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James Cagney

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James Cagney, Jr. (July 17, 1899 – March 30, 1986) was an American film star.

James Francis Cagney, Jr. (July 17, 1899 – March 30, 1986) was an American film star who won acclaim for a wide variety of roles, including the career-launching The Public Enemy. He was an accomplished vaudeville performer, but is still best known for his 'tough guy' roles. Like James Stewart, Cagney became so familiar to audiences that they usually referred to him as "Jimmy" Cagney — a billing never found on any of his films. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Cagney eighth among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time.

Cagney first started tap-dancing for fun as a child, before his first performing role, in 1919, dancing dressed as a woman in the chorus line of Every Sailor on stage. After several years on the vaudeville tour, including taking over from Cary Grant in one troupe, Cagney continued as a hoofer and doing comedy routines until his first major acting role in the 1925. Cagney secured several other roles, getting good reviews before landing the lead role in 1929's Penny Arcade. After great reviews for his acting, Al Jolson bought the film right and sold them to Warner Brothers with the stipulation that Cagney retain his role. Warners signed him on an initial $500 a week, 3 week contract, which was quickly extended to a seven year contract.

Cagney's seventh film would become one of the most influential gangster movies of the period. Cagney's shoving of a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face would become one of the most famous movie scenes of all time, and thrust Cagney into the spotlight. After this film, Cagney became one of Warners', and Hollywood's biggest stars, producing a string of hit movies. 1938 saw Cagney receive his first Academy Award for Best Actor nomination for Angels with Dirty Faces, a feat he would repeat in 1955 for Love Me or Leave Me. He won the award in 1942 for his portrayal of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Cagney retired for 20 years in 1961, returning for a part in Ragtime mainly to aid his recovery from a stroke.

Cagney walked out on Warners several times over his career, each time coming back on improved personal and artistic terms. He sued Warners for breach of contract, and Hollywood watched as he won, one of the first times an actor had beaten the studios on a contract issue. He worked for an independent film company for a year, and also set-up his own production company, Cagney Productions before returning to Warners again. Jack Warner called him The Professional Againster, but Cagney also made numerous morale-boosting tours of troops before and during World War II, and was President of the Screen Actors Guild for two years. He was a farmer in his private life, with a love of horses and cattle, sailing and painting. His politics moved from liberal to 'arch-conservative' by the end of his life, and he contributed either time or funds to campaigns for both Democrats and Republicans.


Early life

You walk in, plant yourself squarely on both feet, look the other fella in the eye, and tell the truth.

—James Cagney on acting

Cagney was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City above his father's saloon on the corner of Avenue D and 8th Street to James Cagney Sr., an Irish American bartender and amateur boxer, and Carolyn Nelson; his maternal grandfather was a Norwegian ship captain while his maternal grandmother was an Irish American. The family moved twice when Cagney was still young, first to East Seventy-Ninth Street, and then to East Ninety-Sixth Street. Cagney was the second of seven children, two of whom died within months of birth; Cagney himself had been very sick as a young child, so much so that his mother feared he would die before being christened, all of which was a product of the level of poverty in which they grew up.

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. He dropped out after one semester and returned home upon the death of his father in the Spanish flu epidemic.

He had a range of jobs early in his life, all contributing to the family fund: junior architect, copy boy for the New York Sun, book custodian at the New York Public Library, bellhop, draughtsman and a night doorman. Cagney believed in hard work: "It was good for me. I feel sorry for the kid who has too cushy a time of it. Suddenly he has to come to 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 would eventually contribute 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, fighting on his older med-student brother Harry's behalf when it was required, taking on all-comers as necessary. He engaged in amateur boxing, including a runner-up in the New York State lightweight title. He was good enough for his coaches to encourage him to turn professional, though his mother would not let him. He played semi-professional baseball for a local side, and indeed was good enough to entertain dreams of playing in the Major Leagues.

His introduction to films was unusual; when visiting an aunt in Brooklyn who lived opposite Vitagraph Studios, Cagney would climb over the fence to watch the filming of John Bunny films. He became involved in amateur dramatics, starting as a scenery boy for a Chinese pantomime at the London Hill Settlement House, where his brother, Harry, was on-stage. He was quite happy working behind the scenes, he had no interest in performing. One night, however, he stood in for Harry, who had been taken ill. James was not an understudy, but his photographic memory of rehearsals allowed him to stand in for his brother without making a mistake. After that he joined as a performer, in a variety of roles for a number of companies.

