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James Cagney In the Movies : From A to Z

Earliest memory of James Cagney on screen for me personally? My guess is Each Dawn I Die. Saw the film on late night TV as a youngster and thanks to a Coles notes bio from Pyramid Illustrated that Mom had kindly bought me along with one on Bogie I had a list of his films to keep an eye out for when going over the weekly edition of TV Guide. Yes even prior to my teenage years I was already into researching movies and the stars I’d see on the late late show in black and white. I guess it helped that Mom liked those old movies too and Dad was big on westerns.

More than just a hood with a gun in hand, Cagney, would prove to be a versatile performer in both drama, comedy and musicals to accompany his sometimes terrifying performances in the gangster roles he’s usually identified with.

A is for ….. Angels With Dirty Faces.

Cagney secured not only his first Oscar nomination as gangster Rocky Sullivan but this 1938 Warner release from director Michael Curtiz was the first of three pairings that Cagney would play lead to then supporting player Humphrey Bogart. The film had all the right ingredients to prove a box office hit. Cagney playing it tough with little remorse, Bogie up to his usual shady tricks, Ann Sheridan as the beautiful girl Cagney lusts for, the Dead End Kids idolizing the gangster and of course Pat O’Brien wearing the holy garments trying to keep Cagney on the straight and narrow. Classic!

B is for ….. Biff Grimes. In 1942, Cagney, played the character Biff Grimes in the wonderful comedy, The Strawberry Blonde, alongside both Olivia de Havilland and Rita Hayworth. This has long been a favorite film of mine and one I revisit every few years. Olivia is the girl next door and Rita the temptress who all the men long for including Jack Carson. Another Warner release during Cagney’s contract years proves to be one of his best. For more on the film have a look here as I had previously featured it.

C is for ….. Cody Jarrett.

Was there any doubt? Cody Jarrett is for me Cagney’s greatest gangster role. The film? 1949’s White Heat. My favorite Jimmy Cagney movie. It includes the now famous line at the film’s fiery finale, “Mad it Ma! Top of the world!” Unforgettable. Cagney was never better as a cold blooded killer than he is here with dishy Virginia Mayo in tow for fringe benefits and Margaret Wycherley as his loving Ma who would go to any lengths to protect her boy from those who would do him harm. Men like second rate thug Steve Cochran. Never seen a Cagney movie? A great place to start.

D is for ….. Doris Day. Surprised? Prior to Miss Day’s association with Rock Hudson and eternal virginity she played opposite Cagney in a pair of films. One an enjoyable second tier musical called The West Point Story (1950) and the other a classic musical/drama that secured Cagney his third Oscar nomination, Love Me or Leave Me, released in 1955. The film was based on the true story of jazz singer Ruth Etting and her marriage to gangster, Martin Snyder. For the record, Cagney and Doris also turned up in cameos as themselves in 1951’s spot the star effort, Starlift.

E is for ….. Each Dawn I Die.

This 1939 prison drama cast Cagney opposite another leading gangster of the era, George Raft, in a solid tough guy effort. Cagney is a newshound doing his best to expose criminal activity but when he gets close to exposing a big story he’s framed for a murder and sent up river where the hardened George Raft will befriend him in prison making this another Warner Bros. film about life in the big house. Cagney and Raft bring their A game to this one that will include snitches, beatings, solitary confinement, crooked guards and of course a jail break. All that’s really missing is Bogie.

F is for ….. the Fighting 69th. With WW2 becoming inevitable, Warner Bros., cast Cagney into this rousing WW1 story that put Cagney in familiar territory. That of the braggart who is both brash and cocky. Trouble is it’s all a show to hide his cowardice. Can he overcome this with the help of Pat O’Brien once again cast as a front line priest? A winning effort at a time when film goers probably needed one that costarred the likes of Dennis Morgan, Frank McHugh, Dick Foran and of course Alan Hale who surely was in darn near every Warner release around this time.

G is for ….. G-Men. Cagney turned a new leaf in the public eye when he went straight as a G-Man battling crime and gangsters in this 1935 Tommy Gun shoot’em up from Warner and director William Keighley. The film was supposedly made after an outcry from law enforcement about the glorification of gangsters in the movies. According to legend, the script was officially approved by FBI Kingpin, J. Edgar Hoover.

Can’t help myself …. G is also for Grapefruit.

H is for ….. Harry Delano. And just who is that you ask? It’s the name of Cagney’s screen character in his film debut, Sinner’s Holiday. Billed third in the opening credits below Grant Withers and Evelyn Knapp, Cagney and fourth billed, Joan Blondell, would quickly surpass this film’s leading duo’s popularity. Cagney and Miss Blondell would go on to costar in another six films made at Warner in rapid succession. Other Men’s Women (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), Blonde Crazy (1931), The Crowd Roars (1932), Footlight Parade (1933) and He Was Her Man (1934).

