James Francis Cagney, Jr. (July 17, 1899 – March 30, 1986) was an American film actor. Although he won acclaim and major awards for a wide variety of roles, he is best remembered for playing "tough guys." In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked him eighth among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time.
For his first performing role, he danced dressed as a woman in the chorus line of the 1919 revue Every Sailor. After several years in vaudeville, Cagney continued as a hoofer and comedian until his first major acting role in 1925. He secured several other roles, receiving good reviews before landing the lead role the 1929 play Penny Arcade. After rave reviews for his acting, Warners signed him on an initial $500 a week, three week contract to reprise his role, which 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 its famous grapefruit scene, the film thrust Cagney into the spotlight, making him one of Warners' and Hollywood's biggest stars. In 1938 he received his first Academy Award for Best Actor nomination for Angels with Dirty Faces, before winning in 1942 for his 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 for 20 years in 1961, spending time on his farm before 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. In 1935 he sued Warners for breach of contract and won; this marked 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 while the suit was settled, and also established his own production company, Cagney Productions, in 1942 before returning to Warners again four years later. Jack Warner called him "The Professional Againster", in reference to Cagney’s refusal to be pushed around. 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.
“ 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 on the corner of Avenue D and 8th Street. His father, James Sr. was an Irish American bartender and amateur boxer; Cagney was born in a room above his father’s saloon. His mother, Carolyn Nelson, was half Irish, half Norwegian; her father was a Norwegian ship captain while her mother was Irish American. The family moved twice when he was still young, first to East 79th Street, and then to East 96th Street. Cagney was the second of seven children, two of whom died within months of birth; he himself had been very sick as a young child, so much so that his mother feared he would die before being baptized. He later attributed his sickness to 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, but dropped out after one semester, returning home upon the death of his father during the 1918 flu pandemic.
He had a range of jobs early in his life, and gave all his earnings to the family: 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, 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 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, defending his older brother Harry, a medical student, against all comers when it was required. He engaged in amateur boxing, and was a runner-up in the New York State lightweight title. His coaches encouraged him to turn professional, but his mother would not allow it. He also played semi-professional baseball for a local team, and entertained 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 Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, one of the first Settlement Houses in the Nation, where his brother, Harry, performed. He was initially content working behind the scenes, and had no interest in performing. One night, however Harry became ill, and although James was not an understudy, his photographic memory of rehearsals allowed him to stand in for his brother without making a single mistake. Afterward, he joined a number of companies as a performer in a variety of roles.
Early career (1919–1930)
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 war-time play in which the chorus is 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 only knew one dance step, the complicated Peabody, which he knew perfectly. This skill, however, 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 that he received from performing, 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 Pitter Patter, for which he earned $55 a week—he sent $40 a week back to his mother. So strong was his habit of working 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 would marry in 1922. The show began Cagney's 10 year association with vaudeville and Broadway.
Pitter Patter was not hugely successful, but it did well enough to run for 32 weeks, allowing 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. The Nye was a rearrangement of the last syllable of Cagney's surname. One of the troupes that Cagney joined was Parker, Rand and Leach, taking over the latter position when Archie Leach—who would later change his name to Cary Grant—left.
After years of touring, performing and struggling to make money, Cagney and Vernon moved to Hawthorne, California in 1924. They moved there 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 very successful at first; the dance studio Cagney set up had few clients and folded, and he and Vernon toured the studios but garnered no interest. Eventually they borrowed some money and headed back to New York via Chicago and Milwaukee, enduring failure along the way when they attempted to make money on the stage.
Cagney secured his first significant non-dancing 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 of getting the part; he had had no experience with drama until this point. Cagney felt that he only got the role because he was one of only two red-headed performers in New York, and assumed he got it because his hair was more red than Alan Bunce's. Both the play and Cagney received good reviews; Life magazine wrote, "Mr. Cagney, in a less spectacular role [than his co-star] makes a few minutes silence during his mock-trial scene something that many a more established actor might watch with profit". Burns Mantle wrote that it "contained the most honest acting now to be seen in New York".
