JAMES FRANCIS CAGNEY JR. (July 17, 1899 – March 30, 1986) was an
In his first professional acting performance, Cagney danced costumed as a woman in the chorus line of the revue Every Sailor, in 1919. 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. After rave reviews, Warner Bros. signed him for an initial $500-a-week, three-week contract to reprise his role; this was quickly extended to a seven-year contract.
Cagney's seventh 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 biggest stars and one of Warner Bros.' biggest contracts. In 1938, he received his first Academy Award for Best Actor nomination, for Angels with Dirty Faces, for his subtle portrayal of the tough guy/man-child Rocky Sullivan. In 1942, Cagney won the Oscar for his energetic portrayal of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy . He was nominated a third time in 1955 for Love Me or Leave Me . Cagney retired from acting and dancing in 1961 to spend time on his farm with his family. He exited retirement, 20 years later, for a part in the movie Ragtime (1981), mainly to aid his recovery from a stroke.
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—and established his own production
company, Cagney Productions, in 1942, before returning to Warner four
years later. In reference to Cagney's refusal to be pushed around,
Jack L. Warner called him "the Professional Againster". Cagney also
made numerous morale-boosting troop tours before and during World War
II and was president of the
Screen Actors Guild
* 1 Early life
* 2 Career
* 2.1 1919–30: Early career * 2.2 1930–35: Warner Bros. * 2.3 1936–37: Independent years * 2.4 1938–42: Return to Warner Bros. * 2.5 1942–48: Independent again * 2.6 1949–55: Back to Warner Bros. * 2.7 1955–61: Later career * 2.8 1961–86: Later years and retirement
* 3 Personal life
* 3.1 Political views
* 4 Death * 5 Honors and legacy * 6 Filmography * 7 Television * 8 Radio appearances
* 9 References
* 9.1 Notes * 9.2 Bibliography
* 10 External links
James Francis "Jimmy" Cagney was born on the
Lower East Side
Cagney was the second of seven children, two of whom died within
months of birth. He was sickly as a young child—so much so that his
mother feared he would die before he could be baptized . He later
attributed his sickness to the poverty his family had to endure. The
family moved twice while he was still young, first to East 79th Street
, and then to East 96th Street . He was confirmed at St. Francis de
The red-haired, blue-eyed Cagney graduated from Stuyvesant High School in New York City, in 1918, and attended Columbia College of Columbia University , where he intended to major in Art. He also took German and joined the Student Army Training Corps but dropped out after one semester , returning home upon the death of his father during the 1918 flu pandemic .
Cagney held a variety of jobs early in his life, giving all his earnings to his family: junior architect , copy boy for the New York Sun , book custodian at the New York Public Library , bellhop , draughtsman , and night doorkeeper . While Cagney was working for the New York Public Library, he met Florence James , who helped him into an acting career. 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."
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. He was a good street fighter , defending his older brother Harry, a medical student, when necessary. 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. He also played semiprofessional baseball for a local team, and entertained dreams of playing in the Major Leagues .
His introduction to films was unusual. When visiting an aunt who
1919–30: EARLY CAREER
While working at Wanamaker\'s Department Store in 1919, Cagney learned, from a colleague who had seen him dance, of a role in the upcoming production Every Sailor. A wartime play in which the chorus was made up of servicemen dressed as women, it was originally titled Every Woman. Cagney auditioned for the role of a chorus girl, despite considering it a waste of time; he knew only one dance step , the complicated Peabody , but he knew it perfectly. This was enough to convince the producers that he could dance, and he copied the other dancers' moves while waiting to go on. 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 natural 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."
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. Cagney appreciated the $35 a week he was paid, which he called "a mountain of money for me in those worrisome days." In deference to his mother's worries, he got employment as a brokerage house runner. This did not stop him looking for more stage work, however, and he went on to successfully audition for a chorus part in the William B. Friedlander musical Pitter Patter, for which he earned $55 a week—he sent $40 to his mother each week. 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. Among the chorus line performers was 16-year-old Frances Willard "Billie" Vernon, whom he married in 1922.
The show began Cagney's 10-year association with vaudeville and Broadway. Cagney and his wife were among the early residents of Free Acres , a social experiment established by Bolton Hall in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey .
