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Tuesday, November 1, 2011


James Francis Cagney

To his fans, he is the eternal gangster; to his friends he was "the faraway fella'." His reputation on film is that of a man toting guns and intimidating enemies, yet he won an Oscar for his portrayal of song and dance man George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Passionate and intense in his craft, he was warm, well-read, and private in his personal life. There is little, if anything, negative that someone could say about James Cagney the man, and while one could certainly make incriminating statements about the characters he played, even this would be done with a knowing and respectful intonation: even Jim's crooks were somehow likable. James Cagney-- who preferred 'Jim' to 'Jimmy'-- was a successful actor because he knew where to draw the line between fact and fiction, between right and wrong, between business and nobody's business. Along with his troupe of pals, jokingly called the "Irish Mafia"-- Spencer Tracy, Pat O'Brien, Frank McHugh, Ralph Bellamy, and Robert Montgomery-- Jim would help to define not only what it meant to be a man in depression-era America, but what it meant to be an American full stop. Whatever road he led us down, we would follow; we trusted him even when his characters were mistrustful, because beneath it all, we knew that Jim was being honest. It would be easy to merely reiterate the stories of Jim the film heavy, Jim the original hood, and, of course, Jim and that grapefruit... But there was much more to the man than that. So much, in fact, that his conflicting screen image and the salt of the earth guy he truly was are nearly irreconcilable and very, very hard to articulate. Here goes nothin'!

Jim in one of his personal triumphs: Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Beverly Hills was a long way from James's impoverished youth in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His alcoholic but warm-hearted father's premature death would have a devastating effect on him-- the second born of what was to become the 5 child brood of James and Carrie Cagney. Jim's memories mixed the bitter and the sweet: his father's jokes, pitchy singing, and friendly rough-housing were too co-mingled with the patriarch's painful migraines and intense physical spells that sent him wailing like a banshee. The breadwinner of the family was lovable but undependable, and a great deal of the financial hardships fell on the determined Carrie and her children. Luckily, where James Sr. was weak, Carrie was strong. The family rock, she coached all of her children to be fighters, to use their heads, and to live right and honestly in the land that had afforded them so many privileges-- even when those privileges were difficult to see. An unspoken truth among the siblings was that the shy but sturdy Jim was her favorite. When he showed talent in drawing, she hoped that he would go on to become an artist. He didn't shrink from the idea, but he had trouble deciding upon his life path. He always seemed to be off on his own, moving through the world without really being a part of it, which was fortunate, since most of his friends got sucked into a life of crime. In his youth, he witnessed pals being arrested and men dying in the streets. While not immune to these tragedies, Jim's familial love and natural optimism pulled him through. Quiet but resilient, he could be counted on in neighborhood fights when there was a wrong to be righted or a smaller kid that had to be defended, but he never started brawls. He finished them. He preferred reading or daydreaming about living on his own farm, splendoring in the earth, and riding horses. The city boy was a country bumpkin at heart.

James put his childhood bouts to use as a boxer in City for Conquest.

Early in life, Jim considered becoming a boxer. With his mobile dexterity and fancy footwork, despite his short stature, he packed quite a wallop. However, Carrie put the kibosh on that rather quickly by challenging him to a duel of fists with her-- she wanted her son tough not dead. Jim instead transferred his physical prowess to a more graceful outlet: dance. His introduction to stage performance was a bit serendipitous. He wound up taking on a role in a play for his brother Harry when he became ill. His natural ability, straightforward delivery, and knack for actually listening to the other actors, made him stand out-- even if he did talk a little too fast. Later, that would become one of his trademarks. Jim graduated from a theater doorman (a job through which he absorbed a true appreciation for the art of performance) to a vaudeville performer uneasily. He loved life on the stage, but he was mostly concerned with finding work that paid. After he met and fell in love with Frances Vernon-- who had a crush on the "cute, quiet, red-headed boy"-- he realized that he could have both. The second strong woman fighting in his corner, Frances, whom Jim called "Willie," pushed him to hone his abilities and embrace his potential. Her belief in him would keep the two of them going when Jim was ready to give it all up to become a doctor, like two of his three brothers. After he and Willie were wed, they started performing in a vaudeville song and dance act together, performed separately when money was needed, and even temporarily opened a dance school to stay afloat. While their professional union ended, the marital one lasted until Jim's death.

Jim and Jean Harlow in a The Public Enemy, a big break for 
both of them.

