James Cagney

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"I never said, 'Mmm, you dirty rat!' What I actually did say was 'Judy, Judy, Judy.'"

Cagney, in his acceptance speech for the AFI Life Achievement Award, 1974

Blonde Crazy and Taxi! contain lines that became the basis of many misquoted celebrity impersonations of Cagney. He never said "Mmm, you dirty rat!" on film; in Blonde Crazy, he says: "That dirty, double-crossin' rat!" [67] and in Taxi!, he says: "Come out and take it, you dirty, yellow-bellied rat, or I'll give it to you through the door!" The quote from Blonde Crazy was nominated for the American Film Institute's 2005 AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes list. [71]

The film was swiftly followed by The Crowd Roars and Winner Take All .[ citation needed ]

Fighting with Warner Bros.

Along with George Raft, Edward G. Robinson, and Humphrey Bogart, all of whom were Warner Bros. actors, Cagney defined what a movie gangster was. In G Men (1935), however, he played a lawyer who joins the FBI. James Cagney in G Men trailer.jpg
Along with George Raft, Edward G. Robinson, and Humphrey Bogart, all of whom were Warner Bros. actors, Cagney defined what a movie gangster was. In G Men (1935), however, he played a lawyer who joins the FBI.
Cagney, Ann Dvorak and Joan Blondell in The Crowd Roars (1932) The Crowd Roars (1932) trailer 2.jpg
Cagney, Ann Dvorak and Joan Blondell in The Crowd Roars (1932)
Cagney and Olivia de Havilland in The Irish in Us (1935) Olivia de Havilland and James Cagney in The Irish in Us.jpg
Cagney and Olivia de Havilland in The Irish in Us (1935)
With close friend Pat O'Brien in Here Comes the Navy (1934), their first of nine films together James Cagney and Pat O'Brien in Here Comes the Navy trailer.jpg
With close friend Pat O'Brien in Here Comes the Navy (1934), their first of nine films together

Despite his success, Cagney remained dissatisfied with his contract. He wanted more money for his successful films, but he also offered to take a smaller salary should his star wane. [72] [73] Warner Bros. refused, so Cagney once again walked out. He held out for $4000 a week, [72] the same salary as Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Kay Francis. [73] Warner Bros. refused to cave in this time, and suspended him. Cagney announced that he would do his next three pictures for free if they canceled the five years remaining on his contract. He also threatened to quit Hollywood and go back to Columbia University to follow his brothers into medicine. After six months of suspension, Frank Capra brokered a deal that increased Cagney's salary to around $3000 a week, and guaranteed top billing and no more than four films a year. [74]

Having learned about the block-booking studio system that virtually guaranteed the studios huge profits, Cagney was determined to spread the wealth. [75] [76] He regularly sent money and goods to old friends from his neighborhood, though he did not generally make this known. [77] His insistence on no more than four films a year was based on his having witnessed actors—even teenagers—regularly being worked 100 hours a week to turn out more films. This experience was an integral reason for his involvement in forming the Screen Actors Guild in 1933.[ citation needed ]

Cagney returned to the studio and made Hard to Handle (1933). This was followed by a steady stream of crowd-pleasing films, including the highly regarded Footlight Parade , [78] which gave Cagney the chance to return to his song-and-dance roots. The film includes show-stopping scenes with Busby Berkeley-choreographed routines. [79] In 1934, Here Comes the Navy paired him with Pat O'Brien for the first of nine films together. The two would have an enduring friendship. [80] Also in 1934, Cagney made his first of two raucous comedies with Bette Davis, Jimmy the Gent , for which he had himself heavily made up with thick eyebrows and procured an odd haircut for the period without the studio's permission, shaved on the back and sides. Cagney initially had the make-up department put prominent scars on the back of his head for a close-up but the studio demanded that he remove them. Cagney's and Davis's fast-paced scenes together were particularly energetic.

Here Comes the Navy (1934) James Cagney in Here Comes the Navy trailer.jpg
Here Comes the Navy (1934)

In 1935 Cagney was listed as one of the Top Ten Moneymakers in Hollywood for the first time, [81] and was cast more frequently in non-gangster roles; he played a lawyer who joins the FBI in G-Men , and he also took on his first, and only, Shakespearean role, as top-billed Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream alongside Joe E. Brown as Francis Flute and Mickey Rooney as Puck.

Cagney's last movie in 1935 was Ceiling Zero , his third film with Pat O'Brien. O'Brien received top billing, which was a clear breach of Cagney's contract. This, combined with the fact that Cagney had made five movies in 1934, again against his contract terms, caused him to bring legal proceedings against Warner Bros. for breach of contract. [82] [83] The dispute dragged on for several months. Cagney received calls from David Selznick and Sam Goldwyn, but neither felt in a position to offer him work while the dispute went on. [82] Meanwhile, while being represented by his brother William in court, Cagney went back to New York to search for a country property where he could indulge his passion for farming. [82]

1936–1937: Independent years

Cagney spent most of the next year on his farm, and went back to work only when Edward L. Alperson from Grand National Films, a newly established, independent studio, approached him to make movies for $100,000 a film and 10% of the profits. [84] [85] Cagney made two films for Grand National: Great Guy and Something to Sing About . He received good reviews for both, [86] [87] but overall the production quality was not up to Warner Bros. standards, and the films did not do well. A third film, Dynamite, was planned, but Grand National ran out of money. [88]

Cagney also became involved in political causes, and in 1936, agreed to sponsor the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. [89] Unknown to Cagney, the League was in fact a front organization for the Communist International (Comintern), which sought to enlist support for the Soviet Union and its foreign policies. [89] [90]

Cagney in Something to Sing About (1937) Something to Sing About Cagney.jpg
Cagney in Something to Sing About (1937)