Pitter Patter was not hugely successful, but it did well enough to run for 32 weeks, enabling 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. 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.
After years of touring and struggling to make money, Cagney and
Vernon moved to
Hawthorne, California , in 1924, 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. 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 garnered no interest. Eventually, they borrowed some
money and headed back to New York via Chicago and
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. He had no experience with drama at this point. 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. Both the play and Cagney received good reviews; Life magazine wrote, "Mr. Cagney, in a less spectacular role 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."
Following the show's four-month run, Cagney went back to vaudeville for the next few years. He achieved varied success, but after appearing in Outside Looking In, the Cagneys were more financially secure. During this period, he met George M. Cohan , whom he later portrayed in Yankee Doodle Dandy, though they never spoke.
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. 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."
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, 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.
He had built a reputation as an innovative teacher, so when he was cast as the lead in Grand Street Follies of 1928, he was also appointed the choreographer. The show received rave reviews 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."
1930–35: 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. While the critics panned Penny Arcade, they
praised Cagney and Blondell.
Despite this outburst, the studio liked him, and before his three-week contract was up—while the film was still shooting —they gave Cagney a three-week extension, which was followed by a full seven-year contract at $400 a week. The contract, however, allowed Warners to drop him at the end of any 40-week period, effectively only guaranteeing him 40 weeks income at a time. As when he was growing up, Cagney shared his income with his family. Cagney received good reviews, and immediately starred in another gangster role in The Doorway to Hell . The film was a financial hit, helping cement Cagney's growing reputation. 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)
Warner Brothers′ succession of gangster movie hits, in particular Little Caesar with Edward G. Robinson , culminated with the 1931 film The Public Enemy . Due to the strong reviews in his short film career, Cagney was cast as nice-guy Matt Doyle, opposite Edward Woods as Tom Powers. However, after the initial rushes, each was reassigned the other's part. The film cost only $151,000 to make, but it became one of the first low-budget films to gross $1 million.
Cagney received widespread praise for his role. The New York Herald
Tribune described his performance as "...the most ruthless,
unsentimental appraisal of the meanness of a petty killer the cinema
has yet devised." He received top billing after the film, but while
he acknowledged the importance of the role to his career, he always
disputed that it changed the way heroes and leading men were
portrayed; he cited
Many critics view the scene in which Cagney pushes a grapefruit into Mae Clarke 's face as one of the most famous moments in movie history. The scene itself was a late addition, and who thought of the idea is a matter of debate. Producer Darryl Zanuck claimed he thought of it in a script conference, director William Wellman claimed that 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. 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.".
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."
Filmmakers have mimicked it many times, such as Lee Marvin 's character splashing scalding coffee in the face of Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat . Cagney himself was offered grapefruit in almost every restaurant he visited for years after, and Clarke claimed it virtually ruined her career because of typecasting.
Cagney's stubbornness became well known behind the scenes, not least after his refusal to join in a 100%participation-free charity drive pushed by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Cagney did not object to donating money to charity, but rather to being forced to. Already he had acquired the nickname "The Professional Againster". 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 (1934), though, 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. 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 .
With the introduction of the
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. 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.
In his opening scene, Cagney spoke fluent
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 .
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.
Warner Bros. refused, so
Cagney once again walked out. He held out for $4000 a week, the same
salary as Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Kay Francis
Warner Bros. refused to cave in this time, and suspended Cagney.
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,
Having learned about the block-booking studio system that almost
guaranteed the studios huge profits, Cagney was determined to spread
the wealth. He regularly sent money and goods to old friends from
his neighborhood, though he did not generally make this known. 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
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 , which gave Cagney the chance to return to his song-and-dance roots. The film includes show-stopping scenes with Busby Berkeley -choreographed routines. 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.
In 1935, Cagney was listed as one of the Top Ten Moneymakers in Hollywood for the first time, and was cast more frequently in nongangster 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
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 . 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. 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.
1936–37: 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. Cagney made two films for Grand National: Great Guy and Something to Sing About . He received good reviews for both, 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.
Cagney also became involved in political causes, and in 1936, agreed
to sponsor the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. Unknown to Cagney, the
League was in fact a front organization for the Communist
International (Comintern ), which sought to enlist support for the
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. 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. Additionally, William Cagney was guaranteed the position of assistant producer for the movies in which his brother starred.
