James Cagney

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

(1899-07-17)July 17, 1899
DiedMarch 30, 1986(1986-03-30) (aged 86)
Resting place Gate of Heaven Cemetery
OccupationActor, dancer
Years active1919–1984
Frances Vernon
(m. 1922)
Relatives William Cagney (brother)
Jeanne Cagney (sister)
6th President of the Screen Actors Guild
In office
Preceded by Edward Arnold
Succeeded by George Murphy

James Francis Cagney Jr. ( /ˈkæɡni/ ; [1] July 17, 1899 March 30, 1986) [2] was an American actor and dancer. On stage and in film, Cagney was 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. [3] He is remembered for playing multifaceted tough guys in films such as The Public Enemy (1931), Taxi! (1932), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), The Roaring Twenties (1939), City for Conquest (1940) and White Heat (1949), finding himself typecast or limited by this reputation earlier in his career. [4] He was able to negotiate dancing opportunities in his films and ended up winning the Academy Award for his role in the musical Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). In 1999 the American Film Institute ranked him eighth among its list of greatest male stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. [5] Orson Welles described Cagney as "maybe the greatest actor who ever appeared in front of a camera". [6]


In his first professional acting performance in 1919, Cagney was costumed as a woman when he danced in the chorus line of the 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. Al Jolson saw Cagney in the play and bought the movie rights, before selling them to Warner Bros. with the proviso that James Cagney and Joan Blondell be able to reprise their stage roles in the movie. After rave reviews, Warner Bros. signed him for an initial $400-a-week, three-week contract; when the executives at the studio saw the first dailies for the film, Cagney's contract was immediately extended.

Cagney's fifth 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 Mae Clarke's face, the film thrust him into the spotlight. He became one of Hollywood's leading stars and one of Warner Bros.' biggest contracts. In 1938 he received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his subtle portrayal of the tough guy/man-child Rocky Sullivan in Angels with Dirty Faces. In 1942 Cagney won the Oscar for his energetic portrayal of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy . [7] He was nominated a third time in 1955 for Love Me or Leave Me with Doris Day. Cagney retired from acting and dancing in 1961 to spend time on his farm with his family. He came out of retirement 20 years later for a part in the movie Ragtime (1981), mainly to aid his recovery from a stroke. [8]

Cagney walked out on Warner Bros. several times over the course of his career, each time returning on much improved personal and artistic terms. In 1935 he sued Warner 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, establishing his own production company, Cagney Productions, in 1942 before returning to Warner seven years later. In reference to Cagney's refusal to be pushed around, Jack L. Warner called him "the Professional Againster". [9] Cagney also made numerous USO troop tours before and during World War II and served as president of the Screen Actors Guild for two years. [10]

Early life

James Francis "Jimmy" Cagney was born in 1899 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, [2] or in a top-floor apartment at 391 East 8th Street, the address that is on his birth certificate. [11] His father, James Francis Cagney Sr. (1875–1918), was of Irish descent. At the time of his son's birth, he was a bartender [12] and amateur boxer, although on Cagney's birth certificate, he is listed as a telegraphist. [11] His mother was Carolyn Elizabeth (née Nelson; 1877–1945); her father was a Norwegian ship's captain, [3] and her mother was Irish. [13]

Cagney was the second of seven children, two of whom died within months of their births. He was sickly as an infant—so much so that his mother feared he would die before he could be baptized. He later attributed his sickly health to the poverty his family endured. [12] [14] The family moved twice while he was still young, first to East 79th Street, and then to East 96th Street. [15] He was confirmed at St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church in Manhattan; his funeral service would eventually be held in the same church. [16]

The red-haired, blue-eyed Cagney graduated from Stuyvesant High School in New York City, in 1918, and attended Columbia College, [17] where he intended to major in Art. [18] He also took German and joined the Student Army Training Corps, [19] but he dropped out after one semester, returning home upon the death of his father during the 1918 flu pandemic. [18]

Cagney held a variety of jobs early in his life: junior architect, copy boy for the New York Sun , book custodian at the New York Public Library, bellhop, draughtsman, and night doorkeeper. [20] He gave all his earnings to his family. While Cagney was working for the New York Public Library, he met Florence James, who helped him into an acting career. [21] 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." [20]