The courts eventually decided the Warner Bros. lawsuit in Cagney's favor. He had done what many thought unthinkable: taking on the studios and winning. [88] Not only did he win, but Warner Bros. also knew that he was still their foremost box office draw and invited him back for a five-year, $150,000-a-film deal, with no more than two pictures a year. Cagney also had full say over what films he did and did not make. [91] Additionally, William Cagney was guaranteed the position of assistant producer for the movies in which his brother starred. [92]

Cagney had demonstrated the power of the walkout in keeping the studios to their word. He later explained his reasons, saying, "I walked out because I depended on the studio heads to keep their word on this, that or other promise, and when the promise was not kept, my only recourse was to deprive them of my services." [93] Cagney himself acknowledged the importance of the walkout for other actors in breaking the dominance of the studio system. Normally, when a star walked out, the time he or she was absent was added onto the end of an already long contract, as happened with Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis. [76] Cagney, however, walked out and came back to a better contract. Many in Hollywood watched the case closely for hints of how future contracts might be handled. [94]

Artistically, the Grand National experiment was a success for Cagney, who was able to move away from his traditional Warner Bros. tough guy roles to more sympathetic characters. [91] [95] How far he could have experimented and developed will never be known, but back in the Warner fold, he was once again playing tough guys. [95]

1938–1942: Return to Warner Bros.

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Cagney and Pat O'Brien in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), the sixth of nine feature films they would make together James Cagney and Pat O'Brien in Angels With Dirty Faces trailer.jpg
Cagney and Pat O'Brien in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), the sixth of nine feature films they would make together
Cagney and Pat O'Brien in the endlessly debated final walk James Cagney Pat O'Brien Angels with Dirty Faces Still.jpg
Cagney and Pat O'Brien in the endlessly debated final walk
Cagney takes the controversial final walk Cagney angels final walk.jpg
Cagney takes the controversial final walk
Ann Sheridan and Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) Ann SHERIDAN-James CAGNEY-Angels Dirty Faces-PHOTO2.jpg
Ann Sheridan and Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Cagney's two films of 1938, Boy Meets Girl and Angels with Dirty Faces , both costarred Pat O'Brien. The former had Cagney in a comedy role, and received mixed reviews. Warner Bros. had allowed Cagney his change of pace, [96] but was keen to get him back to playing tough guys, which was more lucrative. Ironically, the script for Angels was one that Cagney had hoped to do while with Grand National, but the studio had been unable to secure funding. [96]

Cagney starred as Rocky Sullivan, a gangster fresh out of jail and looking for his former associate, played by Humphrey Bogart, who owes him money. While revisiting his old haunts, he runs into his old friend Jerry Connolly, played by O'Brien, who is now a priest concerned about the Dead End Kids' futures, particularly as they idolize Rocky. After a messy shootout, Sullivan is eventually captured by the police and sentenced to death in the electric chair. Connolly pleads with Rocky to "turn yellow" on his way to the chair so the Kids will lose their admiration for him, and hopefully avoid turning to crime. Sullivan refuses, but on his way to his execution, he breaks down and begs for his life. It is unclear whether this cowardice is real or just feigned for the Kids' benefit. Cagney himself refused to say, insisting he liked the ambiguity. [97] The film is regarded by many as one of Cagney's finest, [98] and garnered him an Academy Award for Best Actor nomination for 1938. He lost to Spencer Tracy in Boys Town . Cagney had been considered for the role, but lost out on it due to his typecasting. [99] (He also lost the role of Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne in Knute Rockne, All American to his friend Pat O'Brien for the same reason. [99] ) Cagney did, however, win that year's New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor.

His earlier insistence on not filming with live ammunition proved to be a good decision. Having been told while filming Angels with Dirty Faces that he would be doing a scene with real machine gun bullets (a common practice in the Hollywood of the time), Cagney refused and insisted the shots be added afterwards. As it turned out, a ricocheting bullet passed through exactly where his head would have been. [100] [101]

The Roaring Twenties (1939)

Humphrey Bogart with Cagney and Jeffrey Lynn in The Roaring Twenties (1939) Humphrey Bogart James Cagney Jeffrey Lynn in The Roaring Twenties trailer.jpg
Humphrey Bogart with Cagney and Jeffrey Lynn in The Roaring Twenties (1939)
Cagney and Bogart in The Roaring Twenties (1939) James Cagney Humphrey Bogart The Roaring Twenties Still.jpg
Cagney and Bogart in The Roaring Twenties (1939)

During his first year back at Warner Bros., Cagney became the studio's highest earner, making $324,000. [102] He starred with George Raft in the smash hit Each Dawn I Die , an extremely entertaining prison movie that was so successful at the box office that it prompted the studio to offer Raft an important contract in the wake of his departure from Paramount. In addition, Cagney made The Oklahoma Kid , a memorable Western with Humphrey Bogart as the black-clad villain. Cagney completed his first decade of movie-making in 1939 with The Roaring Twenties , his first film with Raoul Walsh and his last with Bogart. After The Roaring Twenties, it would be a decade before Cagney made another gangster film. Cagney again received good reviews; Graham Greene stated, "Mr. Cagney, of the bull-calf brow, is as always a superb and witty actor". [103] The Roaring Twenties was the last film in which Cagney's character's violence was explained by poor upbringing, or his environment, as was the case in The Public Enemy. From that point on, violence was attached to mania, as in White Heat . [103] In 1939 Cagney was second to only Gary Cooper in the national acting wage stakes, earning $368,333. [104]

1940–1941: City for Conquest, The Fighting 69th, and The Strawberry Blonde

Passerby views original movie poster for The Fighting 69th in 1940 San Leandro, California. Hanging Around. Twenty years old, his high school education is over and college was never... - NARA - 532243.tif
Passerby views original movie poster for The Fighting 69th in 1940

In 1940, Cagney portrayed a boxer in the epic thriller City for Conquest with Ann Sheridan as Cagney's leading lady, Arthur Kennedy in his first screen role as Cagney's younger brother attempting to compose musical symphonies, Anthony Quinn as a brutish dancer, and Elia Kazan as a flamboyantly dressed young gangster originally from the local neighborhood. The well-received film with its shocking plot twists features one of Cagney's most moving performances. Later the same year, Cagney and Sheridan reunited with Pat O'Brien in Torrid Zone , a turbulent comedy set in a Central American country in which a labor organizer is turning the workers against O'Brien's character's banana company, with Cagney's "Nick Butler" intervening. The supporting cast features Andy Devine and George Reeves.

