James Cagney made his name at the start of the sound era playing gangsters under contract to Warner Bros making classics such as Public Enemy and Angels With Dirty Faces. Playing these types of roles was second nature to him. After all he was born on New York’s tough Lower East Side but it was in vaudeville as a song and dance man that he first made his mark. It was in Yankee Doodle Dandy that he was able to show off his singing and dancing skills.
By the late 1950’s Cagney’s career was slowing down and he decided to retire from the movies after making One, Two, Three for Billy Wilder in 1962. There was one last surprise movie though when he was persuaded to return to the big screen for 1981 movie Ragtime. He died in 1986. Here is our pick of five his best movies.
The Public Enemy (1931)
This is Wellman’s brutal pre-Code depiction of young Chicago hoodlums in the ’20s. His last-minute casting of Cagney as the lead mobster launched his career as the movies’ gangster king and typecast him for years. Two Irish boys (Cagney and Woods) grow up hard on the South Side, taking part in small-time heists until they kill a cop. With Prohibition comes the opportunity for more money and they become bootleggers, splurging on booze and women, including floozies Blondell, Clarke, and Harlow. When Cagney tires of Clarke, their argument leads to the infamous grapefruit scene in which a surprised Clarke gets half a grapefruit in the kisser. The hoodlums come to a bad end, of course, but not before a truly shocking amount of gunplay. This and “Little Caesar” (1930) are the twin pillars of the gangster genre. Academy Award Nominations: Best Writing (Original Story).
Director: William A. Wellman
Cast: Joan Blondell, James Cagney, Donald Cook, Leslie Fenton, Beryl Mercer
Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)
Cagney, Bogart, and O’Brien in one of the greatest of gangster melodramas. Two boyhood pals, now a parish priest and a hardened criminal, find themselves at odds when the thug returns to his old neighborhood. O’Brien already has his hands full keeping the Dead End Kids out of trouble and now that they idolize Cagney his good works may come to nothing. Unforgettable scene of Cagney on his way to the chair. Academy Award Nominations: Best Actor: James Cagney; Best Director; Best Original Story.
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Dead End Kids, Pat O’Brien, George Bancroft, Edward Pawley, Ann Sheridan
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
This grand musical features Cagney’s personal favorite performance. The life of George M. Cohan, one of the great entertainers of the first half of the century, is a textbook on the development of American pop culture. As played by Cagney, it’s great fun, too. Cohan, who produced 40 Broadway shows and wrote more than 1,000 songs, sprang from his family’s vaudeville act, and eventually makes his way to Tin Pan Alley’s song factory. Once he’s a hit, he performs in and writes his own spectacular productions. An endless list of songs, and endless energy from Cagney. Selected as a National Film Registry Outstanding Film. Academy Award Nominations: 8, including Best Picture; Best Director; Best Original Story.
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: James Cagney, Walter Huston, Irene Manning, George Tobias
White Heat (1949)
“Made it, Ma. Top of the world!” The last explosion of the Warner Bros. gangster movies, a decade after their ’30s heyday, was one of the best, with Cagney unleashing a merciless portrayal of the warped personality that becomes a ruthless killer. Based on the mother-son gang led by “Ma” Barker, the story opens with Cagney’s gang holding up a train and then hiding out in a freezing cabin with an injured member and his wife (Mayo) and mother (Wycherly). Dissension in the gang and an attraction between Mayo and a rebellious gangster (Cochran) lead to a police tail in Southern California, a stint in prison for Cagney, and a blazing final showdown. The climactic shoot-out in the oil refinery has become a movie icon and it remains one of Cagney’s and director Walsh’s greatest moments. Academy Award Nomination for Best Motion Picture Story.
Director: Raoul Walsh
Cast: James Cagney, John Archer, Fred Clark, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Ford Rainey
Mister Roberts (1955)
One of the great WWII comedies, this tale of day-to-day life on the cargo ship “Reluctant” satirizes the boredom, pettiness, cruelty and illogic of the military. Fonda re-creates his acclaimed Broadway role of the decent Lieutenant Roberts who, while enduring a crew of half-wits and a nasty captain with an inferiority complex (Cagney), fears the Pacific naval war will be over before he ever sees anything more explosive than a fire extinguisher of home-brewed “jungle juice.” Director Ford includes a number of his stock company, such as Curtis and Bond. Followed by “Ensign Pulver” in 1964. Academy Award Nominations: 2, including Best Picture.
Directors: John Ford, Mervyn LeRoy
Cast: Ward Bond, James Cagney, Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Betsy Palmer, William Powell