Sunday, September 1, 2013

Cagney by Cagney

Cagney by Cagney
Doubleday
Paperback, 202 pages
Originally published 1976
ISBN 9780385520263

Barnes and Noble
IndieBound
Powell's

"Acting is work, nothing more or less than work, and it comes into existence only with work." - James Cagney

By 1976, at least three biographies had been written about the already legendary actor James Cagney. Frustrated by what he thought was the proliferation of misinformation, Cagney set out to write his on autobiography and gave it, what he refers to as, a "fatheaded title": Cagney by Cagney.

James Cagney tells the story of life from his humble beginnings as a poor kid growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to his career as a film actor to his retirement. Told in a conversational style, Cagney offers us lots of stories especially those of the ordinary folks who influenced him in his early years and the fellow actors whom he would befriend along the way. He spends a lot of time talking about his mother, probably one of the biggest influences in his life, his brothers, his sister Jeanne and a bit about his father, a mysterious figure who died when Cagney was coming into his adulthood. What we don't read very much about is his wife, Francis Willard Vernon, whom Cagney refers to as "My Bill", or about his two adopted kids James Cagney Jr. and Casey Cagney. At one point Cagney writes that his wife asked to not be included in the book but Cagney refused to oblige her request. It might be because of that request that he refrains from going into too much detail about their marriage. There is some detail but not a lot, and perhaps she also asked him to also keep the kids out of the book too. I would have liked to have read more about their relationship because it was a fruitful marriage that lasted a lifetime and Cagney was known to remain always faithful to his wife even with the temptations that Hollywood offered.

Instead, Cagney focuses a lot more on the kids he grew up with, his mother and siblings and his many Hollywood friends including his lifelong friend Robert Montgomery and other buds such as Pat O'Brien, Frank McHugh and Ralph Bellamy. He didn't get along with everyone and when he decides to say something negative about those people he usually doesn't mention them by name.

I'm not sure if Cagney had help writing his autobiography but he wasn't a stranger to writing and over the years penned numerous rhymes and limericks for various occasions. He includes many of them, both old and new, in the text. It gives the reader a sense of his personality: humorous with a playfully devilish side. Cagney was not afraid to speak his mind. He devotes a lot of the book to his frustrations with the studio system and with Warner Bros. in particular. He went on to become part of the Screen Actors Guild and also started his own production company (Cagney Productions) with his brother and business manager Bill Cagney. He also discusses the ups and downs of being an actor, the artificialness of Hollywood and even devotes a chapter to his politics (he went from being a Liberal to being a Conservative).

I learned a lot of interesting tidbits about Cagney while reading this book. He was raised Catholic however he ended up learning Yiddish and used his skills many times throughout the years. Cagney was never interested in being on TV but made a few exceptions including one for his friend Robert Montgomery who had a TV show. He had some disdain for his gangster pictures that he made with Warner Bros. and only really liked the song-and-dance pictures. He never watched any of his films except for those musicals and even then he only wanted to see the song-and-dance numbers. He considered his crowning achievement to be Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and it's the only film he spends a considerable time talking about. Cagney liked to think of himself as a song-and-dance man and not as a gangster. He also discusses his somewhat frustrating experience with One Two Three (1961) which was the last film he did before his retirement (he went on to do a couple more but they were after he wrote this biography).

I particularly liked some of the issues that Cagney explores in the book. He was very fond of nature and owned a farm in Massachusetts. He was particularly interested in issues of conservation and the protection of the environment and discusses his concerns with the building of highways in the 1970s. Cagney was also concerned about how the present society was so fixated on building up heroes only to break them down. It's such a part of our culture today that it's difficult to think of a time when this didn't happen. Cagney also gives some really good advice about living a long fruitful life after retirement: get some hobbies! He picked up painting, martial arts and farming after he stopped acting and his new hobbies kept him going for many years.

Even though the book was fun to read, I was a little disappointed with Cagney by Cagney. I really wanted to know more about his gangster movies, his wife, how he and Bill came to adopt their kids, etc. I have read a few memoir type books recently and have grown a bit weary of them. Actors are performers and their books are often another type of performance. They have an agenda and they want to appear a certain way and sometimes that gets in the way of what the reader really wants out of the book. However, I'm very glad I read it and I can set aside my disappointment and treasure this book for what it is. If I want more, I know there are other Cagney biographies out there for me to enjoy.