Early career (1919-1930)

While working at Wanamaker's Department Store in 1919, Cagney learned (from a work colleague who had already seen him dance) of a role in the upcoming Every Sailor based on Every Woman, a war-time play in which the chorus is made up of servicemen dressed as women. Cagney auditioned for the role of a chorus-girl, despite considering it a waste of time because he only knew one dance step, the Peabody, a complicated step which he knew perfectly. However, the step was enough to convince that he could dance, copying other dancers moves while waiting to go on. He didn't find it odd, nor was he embarrassed at playing a woman on stage, and recalled later how he was able to shed his own natural shy persona when he stepped onto the stage:

For there [on stage] 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 felt it better that he get an education. Cagney though appreciated the money, $35 a week, "A mountain of money for me in those worrisome days." In deference to his mother's worries, he got yet another job, this time as a brokerage house runner. This didn't stop him looking for more stage work though, and he went on and successfully auditioned for a chorus part in Pitter Patter, for which he earned $55 a week, sending $40 a week back to his mother. So strong was his habit of working more than one job at a time, he also acted as a dresser for one of the leads, portering the casts' luggage and understudying the lead. Amongst the chorus line was 16 year-old Frances Willard 'Billie' Vernon, whom he would marry in 1922. The show began a 10 year association with vaudeville and Broadway.

Pitter Patter was not hugely successful, but did well enough to run for 32 weeks and allowed Cagney to join the vaudeville circuit. Cagney and Vernon toured separately with a number of different troupes, reuniting as Vernon and Nye to do simple comedy routines and musical numbers. The Nye was a rearrangement of the last syllable of Cagney's surname. One of the troupes that Cagney would join was Parker, Rand and Leach when Leach left. Leach was Archie Leach, who went on to fame as Cary Grant.

After more years of touring, performing and struggling to make money to live and survive, 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 break into acting and felt that Hollywood was the place to do it. They were not very successful; Cagney's dance studio had few clients and folded, he and Vernon toured the studios but could get no interest. Eventually they borrowed some money and headed back to New York and vaudeville via Chicago and Milwaukee, enduring failure along the way attempting to make money on the stage.

Cagney secured his first significant non-dancing role in 1925. He played a young tough guy in the three act play by Maxwell Anderson, Outside Looking In, earning $200 a week. As with Pitter Patter, Cagney went to the audition with little confidence of getting the part; this was drama, not vaudeville. Cagney felt that he only got the part of 'Little Red' as he was one of the two red-headed performers in New York, and assumed he got the part because his hair was redder than Alan Bunce's. Nevertheless, the play generally, and Cagney in particular, 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 that it "contained the most honest acting now to be seen in New York".

Cagney went back to vaudeville following the show's four month run, for the next couple of years, again with varied success, but off the back of Outside Looking In the Cagney's were much better able to pay their bills. During this period, Cagney met George M. Cohan, whom he would go on to portray 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. However, despite Cagney's discomfort in doing so, the show's management insisted that he copy Broadway lead Lee Tracy's performance. The day before the show sailed for England, the management decided that Cagney should be replaced. This was a devastating turn of events for Cagney. Apart from the logistical difficulties this presented —their luggage was in the hold of the ship and they had given up their apartment— he almost quit show business. As Billie 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, Billie was in the chorus line of the show, and with help from the Actors Equity Association, Cagney took up the understudy role to Tracy on the Broadway show, providing them with a desperately needed steady income. Cagney also set-up a dance school for professionals to expand their skills. He then picked up another role in the play Women Go On Forever, directed by John Cromwell, that ran for four months. By the end of the run, Cagney was exhausted after both acting and running the dance school.

He had built up a reputation as an innovative teacher, and so when he was cast as the lead in Grand Street Follies of 1928 he also was appointed the choreographer, and the show got rave reviews. This was followed by Grand Street Follies of 1929.

These led to a part in George Kelly's Maggie the Magnificent, a play not liked by the critics, although Cagney's performance was. Cagney saw this role, (and Women Go on Forever) as significant because of the talent that directed them, 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."

Playing opposite Cagney in Maggie the Magnificent was Joan Blondell, and the two were reunited a few months later in Marie Baumer's new play Penny Arcade, a show that would change Cagney's life, and ensured that he would never know poverty again.

Warner Bros. (1930-1935)

While the critics did not much like Penny Arcade, Cagney and Blondell were both highly praised. Al Jolson, sensing a potential film success, bought the rights for $20,000 and sold the play to Warner Brothers with the stipulation that Cagney and Blondell be cast in the film version, which became Sinners' Holiday and was released in 1930. Cagney was given a $500-a-week, three-week contract. Cagney's character, Harry Delano, is a tough guy who ends up a killer, but generates sympathy because of his upbringing, and so Cagney's first screen role awakened a response that other roles would through his career, that of sympathy for the 'bad' guy. Cagney would also demonstrate the stubbornness that would also characterise his career during filming; arguing 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.

Despite this outburst, the studio liked him, and before his three-week contract was up and while shooting was still going on on the film, they gave Cagney a three-week extension and then a full seven-year contract at $400 a week. It was not all great for Cagney however; the contract allowed Warner to drop him at the end of any 40-week period, effectively guaranteeing him 40 weeks income and after that there would be no further guarantees. As when he was growing up, Cagney shared his money with his family.