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. [20] He was a good street fighter, defending his older brother Harry, a medical student, when necessary. [12] [22] 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. [23] He also played semi-professional baseball for a local team, [20] and entertained dreams of playing in the Major Leagues. [24]

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. [20] 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 Florence James directed. [21] 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. [25]


1919–1930: Early career

While working at Wanamaker's Department Store in 1919, a colleague saw him dance and informed Cagney about a role in the upcoming production, Every Sailor. A wartime play in which the chorus was made up of servicemen dressed as women that was originally titled Every Woman. Cagney auditioned for the chorus, although considering it a waste of time, as he knew only one dance step, the complicated Peabody, but he knew it perfectly. [26] This was enough to convince the producers that he could dance, and he copied the other dancers' moves and added them to his repertoire while waiting to go on. [27] 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 naturally 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." [28]

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. [29] Cagney appreciated the $35 a week he was paid, which he later remembered as "a mountain of money for me in those worrisome days." [26] [27] In deference to his mother's worries, he got a job as a brokerage house runner. [27] This did not stop him from looking for more stage work, however, and he went on to audition successfully for a chorus part in the William B. Friedlander musical Pitter Patter, [3] [28] for which he earned $55 a week. (He sent $40 to his mother each week. [30] ) 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. [28] [30] Among the chorus line performers was 16-year-old Frances Willard "Billie" Vernon; they married in 1922. [3] [28]

The show began Cagney's 10-year association with vaudeville and Broadway. The Cagneys were among the early residents of Free Acres, a social experiment established by Bolton Hall in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. [31]

Pitter Patter was not hugely successful, but it did well enough to run for 32 weeks, making it possible for 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. [32] [33] 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. [34] [35]

In 1924, after years of touring and struggling to make money, Cagney and Vernon moved to Hawthorne, California, 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. [36] They were not successful at first; the dance studio Cagney set up had few clients and folded, and Vernon and he toured the studios, but there was 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. [36]

Cagney and Gloria Stuart in 1934's Here Comes the Navy. Cagney played sailors or naval officers several times. James Cagney and Gloria Stuart in Here Comes the Navy trailer.jpg
Cagney and Gloria Stuart in 1934's Here Comes the Navy . Cagney played sailors or naval officers several times.

Cagney secured his first significant nondancing 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. At this point, he had had no experience with drama. [37] 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. [37] [38] 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." [39]

Following the four-month run of Outside Looking In, the Cagneys were financially secure enough for Cagney to return to vaudeville over the next few years, achieving various success. During this period, he met George M. Cohan, whom he later portrayed in Yankee Doodle Dandy, though they never spoke. [40]

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. [40] [41] 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." [42]

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, and 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. [43]

Cagney had built a reputation as an innovative teacher; when he was cast as the lead in Grand Street Follies of 1928, he was also appointed choreographer. The show received rave reviews [44] 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 liked 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." [45]

1930–1935: Warner Bros.

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. [46] 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 Bros., with the stipulation that they cast Cagney and Blondell in the film version. Retitled Sinners' Holiday , the film was released in 1930. It starred Grant Withers and Evalyn Knapp. [46] Joan Blondell recalled that when they were casting the film studio head Jack Warner believed that she and Cagney had no future and that Withers and Knapp were destined for stardom. [47] Cagney was given a $500-a-week, three-week contract with Warner Bros. [48]

In the film, he portrayed 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 to become a recurring character type for Cagney throughout his career. [49] During filming of Sinners' Holiday, he also demonstrated the stubbornness that characterized his attitude toward the work. 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. [50]

Despite this outburst, the studio liked him, and before his three-week contract was up—while the film was still shooting [51] —they gave Cagney a three-week extension, which was followed by a full seven-year contract at $400 a week. [50] However, the contract allowed Warners to drop him at the end of any 40-week period, effectively guaranteeing him only 40 weeks’ income at a time. As he did when he was growing up, Cagney shared his income with his family. [50] Cagney received good reviews and immediately starred in another gangster role in The Doorway to Hell . The film was a financial hit and helped to cement Cagney's growing reputation. [52] He made four more movies before his breakthrough role.

