JAMES CAGNEY Biography - Other artists & entretainers


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James Cagney was born in the Yorkville section of Manhatten, N.Y.. His father
was a bartender and amateur boxer. The latter, something the young Cagney  developed a life long passion for. As a youth, he had a fine reputation as a fighter. He entered show buisness just after World War 1. A fellow employee at  Wanamakers told him a troupe of vaudevillians where auditioning singers an  dancers, and paying $35 a week. Cagney auditioned, and although he could neither sing or dance, he got the job!  Cagney stayed in vaudeville until 1929, when he moved to Broadway to star with  Joan Blondell in ‘Penny Arcade’. This got him and Blondell an offer to go to  Hollywood for screen tests, winning him the role in the 1930 film ‘Sinners Holiday’.


Although a very accomplished and versatile actor, Cagney is usually remembered as  the tough guy and gangster. A role he portrayed phenomenally in such movies as  ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’, ‘Public Enemy’, ‘White Heat’ and ‘The Roaring Twenties’.  In 1942 he had the chance to change personae. He made the movie ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’, in which he starred as George M Cohan. This enabled him to show off his  dancing skills and won him an academy award. He and his brother Bill, formed their own production company once ‘Yankee Doodle’ was completed. Cagney made four  films under it’s umbrella between 1943 - 1946 when he returned to Warner Bros.


1961 sawCagney retire from the movies. He moved to his 800 acre ranch in  Dutchess County, N.Y. with his wife, Frances (’Bill’) Willard Cagney. They had married in 1921, and remained together until his death. Cagney enjoyed his retirement, he was able to relax, read, play tennis, swim, paint, and write poetry. A far cry from
his gangster image. He did come out of retirement for enough time in 1980, to make ‘Ragtime’ with his old friend Pat O’Brian.


The lure of Cagney’s portrayals, is that his own personae seeps through to the  character. However superficially, violent, brutal or downright nasty, it had an  underlying sensitive and sympathetic side. He was the boy gone bad, who, with the right breaks, could havemade good; they rarely came. An excellent example is ‘Angels  With Dirty Faces’. Cagney,the ‘brave’ gangster and murderer, is hero worshipped by  the ‘Dead End Kids.’ At the endof the film and about to be executed, he remains  defiant. Making him a bigger hero with the youths. His life long friend, now a priest,  implores him, ‘for the sake of the boys’, to feign cowardice. Thus he would lose face with them, hopefully, preventing them from following his example. Still defiant, he goes forhis final walk along the corridor to the electric chair. We cut to the shadow  of him being strapped into the chair. He is struggling, screaming and crying, ‘I don’t  want to die! I don’t want to die!’ Finally going to his death a coward. We never do find  out if it was for real or for the boys.


Cagney was a master of improvisation too. How can anyone who’s seen it, forget the grapefruit in Mea Clarke’s face (Public Enemy). It was scripted as ‘Slaps her with an omelette’! Or the emotionally charged scene in ‘White Heat’, where he crawls into his  mother’s lap. Both scenes are examples of Cagney’s spontaneity.


I had the privilege of meeting Cagney in 1976. He was with his long time friend Micky  Roony. Seeing those two, elderly, diminutive gentlemen clowning around together, was  a wonderful site to behold!!