With the good reviews that Cagney received, he immediately starred in another gangster role in Doorway to Hell which was a financial hit, helping cement Cagney's growing reputation. He made four more movies before his breakthrough role.

Warner Brothers' succession of gangster movie hits, in particular Little Caesar with Edward G. Robinson, and Cagney's strong reviews in gangster movies in his short film career came together in the 1931 film The Public Enemy. Cagney was cast to play the role of nice-guy Matt Doyle, opposite Edward Woods' role of Tom Powers. However, after the initial rushes, the two were swapped. The film was low budget, costing only $151,000 to make, but went on to gross over $1 million, one of the first low budget films to do so.

If the quality of the film itself was not realized until much later, Cagney's performance certainly was. The New York Herald Tribune described Cagney's performance as "the most ruthless, unsentimental appraisal of the meanness of a petty killer the cinema has yet devised." Cagney received top billing after the film and while he acknowledged the importance of the role to his career, he always disputed that the role changed the way heroes and leading men were portrayed, citing Clark Gable's slapping of Barbara Stanwyck six months earlier (in Night Nurse) as more important. Nevertheless, the scene in which Cagney smashes a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face is viewed by many critics as a one of the most famous moments in movie history. The scene itself was a very late addition. Who actually thought of the idea is a matter of debate; producer Darryl Zanuck claimed he thought of the idea 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 the writers Glasmon and Bright claimed the scene was based on the real life of small-time gangster Hymie Weiss who threw an omelette into the face of his girlfriend of the time. 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."

The impact of the scene was such that film-makers have repeated its violence many times in cinema history; Lee Marvin's scalding coffee into the face of Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat and Richard Widmark's pushing of an old lady down the stairs in Kiss of Death both took their influence from Cagney's portrayal of Tom Powers. Cagney himself was offered grapefruit in almost every restaurant he went in for years after, and Clarke claimed it virtually ruined her career due to typecasting.

Cagney's stubbornness was starting to become well known behind the scenes, not least after his refusal to join in a 100% participation charity drive that was being pushed by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Donating money to charity wasn't the issue, being forced to was. Already he had acquired the nickname 'The Professional Againster'.

Warners were quick to combine their two rising 'gangster' stars in Cagney and Robinson for Cagney's next film (for which he received second billing) Smart Money in 1931. So keen were the studio to follow up the success of Robinson's Little Caesar that Cagney actual shot Smart Money at the same time as The Public Enemy. As in The Public Enemy, Cagney is required to be physically violent to a woman, this time slapping co-star Evalyn Knapp, a signal that Warners were keen to keep Cagney in the public eye.

With the introduction of the United States Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, and particularly its edicts concerning on-screen violence, Warners decided to allow Cagney a change of pace, and cast him in the comedy Blonde Crazy, again opposite Blondell.

As he completed filming of this comedy, The Public Enemy was filling cinemas with all-night showings and Cagney began to compare his pay with his peers, thinking his contract allowed for salary adjustments based on the success of his films. Warners disagreed, however, and refused to a pay raise, and also insisted that Cagney continue promoting studio films, even the ones he wasn't in, something he was opposed to. Cagney wasn't prepared to be pushed around, however, and packed his trunks, left his apartment to his brother Bill to look after, and returned to New York with Billie.

While the Cagneys were in New York, brother Bill, who had effectively become James' agent, started talks with the studio about a substantial pay rise and more personal freedom. Warner's hand was forced by the success of The Public Enemy and of Blonde Crazy, and they eventually offered Cagney an improved contract of $1000 a week.

His first film on his return from New York was the 1932 film Taxi!, a significant film for two reasons: it was the first time that Cagney danced on screen and it was the last time he would allow himself to be shot at with live ammunition, which was a common occurrence at the time, before blank cartridges and squibs had been perfected. He had experienced it in The Public Enemy, but this time he almost got hit. In his opening scene, Cagney spoke fluent Yiddish, a language he picked up during his boyhood in New York City. The film was again praised by critics, and Warners had another hit on their hands, and was swiftly followed by The Crowd Roars and Winner Takes All.

"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. Cagney never actually said, "MMMmmm, you dirty rat!", a line commonly used by impressionists; the closest he got to it was the line in Taxi "Come out and take it, you dirty, yellow-bellied rat, or I'll give it to you through the door!"

Despite this success, Cagney was not happy with his contract, wanting more money for his successful films and offering to take a smaller salary should his star wane in the future. Warners refused, and so Cagney once again walked out. He was holding out for $4000 a week, the same amount as Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Kay Francis. Warners this time refused to cave in, and suspended Cagney. Cagney announced that he would do his next three pictures for free if Warners canceled the remaining five years on his contract. He also threatened to quit Hollywood and go back to Columbia University and follow his brothers into medicine. After six months of suspension, a deal, brokered by Frank Capra, saw Cagney receiving an improved salary of around $3000 a week and a guarantee of no more than four films a year and top billing.