Cagney mashes a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face in a famous scene from Cagney's breakthrough movie, The Public Enemy (1931) Grapefruit-james cagney-mae clark21a.jpg
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, [53] culminated in the 1931 film The Public Enemy . Due to the strong reviews he had received in his short film career, Cagney was cast as nice-guy Matt Doyle, opposite Edward Woods as Tom Powers. However, after the initial rushes, the actors switched roles. [53] [54] Years later, Joan Blondell recalled that a few days into the filming, Director William Wellman turned to Cagney and said “Now you’re the lead, kid!” “Jimmy’s charisma was so outstanding,” she added. [47] The film cost only $151,000 to make, but it became one of the first low-budget films to gross $1 million. [55]

Cagney received widespread praise for his performance. The New York Herald Tribune described his interpretation as "...the most ruthless, unsentimental appraisal of the meanness of a petty killer the cinema has yet devised." [56] He received top billing after the film, [57] but while he acknowledged the importance of the role to his career, he always disputed the suggestion 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. [58] Night Nurse was actually released three months after The Public Enemy. Gable punched Stanwyck's character in the film, knocking the nurse unconscious.

Many critics view the scene in which Cagney pushes half a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face as one of the most famous moments in movie history. [17] [54] [59] [60] The scene itself was a late addition, and the origin of the idea is a matter of debate. Producer Darryl Zanuck claimed he thought of it in a script conference; Wellman said 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. Joan Blondell recalled that the change was made when Cagney decided the omelette wouldn't work. [47] 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.". [61]

However, according to Turner Classic Movies (TCM), the grapefruit scene was a practical joke that Cagney and costar Mae Clarke decided to play on the crew while the cameras were rolling. Wellman liked it so much that he left it in. TCM also notes that the scene made Clarke's ex-husband, Lew Brice, very happy. "He saw the film repeatedly just to see that scene, and was often shushed by angry patrons when his delighted laughter got too loud." [62]

Cagney's stubbornness became well known behind the scenes, especially after he refused to join in a 100% participation-free charity drive pushed by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Cagney did not object to donating money to charity, but he did object to being forced to give. Already he had acquired the nickname "The Professional Againster". [63] [64]

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.

Warner Bros. was quick to team its two rising gangster stars—Edward G. Robinson and Cagney—for the 1931 film Smart Money . So keen was the studio to follow up the success of Robinson's Little Caesar that Cagney actually shot Smart Money (for which he received second billing in a supporting role) at the same time as The Public Enemy. [65] As in The Public Enemy, Cagney was required to be physically violent to a woman on screen, a signal that Warner Bros. was keen to keep Cagney in the public eye. This time, he slapped co-star Evalyn Knapp. [66]

With the introduction of the United States Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, and particularly its edicts concerning on-screen violence, Warners allowed Cagney a change of pace. They cast him in the comedy Blonde Crazy , again opposite Blondell. As he completed filming, The Public Enemy was filling cinemas with all-night showings. Cagney began to compare his pay with his peers, thinking his contract allowed for salary adjustments based on the success of his films. Warner Bros. disagreed, however, and refused to give him a raise. The studio heads also insisted that Cagney continue promoting their films, even ones he was not in, which he opposed. Cagney moved back to New York, leaving his brother Bill to look after his apartment. [67]

While Cagney was in New York, his brother, who had effectively become his agent, angled for a substantial pay raise and more personal freedom for his brother. The success of The Public Enemy and Blonde Crazy forced Warner Bros.' hand. They eventually offered Cagney a contract for $1000 a week. [68] Cagney's first film upon returning from New York was 1932's Taxi! . The film is notable for not only being the first time that Cagney danced on screen, but it was also the last time he allowed himself to be shot at with live ammunition (a relatively common occurrence at the time, as blank cartridges and squibs were considered too expensive and hard to find to use in most motion picture filming). He had been shot at in The Public Enemy, but during filming for Taxi!, he was almost hit. [69]

In his opening scene, Cagney spoke fluent Yiddish, a language he had picked up during his boyhood in New York City. [16] [69] Critics praised the film.

