Nationality: American. Born: James Francis Cagney Jr. in New York City, 17 July 1899; brother of the actress Jeanne Cagney. Education: Attended Stuyvesant High School, New York; briefly attended Columbia University. Family: Married Frances Willard (Willie) Vernon, 1922, adopted children: James and Cathleen. Career: Acted in productions staged by Lenox Hill Settlement House during childhood; 1919—worked in vaudeville as chorus dancer and female impersonator; 1920—in chorus of Broadway musical Pitter-Patter ; 1925—began playing leads on Broadway; 1927–28—opened the Cagney School of Dancing with wife; 1929—following success in Broadway musical Penny Arcade , contracted by Warners to appear in film version, retitled Sinner's Holiday ; 1930—long-term contract with Warners; early 1930s—involved in Screen Actors Guild, later serving as vice president (1934–39) and president (1942–43); 1936—sued Warners over breach of contract and won; 1936–38—in two films for small Grand National Pictures; 1938—re-signed with Warners; 1943—formed William Cagney Productions with brother; 1953—final independent Cagney production A Lion Is in the Streets ; 1957—directed film Short Cut to Hell ; 1961—retired from acting; 1981—came out of retirement for role in Forman's Ragtime . Awards: Best Actor, New York Film Critics, for Angels with Dirty Faces , 1938; Best Actor Academy Award, and Best Actor, New York Film Critics, for Yankee Doodle Dandy , 1942; Life Achievement Award, American Film Institute, 1974; Honored for "Lifetime Achievement in the Performing Arts" by the Kennedy Center, 1980. Died: In Stansfordville, New York, 30 March 1986.
Films as Actor:
Sinner's Holiday (Adolfi) (as Harry Delano); Doorway to Hell ( A Handful of Clouds ) (Mayo) (as Steve Mileaway); Intimate Interview (Elliott)
Other Men's Women (Wellman) (as Ed); The Millionaire (Adolfi) (as Schofield); The Public Enemy (Wellman) (as Tom Powers); Smart Money (Alfred E. Green) (as Jack); Blonde Crazy ( Larceny Lane ) (Del Ruth) (as Bert Harris); How I Play Golf (Marshall)
Taxi! (Del Ruth) (as Matt Nolan); The Crowd Roars (Hawks) (as Joe Greer); Winner Take All (Del Ruth) (as Jim Kane)
Hard to Handle (LeRoy) (as Lefty Merrill); Picture Snatcher (Lloyd Bacon) (as Danny Kean); The Mayor of Hell (Mayo) (as Patsy Gargan); Footlight Parade (Lloyd Bacon) (as Chester Kent); Lady Killer (Del Ruth) (as Dan Quigley); Hollywood on Parade
Jimmy the Gent (Curtiz) (as Jimmy Corrigan); He Was Her Man (Lloyd Bacon) (as Flicker Hayes); Here Comes the Navy (Lloyd Bacon) (as Chesty O'Connor); The St. Louis Kid ( A Perfect Weekend ) (Enright) (as Eddie Kennedy); Hollywood Gad-About ; Screen Snapshots One
Devil Dogs of the Air (Lloyd Bacon) (as Tommy O'Toole); G-Men (Keighley) (as James "Brick" Davis); The Irish in Us (Lloyd Bacon) (as Danny O'Hara); A Midsummer Night's Dream (Reinhardt and Dieterle) (as Bottom); Frisco Kid (Lloyd Bacon) (as Bat Morgan); Ceiling Zero (Hawks) (as Dizzy Davis); A Trip through a Hollywood Studio ; Mutiny on the Bounty (Lloyd) (as extra)
Great Guy ( Pluck of the Irish ) (Blystone) (as Johnny Cave)
Something to Sing About (Schertzinger) (as Terry Rooney)
Boy Meets Girl (Lloyd Bacon) (as Robert Law); Angels with Dirty Faces (Curtiz) (as Rocky Sullivan); For Auld Lang Syne (Bilson)