Following the show's four month run, Cagney went back to vaudeville for the next couple of 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 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. 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, 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 the couple 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—their contracts lasted as long as the play did: 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 established a dance school for professionals, 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 acting and running the dance school.
He had built a reputation as an innovative teacher, and 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 generally 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."
Warner Bros. (1930–1935)
Playing opposite Cagney in Maggie the Magnificent was Joan Blondell, who would star again with him a few months later in Marie Baumer's new play Penny Arcade. While the critics panned Penny Arcade, Cagney and Blondell were both highly praised. Al Jolson, sensing a potential film success, bought the rights for $20,000. He then sold the play to Warner Brothers, with the stipulation that Cagney and Blondell be cast in the film version. Retitled Sinners' Holiday, the film was released in 1930. Cagney was given a $500-a-week, three-week contract. In the film, he portrays Harry Delano, a tough guy who becomes a killer but generates sympathy because of his unfortunate upbringing. This role of the sympathetic "bad" guy would be a recurring character-type for Cagney throughout his career. During filming of Sinners' Holiday, he also demonstrated the stubbornness that would characterize his work demeanor. He later recalled an argument he had with director John Adolfi about a line: "There was a line in the show where I was supposed to be crying on my mother's breast... [The line] was 'I'm your baby, ain't I?' I refused to say it. Adolfi said 'I'm going to tell Zanuck.' I said 'I don't give a shit what you tell him, I'm not going to say that line'". They took the line out.
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 guaranteeing him 40 weeks income, after which there would be no further guarantees. As when he was growing up, Cagney shared his income with his family.
With the good reviews that Cagney received, he immediately starred in another gangster role in Doorway to Hell. The film 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, 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' role of Tom Powers. However, after the initial rushes, the two were swapped. 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 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, and who originally 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 the scene was based on the real life of small-time gangster Hymie Weiss, who threw an omelet 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."
The impact of the scene was such that filmmakers have mimicked it many times throughout cinema history; the scene from The Big Heat in which Lee Marvin's character throws scalding coffee into the face of Gloria Grahame, and Richard Widmark pushing an old lady down a flight of stairs in Kiss of Death, were influenced by Cagney's portrayal of Tom Powers. Cagney himself was offered grapefruit in almost every restaurant he visited 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 percent participation charity drive that was being 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".
Warners was quick to combine its two rising gangster stars — Cagney and Robinson — for the 1931 film Smart Money. So keen was the studio to follow up the success of Robinson's Little Caesar that Cagney actual shot Smart Money (for which he received second billing) 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 Warners was keen to keep Cagney in the public eye; this time he slapped co-star Evalyn Knapp.
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. They cast him in the comedy Blonde Crazy, again opposite Blondell. As he completed filming, The Public Enemy was filling cinemas with all-night showings. Cagney began to compare his pay with his peers, thinking his contract allowed for salary adjustments based on the success of his films. Warners disagreed, however, and refused to a pay raise. The studio heads also insisted that Cagney continue promoting their films, even the ones he was not in, something he was opposed to. Cagney moved back to New York, leaving his apartment to his brother Bill to look after.
While Cagney was in New York, his brother, who had effectively become his agent, angled for a substantial pay rise and more personal freedom for his brother. Warners' 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. 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 would allow 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 be used in most motion picture filming). He had experienced being shot at in The Public Enemy, but during filming for Taxi!, he was almost 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 it was swiftly followed by The Crowd Roars and Winner Takes All.
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!"
Despite his success, Cagney was not satisfied with his contract. He wanted more money for his successful films, but he also offered 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 refused to cave in this time, 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 to follow his brothers into medicine. After six months of suspension, a deal was brokered by Frank Capra that gave the actor an improved salary of around $3000 a week, a guarantee of no more than four films a year, and top billing.
Having learned about the block-booking studio system that almost guaranteed them huge profits, Cagney was determined to spread the wealth. He would send 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 working 100 hours a week in order to turn out more 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 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 in the 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 continue to have a long friendship.
