TCM Tribute to James Cagney
James Francis Cagney, Jr. (July 17, 1899 – March 30, 1986) was an American actor and dancer, both on stage and in film, though he had his greatest impact in film. Known for his consistently energetic performances, distinctive vocal style, and deadpan comic timing, he won acclaim and major awards for a wide variety of performances. He is best remembered for playing multi-faceted tough guys in movies like The Public Enemy (1931), Taxi! (1932), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and White Heat (1949) and was even typecast or limited by this view earlier in his career. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked him eighth among its 50 Greatest American Screen Legends. No less a student of drama than Orson Welles said of Cagney that he was “maybe the greatest actor who ever appeared in front of a camera.”
In his first professional acting performance, Cagney danced costumed as a woman in the chorus line of the 1919 revue Every Sailor. He spent several years in vaudeville as a dancer and comedian, until he got his first major acting part in 1925. He secured several other roles, receiving good notices, before landing the lead in the 1929 play Penny Arcade. After rave reviews, Warner Bros. signed him for an initial $500-a-week, three-week contract to reprise his role; this was quickly extended to a seven-year contract.
Cagney’s seventh film, The Public Enemy, became one of the most influential gangster movies of the period. Notable for a famous scene in which Cagney pushes a grapefruit against his co-star’s face, the film thrust him into the spotlight. He became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and one of Warner Brothers’ biggest contracts. In 1938, he received his first Academy Award for Best Actor nomination, for Angels with Dirty Faces for his subtle portrayal of the tough guy/man-child Rocky Sullivan. In 1942, Cagney won the Oscar for his energetic portrayal of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. He was nominated a third time in 1955 for Love Me or Leave Me. Cagney retired from acting and dancing in 1961 to spend time on his farm with his family. He exited retirement, twenty years later, for a part in the 1981 movie Ragtime, mainly to aid his recovery from a stroke.
Cagney walked out on Warner Brothers several times over the course of his career, each time returning on much improved personal and artistic terms. In 1935, he sued Warners for breach of contract and won. This was one of the first times an actor prevailed over a studio on a contract issue. He worked for an independent film company for a year while the suit was being settled—and established his own production company, Cagney Productions, in 1942, before returning to Warners four years later. Jack Warner called him “The Professional Againster,” in reference to Cagney’s refusal to be pushed around. Cagney also made numerous morale-boosting troop tours before and during World War II, and was president of the Screen Actors Guild for two years.
Cagney was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City. His biographers disagree as to the actual location: either on the corner of Avenue D and 8th Street or in a top floor apartment at 391 East Eighth. His father, James Francis Cagney, Sr., was of Irish descent. By the time of his son’s birth, he was a bartender and amateur boxer, though on Cagney’s birth certificate, he is listed as a telegraphist. His mother was Carolyn (née Nelson); her father was a Norwegian ship captain while her mother was Irish.
Cagney was the second of seven children, two of whom died within months of birth. He was sickly as a young child—so much so that his mother feared he would die before he could be baptized. He later attributed his sickness to the poverty his family had to endure. The family moved twice while he was still young, first to East 79th Street, and then to East 96th Street.
The red-haired, blue-eyed Cagney graduated from Stuyvesant High School in New York City in 1918, and attended Columbia College of Columbia University where he intended to major in art. He also took German and joined the Student Army Training Corps, but dropped out after one semester, returning home upon the death of his father during the 1918 flu pandemic.
Cagney held a variety of jobs early in his life, giving all his earnings to his family: junior architect, copy boy for the New York Sun, book custodian at the New York Public Library, bellhop, draughtsman, and night doorman. While Cagney was working for the New York Public Library, he met Florence James, who helped him into an acting career. Cagney believed in hard work, later stating, “It was good for me. I feel sorry for the kid who has too cushy a time of it. Suddenly he has to come face-to-face with the realities of life without any mama or papa to do his thinking for him.”
He started tap dancing as a boy (a skill that eventually contributed to his Academy Award) and was nicknamed “Cellar-Door Cagney” after his habit of dancing on slanted cellar doors. He was a good street fighter, defending his older brother Harry, a medical student, when necessary. He engaged in amateur boxing, and was a runner-up for the New York State lightweight title. His coaches encouraged him to turn professional, but his mother would not allow it. He also played semi-professional baseball for a local team, and entertained dreams of playing in the Major Leagues.
His introduction to films was unusual. When visiting an aunt who lived in Brooklyn opposite Vitagraph Studios, Cagney would climb over the fence to watch the filming of John Bunny movies. He became involved in amateur dramatics, starting as a scenery boy for a Chinese pantomime at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, one of the first settlement houses in the nation, where his brother Harry performed and his soon-to-be friend, Florence James, directed. He was initially content working behind the scenes and had no interest in performing. One night, however, Harry became ill, and although Cagney was not an understudy, his photographic memory of rehearsals enabled him to stand in for his brother without making a single mistake. Therefore, Florence James has the unique distinction of being the first director to put him on a stage. Afterward, he joined a number of companies as a performer in a variety of roles.