Cagney's third film in 1940 was The Fighting 69th , a World War I film about a real-life unit with Cagney playing a fictional private, alongside Pat O'Brien as Father Francis P. Duffy, George Brent as future OSS leader Maj. "Wild Bill" Donovan, and Jeffrey Lynn as famous young poet Sgt. Joyce Kilmer. Alan Hale Sr., Frank McHugh and Dick Foran also appear. In 1941, Cagney and Bette Davis reunited for a comedy set in the contemporary West titled The Bride Came C.O.D. , followed by a change of pace with the gentle turn-of-the-century romantic comedy The Strawberry Blonde (1941) featuring songs of the period and also starring Olivia de Havilland and rising young phenomenon Rita Hayworth, along with Alan Hale Sr. and Jack Carson.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Cagney as George M. Cohan, performing "The Yankee Doodle Boy" from Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy trailer.jpg
Cagney as George M. Cohan, performing "The Yankee Doodle Boy" from Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

"Smart, alert, hard-headed, Cagney is as typically American as Cohan himself... It was a remarkable performance, probably Cagney's best, and it makes Yankee Doodle a dandy"

Time magazine [105]

In 1942, Cagney portrayed George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy , a film Cagney "took great pride in" [106] and considered his best. [107] Producer Hal Wallis said that having seen Cohan in I'd Rather Be Right , he never considered anyone other than Cagney for the part. [108] Cagney, though, insisted that Fred Astaire had been the first choice, but turned it down. [108] [109] Many critics of the time and since have declared it Cagney's best film, drawing parallels between Cohan and Cagney; they both began their careers in vaudeville, struggled for years before reaching the peak of their profession, were surrounded with family and married early, and both had a wife who was happy to sit back while he went on to stardom. [110] [111] The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three, including Cagney's for Best Actor. In his acceptance speech, Cagney said, "I've always maintained that in this business, you're only as good as the other fellow thinks you are. It's nice to know that you people thought I did a good job. And don't forget that it was a good part, too." [112]

Filming began the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the cast and crew worked in a "patriotic frenzy" [108] as the United States' involvement in World War II gave the workers a feeling that "they might be sending the last message from the free world", according to actress Rosemary DeCamp. [113] Cohan was given a private showing of the film shortly before his death, and thanked Cagney "for a wonderful job," [114] exclaiming, "My God, what an act to follow!" [115] A paid première, with seats ranging from $25 to $25,000, raised $5,750,000 for war bonds for the US treasury. [116] [117]

1942–1948: Independent again

Cagney announced in March 1942 that his brother William and he were setting up Cagney Productions to release films though United Artists. [84] [118] Free of Warner Bros. again, Cagney spent some time relaxing on his farm in Martha's Vineyard before volunteering to join the USO. He spent several weeks touring the US, entertaining troops with vaudeville routines and scenes from Yankee Doodle Dandy. [119] In September 1942, he was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild.

Almost a year after its creation, Cagney Productions produced its first film, Johnny Come Lately , in 1943. While the major studios were producing patriotic war movies, Cagney was determined to continue dispelling his tough-guy image, [120] so he produced a movie that was a "complete and exhilarating exposition of the Cagney 'alter-ego' on film". [121] According to Cagney, the film "made money but it was no great winner", and reviews varied from excellent (Time) to poor (New York's PM ). [122]

"I'm here to dance a few jigs, sing a few songs, say hello to the boys, and that's all."

Cagney to British reporters [123]

Following the film's completion, Cagney went back to the USO and toured US military bases in the UK. He refused to give interviews to the British press, preferring to concentrate on rehearsals and performances. He gave several performances a day for the Army Signal Corps of The American Cavalcade of Dance, which consisted of a history of American dance, from the earliest days to Fred Astaire, and culminated with dances from Yankee Doodle Dandy.

The second movie Cagney's company produced was Blood on the Sun . Insisting on doing his own stunts, Cagney required judo training from expert Ken Kuniyuki and Jack Halloran, a former policeman. [124] The Cagneys had hoped that an action film would appeal more to audiences, but it fared worse at the box office than Johnny Come Lately. At this time, Cagney heard of young war hero Audie Murphy, who had appeared on the cover of Life magazine. [125] Cagney thought that Murphy had the looks to be a movie star, and suggested that he come to Hollywood. Cagney felt, however, that Murphy could not act, and his contract was loaned out and then sold. [126]

While negotiating the rights for his third independent film, Cagney starred in 20th Century Fox's 13 Rue Madeleine for $300,000 for two months of work. [127] The wartime spy film was a success, and Cagney was keen to begin production of his new project, an adaptation of William Saroyan's Broadway play The Time of Your Life . Saroyan himself loved the film, but it was a commercial disaster, costing the company half a million dollars to make; [128] audiences again struggled to accept Cagney in a nontough-guy role. [128] [129]

Cagney Productions was in serious trouble; poor returns from the produced films, and a legal dispute with Sam Goldwyn Studio over a rental agreement [128] [129] forced Cagney back to Warner Bros. He signed a distribution-production deal with the studio for the film White Heat , [129] effectively making Cagney Productions a unit of Warner Bros. [92]

1949–1955: Back to Warner Bros.