"I never said, 'MMMmmm, you dirty rat!"

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

Taxi! was the source of one of Cagney's most misquoted lines; he never actually said, "MMMmmm, you dirty rat!", a line commonly used by impressionists. The closest he got to it in the film was, "Come out and take it, you dirty, yellow-bellied rat, or I'll give it to you through the door!" The film was swiftly followed by The Crowd Roars and Winner Take All .[ citation needed ]

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. [70] [71] Warner Bros. refused, so Cagney once again walked out. He held out for $4000 a week, [70] the same salary as Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Kay Francis. [71] 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. [72]

Having learned about the block-booking studio system that virtually guaranteed the studios huge profits, Cagney was determined to spread the wealth. [73] [74] He regularly sent money and goods to old friends from his neighborhood, though he did not generally make this known. [75] 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 and Joan Blondell in Footlight Parade (1933) James Cagney and Joan Blondell in Footlight Parade trailer.jpg
Cagney and Joan Blondell in Footlight Parade (1933)

Cagney returned to the studio and made Hard to Handle in 1933. This was followed by a steady stream of films, including the highly regarded Footlight Parade , [76] which gave Cagney the chance to return to his song-and-dance roots. The film includes show-stopping scenes with Busby Berkeley-choreographed routines. [77] His next notable film was 1934's Here Comes the Navy , which paired him with Pat O'Brien for the first time. The two would have an enduring friendship. [78]

In 1935 Cagney was listed as one of the Top Ten Moneymakers in Hollywood for the first time, [79] 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 Flute and Mickey Rooney as Puck

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

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. [80] [81] 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. [80] 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. [80]

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. [82] [83] Cagney made two films for Grand National: Great Guy and Something to Sing About . He received good reviews for both, [84] [85] 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. [86]

Cagney also became involved in political causes, and in 1936, agreed to sponsor the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. [87] 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. [87] [88]

Humphrey Bogart with Cagney and Jeffrey Lynn in The Roaring Twenties (1939), the last film Cagney and Bogart made together Humphrey Bogart James Cagney Jeffrey Lynn in The Roaring Twenties trailer.jpg
Humphrey Bogart with Cagney and Jeffrey Lynn in The Roaring Twenties (1939), the last film Cagney and Bogart made together

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. [86] 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. [89] Additionally, William Cagney was guaranteed the position of assistant producer for the movies in which his brother starred. [90]

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." [91] 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. [74] 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. [92]

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. [89] [93] 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. [93]

1938–1942: Return to Warner Bros.

Cagney with his pal 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 with his pal Pat O'Brien in
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), the sixth of nine feature films they would make together

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, [94] 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. [94]

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. [95] The film is regarded by many as one of Cagney's finest, [96] 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. [97] (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. [97] ) 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. [98] [99]

During his first year back at Warner Bros., Cagney became the studio's highest earner, making $324,000. [100] He 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". [101] 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 . [101] In 1939 Cagney was second to only Gary Cooper in the national acting wage stakes, earning $368,333. [102]

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)

His next notable role was as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy , a film Cagney "took great pride in" [103] and considered his best. [104] Producer Hal Wallis said that having seen Cohan in I'd Rather Be Right , he never considered anyone other than Cagney for the part. [105] Cagney, though, insisted that Fred Astaire had been the first choice, but turned it down. [105] [106]

Filming began the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the cast and crew worked in a "patriotic frenzy" [105] as the United States' involvement in World War II gave the cast and crew a feeling that "they might be sending the last message from the free world", according to actress Rosemary DeCamp. [107] Cohan was given a private showing of the film shortly before his death, and thanked Cagney "for a wonderful job". [108] A paid première, with seats ranging from $25 to $25,000, raised $5,750,000 for war bonds for the US treasury. [109] [110]

"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 [111]

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. [112] [113] 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." [114]

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. [82] [115] 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. [116] 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, [117] so he produced a movie that was a "complete and exhilarating exposition of the Cagney 'alter-ego' on film". [118] 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 ). [119]

"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 [120]

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. [121] 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. [122] 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. [123]

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. [124] 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; [125] audiences again struggled to accept Cagney in a nontough-guy role. [125] [126]

Cagney Productions was in serious trouble; poor returns from the produced films, and a legal dispute with Sam Goldwyn Studio over a rental agreement [125] [126] forced Cagney back to Warner Bros. He signed a distribution-production deal with the studio for the film White Heat , [126] effectively making Cagney Productions a unit of Warner Bros. [90]

1949–1955: Back to Warner Bros.