Cagney, having learned about the block-booking studio system that almost guaranteed them huge profits, was determined to spread the wealth. He would also send money and goods to old friends from his neighborhood, though he did not generally make this known. Cagney's insistence on no more than four films a year was based on his experience of the Hollywood acting trade where actors — even teenagers — would regularly work 100 hours a week turning out films. This experience would also be an integral part of his involvement in the formation of the Screen Actors Guild, which came into existence in 1933.

Cagney returned to the studio and made Hard to Handle, 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. It was thought of as one of Cagney's best early films, featuring particular show-stopping scenes in the Busby Berkeley choreographed routines. His next notable film was 1934's Here Comes the Navy which saw him pair up with Pat O'Brien for the first time, which would lead them to a long friendship.

1935 was an important year for Cagney. He was listed as one of the 'Top Ten Moneymakers in Hollywood' for the first time. He was cast more frequently outside of gangster roles; in G-Men he played a lawyer who joined the FBI, and he also took on his first, and only, Shakespearean role, as Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, which featured Mickey Rooney as Puck, though it was not critically well received.

Cagney's last 1935 movie was Ceiling Zero and his third with Pat O'Brien. Significantly though, O'Brien received top billing, above Cagney in what was a clear breach of his (Cagney's) contract. This, combined with the fact that he had made five movies in 1934, again against his contract terms, was too much for Cagney, and he brought legal proceedings against Warners 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.

While the legal dispute rumbled on, with Cagney's brother Bill representing James in court, James and Billie went back to New York and looked for a country property where he could indulge in his passion for farming.

Independent years (1936-1937)

Cagney spent most of the next year on his farm, and only went back to work when Edward L. Alperson from the new, independent Grand National films approached him to make movies at $100,000 a film and 10% of the profits. Cagney made two films, Great Guy and Something to Sing About. Cagney received good reviews for both, but overall the production quality was not up to Warner standards and the films did not do especially well. A third film was planned (Dynamite) but Grand National ran out of money.

The timing was fortunate for Cagney, as the courts decided the Warners lawsuit in Cagney's favor. He had done what many would have thought unthinkable; taken on the studios and won. Not only did he win the suit, but Warners knew that he was still a huge star, and invited him back in a 5-year, $150,000 a film deal, with no more than 2 films a year and with Cagney having full say over what films he did and didn't make. William Cagney was also guaranteed a deal in an assistant producer for the films James would star in.

Cagney had established the power of the walkout as keeping the studios to their word:

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 stars walked out, the time they were absent was added on to the end of their already long contract, as happened with Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis. Cagney could walk out and came back with an improved contract. Many in Hollywood watched the case closely for hints of how future contracts might be handled.

Artistically, the Grand National experiment was a success for Cagney, who was able to move away from his traditional Warners tough guy roles to more sympathetic characters. How far he could have experimented and developed can never be known, but certainly back in the Warners fold he was back playing tough guys.

Return to Warner Bros. (1938-1942)

Cagney's two films of 1938 both co-starred Pat O'Brien, Boy Meets Girl and Angels with Dirty Faces. The former saw Cagney in a comedy role that received mixed reviews. Warners had allowed Cagney his change of pace, but they were keen to get him back to doing what made them money, namely playing tough guys. 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 looking for his former associate (played by Humphrey Bogart, their first film together) who owes him money. Whilst revisiting his old haunts he runs into his old friend Jerry Connolly who is now a priest looking after the Dead End Kids. The kids idolize Rocky, much to Connolly's concern. After a messy shoot-out, Sullivan is eventually captured by the police and sentenced to death by electric chair. Connolly pleads with Rocky to 'turn yellow' on his way to the chair so that the Kids lose their respect for him, and hopefully avoid a life of crime. Sullivan refuses, but on his way to the chair does beg for his life. The film is ambiguous in whether this cowardice was for real or just for the Kids' benefit. Cagney himself refused to say, insisting he liked the ambiguity and the audience making its own mind up. The film is regarded by many as one of Cagney's finest and garnered him an Academy Award for Best Actor nomination for 1938 (losing out to Spencer Tracy in Boys Town, a role which, ironically Cagney had been considered for, but lost out on due to his tough guy image.), but winning the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor

Cagney's earlier insistence on not filming with live ammunition proved to be a good decision during the filming of Angels with Dirty Faces. Having been told he would film a scene with real machine gun bullets, Cagney refused, and insisted the shots be superimposed afterwards. As it turned out, he was right, a ricocheting bullet passing through exactly where his head would have been. Cagney's first year back at Warners saw him becoming the studio's highest earner, earning $324,000.