White Heat (1949)

Cagney as Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949) James Cagney in White Heat trailer crop.jpg
Cagney as Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949)
With Virginia Mayo in White Heat (1949) Virginia Mayo and James Cagney in White Heat trailer.jpg
With Virginia Mayo in White Heat (1949)

Cagney's portrayal of Cody Jarrett in the 1949 film White Heat is one of his most memorable. [130] [131] Cinema had changed in the 10 years since Walsh last directed Cagney (in The Strawberry Blonde), and the actor's portrayal of gangsters had also changed. Unlike Tom Powers in The Public Enemy, Jarrett was portrayed as a raging lunatic with few if any sympathetic qualities. [132] In the 18 intervening years, Cagney's hair had begun to gray, and he developed a paunch for the first time. He was no longer a dashing romantic commodity in precisely the same way he obviously was before, and this was reflected in his performance. [132] Cagney himself had the idea of playing Jarrett as psychotic; he later stated, "it was essentially a cheapie one-two-three-four kind of thing, so I suggested we make him nuts. It was agreed so we put in all those fits and headaches." [133]

Cagney's final lines in the film – "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" – was voted the 18th-greatest movie line by the American Film Institute. Likewise, Jarrett's explosion of rage in prison on being told of his mother's death is widely hailed as one of Cagney's most memorable performances. [131] [134] Some of the extras on set actually became terrified of the actor because of his violent portrayal. [131] Cagney attributed the performance to his father's alcoholic rages, which he had witnessed as a child, as well as someone that he had seen on a visit to a mental hospital. [131]

"[A] homicidal paranoiac with a mother fixation"

Warner Bros. publicity description of Cody Jarrett in White Heat [133]

The film was a critical success, though some critics wondered about the social impact of a character that they saw as sympathetic. [135] Cagney was still struggling against his gangster typecasting. He said to a journalist, "It's what the people want me to do. Some day, though, I'd like to make another movie that kids could go and see." [136] However, Warner Bros., perhaps searching for another Yankee Doodle Dandy, [136] assigned Cagney a musical for his next picture, 1950's The West Point Story with Doris Day, an actress he admired. [137]

His next film, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye , was another gangster movie, which was the first by Cagney Productions since its acquisition. While compared unfavorably to White Heat by critics, it was fairly successful at the box office, with $500,000 going straight to Cagney Productions' bankers to pay off their losses. [138] Cagney Productions was not a great success, however, and in 1953, after William Cagney produced his last film, A Lion Is in the Streets , a drama loosely based on flamboyant politician Huey Long, the company came to an end. [84]

Love Me or Leave Me (1955)

Cagney as gangster Martin "Moe the Gimp" Snyder in Love Me or Leave Me (1955) James Cagney in Love Me or Leave Me trailer.jpg
Cagney as gangster Martin "Moe the Gimp" Snyder in Love Me or Leave Me (1955)

Cagney's next notable role was the 1955 film Love Me or Leave Me , his third with Doris Day, who was top-billed above Cagney for this picture, the first movie for which he'd accepted second billing since Smart Money in 1931. Cagney played Martin "Moe the Gimp" Snyder, a lame Jewish-American gangster from Chicago, a part Spencer Tracy had turned down. [139] Cagney described the script as "that extremely rare thing, the perfect script". [139] [140] When the film was released, Snyder reportedly asked how Cagney had so accurately copied his limp, but Cagney himself insisted he had not, having based it on personal observation of other people when they limped: "What I did was very simple. I just slapped my foot down as I turned it out while walking. That's all". [139] [140]

His performance earned him another Best Actor Academy Award nomination, 17 years after his first. [7] Reviews were strong, and the film is considered one of the best of his later career. In Day, he found a co-star with whom he could build a rapport, such as he had had with Blondell at the start of his career. [141] Day herself was full of praise for Cagney, stating that he was "the most professional actor I've ever known. He was always 'real'. I simply forgot we were making a picture. His eyes would actually fill up when we were working on a tender scene. And you never needed drops to make your eyes shine when Jimmy was on the set." [141]

Mister Roberts (1955)

Poster (in public domain) for Mister Roberts (1955) with Henry Fonda, Cagney, William Powell and Jack Lemmon Mister Roberts (1955 movie poster).jpg
Poster (in public domain) for Mister Roberts (1955) with Henry Fonda, Cagney, William Powell and Jack Lemmon

Cagney's next film was Mister Roberts , directed by John Ford and slated to star Spencer Tracy. Tracy's involvement ensured that Cagney accepted a supporting role in his close friend's movie, although in the end, Tracy did not take part and Henry Fonda played the titular role instead. [142] Cagney enjoyed working with the film's superb cast despite the absence of Tracy. Major film star William Powell played a rare supporting role as "Doc" in the film, his final picture before retirement from a stellar career that had spanned 33 years, since his first appearance in Sherlock Holmes with John Barrymore in 1922. Cagney had worked with Ford on What Price Glory? three years earlier, and they had gotten along fairly well. However, as soon as Ford had met Cagney at the airport for that film, the director warned him that they would eventually "tangle asses", which caught Cagney by surprise. He later said, "I would have kicked his brains out. He was so goddamned mean to everybody. He was truly a nasty old man." [143] The next day, Cagney was slightly late on set, incensing Ford. Cagney cut short his imminent tirade, saying "When I started this picture, you said that we would tangle asses before this was over. I'm ready now – are you?" Ford walked away, and they had no more problems, though Cagney never particularly liked Ford. [143]

Cagney's skill at noticing tiny details in other actors' performances became apparent during the shooting of Mister Roberts. While watching the Kraft Music Hall anthology television show some months before, Cagney had noticed Jack Lemmon performing left-handed, doing practically everything with his left hand. The first thing that Cagney asked Lemmon when they met was if he was still using his left hand. Lemmon was shocked; he had done it on a whim, and thought no one else had noticed. He said of his co-star, "his powers of observation must be absolutely incredible, in addition to the fact that he remembered it. I was very flattered." [142]