Cagney as Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949) James Cagney in White Heat trailer crop.jpg
Cagney as Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949)

Cagney's portrayal of Cody Jarrett in the 1949 film White Heat is one of his most memorable. [127] [128] 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. [129] 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 romantic commodity, and this was reflected in his performance. [129] 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." [130]

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. [128] [131] Some of the extras on set actually became terrified of the actor because of his violent portrayal. [128] 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. [128]

"[A] homicidal paranoiac with a mother fixation"

Warner Bros. publicity description of Cody Jarrett in White Heat [130]

The film was a critical success, though some critics wondered about the social impact of a character that they saw as sympathetic. [132] 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." [133] However, Warner Bros., perhaps searching for another Yankee Doodle Dandy, [133] assigned Cagney a musical for his next picture, 1950's The West Point Story with Doris Day, an actress he admired. [134]

With Virginia Mayo in White Heat (1949) Virginia Mayo and James Cagney in White Heat trailer.jpg
With Virginia Mayo in White Heat (1949)

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. [135] Cagney Productions was not a great success, however, and in 1953, after William Cagney produced his last film, A Lion Is in the Streets , the company came to an end. [82]

Cagney's next notable role was the 1955 film Love Me or Leave Me , his third with Day. Cagney played Martin "Moe the Gimp" Snyder, a lame Jewish-American gangster from Chicago, a part Spencer Tracy had turned down. [136] Cagney described the script as "that extremely rare thing, the perfect script". [136] [137] 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". [136] [137]

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. [138] 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." [138]

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, although in the end, Tracy did not take part. [139] Cagney had worked with Ford before on What Price Glory? , and they had gotten along fairly well. However, as soon as Ford met Cagney at the airport, the director warned him that they would "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." [140] 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. [140]

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. 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." [139]

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. [141]

1955–1961: Later career

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)

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. [142]

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." [143]

The following year, Cagney appeared in Man of a Thousand Faces , in which he played 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. [144] [145]

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, [145] 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". [146]

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. [147]

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' 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." [148] [149]

"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."

James Cagney on the filming
of One, Two, Three

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 . [150] 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. [151] In fact, it was one of the worst experiences of his long career. 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. [152] 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." [153]

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 , [154] [155] he found it easier to rebuff others, including a part in The Godfather Part II . [155] 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. [156]

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 Lifetime Achievement award ceremony in 1974, he had lost 20 pounds (9.1 kg) and his vision had improved. [157] 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. [158]

"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 [159]

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. [160] 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). [161]

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 the 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. [162] His appearance on stage 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. [159]

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. [163] The film made use of fight clips from Cagney's boxing movie Winner Take All (1932).

Personal life

Cagney's crypt in the Gate of Heaven Cemetery 1 Cagney best 800 crop.jpg
Cagney's crypt in the Gate of Heaven Cemetery

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. [164] In 1941 they adopted a son whom they named James Francis Cagney III, and later a daughter, Cathleen "Casey" Cagney. [165] [166] 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. [167]

Cagney's son married Jill Lisbeth Inness in 1962. [168] The couple had two children, James III and Cindy. [169] James Cagney III died from a heart attack on January 27, 1984 in Washington, D.C, two years before his father's death. [170] [171] He had become estranged from his father and had not seen or talked to him since 1982. [169] [170]

Cagney's daughter Cathleen married Jack W. Thomas in 1962. [172] She, too, was estranged from her father during the final years of his life. She died on August 11, 2004. [173]

