James Francis Cagney . . . it's hard to put into words what this megawatt-hyperkinetic little powder-keg of a guy and his work has meant to me throughout my 42 years. I can honestly say I don't recall a time in my life when I didnt watch and enjoy his films. Some of my earliest recollections of movies are as a 4-5 year-old kid sitting on the floor about 2 feet from the TV completely and utterly entranced and enthralled by Rocky Sullivan, Tom Powers or Cody Jarret, oblivious to any and all goings on around me! I vividly recall going to Yale University law school to see "A Midsummer Nights Dream", I couldnt have been more than 5 or 6 years old and all that Shakespeare talk went way over my head but I loved it anyway! These were the days before cable, video and TCM so when these films played on TV or were getting screened somewhere it was an EVENT! My family, especially one of my uncles, were big time movie buffs and so the appreciation of the old Hollywood films was always encouraged and has only gown throughout the years for me. But above all others, Cagney remains my all-time favorite.
Born on July 17th, 1899, Cagney was a bit of an oddity in Hollywood . . . neither tall nor overly "Handsome" by Hollywood leading man terms, but what he may have lacked in stature or looks he made up for 100 times over by sheer talent and magnetic personality. William Wellman saw it when they began shooting "Public Enemy" in 1931 which is why Cagney's and Eddie Woods' roles were switched and he played Tom Powers, smashed a grapefruit in Mae Clark's face and became an overnight sensation! After which Warner Bros. put him in a string of quick, tough little pictures like "Smart Money", "Blonde Crazy", "Taxi", and "The Picture Snatcher". Some of those pre-code dramas are pretty intense and daring even by today's standards!
He was teamed often with WB workhorse actress Joan Blondell and pals Pat O'Brien and Frank McHugh (the first Cagney/O'Brien teaming "Here Comes the Navy" was even nominated for best picture!). Capitalizing on the success of "42nd Street" and "Goldiggers of 1933" WB put Cagney in "Footlight Parade" and he finally got to show the world that he was more than just a tough-guy! His stylized singing and nimble dancing in the finale is quite enjoyable! The film itself is a non-stop joyride and remains my fave Busby Berkley musical.Cagney and Jack Warner butted heads constantly over scripts and salary and Jimmy walked several times during the 1930's. In 1938, after an unsuccessful attempt to work on his own productions ("The Great Guy" and "Something to Sing About"), he was back at WB playing what I consider THE definitive Cagney tough-guy role, Rocky Sullivan, in "Angles with Dirty Faces". I've lost count of the number of times I've seen this film and yet each time it seems fresh and vibrant, thanks not only to Cagney's oscar nominated performance (his first) but also to the top-notch supporting cast including Pat O'Brien, Ann Sheridan, Humphrey Bogart and the Dead End Kids, and of course director Michael Curtiz and his production team.
The early 40's saw some very interesting work from Cagney in films like the underappreciated "City for Conquest", the hilarious, break-neck-paced "Torrid Zone" (Ann Sheridan nearly steals that one!) the funny and touching "Strawberry Blonde" and the technicolor "Captains of the Clouds". Then in 1942 Jimmy got his dream role of a lifetime, the chance to play George M.Cohan in "Yankee Doodle Dandy". To say he rose to the task of this part is a severe understatement! Cagney is so great in this role and the film so well made that whatever corny patriotics and historical inaccuracies it may possess become irrelevent while viewing. Cagney walked off with a well-deserved Oscar for best actor that year!
After the triumph of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" he sort of lost his way, trying once again to go independent but in 1949 he returned to WB and made "White Heat" playing mother-fixated psychopath Cody Jarret and uttering one of the greatest tag lines in film history: "Made it Ma, Top of the World!" Co-star Virginia Mayo loves talking about working with Cagney and felt he shouldve gotten an oscar nomination for his work in that film. She also pointed out that acting scared when Jimmy had his hands on your throat was really EASY!! Cagney dismissed it as yet another routine gangster film.
The 1950's was uneven but there was some interesting work from Cagney in films like "Come Fill the Cup", the Nicholas Ray western "Run for Cover", and the Lon Chaney bio-pic "Man of a Thousand Faces". I dont think anyone would disagree that his best work in the 50's was in "Mr Roberts" and "Love Me, or Leave Me" which got Cagney his last oscar Nomination for best actor. He made a cameo appearance as George M Cohan in "The Seven little Foys" with Bob Hope and had shooting pains in his legs during his brief dancing routine.
In 1961 Cagney starred in Billy Wilder's hilarious frenetically paced comedy "One, Two, Three", spitting out dialogue at the speed of light with the energy of ten men! But he had trouble nailing the long stretches of fast dialogue and so decided that it was time to hang it up and retire.