The Oklahoma Kid (Lloyd Bacon) (as Jim Kincaid); Each Dawn I Die (Keighley) (as Frank Ross); The Roaring Twenties (Walsh) (as Eddie Bartlett)
The Fighting 69th (Keighley) (as Jerry Plunkett); Torrid Zone (Keighley) (as Nick Butler); City for Conquest (Litvak) (as Danny Kenny)
The Strawberry Blonde (Walsh) (as Biff Grimes); The Bride Came C.O.D. (Keighley) (as Steve Collins)
Captains of the Clouds (Curtiz) (as Brian MacLean); Yankee Doodle Dandy (Curtiz) (as George M. Cohan)
Johnny Come Lately ( Johnny Vagabond ) (William K. Howard) (as Tom Richards); Show Business at War ( March of Time ); You, John Jones (LeRoy) (as Air Raid Warden)
Battle Stations (as narrator)
Blood on the Sun (Lloyd) (as Nick Condon)
13 Rue Madeleine (Hathaway) (as Bob Sharkey)
The Time of Your Life (Potter) (as Joe)
White Heat (Walsh) (as Cody Jarrett)
The West Point Story (Del Ruth) (as Elwin Bixby); Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (Gordon Douglas) (as Ralph Cotter)
Come Fill the Cup (Gordon Douglas) (as Lew Marsh); Starlift (Del Ruth) (as himself)
What Price Glory? (John Ford) (as Captain Flagg)
A Lion Is in the Streets ( A Lion in the Streets ) (Walsh) (as Hank Martin)
Run for Cover (Nicholas Ray) (as Matt Dow); Love Me or Leave Me (Charles Vidor) (as Martin "Gimp" Snyder); Mister Roberts (John Ford and LeRoy) (as Captain); The Seven Little Foys (Shavelson) (as George M. Cohan)
Tribute to a Bad Man (Wise) (as Jeremy Rodock); These Wilder Years (Rowland) (as Steve Bradford)
Man of a Thousand Faces (Pevney) (as Lon Chaney Sr.)
Never Steal Anything Small (Lederer) (as Jake MacIllaney); Shake Hands with the Devil (Anderson) (as Sean Lenihan)
The Gallant Hours (Montgomery) (as Adm. William F. "Bull" Halsey, + pr)
One, Two, Three (Wilder) (as C. P. MacNamara)
Road to the Wall (doc) (as narrator)
Ballad of Smokey the Bear (voice only)
Arizona Bushwhackers (Selander) (as narrator)
Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? (Mora—doc) (as voice of Everyman)
Ragtime (Forman) (as Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo)
Terrible Joe Moran (Sargent—for TV) (title role)
Film as Director:
Short Cut to Hell
By CAGNEY: book—
Cagney by Cagney , New York, 1976.
By CAGNEY: articles—
"How I Got This Way," as told to Pete Martin in The Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia), 7, 14, and 21 January 1956.
"Interview with James Cagney," by Philip Oakes in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1958–59.
"James Cagney Talking . . . ," in Films and Filming (London), March 1959.
On CAGNEY: books—
O'Brien, Pat, The Wind at My Back , New York, 1964.
Sennett, Ted, Warner Brothers Presents , New Rochelle, New York, 1971.
Dickens, Homer, The Films of James Cagney , Secaucus, New Jersey, 1972.
Offen, Ron, Cagney , Chicago, 1972.
Bergman, Andrew, Cagney , New York, 1973.
Freedland, Michael, James Cagney , London, 1974.
Wallis, Hal, and Charles Higham, Starmaker , New York, 1980.
James Cagney dans l'objectif , Paris, 1981.
Clinch, Minty, Cagney: The Story of His Film Career , London, 1982.
McGilligan, Patrick, Cagney: The Actor as Auteur , San Diego, 1982.
Warren, Doug, James Cagney: The Authorized Biography , London, 1983; rev. ed., 1986.
Schickel, Richard, James Cagney: A Celebration , London, 1985.
Sklar, Robert, City Boys: Cagney, Bogart, Garfield , Princeton, New Jersey, 1992.
McCabe, John, Cagney , New York, 1997.