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. [174] [175] Cagney loved that no concrete 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. [83]

In 1955, having shot three films, Cagney bought a 120-acre (0.49 km2) farm in Stanford, 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. [176] [177] 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. [176]

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. [178]

Cagney was a keen sailor and owned boats that were harbored on both coasts of the U.S., [179] including the Swift of Ipswich . [180] His joy in sailing, however, did not protect him from occasional seasickness—becoming ill, sometimes, on a calm day while weathering rougher, heavier seas [181] at other times. Cagney greatly enjoyed painting, [182] and claimed in his autobiography that he might have been happier, if somewhat poorer, as a painter than a movie star. [183] 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. [182]

Political views

In his autobiography, Cagney said that as a young man, he had no political views, since he was more concerned with where the next meal was coming from. [184] 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". [185]

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 [186] [187] 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. [188]

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. [184] 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 the group was heading, they resigned on the same night. [189]

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. [190] 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, which had begun to take an active interest in the movie industry. His wife, Billie Vernon, once received a phone call telling her that Cagney was dead. [191] Cagney alleged that, having failed to scare off the Guild and him, they 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 hit was supposedly canceled. [191] [192]

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. [109] [111] He also let the Army practice maneuvers at his Martha's Vineyard farm. [193]

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 voted for Thomas E. Dewey, his first non-Democratic vote. [194]

By 1980, Cagney was contributing financially to the Republican Party, supporting his friend Ronald Reagan's bid for the presidency in the 1980 election. [195] As he got older, he became more and more conservative, referring to himself in his autobiography as "arch-conservative". He regarded his move away from liberal politics 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." [196]


Cagney died of a heart attack at his Dutchess County farm in Stanford, New York, on Easter Sunday 1986; he was 86 years old. [197] A funeral Mass was held at St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church in Manhattan. [16] [198] 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. [199]

Cagney was interred in a crypt in the Garden Mausoleum at Cemetery of the Gate of Heaven in Hawthorne, New York. [200]

Honors and legacy

Cagney won the Academy Award in 1943 for his performance as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy . [201]

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. [202] [203]

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." [204]

He received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1980, and a Career Achievement Award from the U.S. National Board of Review in 1981. [205] In 1984 Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. [206]

In 1999 the U.S. Postal Service issued a 33-cent stamp honoring Cagney. [207]

Cagney was among the most favored actors for director Stanley Kubrick and actor Marlon Brando, [208] and was considered by Orson Welles to be "maybe the greatest actor to ever appear in front of a camera." [209] Warner Bros. arranged private screenings of Cagney films for Winston Churchill. [127]

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. [210] Cagney, The Musical then moved to the Westside Theatre until May 28, 2017. [211] [212]


1930 Sinners' Holiday Harry DelanoFilm debut
The Doorway to Hell Steve Mileaway
1931 Blonde Crazy Bert Harris
Smart Money Jack
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" Kane
The Crowd Roars Joe Greer
Taxi! Matt Nolan
1933 Lady Killer Dan Quigley
Footlight Parade Chester Kent
The Mayor of Hell Richard "Patsy" Gargan
Picture Snatcher Danny Kean
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" Corrigan
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 (voice)
1981 Ragtime Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo
2008 Empire State Building Murders TonyPosthumous release


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 [213]
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]
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]

Related Research Articles

Warner Bros. American entertainment company

Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. is an American diversified multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate headquartered at the Warner Bros. Studios complex in Burbank, California, and a subsidiary of AT&T's WarnerMedia through its Studios & Networks division. Founded in 1923 by four brothers Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner, the company established itself as a leader in the American film industry before diversifying into animation, television, and video games, and is one of the "Big Five" major American film studios, as well as a member of the Motion Picture Association (MPA).

<i>Footlight Parade</i> 1933 film by Lloyd Bacon

Footlight Parade is a 1933 American pre-Code musical film starring James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell and featuring Frank McHugh, Guy Kibbee, Hugh Herbert and Ruth Donnelly. The film was written by Manuel Seff and James Seymour based on a story by Robert Lord and Peter Milne, and was directed by Lloyd Bacon, with musical numbers created and directed by Busby Berkeley. The film's songs were written by Harry Warren (music), Al Dubin (lyrics), Sammy Fain (music) and Irving Kahal (lyrics), and include "By a Waterfall", "Honeymoon Hotel" and "Shanghai Lil".