The film was a success, securing three Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Sound Recording and Best Supporting Actor for Lemmon, who won. While Cagney was not nominated, he had thoroughly enjoyed the production. Filming on Midway Island and in a more minor role meant that he had time to relax and engage in his hobby of painting. He also drew caricatures of the cast and crew. [144]

1955–1961: Later career

In 1955 Cagney replaced Spencer Tracy on the Western film Tribute to a Bad Man for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He received praise for his performance, and the studio liked his work enough to offer him These Wilder Years with Barbara Stanwyck. The two stars got on well; they had both previously worked in vaudeville, and they entertained the cast and crew off-screen by singing and dancing. [145]

In 1956 Cagney undertook one of his very rare television roles, starring in Robert Montgomery's Soldiers From the War Returning. This was a favor to Montgomery, who needed a strong fall season opener to stop the network from dropping his series. Cagney's appearance ensured that it was a success. The actor made it clear to reporters afterwards that television was not his medium: "I do enough work in movies. This is a high-tension business. I have tremendous admiration for the people who go through this sort of thing every week, but it's not for me." [146]

The following year, Cagney appeared in Man of a Thousand Faces , in which he played a fictionalized version of Lon Chaney. He received excellent reviews, with the New York Journal American rating it one of his best performances, and the film, made for Universal, was a box office hit. Cagney's skill at mimicry, combined with a physical similarity to Chaney, helped him generate empathy for his character. [147] [148]

Later in 1957, Cagney ventured behind the camera for the first and only time to direct Short Cut to Hell , a remake of the 1941 Alan Ladd film This Gun for Hire , which in turn was based on the Graham Greene novel A Gun for Sale . Cagney had long been told by friends that he would make an excellent director, [148] so when he was approached by his friend, producer A. C. Lyles, he instinctively said yes. He refused all offers of payment, saying he was an actor, not a director. The film was low budget, and shot quickly. As Cagney recalled, "We shot it in twenty days, and that was long enough for me. I find directing a bore, I have no desire to tell other people their business". [149]

In 1959 Cagney played a labor leader in what proved to be his final musical, Never Steal Anything Small , which featured a comical song and dance duet with Cara Williams, who played his girlfriend.

For Cagney's next film, he traveled to Ireland for Shake Hands with the Devil , directed by Michael Anderson. Cagney had hoped to spend some time tracing his Irish ancestry, but time constraints and poor weather meant that he was unable to do so. The overriding message of violence inevitably leading to more violence attracted Cagney to the role of an Irish Republican Army commander, and resulted in what some critics would regard as the finest performance of his final years. [150]

The Gallant Hours (1960)

Robert Montgomery, "Bull" Halsey, and Cagney on set Gallant Hours-Montgomery-Halsey-Cagney.jpg
Robert Montgomery, "Bull" Halsey, and Cagney on set

Cagney's career began winding down, and he made only one film in 1960, the critically acclaimed The Gallant Hours , in which he played Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey. The film, although set during the Guadalcanal Campaign in the Pacific Theater during World War II, was not a war film, but instead focused on the impact of command. Cagney Productions, which shared the production credit with Robert Montgomery's company, made a brief return, though in name only. The film was a success, and The New York Times's Bosley Crowther singled its star out for praise: "It is Mr. Cagney's performance, controlled to the last detail, that gives life and strong, heroic stature to the principal figure in the film. There is no braggadocio in it, no straining for bold or sharp effects. It is one of the quietest, most reflective, subtlest jobs that Mr. Cagney has ever done." [151] [152]

One, Two, Three (1961)

One, Two, Three theatrical trailer

Cagney's penultimate film was a comedy. He was hand-picked by Billy Wilder to play a hard-driving Coca-Cola executive in the film One, Two, Three . [153] Cagney had concerns with the script, remembering back 23 years to Boy Meets Girl, in which scenes were reshot to try to make them funnier by speeding up the pacing, with the opposite effect. Cagney received assurances from Wilder that the script was balanced. Filming did not go well, though, with one scene requiring 50 takes, something to which Cagney was unaccustomed. [154] In fact, it was one of the worst experiences of his long career. Cagney noted, "I never had the slightest difficulty with a fellow actor. Not until One, Two, Three. In that picture, Horst Buchholz tried all sorts of scene-stealing didoes. I came close to knocking him on his ass." [151] For the first time, Cagney considered walking out of a film. He felt he had worked too many years inside studios, and combined with a visit to Dachau concentration camp during filming, he decided that he had had enough, and retired afterward. [155] One of the few positive aspects was his friendship with Pamela Tiffin, to whom he gave acting guidance, including the secret that he had learned over his career: "You walk in, plant yourself squarely on both feet, look the other fella in the eye, and tell the truth." [156]

1961–1986: Later years and retirement

Cagney remained in retirement for 20 years, conjuring up images of Jack L. Warner every time he was tempted to return, which soon dispelled the notion. After he had turned down an offer to play Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady , [157] [158] he found it easier to rebuff others, including a part in The Godfather Part II . [158] He made few public appearances, preferring to spend winters in Los Angeles, and summers either at his Martha's Vineyard farm or at Verney Farms in New York. When in New York, Billie Vernon and he held numerous parties at the Silver Horn restaurant, where they got to know Marge Zimmermann, the proprietress. [159]

American Film Institute Life Achievement Award (1974)