On CAGNEY: articles—
Kirstein, Lincoln, "Cagney and the American Hero," in Hound and Horn (New York), April 1932.
Potamkin, H. A., "The Personality of the Player: A Phase of Unity," in Close-Up (London), March 1933.
Durant, John, "Tough on and Off," in Collier's (New York), 31 August 1940.
Current Biography 1942 , New York, 1942.
Cole, Lester, "Unhappy Ending," in Hollywood Quarterly , October 1945.
Brown, John Mason, "Cagney Rides Again," in Saturday Review (New York), 1 October 1949.
Tynan, Kenneth, "Cagney and the Mob," in Sight and Sound (London), May 1951.
Parsons, Louella, "Cagney's Year," in Cosmopolitan (New York), June 1955.
Miller, Don, "James Cagney," in Films in Review (New York), August/September 1958.
"Yankee Doodle Dandy," in Newsweek (New York), 22 April 1968.
Haskell, Molly, "Partners in Crime and Conversation," in The Village Voice (New York), 7 December 1972.
Lawrence, K. G., "Homage to James Cagney," in Films in Review (New York), May 1974.
McGilligan, Patrick, "Just a Dancer Gone Wrong: The Complication of James Cagney," in Take One (Montreal), September 1974.
Kandel, Abel, "James Cagney: Man of Principle" in Close-Ups: The Movie Star Book , edited by Danny Peary, New York, 1978.
"The Conversation: Studs Terkel and James Cagney," in Esquire (New York), October 1981.
Kroll, Jack, "James Cagney" and "Cagney vs. Allen vs. Brooks" by William S. Pechter, in The Movie Star , edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.
Buckley, M., "James Cagney," in Films in Review (New York), March 1982.
Cieutat, M., "Tribute to a Good Man: James Cagney ou l'ambivalence de l'Amérique," in Positif (Paris), April 1982.
Sklar, Robert, "L'Acteur en lutte: James Cagney contre Warner Bros.," in Filméchange (Paris), Summer 1983.
Hagopian, Kevin, "Declarations of Independence: A History of Cagney Productions," in Velvet Light Trap (Madison, Wisconsin), no. 22, 1986.
Obituary in New York Times , 31 March 1986.
"James Cagney Succumbs at 86: Quintessential Film Tough Guy," obituary in Variety (New York), 2 April 1986.
Martin, Adrian. "On the Significance of James Cagney," Filmnews, vol. 16, no. 2, May 1986.
Buckley, M., obituary in Films in Review (New York), June/July 1986.
McGilligan, Patrick, "Yankee Doodle Diary," in Film Comment (New York), July/August 1986.
Tracey, G. "James Cagney as Immigrant Icon," Michigan Academician (Ann Arbor), no. 3, 1993.
McClelland, D., "Cagney and Hayward: The Greatest Team that Never Was," Classic Images (Muscatine, Iowa), no. 263, May 1997.
Norman, Barry, "Why Cagney Is Always Top of the World," Radio Times (London), 9 August 1997.
* * *
Jimmy Cagney was a natural actor with an astonishing range. As Bottom in Reinhardt and Dieterle's A Midsummer Night's Dream , he demonstrated that he could play comedy effectively. He was Lon Chaney in Man of a Thousand Faces , and twice played George M. Cohan, winning an Academy Award for Yankee Doodle Dandy , and repeating the role in 1955 for The Seven Little Foys . But his specialty was Irish tough guys: prizefighters, gangsters, bootleggers, and racketeers.
In 1931, a year after his film career began, Cagney created the definitive portrait of a tough, swaggering movie gangster in Wellman's The Public Enemy . Fifty years later, and in failing health, he gave Milos Forman an equally memorable portrayal as New York police commissioner Rhinelander Waldo in the film version of E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime . The swagger was still there, and the charisma. As early as 1939, critic Otis Ferguson paid tribute to Cagney by noting that it would be "hard to say what our impression of the total American character would have been without him."