<i>The Public Enemy</i> 1931 film

The Public Enemy is a 1931 American all-talking pre-Code gangster film produced and distributed by Warner Bros. The film was directed by William A. Wellman and stars James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Donald Cook and Joan Blondell. The film relates the story of a young man's rise in the criminal underworld in prohibition-era urban America. The supporting players include Beryl Mercer, Murray Kinnell, and Mae Clarke. The screenplay is based on an unpublished novel—Beer and Blood by two former newspapermen, John Bright and Kubec Glasmon—who had witnessed some of Al Capone's murderous gang rivalries in Chicago. In 1998, The Public Enemy was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

<i>Yankee Doodle Dandy</i> 1942 film by Michael Curtiz

Yankee Doodle Dandy is a 1942 American biographical musical film about George M. Cohan, known as "The Man Who Owned Broadway". It stars James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston, and Richard Whorf, and features Irene Manning, George Tobias, Rosemary DeCamp, Jeanne Cagney, and Vera Lewis. Joan Leslie's singing voice was partially dubbed by Sally Sweetland.

Michael Curtiz Hungarian-American director

Michael Curtiz was a Hungarian-born American film director, recognized as one of the most prolific directors in history. He directed classic films from the silent era and numerous others during Hollywood's Golden Age, when the studio system was prevalent.

<i>Angels with Dirty Faces</i> 1938 American gangster film

Angels with Dirty Faces is a 1938 American gangster film directed by Michael Curtiz for Warner Brothers. It stars James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, The Dead End Kids, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, and George Bancroft. The screenplay was written by John Wexley and Warren Duff based on the story by Rowland Brown. The film chronicles the relationship of the notorious gangster William "Rocky" Sullivan with his childhood friend and now priest Father Jerry Connolly. After spending fifteen years in prison for armed robbery, Rocky intends to collect $100,000 from his co-conspirator Jim Frazier, a mob lawyer. All the while, Father Connolly tries to prevent a group of youths from falling under Rocky's influence.

George Raft American actor

George Raft was an American film actor and dancer identified with portrayals of gangsters in crime melodramas of the 1930s and 1940s. A stylish leading man in dozens of movies, Raft is remembered for his gangster roles in Quick Millions (1931) with Spencer Tracy, Scarface (1932) with Paul Muni, Each Dawn I Die (1939) with James Cagney, Billy Wilder's comedy Some Like It Hot (1959) with Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon, and as a dancer in Bolero (1934) with Carole Lombard and a truck driver in They Drive by Night (1940) with Ida Lupino and Humphrey Bogart.

<i>Dames</i> (film) 1934 film by Busby Berkeley, Ray Enright

Dames is a 1934 Warner Bros. musical comedy film directed by Ray Enright with dance numbers created by Busby Berkeley. The film stars Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Guy Kibbee, ZaSu Pitts, and Hugh Herbert. Production numbers and songs include "When You Were a Smile on Your Mother's Lips ", "The Girl at the Ironing Board", "I Only Have Eyes for You", "Dames" and "Try to See It My Way".

Joan Leslie American actress (1925–2015)

Joan Leslie was an American actress and vaudevillian, who during the Hollywood Golden Age, appeared in such films as High Sierra, Sergeant York, and Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Pat OBrien (actor) American actor

William Joseph Patrick O'Brien was an American film actor with more than 100 screen credits. Of Irish descent, he often played Irish and Irish-American characters and was referred to as "Hollywood's Irishman in Residence" in the press. One of the best-known screen actors of the 1930s and 1940s, he played priests, cops, military figures, pilots, and reporters. He is especially well-remembered for his roles in Knute Rockne, All American (1940), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), and Some Like It Hot (1959). He was frequently paired onscreen with Hollywood legend James Cagney. O'Brien also appeared on stage and television.

