Cagney. Like Bogart, Gable, and Wayne the name alone marked the man as a Hollywood icon. But James Cagney, while undoubtably one of the screen’s greatest actors, always considered himself a Hollywood outsider. Shunning the glamorous excesses of Los Angeles, he spent his time between pictures toiling as a gentleman farmer in upstate New York and remained married to the same woman for over sixty years. He wasn’t just a Hollywood original; he was an American original. And when he died at the age of eighty-six, he left behind a legacy of films that redefined what a hero was in American cinema.
James Francis Cagney was born July 17, 1899, in New York City. His father was a bartender and his mother raised the family on her own after her husband died in 1918. Young James had a quick wit and quicker fists, both of which helped him navigate through the mean streets of Yorkville, the tough working-class neighborhood where he was raised. Cagney worked his way through high school and a semester at Columbia University before dropping out to earn more money in a vaudeville troupe. The fact that he was neither a dancer nor an actor didn’t seem to matter – he was a natural and soon was a featured performer. In 1920 he met the love of his life, Frances Vernon. They married a year later and would eventually adopt a boy and a girl.
Cagney’s big break came in 1930 while starring in the play “Penny Arcade.” He and co-star Joan Blondell went out to Hollywood to make the screen version, “Sinner’s Holiday” (1930) and soon Cagney found himself a $400 a week contract player at Warner Brothers. He appeared in a few minor films before he hit it big in “Public Enemy” (1931). His portrayal of Tom Powers, a brutal yet oddly sympathetic gangster, completely took America by storm. Cagney’s energy and emotionalism — combined with his short stature and pugnaciousness — made him a new, uniquely American type of hero, the anti-hero.
The country, gripped by the Great Depression, saw Cagney as a survivor, a role model, and the actor brought his unique intensity to every role. After “Public Enemy,” he would often play gangsters, but showed off his versatility in pictures like “The Crowd Roars” (1933), “Jimmy the Gent” (1934), and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1935). He earned an Academy Award nomination for “Angels With Dirty Faces” (1938) and won the Oscar® for his portrayal of the great vaudevillian George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942). Cagney, who up to his death considered himself a “song and dance man,” was particularly proud of this last achievement. (He would re-create the role of Cohan in 1955 in “The Seven Little Foys.”)
Cagney ended the 1940’s on a high note, again playing a gangster in “White Heat” (1949). His Cody Jarrett shines as one of the most explosive performances of all-time. Cagney continued to work throughout the next decade, winning more raves as Lon Chaney in “Man of a Thousand Faces” (1957) and in John Ford’s highly-successful comedy-drama “Mister Roberts” (1955). Ford was a great admirer of Cagney’s aura of authenticity and ability to capture a character on the first take.
Even though Cagney was still much in demand, he retired after the box-office smash “One, Two, Three” (1961). Tired of acting, he retired to his farm and spent his final years painting and writing poetry, resurfacing to act in “Ragtime” (1981). When he passed in 1986, the country mourned, including colleague and friend, President Ronald Reagan, who praised Cagney as a “classic American success story” whose “energy and talent we have never seen before and will never see again.”