Cagney completed his first decade of movie-making in 1939, with The Roaring Twenties, his first film with Raoul Walsh and last with Bogart. It was, perhaps more surprisingly, his last 'gangster' film for ten years. Cagney again got good reviews, Graham Greene stating "Mr Cagney, of the bull-calf brow, is as always a superb and witty actor".The Roaring Twenties was also the last film where violence was explained as part of a poor upbringing or the environment around the character, as in The Public Enemy. From this point on, violence was attached to mania, as in White Heat. 1939 also saw him second only to Gary Cooper in the national wage stakes, earning $368,333.

His next notable career role was playing George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, a film Cagney himself "took great pride in" and considered his best film.

Producer Hal Wallis said that having seen Cohan in I'd Rather Be Right, he never considered anyone other than Cagney for the role. "Cagney himself, on the other hand, insists that Fred Astaire had been the first choice and 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 US's early 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 himself had a private showing, shortly before his death, and thanked Cagney "for a wonderful job". A paid for premičre with seats ranging from $25 to $25,000, raised $5,750,000 in war bonds for the US treasury.

Many critics of the time and since have declared it to be Cagney's best film, and draw parallels between Cohan and Cagney; a career begun in vaudeville, years of struggle before reaching the peak of their profession, the surrounding with family (during his career, brothers Bill and Ed and sister Jeanne worked for Cagney Productions), early marriage, and a wife who was happy to sit back while he went on to stardom.

"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

Certainly it was Cagney's most important film in terms of awards, winning him the Best Actor Oscar (amongst three others Oscars for the film and eight nominations). 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.

Coming on the back of his biggest success, and particularly because it didn't come from a gangster movie, Cagney felt that it was time, once again, to leave Warners. He had lost out on Boys' Town to Tracy, and also lost the role of Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne in Knute Rockne, All American to his friend Pat O'Brien, both because of the hard-man image that Warners had developed for him.

Having won his Oscar just as his Warners contract was due for renewal, he could have asked for whatever he wanted and they would have given it to him, but Cagney was determined to be his own man, and so announced in March 1942 that he and brother Bill were setting up 'Cagney Productions' to release films though United Artists.

Independent again (1942-1948)

Free of Warners again, Cagney spent some time relaxing on his farm in Martha's Vineyard, before volunteering to join the USO and spending 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 announcing the creation of his new production company, in March 1943 Cagney's new company produced its first film, Johnny Come Lately. While the main studios were producing patriotic war movies, Cagney was determined to stick to his own path and to continue to try and shake off his tough guy image and 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 criticism of it varied from excellent in Time to poor from 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 completion of the film, Cagney went back to the USO and toured US military bases in the UK. He refused to do any interviews with the UK press, preferring to concentrate on rehearsals and performances, giving several shows a day for the Army Signal Corps. The show, called The American Cavalcade of Dance consisted of a history of American dance, from the earliest days through to Fred Astaire, and culminating with dances from Yankee Doodle Dandy.

The second movie Cagney's company would produce was Blood On the Sun, a film for which Cagney, insisting on doing his own stunts, required judo training from Ken Kuniyuki, a judo expert, and Jack Halloran, a former policeman. The Cagneys had hoped that a more action based James Cagney film would appeal more to the audience, but the film fared worse at the box office than Johnny Come Lately.

At this time, Cagney heard of Audie Murphy, a young war hero who appeared on the front of Life magazine. Cagney thought that he had the looks to be a success in movies, and suggested that he come to Hollywood for a try-out, but Murphy could not act, and his contract was loaned out then sold on.

While negotiating the rights for their third independent film, Cagney took up an offer from 20th Century Fox to star in 13 Rue Madeleine at $300,000 for two months work. The film was a success, and Cagney was keen to pick up production of his new project, an adaptation of a Broadway play, William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life. Saroyan himself loved the film but it was a commercial disaster, costing the company half a million dollars, with audiences again struggling to accept Cagney out of tough guy roles.

Cagney Productions was in serious trouble; poor returns from the produced films and a legal dispute with Sam Goldwyn Studio over a rental agreement all forced Cagney back to Warners. Cagney signed a distribution-production deal with Warners for the film White Heat, effectively Cagney Productions became a unit of Warner Brothers.

Back to Warners (1949-1955)

Cagney's portrayal of Cody Jarrett in the 1949 film White Heat is one of his most memorable. Cinema had changed in the ten years since Walsh had last directed Cagney (in The Roaring Twenties), and Cagney's portrayal of gangsters changed too. Unlike Tom Powers in The Public Enemy, Jarrett has little or no sympathetic characteristics. In the 18 intervening years, Cagney had started to grey and developed a paunch for the first time. He was no longer a romantic commodity, and this was reflected in his portrayal of Jarrett. Cagney himself had the idea of playing Jarrett as a psychotic:

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

The film has a number of memorable scenes and lines. Cagney's closing lines of the film "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" before exploding in a huge fireball was voted the 18th greatest movie line by the American Film Institute. Cagney's explosion of rage in prison on being told of Jarrett's mother's death is one of his most memorable and extraordinary performances.