I is for ….. Irish Mafia. Cagney along with his off screen pals Pat O’Brien and Frank McHugh were often referred to as members of the Irish Mafia. O’Brien and Cagney appeared in nine films together. Here Comes the Navy (1934), Devil Dogs of the Air (1935), The Irish In Us(1935), Ceiling Zero (1936), Boy Meets Girl (1938), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), The Fighting 69th (1940), Torrid Zone (1940) and Ragtime (1981). McHugh turned up in 11 films opposite Cagney : The Crowd Roars (1932) Footlight Parade (1933), Here Comes The Navy (1934), Devil Dogs of the Air (1935), The Irish In Us (1935), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), Boy Meets Girl (1938), The Roaring Twenties (1939), The Fighting 69th (1940), City For Conquest (1940) and A Lion Is In the Streets (1953).

J is for ….. Jackass. Cagney took on the role of Bottom the Weaver in the 1935 star gala box-office disappointment, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

K is for ….. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. Another tough gangster film made on the heels of 1949’s White Heat. No doubt Cagney Productions was looking to recapture that films brutalism and box office dollars. Not quite in the same league but it’s still what the public had come to expect of Cagney by this point. Subbing in for Virginia Mayo this time out is Barbara Payton who was being groomed for stardom that never really came due to demons of her own.

L is for ….. Lon Chaney.

Cagney played the legendary silent film star, Lon Chaney, in the 1957 bio-pic The Man of a Thousand faces. Perhaps a bit melodramatic at times, the film is a must see for fans of the classic silent era and those who love the origins of the Universal Monsters. Cagney gets to play a number of Chaney’s creations on camera during the making of The Phantom, The Hunchback and other assorted characters the silent film legend made his own. Backed by a thoughtful script, costarring with Cagney are Dorothy Malone, Jane Greer and even Robert Evans fittingly portraying MGM production chief Irving Thalberg. Evans would famously go on to head production at Paramount in the 1970’s. A quick side note, Cagney appeared with Lon Chaney Jr. one time in 1953’s A Lion Is In the Streets.

M is for ….. Mister Roberts.

I’ve heard it said that Henry Fonda wasn’t enamored of the film that recreated his long running Broadway success but not having played witness to the live performances, I find the movie thoroughly enjoyable and would easily call it a classic. Rather than dwell on the Fonda/John Ford fall out which is sad in itself, I’ll say I love Cagney in this as the crusty S.O.B. ship’s Captain who makes life a living hell for Fonda, and the rest of the crew on board an old sea dog during WW2. Among the crew we’ll find William Powell, Ward Bond and Jack Lemmon in an Oscar winning turn as Ensign Pulver. Like Lemmon, this one’s a winner all the way.

N is for ….. Never Steal Anything Small. This 1959 Cagney flick represents a rarity for me. I’ve yet to see it and will have to rectify that. He costars alongside Shirley Jones who was on the cusp of an Oscar for 1960’s Elmer Gantry. If I’m correct it’s a musical with the world of gangsters as a backdrop. Sounds like a Damon Runyon story to me. If you’ve seen it let me know what you think of it.

O is for ….. One, Two Three. Billy Wilder directed Cagney’s “final” film, One Two Three, released in 1961. It’s a rapid fire comedy in classic Wilder style that proved to be hilarious and again demonstrated Cagney’s flair for comedy. Sadly, according to Cagney’s own biography, he wasn’t fond of costar Horst Buchholz to put it nicely and following the production the iconic star walked away from movie making for the next twenty years.

P is for ….. Public Enemy.

This was a must I suppose. The film that launched Cagney into superstardom and contract slavery to Jack Warner who Cagney feuded with for years to come. In just his fourth film, Cagney, portrayed Tom Powers. A street thug on his way to the top in organized crime and for Cagney, tops at the box-office. A violent film for it’s time, it also starred another icon of thirties cinema, Jean Harlow. Love that original one sheet.

Q is for ….. Quigley. Long before there was a Quigley Down Under, there was a Dan Quigley as played by Cagney in 1933’s Lady Killer. Life kind of imitates art when gangster Cagney goes straight and makes a splash in Hollywood. He even brings along Mae Clarke to costar minus the grapefruit Almost sounds like the “unofficial” story of George Raft.

R is for ….. Ragtime.

Maybe it’s because I was a young and impressionable film fan but I recall Ragtime being a HUGE event in Hollywood. Following a twenty year retirement, Cagney, returned to movie screens behind a walrus sized moustache in this big budget effort from the Academy Award winning director Milos Forman. At 14 years of age I proudly filled out a quiz on Cagney in our local newspaper and sure enough scored a pair of tickets for a special night screening that my Dad and I attended. Not to brag but even then I was a “know it all” long before the internet would even the playing field for most of us. Wish I had a copy of the questions to see just how tough it was looking back.

S is for ….. Short Cut to Hell.