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." 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
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. 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.
1938–42: 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
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, 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.
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. The film is regarded by many
as one of Cagney's finest, 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. (He also lost the role of Notre Dame football coach
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.
During his first year back at Warner Bros., Cagney became the
studio's highest earner, making $324,000. He completed his first
decade of movie-making in 1939 with
The Roaring Twenties , his first
His next notable role was as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy , a film Cagney "took great pride in" and considered his best. Producer Hal Wallis said that having seen Cohan in I\'d Rather Be Right , he never considered anyone other than Cagney for the part. Cagney, though, insisted that Fred Astaire had been the first choice, but turned it down.
Filming began the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor , and the cast and crew worked in a "patriotic frenzy" 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 . Cohan was given a private showing of the film shortly before his death, and thanked Cagney "for a wonderful job". A paid première, with seats ranging from $25 to $25,000, raised $5,750,000 for war bonds for the US treasury. "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
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. 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."
1942–48: INDEPENDENT AGAIN
Cagney announced in March 1942 that his brother William and he were setting up Cagney Productions to release films though United Artists . 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. 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, so he produced a movie that was a "complete and exhilarating exposition of the Cagney 'alter-ego ' on film". 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 ). "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
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. 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
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. 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; audiences again struggled to accept Cagney in a nontough-guy role.
Cagney Productions was in serious trouble; poor returns from the produced films, and a legal dispute with Sam Goldwyn Studio over a rental agreement forced Cagney back to Warner Bros. He signed a distribution-production deal with the studio for the film White Heat , effectively making Cagney Productions a unit of Warner Bros.
1949–55: BACK TO WARNER BROS.
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. 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. 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. 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."
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. Some of the extras on set actually became terrified of the actor because of his violent portrayal. 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 . " homicidal paranoiac with a mother fixation" Warner Bros. publicity description of Cody Jarrett in White Heat
The film was a critical success, though some critics wondered about
the social impact of a character that they saw as sympathetic. 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." However,
Warner Bros., perhaps searching for another Yankee Doodle Dandy,
assigned Cagney a musical for his next picture, 1950's The West Point
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. 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.
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. Cagney described the script as "that extremely rare thing, the perfect script". 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".
His performance earned him another Best Actor Academy Award nomination, 17 years after his first. 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. 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."
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. 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." 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.
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
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.
1955–61: LATER CAREER
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.
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."
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.
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, 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".
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.
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." "I never
had the slightest difficulty with a fellow actor. Not until One, Two,
Three. In that picture,
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 . 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. 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. 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."
1961–86: 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 , he found it easier to rebuff others, including a part in The Godfather Part II . 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.
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
While at Coldwater Canyon in 1977, Cagney had a minor stroke. After two weeks in the hospital, Zimmermann became his full-time caregiver, traveling with Billie Vernon and him wherever they went. 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).
This film was shot mainly at
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.
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. 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.
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 . The film made use of fight clips from Cagney's boxing movie Winner Take All (1932), despite the fact that the TV movie is about an entirely different character.
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. In 1941, they adopted a son whom they named James Francis Cagney III, and later a daughter, Cathleen "Casey" Cagney. Cagney was a very private man, and while he was willing to give the press opportunities for photographs, he generally spent his time out of the public eye.
Cagney's son married Jill Lisbeth Inness in 1962. The couple had two
children, James IV and Cindy.
Cagney's daughter Cathleen married Jack W. Thomas in 1962. She, too, was estranged from her father during the final years of his life. She died on August 11, 2004.
As a young man, Cagney became interested in farming – sparked by a soil conservation lecture he had attended – 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. 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.
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. 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.
Cagney, born in 1899 (prior to widespread use of automobiles), 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.
Cagney was a keen sailor and owned boats harbored on both US coasts,
His joy in sailing, however, did not protect him from occasional
seasickness —becoming ill, sometimes, on a calm day while weathering
rougher, heavier seas at other times. Cagney greatly enjoyed
painting, and claimed in his autobiography that he might have been
happier, if somewhat poorer, as a painter than a movie star. The
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
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. 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
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. Around the same time, he gave money for a
Spanish Republican Army
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. Cagney was cleared by U.S. Representative
Martin Dies Jr. , on
House Un-American Activities Committee
Cagney became president of the
Screen Actors Guild
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. He also let the Army practice maneuvers at his Martha's Vineyard farm.
