he was being type-cast as a tough guy and villain. Unfortunately for Mr. Cagney, the audiences generally preferred him shooting and wisecracking to dancing and singing.
Cagney singing at the end of Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Scene from The Strawberry Blonde.
Even to this day, many people have trouble separating Cagney from his more iconic villainous characters. There are rumors that many underworld tough guys modeled their persona after him. This mimicry almost proved fatal later in his career.
When he became President of the Screen Actors Guild, he actually became a target of organized crime figures. Cagney had enacted several measures restricting the mob’s control in Hollywood. Several underworld figures seemed to take this very personally and considered Cagney to be as much of a rat and a traitor as if he had actually been a real mobster. A plot to drop a 400 lb Klieg light on him was averted by friend and fellow actor, George Raft, who had numerous ties to the underworld and was able to pull some strings and call off the hit.
Cagney worked hard through the 1940s but began to slow his pace in the ’50s and was virtually retired by 1961, only appearing in a single film, the Billy Wilder directed comedy One, Two, Three. After that he made sporadic appearances through the ’70s and ’80s in retirement, splitting his time between Los Angeles and Martha’s Vineyard.
James Cagney passed away on March 30th 1986 from a heart attack with almost 70 acting credits. He is still regarded as one of the true, great actors of the 20th century.