Cagney was diagnosed with glaucoma and began taking eye drops, but continued to have vision problems. On Zimmermann's recommendation, he visited a different doctor, who determined that glaucoma had been a misdiagnosis, and that Cagney was actually diabetic. Zimmermann then took it upon herself to look after Cagney, preparing his meals to reduce his blood triglycerides, which had reached alarming levels. Such was her success that, by the time Cagney made a rare public appearance at his American Film Institute Life Achievement Award ceremony in 1974, he had lost 20 pounds (9.1 kg) and his vision had improved. [160] Charlton Heston opened the ceremony, and Frank Sinatra introduced Cagney. So many Hollywood stars attended—said to be more than for any event in history—that one columnist wrote at the time that a bomb in the dining room would have ended the movie industry. In his acceptance speech, Cagney lightly chastised the impressionist Frank Gorshin, saying, "Oh, Frankie, just in passing, I never said 'MMMMmmmm, you dirty rat!' What I actually did say was 'Judy, Judy, Judy!'"—a joking reference to a similar misquotation attributed to Cary Grant. [161]

Ragtime (1981)

"I think he's some kind of genius. His instinct, it's just unbelievable. I could just stay at home. One of the qualities of a brilliant actor is that things look better on the screen than the set. Jimmy has that quality."

Director Miloš Forman [162]

While at Coldwater Canyon in 1977, Cagney had a minor stroke. After he spent two weeks in the hospital, Zimmermann became his full-time caregiver, traveling with Billie Vernon and him wherever they went. [163] After the stroke, Cagney was no longer able to undertake many of his favorite pastimes, including horseback riding and dancing, and as he became more depressed, he even gave up painting. Encouraged by his wife and Zimmermann, Cagney accepted an offer from the director Miloš Forman to star in a small but pivotal role in the film Ragtime (1981). [164]

This film was shot mainly at Shepperton Studios in Surrey, England, and on his arrival at Southampton aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2 , Cagney was mobbed by hundreds of fans. Cunard Line officials, who were responsible for security at the dock, said they had never seen anything like it, although they had experienced past visits by Marlon Brando and Robert Redford.[ citation needed ]

Despite the fact that Ragtime was his first film in 20 years, Cagney was immediately at ease: Flubbed lines and miscues were committed by his co-stars, often simply through sheer awe. Howard Rollins, who received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance, said, "I was frightened to meet Mr. Cagney. I asked him how to die in front of the camera. He said 'Just die!' It worked. Who would know more about dying than him?" Cagney also repeated the advice he had given to Pamela Tiffin, Joan Leslie, and Lemmon. As filming progressed, Cagney's sciatica worsened, but he finished the nine-week filming, and reportedly stayed on the set after completing his scenes to help the other actors with their dialogue.[ citation needed ]

Cagney's frequent co-star, Pat O'Brien, appeared with him on the British chat show Parkinson in the early 1980s and they both made a surprise appearance at the Queen Mother's command birthday performance at the London Palladium in 1980. [165] His appearance onstage prompted the Queen Mother to rise to her feet, the only time she did so during the whole show, and she later broke protocol to go backstage to speak with Cagney directly. [162]

Terrible Joe Moran (1984)

Cagney made a rare TV appearance in the lead role of the movie Terrible Joe Moran in 1984. This was his last role. Cagney's health was fragile and more strokes had confined him to a wheelchair, but the producers worked his real-life mobility problem into the story. They also decided to dub his impaired speech, using the impersonator Rich Little. [166] The film made use of fight clips from Cagney's boxing movie Winner Take All (1932).

Personal life

Footlight Parade (1933) CredCagneyFootlightParade33Trailer.jpg
Footlight Parade (1933)

In 1920, Cagney was a member of the chorus for the show Pitter Patter, where he met Frances Willard "Billie" Vernon. They married on September 28, 1922, and the marriage lasted until his death in 1986. Frances Cagney died in 1994. [167] In 1940 they adopted a son whom they named James Francis Cagney III, and later a daughter, Cathleen "Casey" Cagney. [168] [169] Cagney was a very private man, and while he was willing to give the press opportunities for photographs, he generally spent his personal time out of the public eye. [170]

Cagney's son died from a heart attack on January 27, 1984, in Washington, D.C., two years before his father's death. [171] [172] James III had become estranged from him, and they had not seen or talked to one another since 1982. [173] [171] Cagney's daughter Cathleen was also estranged from her father during the final years of his life. She died on August 11, 2004. [174]

As a young man, Cagney became interested in farming – sparked by a soil conservation lecture he had attended [18] – to the extent that during his first walkout from Warner Bros., he helped to found a 100-acre (0.40 km2) farm in Martha's Vineyard. [175] [176] Cagney loved that no paved roads surrounded the property, only dirt tracks. The house was rather run-down and ramshackle, and Billie was initially reluctant to move in, but soon came to love the place as well. After being inundated by movie fans, Cagney sent out a rumor that he had hired a gunman for security. The ruse proved so successful that when Spencer Tracy came to visit, his taxi driver refused to drive up to the house, saying, "I hear they shoot!" Tracy had to go the rest of the way on foot. [85]

In 1955, having shot three films, Cagney bought a 120-acre (0.49 km2) farm in Stanfordville, Dutchess County, New York, for $100,000. Cagney named it Verney Farm, taking the first syllable from Billie's maiden name and the second from his own surname. He turned it into a working farm, selling some of the dairy cattle and replacing them with beef cattle. [177] [178] He expanded it over the years to 750 acres (3.0 km2). Such was Cagney's enthusiasm for agriculture and farming that his diligence and efforts were rewarded by an honorary degree from Florida's Rollins College. Rather than just "turning up with Ava Gardner on my arm" to accept his honorary degree, Cagney turned the tables upon the college's faculty by writing and submitting a paper on soil conservation. [177]

Cagney was born in 1899 (prior to the widespread use of automobiles) and loved horses from childhood. As a child, he often sat on the horses of local deliverymen and rode in horse-drawn streetcars with his mother. As an adult, well after horses were replaced by automobiles as the primary mode of transportation, Cagney raised horses on his farms, specializing in Morgans, a breed of which he was particularly fond. [179]