Such was the violence that he gave the performance some of the extras on the set were terrified of destruction that Cagney wrought. Cagney attributed the performance to his father's alcohol induced rages that he had seen as a child, as well as someone that he had seen on a visit to a mental hospital.

"[A] 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 at least saw as sympathetic.Cagney though was still struggling against the gangster typecasting, saying 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, Warners, perhaps searching for another Yankee Doodle Dandy gave Cagney a musical for his next picture, the 1950 The West Point Story with Doris Day, an actress he admired.

The following film was another gangster movie, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, which was Cagney Productions first movie for Warners since returning. While it was compared, unfavourably 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, the company ended and William Cagney produced his last film, A Lion Is In The Streets.

Cagney's next notable role was the 1955 film Love Me or Leave Me, and his third with Day. Cagney played Martin "Moe the Gimp" Snyder, a lame Jewish-American gangster from Chicago, a role Spencer Tracy 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 hadn't, he had made it up based 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 to be one of his best of his later career, and in Day he had found a co-star he could build a rapport with such as he had had with Blondell at the start of his career, and Day herself was full of praise for Cagney

He's 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.

—Doris Day,

Cagney's next film was Mister Roberts, directed by John Ford and slated to star Spencer Tracy. It was Tracy's involvement that ensured that Cagney accepted the minor role, though in the end Tracy didn't take part. Cagney had worked with Ford before on What Price Glory?, and had got on fairly well. However, as soon as Ford met Cagney at the airport, he (Ford) warned that they would "tangle asses", which caught Cagney by surprise.

"I would have kicked his brains out. He was so goddamned mean to everybody. He was truly a nasty old man."
Cagney on John Ford

The next day, Cagney was slightly late on set, and Ford was fuming. Cagney cut short the 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 he and Cagney had no more problems, even if he never particularly liked Ford.

Cagney's skill at noticing tiny details in other actor's performances re-appeared during the shooting of Mister Roberts. When 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 to film was if he was still using his left hand. Lemmon was shocked, he had done it on a whim, hadn't told anyone and thought no-one else had noticed.

His powers of observation must be absolutely incredible, in addition to the fact that he remembered it. I was very flattered.

—Jack Lemmon,

The film was a success, securing three Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Sound Recording and Best Supporting Actor for Lemmon, who won. Whilst Cagney wasn't 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 and also of drawing caricatures of the cast and crew.

Later career (1955-1961)

Cagney worked with MGM on the Western film Tribute to a Bad Man, a role that had originally been written for Spencer Tracy. Cagney received praise for his performance, and the studio liked his work enough to offer him These Wilder Years with Barbara Stanwyck. Cagney and Stanwyck got on well, both had 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, as a favour to Montgomery who needed a strong fall season opener to stop the network dropping his series. Cagney's appearance ensured that it was a success. He 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."

Cagney's most significant film of 1956 was Man of a Thousand Faces, in which he played Lon Chaney, a role which he received excellent reviews, with the New York Journal American rating it one of his best performances, and the film, made for Universal taking big money. Again, Cagney's skills of mimicry, combined with a physical similarity to Chaney, allowed him to generate empathy for his character.It was the last time that Cagney would star on film with his sister Jeanne.

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 based on the Graham Greene novel A Gun for Sale. Cagney had long been told by friends that he would be 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".

Cagney's next film was over a year later, in 1959, when he travelled to Ireland to film Shake Hands with the Devil, directed by Michael Anderson. While in Ireland, Cagney had hoped to spend some time tracing his ancestry, but time constraints and poor weather meant that he was unable to fulfil this wish. It was the over-riding message of the film, the violence inevitably leads to violence, that attracted Cagney, who played an Irish Republican Army commander, and resulted in him producing what some critics would regard as his finest of his final years.

Cagney's career was now 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, whilst set during the Guadalcanal Campaign in the Pacific Ocean during World War II, was not a war film but instead focused on the effect of command. The film saw the return, in name only, of Cagney Productions, which shared the production credit with Robert Montgomery's company, who also directed it. 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, 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 final film, at least for 20 years, would be a comedy. He was hand-picked by the film's director Billy Wilder to play a Coca-Cola executive in the film One, Two, Three. Cagney had concerns with the script, remembering back 23 years to Boy Meets Girl where scenes were re-shot to make them funnier by making them faster 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 Cagney was totally unused to. In fact, the filming was one of the worst experiences of Cagney's long career. One of the only positives to come out of it for Cagney was his friendship with Pamela Tiffin, to whom he gave acting guidance, imparting the secret that he'd learned over his career: "You walk in, plant yourself squarely on both feet, look the other fella in the eye, and tell the truth."

