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
Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess
What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.
Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.
Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.
Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.
Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?
Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.
Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife
Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.
Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.
Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.
Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.
What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.
Famous guest stars?
The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.
Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.
Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.
Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.
The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.
Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.
Classic TV Revisited: The Royal
The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.
The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.
Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.
Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.
Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”
A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.
First broadcast: 2003
Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden
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