Cagney was a keen sailor and owned boats that were harbored on both coasts of the U.S., [180] including the Swift of Ipswich . [181] His joy in sailing, however, did not protect him from occasional seasickness—becoming ill, sometimes, on a calm day while weathering rougher, heavier seas [182] at other times. Cagney greatly enjoyed painting, [183] and claimed in his autobiography that he might have been happier, if somewhat poorer, as a painter than a movie star. [184] The renowned painter Sergei Bongart taught Cagney in his later life and owned two of Cagney's works. Cagney often gave away his work but refused to sell his paintings, considering himself an amateur. He signed and sold only one painting, purchased by Johnny Carson to benefit a charity. [183]

Political views

In his autobiography, Cagney said that as a young man, he had no political views, since he was more concerned with from where his next meal was coming. [185] However, the emerging labor movement of the 1920s and 1930s soon forced him to take sides. The first version of the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935, and growing tensions between labor and management fueled the movement. Fanzines in the 1930s, however, described his politics as "radical". [186]

This somewhat exaggerated view was enhanced by his public contractual wranglings with Warner Bros. at the time, his joining of the Screen Actors Guild in 1933, and his involvement in the revolt against the so-called "Merriam tax". The "Merriam tax" was an underhanded method of funnelling studio funds to politicians; during the 1934 Californian gubernatorial campaign, the studio executives would "tax" their actors, automatically taking a day's pay from their biggest earners, ultimately sending nearly half a million dollars to the gubernatorial campaign of Frank Merriam. Cagney (as well as Jean Harlow) publicly refused to pay [187] [188] and Cagney even threatened that, if the studios took a day's pay for Merriam's campaign, he would give a week's pay to Upton Sinclair, Merriam's opponent in the race. [189]

He supported political activist and labor leader Thomas Mooney's defense fund, but was repelled by the behavior of some of Mooney's supporters at a rally. [185] Around the same time, he gave money for a Spanish Republican Army ambulance during the Spanish Civil War, which he put down to being "a soft touch". This donation enhanced his liberal reputation. He also became involved in a "liberal group...with a leftist slant," along with Ronald Reagan. However, when he and Reagan saw the direction in which the group was heading, they resigned on the same night. [190]

Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in The Roaring Twenties (1939) James Cagney Humphrey Bogart in The Roaring Twenties trailer.jpg
Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in The Roaring Twenties (1939)

Cagney was accused of being a communist sympathizer in 1934, and again in 1940. The accusation in 1934 stemmed from a letter police found from a local Communist official that alleged that Cagney would bring other Hollywood stars to meetings. Cagney denied this, and Lincoln Steffens, husband of the letter's writer, backed up this denial, asserting that the accusation stemmed solely from Cagney's donation to striking cotton workers in the San Joaquin Valley. William Cagney claimed this donation was the root of the charges in 1940. [191] Cagney was cleared by U.S. Representative Martin Dies Jr. on the House Un-American Activities Committee.[ citation needed ]

Cagney became president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1942 for a two-year term. He took a role in the Guild's fight against the Mafia and the Chicago Outfit, which had been using the threat of strike action by mobbed-controlled labor union to extort protection money from Hollywood studios. His wife, Billie Vernon, once received a phone call telling her that Cagney had died in an automobile accident. [192] According to Cagney, having failed to scare off the Guild and him, the Chicago Outfit allegedly sent a hitman to kill him by dropping a heavy light onto his head. Upon hearing of the rumor of a hit, George Raft made a call, and the contract was supposedly canceled. [192] [193]

During World War II, Cagney raised money for war bonds by taking part in racing exhibitions at the Roosevelt Raceway and selling seats for the premiere of Yankee Doodle Dandy. [116] [105] He also let the United States Army practice maneuvers at his Martha's Vineyard estate. [194]

After the war, Cagney's politics started to change. He had worked on Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidential campaigns, including the 1940 presidential election against Wendell Willkie. However, by the time of the 1948 election, he had become disillusioned with Harry S. Truman, and he voted for Thomas E. Dewey, his first non-Democratic vote. [195] He would also support Ronald Reagan in the 1966 California gubernatorial election. [196]

By 1980, Cagney was contributing financially to the Republican Party, supporting his friend Ronald Reagan's bid for the presidency in the 1980 election. [197] As he got older, Cagney even began referring to himself in his autobiography as "arch-conservative". He regarded his move away from Marxism as "a totally natural reaction once I began to see undisciplined elements in our country stimulating a breakdown of our system... Those functionless creatures, the hippies ... just didn't appear out of a vacuum." [198]


Cagney's crypt 1 Cagney best 800 crop.jpg
Cagney's crypt

Cagney died of a heart attack at his Dutchess County farm in Stanford, New York, on Easter Sunday 1986, aged 86. [17] A funeral Mass was held at St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church in Manhattan. [16] [199] The eulogy was delivered by his close friend, Ronald Reagan, who was also the President of the United States at the time. [16] His pallbearers included boxer Floyd Patterson, dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov (who had hoped to play Cagney on Broadway), actor Ralph Bellamy, and director Miloš Forman. Governor Mario M. Cuomo and Mayor Edward I. Koch were also in attendance at the service. [200]

Cagney was interred in a crypt in the Garden Mausoleum at Cemetery of the Gate of Heaven in Hawthorne, New York. [201]

Honors and legacy

Cagney won the Academy Award in 1943 for his performance as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy . [202]

For his contributions to the film industry, Cagney was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 with a motion pictures star located at 6504 Hollywood Boulevard. [203] [204]

In 1974, Cagney received the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award. Charlton Heston, in announcing that Cagney was to be honored, called him "one of the most significant figures of a generation when American film was dominant, Cagney, that most American of actors, somehow communicated eloquently to audiences all over the world ... and to actors as well." [205]