Early career (1919–1930)
While working at Wanamaker’s Department Store in 1919, Cagney learned, from a colleague who had seen him dance, of a role in the upcoming production Every Sailor. A wartime play in which the chorus was made up of servicemen dressed as women, it was originally titled Every Woman. Cagney auditioned for the role of a chorus girl, despite considering it a waste of time; he only knew one dance step, the complicated Peabody, but he knew it perfectly. This was enough to convince the producers that he could dance, and he copied the other dancers’ moves while waiting to go on.He did not find it odd to play a woman, nor was he embarrassed. He later recalled how he was able to shed his own natural shy persona when he stepped onto the stage: “For there I am not myself. I am not that fellow, Jim Cagney, at all. I certainly lost all consciousness of him when I put on skirts, wig, paint, powder, feathers and spangles.”
Had Cagney’s mother had her way, his stage career would have ended when he quit Every Sailor after two months; proud as she was of his performance, she preferred that he get an education. Cagney appreciated the $35 a week he was paid, which he called “a mountain of money for me in those worrisome days.” In deference to his mother’s worries, he got employment as a brokerage house runner. This did not stop him looking for more stage work, however, and he went on to successfully audition for a chorus part in the William B. Friedlander musical Pitter Patter, for which he earned $55 a week—he sent $40 to his mother each week. So strong was his habit of holding down more than one job at a time, he also worked as a dresser for one of the leads, portered the casts’ luggage, and understudied for the lead. Among the chorus line performers was sixteen-year-old Frances Willard “Billie” Vernon, whom he married in 1922.
The show began Cagney’s ten-year association with vaudeville and Broadway. Cagney and his wife were among the early resident of Free Acres, a social experiment established by Bolton Hall in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey.
Pitter Patter was not hugely successful, but it did well enough to run for 32 weeks, enabling Cagney to join the vaudeville circuit. He and Vernon toured separately with a number of different troupes, reuniting as “Vernon and Nye” to do simple comedy routines and musical numbers. “Nye” was a rearrangement of the last syllable of Cagney’s surname. One of the troupes Cagney joined was Parker, Rand and Leach, taking over the spot vacated when Archie Leach—who later changed his name to Cary Grant—left.
After years of touring and struggling to make money, Cagney and Vernon moved to Hawthorne, California in 1924, partly for Cagney to meet his new mother-in-law, who had just moved there from Chicago, and partly to investigate breaking into the movies. Their train fares were paid for by a friend, the press officer of Pitter Patter, who was also desperate to act. They were not successful at first; the dance studio Cagney set up had few clients and folded, and he and Vernon toured the studios, but garnered no interest. Eventually, they borrowed some money and headed back to New York via Chicago and Milwaukee, enduring failure along the way when they attempted to make money on the stage.
Cagney in a sailor suit with a smiling actress leaning on him. Cagney and Gloria Stuart in 1934’s Here Comes the Navy. The movie was filmed on the ill-fated USS Arizona. Cagney’s long film career would see him in a naval uniform on more than one occasion.
Cagney secured his first significant non-dancing role in 1925. He played a young tough guy in the three-act play Outside Looking In by Maxwell Anderson, earning $200 a week. As with Pitter Patter, Cagney went to the audition with little confidence he would get the part. He had no experience with drama at this point. Cagney felt that he only got the role because his hair was redder than that of Alan Bunce, the only other red-headed performer in New York. Both the play and Cagney received good reviews; Life magazine wrote, “Mr. Cagney, in a less spectacular role [than his co-star] makes a few minutes silence during his mock-trial scene something that many a more established actor might watch with profit.” Burns Mantle wrote that it “…contained the most honest acting now to be seen in New York.”
Following the show’s four-month run, Cagney went back to vaudeville for the next couple of years. He achieved varied success, but after appearing in Outside Looking In, the Cagneys were more financially secure. During this period, he met George M. Cohan, whom he later portrayed in Yankee Doodle Dandy, though they never spoke.
Cagney secured the lead role in the 1926–27 season West End production of Broadway by George Abbott. The show’s management insisted that he copy Broadway lead Lee Tracy’s performance, despite Cagney’s discomfort in doing so, but the day before the show sailed for England, they decided to replace him. This was a devastating turn of events for Cagney; apart from the logistical difficulties this presented—the couple’s luggage was in the hold of the ship and they had given up their apartment. He almost quit show business. As Vernon recalled, “Jimmy said that it was all over. He made up his mind that he would get a job doing something else.”
