Chances are, unless you’re an aficionado of movies and movie stars from prior to 1950, if I were to mention the name James Cagney you would only know him as an old-time actor who played “tough guys.” But, that would be akin to labeling Babe Ruth as a guy who could play a little baseball. In reality, Cagney was so much more than just a movie tough guy as both a performer and as a person.
James Francis Cagney, Jr. was born on July 17, 1899 in New York City. He was the second of seven children. The family lived on the Lower East Side, which was home to predominantly poor Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants. Two of his siblings died as infants, and James, himself, was so sickly as a young child that his mother was afraid he would meet the same fate. Cagney often ascribed this early sickness to lack of adequate food due to his family’s extreme poverty.
However, Cagney survived. After high school he briefly attended Columbia, intending to major in art, but he had to drop out due to the sudden death of his father from the flu in 1918. (The devastating flu pandemic of 1918 was one of the greatest natural disasters in human history. According to Wikipedia, estimates of the number of deaths attributable to it range as high as 100 million.)
Cagney worked at a wide variety of jobs to help support the family. At times, he was a copy boy, architect, brokerage house “runner,”amateur boxer, bellhop, draftsman, and semi-professional baseball player. Whatever the job and however little he earned he always made sure to give some money to the family. He was such an accomplished boxer he was a runner-up for the NYS lightweight title. In addition, he was a proficient tap dancer. He had a habit of dancing on slanted cellar doors, which earned him the sobriquet, “Cellar-Door Cagney.”
As is often the case, his initiation into films was due to happenstance. An aunt lived near a film studio where one of his brothers was performing. When visiting this aunt he would often sneak in to watch the filming . Eventually, he began to do odd jobs around the set, such handling the scenery. Although he had no interest in actually performing, once, when his brother was ill he substituted for him. Due to his photographic memory he performed the lines flawlessly. Following that experience, he began to work for various movie companies in a variety of roles.
Cagney always claimed that he was naturally shy, but when performing he became someone else. He was “not that fellow, Jim Cagney, at all. I…lost all consciousness of him…” One of his early roles was that of a female dancer in the musical Pitter Patter. It was there that he met his future wife, another dancer named Frances Willard “Billie” Vernon.
The next stage of Cagney’s career was vaudeville, where he toured with a succession of troupes. In one instance he replaced a performer named Archibald Leach. If that name sounds vaguely familiar, you might know him as Cary Grant. Another time, he met George M. Cohan, whom he would later portray in his signature role in Yankee Doodle Dandy. In 1925 Cagney secured his first dramatic role as, what else, a tough guy not because of his acting ability, but simply because the producer wanted an actor with red hair, and Cagney’s hair was redder than any other actor’s who auditioned for the part.
After years of bouncing around in support roles Cagney became a star in The Public Enemy in 1931. In a strange turn of events Cagney was signed to play the role of the “nice-guy,” but after shooting began the director switched him to the role of the “tough-guy.” In the signature scene of the movie Cagney mashes half a grapefruit into the face of his co-star, Mae Clarke, which, to this day, remains one of the most famous scenes in movie history. Cagney received rave reviews. For example, the New York Herald Tribune (remember it?) characterized his performance as “…the most ruthless, unsentimental appraisal of the meanness of a petty killer the cinema has yet devised.”
The origin of the famous “grapefruit” scene is in dispute. It was not in the original script. The writers, the producer, and the actors have all claimed credit. Cagney always said that for years thereafter he was offered free grapefruit in every restaurant.
Eventually, Cagney signed with Warner Brothers. Like all studio heads of the day Jack Warner was an autocrat, used to getting his own way with entertainers. It was common to overwork and underpay performers – 100 hours a week was not uncommon – and salaries were fixed regardless of the success of the movie. Regardless of how famous you might be, under the “studio system” you either toed the line or you didn’t work…anywhere. However, Cagney’s stubborn and rebellious nature were more than a match for Warner. He fought against Warner’s restrictions at every turn. Warner tolerated him because of his popularity. At one point, he simply quit. Eventually, Warner gave in, and enhanced Cagney’s contract, probably a first in Hollywood. Meanwhile, Cagney acquired a new sobriquet, “The Professional Againster.” During the 1930s Cagney became the studio’s biggest box office draw and highest earner – one of the highest in all of Hollywood.
As Cagney became a megastar, he got involved in political causes. He had always stood up for the down-trodden, a remnant of his poor roots. In the late 1930’s he became involved with the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, which, unbeknownst to him, was actually a “front” for the Comintern, a communist organization. In addition, his contractual disputes, his opposition to the so-called “Merriman Tax,” by which the studios withheld some of the actors’ salaries and contributed it to political candidates, his contribution to the Spanish Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, and his involvement with the Screen Actors Guild (co-founder and president) all labeled him as a “radical” or worse, a communist. (On the other hand, during WWII he repeatedly went on tours to entertain the troops.) At one point he was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Eventually, he was exonerated of any wrong-doing. Ironically, later in life Cagney’s politics evolved. He became more conservative, even supporting Republicans Thomas E. Dewey and Ronald Reagan.
In 1942 Cagney played George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, which many critics consider his signature role. The film was a huge success. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three, including Best Actor for Cagney. Playing Cohan was ideal for Cagney. He was able to show off all his talents – singing, dancing and acting.
His last famous role was in the movie, White Heat, in 1949 in which he played, what else, a psychotic killer. In the climactic scene, cornered by the police, Cagney’s character climbs to the top of a wall and shouts “Made it, ma! Top of the world!’ at which point he dies in a hale of bullets. That line was voted the 18th greatest movie line by the American Film Institute.
Cagney’s illustrious career spanned over 60 years from 1919 to 1984. He was much more than just a movie tough-guy, which is how most casual fans view him. He was also an accomplished singer and dancer. He was one of the most popular actors during Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” Furthermore, he was in the forefront of the battle for actors rights and helped found the Screen Actors Guild. In 1974 Cagney was honored with the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In presenting the award Charlton Heston called Cagney “… one of the most significant figures of a generation when American film was dominant.” In addition, no less a luminary than Orson Welles called him “…maybe the greatest actor to ever appear in front of a camera.” Hyperbole? Perhaps, but not by much.
A few of his other honorariums:
- In 1984 President Reagan presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
- In 1999 the US Postal Service issued a 33 cent stamp in his honor.
- In 2015 a musical of his life and career opened on “Broadway.” I have seen it and it is fabulous. I highly recommend it.
Just like Bogie never said “Play it again, Sam” in Casablanca, Cagney never said “MMMmmm, you dirty rat,” a line that is often misquoted by comedians and impressionists. What he did say in the movie, Taxi, was “Come out and take it, you dirty yellow-bellied rat, or I’ll give it to you through the door!” Close enough for government work, …. or Hollywood.
James Cagney died on March 30, 1986 at the age of 86, but his legacy lives on.