In 1935, Cagney was listed as one of the Top Ten Moneymakers in Hollywood for the first time, and was cast more frequently outside of gangster roles; he played a lawyer who joins the FBI in G-Men, and he also took on his first, and only, Shakespearean role, as Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Cagney's last movie in 1935 was Ceiling Zero, his third film with Pat O'Brien. Significantly, 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, forced him to bring 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. 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 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 Grand National films, a newly established, independent studio, approached him to make movies at $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 standards and the films did not do 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 thought unthinkable in that he had taken on the studios and won. Not only did he win the suit, but Warners knew that he was still a star, and invited him back for a five-year, $150,000 a film deal, with no more than two films a year. Cagney would also have full say over what films he did and did not make. Additionally, William Cagney was guaranteed a deal as an assistant producer for the films his brother would star in.
Cagney had established the power of the walkout as 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 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, however, walked 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, Boy Meets Girl and Angels with Dirty Faces, both co-starred Pat O'Brien. The former saw Cagney in a comedy role, and received mixed reviews. Warners 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. 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 he begs for his life. The film is ambiguous as to whether this cowardice is real or just 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, a role which Cagney had been considered for, but lost out on due to his typecasting. Cagney did, however, win that year's New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor.
His earlier insistence on not filming with live ammunition proved to be a good decision; having been told while filming Angels with Dirty Faces that he would do a scene with real machine gun bullets, Cagney refused and insisted the shots be superimposed afterwards. As it turned out, a ricocheting bullet passed through exactly where his head would have been.
During his first year back at Warners, Cagney became the studio's highest earner, earning $324,000. He completed his first decade of movie-making in 1939 with The Roaring Twenties, his first film with Raoul Walsh, and his last with Bogart. It was also his last gangster film for ten years. Cagney again received good reviews; Graham Greene stated that "Mr. Cagney, of the bull-calf brow, is as always a superb and witty actor". The Roaring Twenties was the last film in which a character's violence was explained by poor upbringing, or their environment, as was the case in The Public Enemy. From that point on, violence was attached to mania, as in White Heat. In 1939, Cagney was second to only 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. 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, insisted 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' 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 was given a private showing of the film shortly before his death, and thanked Cagney "for a wonderful job". A paid 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, drawing parallels between Cohan and Cagney; they both began their careers in vaudeville, had years of struggle 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 (winning three) and Cagney won 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."
Cagney had lost out on Boys' Town to Spencer 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. Cagney announced in March 1942 that he and brother William 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. 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 the creation of his new production company, Cagney Productions produced its first film, Johnny Come Lately, in March 1943. While the main 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 do any interviews with the UK press, preferring to concentrate on rehearsals and performances. He gave several shows a day for the Army Signal Corps; called The American Cavalcade of Dance, the show 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 more audiences, but it fared worse at the box office than Johnny Come Lately. At this time, Cagney heard of young war hero Audie Murphy, who appeared on the front of Life magazine. Cagney thought that Murphy had the looks to be a movie star, and suggested that he come to Hollywood. Murphy, however, could not act, and his contract was loaned out and then sold.
While negotiating the rights for their third independent film, Cagney starred in 20th Century Fox's 13 Rue Madeleine at $300,000 for two months of work. The 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, and audiences again struggled 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 forced Cagney back to Warners. He signed a distribution-production deal with the studio for the film White Heat, effectively making Cagney Productions 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 last directed Cagney (in The Roaring Twenties), and the actor's portrayal of gangsters had also changed. Unlike Tom Powers in The Public Enemy, Jarrett is portrayed as a raging lunatic with little or no 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 portrayal of Jarrett. Cagney himself had the idea of playing Jarrett as psychotic; he later stated that "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 closing lines of 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 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 that he had seen as a child, as well as someone that he had seen on a visit to a mental hospital.
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, Warners, perhaps searching for another Yankee Doodle Dandy gave Cagney a musical for his next picture, 1950's The West Point Story with Doris Day, an actress he admired.