I bought this book new at Barnes & Noble and while it's still in print it looks like there are limited new copies available out there.

This is my third contribution to my 2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge!




14 comments:

  1. Cagney, hooray! And a hooray for your review, too.
    I'm really considering asking biographies on classic stars on Christmas :)
    Nice to know about this book, yet I really believe autobios may not have the tell-all thing some bios have. Well, each one has advantages and failures. This reminds me of the movie The Buster Keaton Story, that had Buster on the backstage but is highly fictional.
    Kisses!

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    1. Lê - Hooray! You are so right. Autobios are definitely not tell-alls. The stars who write them definitely want to make sure they get their voice out there and have their chance at setting records straight. It's nice to balance out autobios with bios for sure. Oh yes, I haven't seen The Buster Keaton Story yet but I did hear it was very fictional.

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  2. This sounds like an interesting book, but I would be disappointed too about the lack of talk about his family or wife. I recently read that he and one of his children didn't talk later in his life, and wanted to know why.
    Aside from that, your review has made me want to find this book and read it. I never knew he had some disdain for his gangster films!
    I would def. agree with actors having an agenda. Especially, towards the ends of their books. That's honestly why I take alot of autobios with a grain of salt :)
    Great review!

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    1. Jessica! Thanks for stopping by. Thank you SO MUCH for that tip about his kids. I didn't have a clue until you mentioned it and went on a Googling frenzy. I'm starting to understand now why Cagney didn't mention them much in the book. Taking autobios with a grain of salt is a good idea. I did the same with the Orson Welles and Ava Gardner books I read recently. Not really autobios/memoirs but in their own voices and they were definitely performing for an audience.

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  3. Always fun to read about Cagney, enjoyed your write-up. I don't have a copy of this, but definitely recommend John McCabe's late '90s Cagney bio titled simply Cagney. If memory serves McCabe actually co-wrote (or maybe it was he was ghostwriter) the earlier book you review here. From the snippets of this one that I've bumped into on Google Books I get the feeling that McCabe retold some of these stories with all the names replaced in his more traditional later biography. That newer book is still in print as a trade paperback too, so readily available and affordable.

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    1. Cliff - Thanks so much for the info on McCabe. I just added his book to my wishlist. I figured Cagney had a ghostwriter of some sort even if he did like to do a little humorous writing on his own. I would love to see some of the stories fleshed out a bit more so I definitely want to read the McCabe book.

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  4. nice review Quele! i have never read a book about Cagney. not sure i ever will. sometimes our heroes are best left mythical i guess :D
    that is odd he didnt talk about his wife much.

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    1. Paulie - I think you would like Cagney's paragraph on how we like to build up heroes and tear them down. Sometimes it's nice to keep our favorite people up on a pedestal and not knock 'em down by learning to much about them. I'm just very curious so I can't seem to do that. I must read all the books about all the classic film stars! LOL

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  5. Really enjoyed your review. I agree that although it was a good read, there was more I would have liked to hear about -- just as with the Yvonne DeCarlo book I just reviewed. You're right that they shape their books to fit what interests them or what they wish to put out there in public, which is normal but leaves some of us wanting more.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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    1. Laura - Your review of the DeCarlo book helped me with my review of Cagney. It made me think about why actors/actresses wrote these books. Thanks for that!

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  6. It's always interesting what stars do and don't want to talk about in their memoirs. Most of us want to hear all about the making of the films, but the stars themselves often focus on other aspects of their lives (Errol Flynn does the same thing in his book - I was so frustrated not to learn more about the process of making his films!). This book sounds like an interesting read, even if it is a bit of a mixed bag. Thanks for taking the time to read it and tell us about it!

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    1. Jennifer - Thank you! It was definitely a mixed bag but worth the experience reading it. If I had the time, I think I would chase every memoir/autobiography immediately with a full biography if one were available. I think that would prove to be a fuller learning/reading experience.

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  7. Marvelous, as always! And great job in general on (And I *love* knowing that Cagney became a martial arts expert and thoughtful painter in his later years. That man.)

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    1. I hope there is footage somewhere of Cagney doing martial arts. I'd love to see that! Thanks Carley for your comment.

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