<i>Little Johnny Jones</i>

Little Johnny Jones is a musical by George M. Cohan. The show introduced Cohan's tunes "Give My Regards to Broadway" and "The Yankee Doodle Boy." The "Yankee Doodle" character was inspired by real-life Hall of Fame jockey Tod Sloan.

<i>The Strawberry Blonde</i> 1941 American romantic comedy film by Raoul Walsh

The Strawberry Blonde is a 1941 American romantic comedy film directed by Raoul Walsh, starring James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland, and featuring Rita Hayworth, Alan Hale, Jack Carson, and George Tobias. The picture was nominated for an Academy Award in 1941 for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture and features songs such as "The Band Played On", "Bill Bailey", "Meet Me in St. Louis, Louie", "Wait Till The Sun Shines Nellie", and "Love Me and the World Is Mine". The title is most often listed beginning with the word The, but the film's posters and promotional materials call it simply Strawberry Blonde. Director Walsh remade the film in 1948 as One Sunday Afternoon. It was a remake of One Sunday Afternoon (1933) with Gary Cooper.

<i>The Bride Came C.O.D.</i> 1941 film by William Keighley

The Bride Came C.O.D. is a 1941 American screwball romantic comedy starring James Cagney as an airplane pilot and Bette Davis as a runaway heiress, and directed by William Keighley. Although the film was publicized as the first screen pairing of Warner Bros.' two biggest stars, they had actually made Jimmy the Gent together in 1934, and had wanted to find another opportunity to work together.

<i>Something to Sing About</i> (1937 film) 1937 film by Victor Schertzinger

Something to Sing About, (1937), re-released in 1947 as Battling Hoofer, is the second and final film James Cagney made for Grand National Pictures – the first being Great Guy – before mending relations with and returning to Warner Bros. It is one of the few films besides Footlight Parade and Yankee Doodle Dandy to showcase Cagney's singing and dancing talents. It was directed by Victor Schertzinger, who also wrote the music and lyrics of the original songs, as well as the story that Austin Parker's screenplay is based on. Cagney's co-stars are Evelyn Daw and William Frawley, and the film features performances by Gene Lockhart and Mona Barrie.

<i>White Heat</i> 1949 American film noir directed by Raoul Walsh

White Heat is a 1949 American film noir directed by Raoul Walsh and starring James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O'Brien, Margaret Wycherly and Steve Cochran. Written by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, White Heat is based on a story by Virginia Kellogg, and is considered to be one of the best gangster movies of all time. In 2003, it was added to the National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress.

<i>City for Conquest</i> 1940 film by Anatole Litvak

City for Conquest is a 1940 American drama film directed by Anatole Litvak and starring James Cagney, Ann Sheridan, and Arthur Kennedy. The picture is based on the 1936 novel of the same name by Aben Kandel. The supporting cast features Anthony Quinn, Elia Kazan, Donald Crisp, Frank McHugh, Frank Craven and Lee Patrick.

<i>Mister Roberts</i> (1955 film) 1955 film

Mister Roberts is a 1955 American Warnercolor in CinemaScope comedy-drama film directed by John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy, and featuring an all-star cast including Henry Fonda as Mister Roberts, James Cagney as Captain Morton, William Powell as Doc, and Jack Lemmon as Ensign Pulver. Based on the 1946 novel and 1948 Broadway play, the film was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Sound, Recording, with Jack Lemmon winning the award for Best Supporting Actor.

George M. Cohan American actor, singer, composer and playwright

George Michael Cohan was an American entertainer, playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, singer, dancer and theatrical producer.

<i>The West Point Story</i> (film) 1950 film by Roy Del Ruth

The West Point Story is a 1950 musical comedy film directed by Roy Del Ruth and starring James Cagney, Virginia Mayo and Doris Day.

LeRoy Prinz American film director and choreographer

LeRoy Jerome Prinz was an American choreographer, director and producer, who was involved in the production of dozens of motion pictures, mainly for Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers, from 1929 through 1958, and choreographed Broadway musicals. He was nominated three times for the Academy Award for Best Dance Direction in the 1930s, and won the Golden Globe in 1958.



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