During the filming of One, Two, Three, for the first time in his career, Cagney considering walking out of a film before completion; he felt he had had too many years working inside studios, and combined with a visit to Dachau concentration camp during filming, he decided that he'd had enough, and retired.

Retirement (1961-1984)

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

Cagney had been diagnosed with glaucoma and was taking eye-drops, but continued to have problems with his vision. On Zimmerman's recommendation, he visited a different doctor, who identified that the glaucoma was a misdiagnosis, and that Cagney was actually diabetic. Zimmerman then took it upon herself to look after Cagney, preparing his meals to reduce his blood triglyceride level which had reached alarming proportions. Such was her success, that by the time Cagney made a rare public appearance at his AFI Lifetime Achievement award ceremony in 1974 he had lost 20 pounds and his vision had drastically improved.

The ceremony itself, opened by Charlton Heston and introduced by Frank Sinatra, was attended by so many Hollywood stars — 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 brought about the end of the movie industry . During his acceptance speech, Cagney lightly chastised impressionist Frank Gorshin, saying, "Oh, Frankie, I never said 'MMMMmmmm, you dirty rat!' What I actually said was 'Judy, Judy, Judy!" which was itself one of Cary Grant's most famous misquotations.

"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

In 1977, whilst at Coldwater Canyon Cagney had a minor stroke, and after two weeks in hospital, Zimmerman became his full-time carer, travelling with Jimmy and Billie wherever they went. After the stroke, Cagney was no longer able to undertake many of his favourite pastimes, horseriding and dancing, and as he became more depressed, he even gave up his most beloved hobby of all, painting. Cagney's doctor realised that his client was getting more and more depressed, and so encouraged by his wife Billie and Zimmerman, Cagney took up the offer from Miloš Forman to star in the 1981 film 'Ragtime.

The film was shot mainly at Shepperton Studios in London, and on his arrival at Southampton after the trip on the Queen Elizabeth 2, Cagney was mobbed by hundreds of fans. Cunard officials, who were responsible for the security at the dock said they had never seen anything like it, including visits by Marlon Brando and Robert Redford. Despite being his first film for twenty years, Cagney was immediately back into the swing. Fluffed lines and mis-queues were all done by his co-stars, many of whom were in awe of Cagney. 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 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, and that he had also given to Joan Leslie and Lemmon.

As filming progressed, Cagney's sciatica worsened, but he continued on the nine week shoot. He and co-star Pat O'Brien appeared on the Parkinson talk show, and Cagney made a surprise appearance at the Queen Mother's command birthday performance at the London Palladium. His appearance on-stage prompted the Queen Mother to rise to her feet, the only time she did during the whole show, and backstage afterwards broke with protocol to come and talk to Cagney directly.

Cagney made a rare TV appearance in Terrible Joe Moran in 1984, before finally retiring completely.

Personal life

On September 28, 1922, Cagney married dancer Frances Willard "Billie" Vernon with whom he remained for the rest of his life. They met on the chorus line of Pitter Patter. They adopted a son, James Cagney Jr. (Jim) in 1941, and had a daughter, Cathleen "Casey" Cagney. Cagney was a very private man, and whilst he was more than willing to give the press photographs when necessary, he generally spent his private time out of the public eye.

As a young man, Cagney had always been interested in farming - an interest sparked by an soil conservation lecture he attended - and during his first walkout from Warners found a 100 acre farm in Martha's Vineyard; owning a farm had long been a dream of his. Cagney loved the fact that there were no concrete roads surrounding the property, only dirt-tracks. The house itself was rather run-down and ramshackle, Billie was initially reluctant to move in, but soon came to love the place as well. After getting inundated by movie fans, Cagney sent out a rumour that he had hired a gunman as security. This 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!", forcing Tracy to walk.

In 1955, having shot three films on the trot, Cagney bought a 120 acre farm in Dutchess County, Stanfordville, New York, for $100,000. Cagney named the farm Verney Farm, taking the first syllable from Billie's maiden name, and the second from his own surname. Cagney didn't just live on the farm, but turned it back into a working farm, selling some of the existing diary cattle and replacing them with beef cattle. He expanded the farm over the years to a 750 acre site. Such was Cagney's enthusiasm for farming, that when he was awarded an honorary degree from Rollins College, he surprised the staff by writing a paper on soil conservation, rather than just "turning up with Ava Gardner on my arm", as he put it.

Since a little boy sitting on the horses of the local delivery riders and riding horse-drawn streetcars with his mother, he had loved horses. He raised horses on his farms, off and on, specialising in Morgans, a breed of which he was particularly fond.

Cagney was also a keen sailor, owning boats on both the Eastern and Western coasts of the USA, though he did suffer from seasickness on random occasions, sometimes not suffering in a heavy sea, but then being ill on a calm day.

