Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Favorite '30s Actors: #4

I read somewhere that James Cagney, as a young man, once supplemented his income as a female impersonator.

Whether it’s true or not, I like that story. Everyone associates Cagney with being a tough guy. And certainly when you think of Cagney and the 1930s, “gangster” is the word that pops to mind.

But that story represents the dimension of Cagney’s talent. He really could do anything. When I tell people he was a pretty darned good song and dance man, they are a little amazed. Sure, they may have heard of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” but they don’t know what it’s really about.

During this decade, he gave audiences a sampling of everything. In 1930, he was on Broadway with Joan Blondell in a successful play called “Penny Arcade” when both were brought to Hollywood to make the movie version, renamed “Sinner’s Holiday.”

Warners signed the young dynamo, and in 1931, “The Public Enemy” made him a star. The story chronicles the rise and fall of Tom Powers, a Chicago gangster. Co-starring Jean Harlow and Blondell, with the infamous scene of Cagney pushing a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face (below), “Public Enemy” helped define the gangster genre at Warner Brothers. Powers is arrogant and cocky and hungry for power, and Cagney’s infuses the rule with a distinctive swagger and voice that creates a unique character.
This could have stereotyped Cagney. However, while he played many tough guys in films to follow, it didn’t define him.

Jump ahead two years to 1933’s “Footlight Parade,” a musical with Cagney as a stage director. Tough guy in a musical? You bet, with Busby Berkeley providing the eye-popping choreography. It lets you know the tough guy could be something else. He also was a workhorse, making more than 30 movies during the decade, often times with the same co-stars and directors.

For example, Cagney teamed with Pat O’Brien in a series of films, including “Here Comes the Navy” and “The Irish in Us.” They usually were on opposing sides of the drama, and I only wish some of these earlier films weren’t so routine.

In “G Men,” though, Cagney turns the tables on his gangster image by playing a man raised in the underworld but decides to join forces with the FBI when his buddy is killed. This is exciting stuff, with Cagney as magnetic as ever. He then received strong notices for playing Bottom in Warner’s all-star production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

In 1938, he took on Rocky Sullivan in “Angels With Dirty Faces,” one of his best films of the decade. Sullivan is a gangster while his boyhood pal (played by O’Brien) is a priest, with the latter trying to keep Sullivan from corrupting the Dead End Kids (below with Cagney). Perhaps my favorite scene comes when Sullivan manages to escape being gunned down in a small shop. You can see the wheels in Sullivan’s mind turning quickly as he hatches a plan. The desperation is there but so is the adrenaline, and Cagney plays it to perfection.
Perhaps Cagney’s greatest strength was finding the emotion that would connect even his worst characters to the audience, creating an understanding and sometimes empathy. Throughout “Angels,” there’s a part of you that hopes Sullivan will come clean, and the thanks for this goes to Cagney.

The full appreciation of Cagney’s work comes at the end of his career, when you add in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” his deepening shades when playing gangsters in “White Heat” and “Love Me or Leave Me,” his superb portrayal of Lon Chaney in “Man of a Thousand Faces,” and the comedic flourish of the manic “One Two Three.”

But it was during the 1930s that Cagney became an indelible star – distinctive in voice and manner, yet talented beyond the gangster genre that defined him.


  1. I think Cagney is underappreciated. Thanks for the post! Q.