Cagney learned the American character on the streets of New York. When he played Irish tough guys on the screen, he was able to draw on his own youthful experiences. Cagney began his performing career as a hoofer in a show called Every Sailor at Keith's 86th Street Theatre, then, in 1920, he landed a specialty dance in the show Pitter-Patter . His future wife, Frances Willard Vernon, was in the chorus line and after Pitter-Patter closed, they joined to form a dance team called "Vernon and Nye." His first important acting assignment came in 1925 when he was cast with Charles Bickford in the Maxwell Anderson play Outside Looking In .
In 1929 he played opposite Joan Blondell in Maggie the Magnificent , and subsequently in Penny Arcade . Al Jolson procured the rights for this play and then sold it to Warner Brothers. Cagney and Blondell were part of the package, and so Cagney went to Hollywood, where Penny Arcade became Sinner's Holiday . A year later he had the lead in The Public Enemy and was on his way to becoming a star.
His great talent was confined by the apparently stereotyped roles he often played over the next 25 years, but no one could do them better than Cagney. He perfectly understood the characters of the punks he portrayed, from the raw and brutal ambition of Tom Powers to the psychotic complexity of Cody Jarrett in White Heat , 18 years later.
In his portrayal of "Gimp" Snyder for Charles Vidor in Love Me or Leave Me , Cagney drew upon all the vitality and charisma of his old gangster roles to present the melancholy figure of a man who loves and respects a woman, Doris Day's Ruth Etting, whose sense of decency he is incapable of understanding. Cagney takes a modest melodrama and gives it an almost tragic dimension as Snyder attempts to reform but is finally driven crazy by his jealousy and shoots the piano player (Cameron Mitchell), who is his rival.
Rat-a-tat-tating those famous feet like machine gun fire in his musicals, Cagney was a whirling dervish whose finest performances, even in nonmusicals, seem choreographed. Both his upbringing in Hell's Kitchen and his vaudeville trouping inform every step this sui generis takes. Unlike other male superstars of Hollywood's Golden Age, Cagney was unafraid of returning to his gangster roots throughout his long, kinetic career. Only an actor unconstrained by image considerations could deliver as chilling a portrait of psychopathy as his migraine-plagued Mama's boy, Cody Jarrett. By contrast, think of the roles Gable, Stewart, Tracy, and Grant chose after their mass appeal hardened around their personas. Bringing humanity to his criminals and moral uncertainty to his good guys, Cagney created the myth of the streetwise cynic, who could just as fatefully be recruited to walk the straight and narrow or stride through a police lineup with attitude to burn. The only characterizational common ground was an energy-level unknown to the rest of us. In One, Two, Three , a virtuoso collaboration with Billy Wilder (then intended as Cagney's retirement film), the performer propels the Cold War farce forward and flies past topical references that date the film, as if his acting were independent of tired plot mechanics, as if his personality could simply burn through familiar gags until the audience is left only with the distilled essence of Cagney. One wishes this vital actor had accepted Jack Warner's offer to play Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady , a museum piece that would have benefited from his irreverent cock-of-the-walk strut.
Whether tackling bad guys on-screen or battling the Brothers Warner offscreen in his heyday, Cagney always placed his convictions in the forefront. Going independent at a time in the forties when such ventures were considered suicidal, Cagney's production company created some lovely films, such as Johnny Come Lately , before going down fighting. But bucking the odds has always been a signature move on Cagney's part, whether knocking himself out to put on a show in Footlight Parade or sizing up Ann Sheridan on a rubber plantation in Torrid Zone . Not only could he jump in the job pool from G-Man to America's most wanted but he could also enliven Shakespeare or impersonate Adm. "Bull" Halsey in The Gallant Hours with the same self-confident droit du seigneur . Whereas less versatile stars played storybook versions of heroism, Cagney always scrapped for his honor because he was not a to-the-manner-born savior like John Wayne but a conflicted hero who had to arrive at virtue by sometimes battling his own instincts. Jimmy Cagney embodied the personal charisma of star acting during Hollywood's Golden Era. His abilities were unique, and his classic films are forever marked by his personal brilliance.
—James M. Welsh, updated by Robert Pardi