Cagney was also a keen painter, his most favorite of hobbies and claimed in his autobiography that he may well have been happier as a painter than a movie star, if somewhat poorer. One of his teachers in later life was Sergei Bongart, who went on to own two of Cagney's paintings. Cagney himself refused to sell his paintings, considering himself an amateur and novice. He signed and sold only one painting, and that for charity, and was bought by Johnny Carson.

Political views

In his autobiography, Cagney states that as a young man he had no political views, he was simply more concerned with where the next meal was coming from. Fanzines in the 1930s however, described his politics as 'radical'. This somewhat exaggerated view was enhanced by his public contractual wranglings with Warners at the time, his joining of the Screen Actors Guild in 1933 and his involvement in the revolt against the so-called 'Merriam tax'. During the 1934 Californian gubernatorial campaign this 'tax' was levied by the studio heads automatically taking a day's pay of their biggest earning stars and would help raise half a million dollars for Merriam. Cagney and Jean Harlow) refused to pay.

He supported Thomas Mooney's defense fund, but was put off by the behaviour of some of Mooney's supporters at a rally.. Around the same time he gave money for an ambulance for the Spanish Republican Army during the Spanish Civil War, which he put down to being 'a soft touch', and an action which 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 in, they both resigned on the same night.

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

Cagney became President of the Screen Actors Guild in 1942 for a two year term. He took an active role in the Guild's work against the Mafia, who had taken an active interest in the movie industry. Having failed to scare Cagney and the Guild off — having on one occasion phoned Billie to tell her that Cagney was dead — Cagney alleges that they sent a hit man to kill him by dropping a heavy light onto his head. On hearing about the rumor of the hit, George Raft made a call and the hit was canceled.

During the war, as well as his involvement in troop shows, he took part in racing exhibitions at the Roosevelt Raceway to raise war bonds, and allowed the Army to practice maneuvers at his Martha's Vineyard farm, as well as selling seats for the premiere of Yankee Doodle Dandy to raise money for war bonds.

After the war, Cagney's politics started to change. Cagney had worked on 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 Reagan's bid for the Presidency in the Presidential election.

As he got older, he became more and more conservative, referring to himself in his autobiography as 'arch-conservative'. He put his move away from liberal politics as what he considered to be:

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.


James Cagney died at his Dutchess County farm in Stanfordville, New York, aged 86, of a heart attack. He is interred in the Cemetery of the Gate of Heaven in Hawthorne, New York. His pallbearers included boxer Floyd Patterson, Mikhail Baryshnikov (who had hoped to play Cagney on Broadway), actor Ralph Bellamy and director Miloš Forman. His close friend President Ronald Reagan gave the eulogy at Cagney's funeral.


Year Film Role Other notes
1930 The Doorway to Hell Steve Mileaway
Sinners' Holiday Harry Delano
1931 How I Play Golf, by Bobby Jones No. 11: 'Practice Shots' Himself uncredited
Blonde Crazy Bert Harris
Smart Money Jack
The Millionaire Schofield, Insurance Salesman
The Public Enemy Tom Powers
Other Men's Women Ed "Eddie" Bailey
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
The Hollywood Gad-About Himself short subject
Here Comes the Navy Chester "Chesty" J. O'Conner
He Was Her Man Flicker Hayes, aka Jerry Allen
Jimmy the Gent "Jimmy" Corrigan
1935 Mutiny on the Bounty Extra uncredited
A Midsummer Night's Dream Bottom, the weaver
The Irish in Us Danny O'Hara
G Men "Brick" Davis
Devil Dogs of the Air Thomas Jefferson "Tommy" O'Toole
Trip Thru a Hollywood Studio Himself short subject
A Dream Comes True Himself short subject
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
1938 Angels with Dirty Faces Rocky Sullivan Nominated - Academy Award for Best Actor
Boy Meets Girl Robert Law
For Auld Lang Syne Himself - Introducing arriving celebrities short subject
1939 The Roaring Twenties Eddie Bartlett
Each Dawn I Die Frank Ross
Hollywood Hobbies Himself short subject
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
Captains of the Clouds Brian MacLean (bush pilot)
1943 Johnny Come Lately Tom Richards
You, John Jones! John Jones short subject
1944 Battle Stations Narrator short subject
1945 Blood on the Sun Nick Condon
1947 13 Rue Madeleine Robert Emmett "Bob" Sharkey aka 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 Starlift Himself Cameo
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 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 Short-Cut to Hell Himself in pre-credits sequence, also director
Man of a Thousand Faces Lon Chaney
1959 Shake Hands with the Devil Sean Lenihan
Never Steal Anything Small Jake MacIllaney
1960 The Gallant Hours Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr. also producer
1961 One, Two, Three C.R. MacNamara
1968 Arizona Bushwhackers Narrator
1981 Ragtime Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo

The biography given here was obtained from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

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