Hollywood entered Jim's life, or vice versa, when he had some success starring opposite lifelong friend Joan Blondell in the play "Penny Arcade," which was made into the film Sinners' Holiday at Warner Brothers. Jim wasn't sure about Tinsel Town and figured he would make one picture and return to the stage, but he was offered a contract and took it. He and Warners would endure a hot and cold relationship for their remaining years together, not because of Jim's vanity or temperament, but because he quite simply didn't need the fame or the BS that went along with it. He only wanted to work. When Warners started giving him lousy roles, or when he saw the sharp contrast between his hefty box-office revenue and his minuscule paycheck, he would simply revolt. With his crafty and business-savvy brother Bill acting as his manager, Jim was able to play the Hollywood game his own way. By sticking to his guns, he would usually get what he wanted, while maintaining his artistic, personal, and professional integrity in the process. This did not always make Jack Warner happy, but he couldn't argue with receipts. This sense of genuineness and innate goodness is what drew audiences to Jim. While Sinners' Holiday was his introduction, he would really burst on the scene in The Public Enemy, using the mannerisms and character traits he had witnessed on the streets of New York to pepper his performance with a startling authenticity that had critics raving. Nasty, selfish, and unapologetic, Jim still managed to be somehow adorable. His approach to his characterizations gave audiences room to breathe and enjoy the fantasy without becoming too emotionally entangled. There was always a glint in his eye, as if to say: "I'm serious about this, but don't take me seriously." With his charm, good looks, and comedic edge, he was quickly tagged as a fan favorite and would hold the title of one of Hollywood's top leading men for the majority of his career.

Jim returned to his gangster roots for White Heat, because he found the 
character so compelling. This sequence is one of the most famous 
in film history.

Jim is best remembered for these early hoodlum roles, but he portrayed a wide-array of faces over his career. Often cast as a low-class, wise guy with an eye for the ladies, his role in 'G' Men would help to expand his horizons. Playing the role of a guy from the slums who made right and devoted his life to fighting crime, audiences caught their first glimpse of a character much closer to Jim himself. While he slowly edged away from his bad boy roles in films like Angels with Dirty Faces, he would return with a vengeance in the demented, Oedipal role of Cody Jarrett in White Heat. In between, he delivered performances with great humanity, humor, and color in City for Conquest, West Point Story, and The Oklahoma Kid. He was deeply honored to be able to portray one of his childhood heroes, Lon Chaney, in his biopic The Man of a Thousand Faces-- a title that also described Jim himself. But who was he off screen? His costars would remember him as a giving, devoted, and easy-going guy who wasn't afraid to stand up to a dictatorial director and was equally nurturing of new talents. The friends he had, he kept for life, and new ones knew that they were safe under his wing. He did his part in the war effort, doing radio broadcasts and making tours to support the troops, and as he aged he became more and more devoted to land conservation. His love for the outdoors and nature made it important to him to save the pure patches of green as yet untouched. Politically, he was open-minded, starting out left-wing (and at one point even being accused of membership in the Communist party) only to end up a seasoned conservative along side pal Bob Montgomery. Fluent in Yiddish, he enjoyed tossing in a line here or there in his favorite language, whether among friends or in his films. He too would add little mannerisms into his acting roles that had belonged to his father, which would induce his mother to nostalgic tears. Above all, family came first, and he remained close to his siblings and mother for all his years, even helping sister Jeanne when she began pursuing acting. In his work, he played as long as he could, and when he grew old and tired, it was Willie who pushed him to get back into the ring, where she knew he was happiest. 

As dastardly as some of his characters, Jim too possessed a certain poise and an 
elegance that not only made him attractive to the opposite sex but 
enabled him to pursue more varied roles.

James Cagney... What is there to say? As I sit here, writing and deleting what is certain to be a disjointed memorial, I find it difficult to describe who Jim really was, what he represented, and the legacy he left behind. A cinematic icon, he has been an influential force in the careers of film Gods like Eastwood and Scorsese and has left an indelible imprint on the history of film. Throughout his life, he presented vastly different portraits of what it meant to be an American, and as a man who considered himself a true patriot, this is perhaps the best compliment anyone could pay him. From the gritty realism of his gangster portrayals to his embodiment of the ultimate portrait of liberty in Yankee Doodle Dandy, Jim was both sides of the coin and 100% American tender. In later life, as his health failed, he enjoyed time on his farm (the one he had always dreamed of) and painting. Always a positive person, while he shirked the ballyhoo and public attention, he always remained grateful to his peers for their respect, and befriended many young fans who were curious about the aging icon and his unparalleled career. Jim passed away peacefully and with a wink (literally) on March 30, 1986. Having seen many of his friends go before him and seeing the world of Hollywood change around him, the straight shooter-- who could make no sense of the new "method" style of acting-- felt it was the proper time to take his final bow. He would remember his youthful vaudeville days with Willie as the happiest of his life and the enduring hardships of his youth as the most impactful, but it was his Hollywood years that remain with fans. In those years, he lent us his strength, passion, charisma, and swagger, and showed us that there is no moment in life so brutal that you can't handle it with equal parts guts and grace.


  1. Yay for James Cagney! "Footlight Parade" is one of my favorite films of all time—so great to see him tap dance with Ruby Keeler!!

  2. Hahaha, I agree. I think he outdances her myself! Thanks :)

  3. Great post, Meredith! For my money, he is the greatest male movie star and that's saying a lot!

  4. Thanks, Chick! It is always interesting to hear who everyone's favorite is. He was definitely an incredible talent whose work has stood the test of time, and I think will continue to do so. Have a great weekend!!