His next film, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, was another gangster movie, which was the first by Cagney Productions since its being acquired by Warners. 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 ended.
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 had not, having 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 the best of his later career. 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. 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. It was Tracy's involvement that ensured that Cagney accepted the supporting role, although in the end Tracy did not take part. Cagney had worked with Ford before on What Price Glory?, and they had got on fairly well. However, as soon as Ford met Cagney at the airport, the director warned 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, and Ford became incensed. 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 reappeared 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 was if he was still using his left hand. Lemmon was shocked; he had done it on a whim, and thought no-one else had noticed. He said of his costar, "his powers of observation must be absolutely incredible, in addition to the fact that he remembered it. I was very flattered."
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.
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. 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. His performance 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. Again, Cagney's skills of mimicry, combined with a physical similarity to Chaney, allowed him to 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 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".
In 1959, Cagney played a labor leader in what proved to be his final musical, Never Steal Anything Small, which featured a comical song and dance duet with Cara Williams, who played his girlfriend.
Cagney's next film was over a year later, in 1959, when he traveled 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. The overriding message of violence inevitably leading to 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 Ocean during World War II, was not a war film but instead focused on the effect of command. Cagney Productions, which shared the production credit with Robert Montgomery's company, made a brief return 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."
Cagney's penultimate film was a comedy. He was hand-picked by 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 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 Cagney was unaccustomed to. In fact, the filming was one of the worst experiences of Cagney's long career. One of the few positive outcomes was his friendship with Pamela Tiffin, to whom he gave acting guidance, including 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 considered walking out of a film before completion. 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'd had enough, and retired.
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 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 the winters in Los Angeles, and the summers either at 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 was diagnosed with glaucoma and began taking eye-drops, but he 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.
Opened by Charlton Heston and introduced by Frank Sinatra, the ceremony 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.
Whilst at Coldwater Canyon in 1977, Cagney had a minor stroke. After two weeks in hospital, Zimmerman became his full-time carer, traveling with him and Billie wherever they went. After the stroke, Cagney was no longer able to undertake many of his favorite pastimes, including horse riding and dancing, and as he became more depressed, he even gave up his beloved hobby of painting. Encouraged by his wife and Zimmerman, Cagney accepted an 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, although they had experienced past visits by Marlon Brando and Robert Redford. Despite being his first film for twenty years, Cagney was immediately at ease. Flubbed 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, Joan Leslie and Lemmon.
As filming progressed, Cagney's sciatica worsened, but he continued 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 she later broke protocol to go backstage to speak with Cagney directly.
Cagney made a rare TV appearance in Terrible Joe Moran in 1984, before finally retiring completely.
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 while 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 a 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 that there were no concrete roads surrounding the property, only dirt tracks. The house 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 rumor 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 did not just live on the farm but turned it into working order by selling some of the existing dairy 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.
Cagney had loved horses since childhood, when he would sit on those of local delivery riders and ride horse-drawn streetcars with his mother. He raised horses on his farms, specializing in Morgans, a breed of which he was particularly fond.
Cagney was a keen sailor, owning boats on both the Eastern and Western coasts of the U.S., although he did suffer from seasickness on random occasions, sometimes not being stricken in a heavy sea but then being ill on a calm day. He also enjoyed painting, and claimed in his autobiography that he may 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 refused to sell his paintings, considering himself an amateur. He signed and sold only one painting, which was bought by Johnny Carson to benefit a charity.
In his autobiography, Cagney stated that as a young man he had no political views, since 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 Frank Merriam. Cagney (and Jean Harlow) refused to pay.
He supported 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 ambulance 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 resigned 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. William Cagney claimed this donation to be the root of the 1940 charges. Cagney was cleared by U.S. Representative 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, which 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 alleged 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 World War II, he took part in racing exhibitions at the Roosevelt Raceway to raise war bonds. He also allowed the Army to practice maneuvers at his Martha's Vineyard farm, and sold 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 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."
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 the funeral.
Photograph was Hand Oil Tinted by Artist Margaret A. Rogers.