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. By 1980, Cagney was contributing financially to the Republican Party , supporting his friend Ronald Reagan's bid for the presidency in the 1980 election . 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."
Cagney died at his
Dutchess County farm in Stanfordville, New York ,
Cagney was interred in a crypt in the Garden Mausoleum at Cemetery of the Gate of Heaven in Hawthorne, New York .
HONORS AND LEGACY
In 1974, Cagney received the American Film Institute's Life
Achievement Award .
He received the
Kennedy Center Honors in 1980, and a Career
Achievement Award from the U.S.
National Board of Review in 1981. In
In 1999, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 33-cent stamp honoring Cagney.
Cagney was among the most favored actors for the director Stanley
Kubrick and the actor Marlon Brando, and was considered by Orson
Welles to be "...maybe the greatest actor to ever appear in front of a
Warner Bros. arranged private screenings of Cagney films for
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 . Cagney, The Musical has since moved to the Westside Theatre .
YEAR FILM ROLE NOTES
1930 Sinners\' Holiday Harry Delano Film debut
The Doorway to Hell Steve Mileaway
1931 Blonde Crazy Bert Harris
Smart Money Jack
The Millionaire Schofield, Insurance Salesman
The Public Enemy Tom Powers
Other Men\'s Women Ed "Eddie" Bailey Originally 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" Rooney stage name of Thadeus McGillicuddy
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
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
Love Me or Leave Me Martin Snyder Nominated – 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
1959 Shake Hands with the Devil Sean Lenihan
Never Steal Anything Small Jake MacIllaney
Source: "James Cagney". IMDb. Retrieved October 4, 2013.
This section NEEDS ADDITIONAL CITATIONS FOR VERIFICATION . Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources . Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (March 2017) (Learn how and when to remove this template message )
* What's My Line? (1960 ) – Mystery Guest * The Ballad of Smokey the Bear (1966 ) – Big Bear * Terrible Joe Moran (1984 )
YEAR PROGRAM EPISODE/SOURCE
1942 Screen Guild Players Yankee Doodle Dandy
1952 Family Theater The Red Head
* ^ A B McGilligan, page 14
* ^ Obituary Variety , April 2, 1986.
* ^ A B C D Speck, Gregory (June 1986). "From Tough Guy to Dandy:
James Cagney". The World and I. 1. p. 319. Archived from the original
on February 22, 2008. Retrieved October 17, 2008.
* ^ McGilligan, page 11
* ^ "America\'s Greatest Legends" (PDF). AFI's 100 Years...100
Stars. American Film Institute. 2005. Retrieved October 13, 2015.
* ^ A B "Orson Welles". Parkinson. Season 2. Episode 6. Video. July
8, 1972. BBC.
* ^ "Remembering
* ^ "Cagney Funeral Today to Be at His First Church". Los Angeles
Times. April 1, 1986. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
* ^ Heston, Charleton (1974). "James Cagney: Life Achievement Award
74 Tribute Address". American Film Institute. Retrieved February 23,
* ^ "1981 Award Winners".
National Board of Review of Motion
Pictures . 2016. Retrieved December 2, 2016.
* ^ "Stamp Series".
* Cagney, James (2005) . Cagney by Cagney. Doubleday . ISBN 0-385-52026-3 . * James, Florence (2013). Fists Upon a Star: A Memoir of Love, Theater, and Escape from McCarthyism. University of Regina Press. pp. 44–46. ISBN 9780889772601 . * Gallagher, Brian. "Some Historical Reflections on the Paradoxes of Stardom in the American Film Industry, 1910–1960: Part Six". Retrieved March 3, 2008. * McCabe, John (2002). Cagney (Paperback ed.). London: Aurum Press. ISBN 1-85410-833-6 . * McGilligan, Patrick (1975). Cagney: The Actor as Auteur. New York: A. S. Barnes and Co., Inc. ISBN 0-498-01462-2 . * Warren, Doug; Cagney, James (1986) . Cagney: The Authorized Biography (Mass Market ed.). New York: St. Martin\'s Press . ISBN 0-312-90207-7 .
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