He received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1980, and a Career Achievement Award from the U.S. National Board of Review in 1981. [206] In 1984, Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. [207]

In 1999, the United States Postal Service issued a 33-cent stamp honoring Cagney. [208]

Cagney was among the most favored actors for director Stanley Kubrick and actor Marlon Brando, [209] and was considered by Orson Welles to be "maybe the greatest actor to ever appear in front of a camera." [210] Warner Bros. arranged private screenings of Cagney films for Winston Churchill. [130]

On May 19, 2015, a new musical celebrating Cagney, and dramatizing his relationship with Warner Bros., opened off-Broadway in New York City at the York Theatre. [211] Cagney, The Musical then moved to the Westside Theatre until May 28, 2017. [212] [213]


James Cagney
James cagney promo photo (cropped, centered).jpg
Cagney, c.1930
James Francis Cagney

(1899-07-17)July 17, 1899
DiedMarch 30, 1986(1986-03-30) (aged 86)
Resting place Gate of Heaven Cemetery
  • Actor
  • dancer
Years active1919–1961; 1981, 1984
Political party Democratic (1934–1948)
Republican (1948–1986)
Frances Willard Vernon
(m. 1922)
RelativesHarry Cagney (brother)
Edward Cagney (brother)
William Cagney (brother)
Jeanne Cagney (sister)
6th President of the Screen Actors Guild
In office
1930 Sinners' Holiday Harry DelanoFilm debut
The Doorway to Hell Steve Mileaway
1931 Blonde Crazy Bert Harris
Smart Money JackThe only film starring both Edward G. Robinson and Cagney
The Millionaire Schofield, Insurance Salesman
The Public Enemy Tom PowersThe movie along with his character and voice was used in The Great Movie Ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios
Other Men's Women Ed "Eddie" BaileyOriginally Titled: "The Steel Highway"
1932 Winner Take All Jim "Jimmy" KaneBoxing film
The Crowd Roars Joe GreerAutomobile racing film
Taxi! Matt Nolan
1933 Lady Killer Dan Quigley
Footlight Parade Chester KentMusical film with dancing; like The Public Enemy, this film was also featured in The Great Movie Ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios
The Mayor of Hell Richard "Patsy" Gargan
Picture Snatcher Danny KeanNewspaper photographer
Hard to Handle Myron C. "Lefty" Merrill
1934 The St. Louis Kid Eddie Kennedy
Here Comes the Navy Chester "Chesty" J. O'Conner
He Was Her Man Flicker Hayes, a.k.a. Jerry Allen
Jimmy the Gent "Jimmy" CorriganThe first of two films with Bette Davis
1935 A Midsummer Night's Dream Nick Bottom
The Irish in Us Danny O'Hara
G Men "Brick" Davis
Devil Dogs of the Air Thomas Jefferson "Tommy" O'Toole
Frisco Kid Bat Morgan
1936 Great Guy Johnny "Red" Cave
Ceiling Zero Dizzy Davis
1937 Something to Sing About Terrence "Terry" Rooneystage name of Thadeus McGillicuddy
1938 Angels with Dirty Faces Rocky Sullivan New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor
Nominated – Academy Award for Best Actor
Boy Meets Girl Robert Law
1939 The Roaring Twenties Eddie Bartlett
Each Dawn I Die Frank Ross
The Oklahoma Kid Jim Kincaid
1940 City for Conquest Danny Kenny (Young Samson)
Torrid Zone Nick "Nicky" Butler
The Fighting 69th Jerry Plunkett
1941 The Bride Came C.O.D. Steve Collins
The Strawberry Blonde T. L. "Biff" Grimes
1942 Yankee Doodle Dandy George M. Cohan Academy Award for Best Actor
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor
Captains of the Clouds Brian MacLean
1943 Johnny Come Lately Tom Richards
1945 Blood on the Sun Nick Condon
1947 13 Rue Madeleine Robert Emmett "Bob" Sharkey a.k.a. Gabriel Chavat
1948 The Time of Your Life Joseph T. (who observes people)
1949 White Heat Arthur "Cody" Jarrett
1950 The West Point Story Elwin "Bix" Bixby
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye Ralph Cotter
1951 Come Fill the Cup Lew Marsh
1952 What Price Glory? Capt. Flagg
1953 A Lion Is in the Streets Hank Martin
1955 Mister Roberts Capt. Morton
The Seven Little Foys George M. Cohan
Love Me or Leave Me Martin SnyderNominated – Academy Award for Best Actor
Run for Cover Matt Dow
1956 These Wilder Years Steve Bradford
Tribute to a Bad Man Jeremy Rodock
1957 Man of a Thousand Faces Lon Chaney
Short Cut to Hell Himself in the Pre-Credit Scene (Uncredited)Director only
1959 Never Steal Anything Small Jake MacIllaney
Shake Hands with the Devil Sean Lenihan
1960 The Gallant Hours Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey
1961 One, Two, Three C.R. MacNamaraNominated — Laurel Award for Top Male Comedy Performance
Nominated — New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor
1968 Arizona Bushwhackers Narrator
1981 Ragtime Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo


1956 Soldier from the Wars Returning George BridgemanAired on NBC on September 10, 1956, in the first episode of Season 6 of Robert Montgomery Presents
1960 What's My Line? Mystery GuestAired on CBS on May 15, 1960 [214]
1966The Ballad of Smokey the BearBig Bear/NarratorAired on NBC on November 24, 1966 [215]
1974 AFI Life Achievement Award : A Tribute to James CagneyHonoree/Keynote Speaker
1984 Terrible Joe Moran Joe Moran (Final role)

Radio appearances

1942 Screen Guild Players Yankee Doodle Dandy [216]
1948 Suspense Love's Lovely Counterfeit [217]
1948 Suspense No Escape [218]
1952 Family Theater The Red Head [219]

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