James Cagney the director. Unlike Eastwood who was a big fan of Cagney, Jimmy only directed one film in his long career and chose not to appear in it. Cagney apparently stepped in to direct the film as a favor to his friend and producer A.C. Lyles. The plot is a crime drama putting Cagney in familiar territory. Cagney’s name on the one sheet is the exact reason I acquired this mint shape original a number of years ago.

T is for ….. Terrible Joe Moran. Cagney portrayed this title character in what we can call his official “final film.” It was a 1984 Made-For-Television film that had him playing a long retired boxer bound to a wheelchair. Art Carney costarred as did a young Ellen Barkin. I haven’t seen it since it’s network debut and would welcome a rewatch.

U is for ….. Uncredited Cameo. I’ve no idea if there’s any truth to it but it is Hollywood legend that Cagney donned some sort of costume and climbed aboard The Bounty to take part in MGM’s big budget spectacle of 1935 that had Gable and Laughton starring and sparring in this surefire classic of Hollywood’s Golden Era. Cagney also provided an unbilled voice over narration of pal, A.C. Lyles’, western Arizona Bushwhackers released in 1968.

V is for ….. Vidor. Director Charles Vidor guided Cagney and Doris Day on the ’55 musical/drama Love Me Or Leave Me. Vidor’s most famous film is probably, Gilda, the 1946 classic starring Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford.

W is for ….. Westerns.

Not a genre Cagney is usually identified with but it should be noted he did saddle up on a few occasions. I’m not sure if I’d call 1935’s Frisco Kid a western but not so with 1939’s “famous” oater, The Oklahoma Kid. There’s just something not quite right seeing Cagney vs. Bogart in a western. It wouldn’t be until 1955 that he returned to the range in Nicholas Ray’s Run For Cover and in 1956 he’d step in for an ailing Spencer Tracy to play the lead role in Tribute to a Bad Man.

X is for …. taXi. A stretch I know but there is an X in Taxi, a film he starred in for Warner released in 1931. Here he starred along with Loretta Young playing an independent cabbie leading the way with his fists against a big taxi firm looking to squeeze the small timers out of business.

Y is for ….. Yankee Doodle Dandy.

It wouldn’t be right not to include the film that scored Cagney his one and only Academy Award for Best Actor. He played song and dance man George M. Cohan in a film that was released following the United States entry into WW2. A winner on all accounts with Walter Huston a fine match for Cagney playing his on screen father. Not surprisingly, the movie was directed by Michael Curtiz who was at the height of directing career. A shining moment for Jimmy and a must see.

Z is for ….. Zone.

1940 saw the release of Tropic Zone. A fun comedy effort with Cagney playing it tough against the equally tough Ann Sheridan while being conned by Pat O’Brien to run a fruit operation in a banana republic. Ann was a great match for Cagney and most any leading man of the era including Bogie, Raft and Garfield. She played opposite Jimmy in a total of 3 films. Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Zone and City For Conquest, a boxing pic also released in 1940.

Got a favorite Cagney movie or story. Perhaps you would have selected a different topic for some of these letters. Maybe Blood On the Sun as opposed to Biff Grimes. Perhaps The Roaring Twenties instead of Ragtime. There’s no wrong way to go when it comes to one of the cinema’s all time greats. Not a fan of Cagney? Give him another look or maybe it’s high time to discover him for yourself to see what you’ve been missing.

James Cagney (1899-1986)

10 Comments »

  1. Wonderful, Mike—what a great idea. Gee, how can I steal it without getting slapped like Leo Gorcey? Biff Grimes rules! Lest we forget “Shake Hands With The Devil”. Well done. Cheers, Mark

    • Thanks and please do. Pick a subject and give it a go. I won’t give you any of the Leo Gorcey treatment. Nice to know there’s another fan of Biff Grimes and yeah Shake Hands With the Devil a great choice. This was my ninth edition of the A to Z spotlight. Time consuming but they are fun to do. More to come this year yet as I’ve got a couple topics in the works already.

  2. Superb! A great run through of Cagney’s career. Nice too that you showed one of these very good Pyramid History of the Movies series.

  3. Nice article on my favorite actor. He was also great in Footlight Parade. White Heat is also my favorite.

    • Appreciate the comment and your stopping in. Cagney did a nice job of crossing over to musicals when he could even if he’s historically known as a gangster. Yeah White Heat stands above the rest.

  4. Love this. Great review! You missed one for “H”. “Here Comes the Navy”. Gloria Stuart and Pat O’Brien co-starred. Great scenes on the USS Arizona and of the Navy airship Macon. This is a classic of classics and it was nominated for several Acadmy awards.

    Great stuff. Love this column!

    • Appreciate the comment and your stopping by to check my Cagney spotlight. Yes Navy a good one among his 1930’s efforts. Like many of the letters I could have gone a variety of directions. Thanks again.

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