Cagney by Cagney
Paperback, 202 pages
Originally published 1976
Barnes and Noble
"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.
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