The Cagneys had run-of-the-play contracts, which lasted as long as the play did. Vernon was in the chorus line of the show, and with help from the Actors’ Equity Association, Cagney understudied Tracy on the Broadway show, providing them with a desperately needed steady income. Cagney also established a dance school for professionals, then landed a part in the play Women Go On Forever, directed by John Cromwell, which ran for four months. By the end of the run, Cagney was exhausted from acting and running the dance school.
He had built a reputation as an innovative teacher, so when he was cast as the lead in Grand Street Follies of 1928, he was also appointed the choreographer. The show received rave review and was followed by Grand Street Follies of 1929. These roles led to a part in George Kelly’s Maggie the Magnificent, a play the critics disliked, though they like Cagney’s performance. Cagney saw this role (and Women Go on Forever) as significant because of the talented directors he met. He learned “…what a director was for and what a director could do. They were directors who could play all the parts in the play better than the actors cast for them.”
Warner Bros. (1930–1935)
Playing opposite Cagney in Maggie the Magnificent was Joan Blondell, who starred again with him a few months later in Marie Baumer’s new play Penny Arcade. While the critics panned Penny Arcade, they praised Cagney and Blondell. Al Jolson, sensing film potential, bought the rights for $20,000. He then sold the play to Warner Brothers, with the stipulation that they cast Cagney and Blondell in the film version. Retitled Sinners’ Holiday, the film was released in 1930. Cagney was given a $500-a-week, three-week contract. In the film, he portrays Harry Delano, a tough guy who becomes a killer, but generates sympathy because of his unfortunate upbringing. This role of the sympathetic “bad” guy was a recurring character type for Cagney throughout his career. During filming of Sinners’ Holiday, he also demonstrated the stubbornness that characterized his work attitude. He later recalled an argument he had with director John Adolfi about a line: “There was a line in the show where I was supposed to be crying on my mother’s breast… [The line] was ‘I’m your baby, ain’t I?’ I refused to say it. Adolfi said ‘I’m going to tell Zanuck.’ I said ‘I don’t give a shit what you tell him, I’m not going to say that line.'” They took the line out.
Despite this outburst, the studio liked him, and before his three-week contract was up—while the film was still shooting —they gave Cagney a three-week extension, which was followed by a full seven-year contract at $400 a week. The contract, however, allowed Warners to drop him at the end of any 40-week period, effectively only guaranteeing him 40 weeks income at a time. As when he was growing up, Cagney shared his income with his family. Cagney received good reviews, and immediately starred in another gangster role in The Doorway to Hell. The film was a financial hit, helping cement Cagney’s growing reputation. He made four more movies before his breakthrough role.
Cagney, in stripped pajamas, looks angry as he reaches across a breakfast table with the grapefruit in his hand. Cagney mashes a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face in a famous scene from Cagney’s breakthrough movie, The Public Enemy (1931)
Warner Brothers′ succession of gangster movie hits, in particular Little Caesar with Edward G. Robinson, culminated with the 1931 film The Public Enemy. Due to the strong reviews in his short film career, Cagney was cast as nice-guy Matt Doyle, opposite Edward Woods as Tom Powers. However, after the initial rushes, each was reassigned the other’s part. The film cost only $151,000 to make, but it became one of the first low-budget films to gross $1 million.
Cagney received widespread praise for his role. The New York Herald Tribune described his performance as “…the most ruthless, unsentimental appraisal of the meanness of a petty killer the cinema has yet devised.” He received top billing after the film, but while he acknowledged the importance of the role to his career, he always disputed that it changed the way heroes and leading men were portrayed; he cited Clark Gable’s slapping of Barbara Stanwyck six months earlier (in Night Nurse) as more important. Night Nurse was actually released three months after The Public Enemy, and Gable punched Stanwyck in the film, knocking her character unconscious, then carried her across the hall, where she woke up later.
Many critics view the scene in which Cagney pushes a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face as one of the most famous moments in movie history. The scene itself was a late addition, and who thought of the idea is a matter of debate. Producer Darryl Zanuck claimed he thought of it in a script conference, director William Wellman claimed that the idea came to him when he saw the grapefruit on the table during the shoot, and writers Glasmon and Bright claimed it was based on the real life of gangster Hymie Weiss, who threw an omelette into his girlfriend’s face. Cagney himself usually cited the writers’ version, but the fruit’s victim, Clarke, agreed that it was Wellman’s idea, saying, “I’m sorry I ever agreed to do the grapefruit bit. I never dreamed it would be shown in the movie. Director Bill Wellman thought of the idea suddenly. It wasn’t even written into the script.”