Everyone loves James Cagney, right? Seriously, how could you not?! What an interesting, long, varied career he had. It didn’t start out that way, though. Cagney became a star with his portrayal of the ruthless gangster Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1931). Since he played Powers so well, and with a raw, vicious, realistic brutality, he was put in another gangster role…then another…and another. As a result, he’s probably more known today for those many gangster roles. Let’s face it: he’s damn good as a homicidal sociopath. However, Cagney always considered himself more of a song and dance man than anything else. He wanted to do more with his talents, as did many of his peers who were also held down by ironclad contracts and grueling production schedules. He desired more complex, challenging roles, but throghout his career he continually fought typecasting at Warner Brothers, his home studio.
Looking back at Cagney’s career, he really is more than the street-wise thug: he played the heartfelt, delightful song and dance man in films like Footlight Parade (1933) and Something to Sing About (1937) ; romantic leading man alongside Bette Davis in The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941); a Canadian pilot in Captains of the Clouds (1942); a bad-tempered, jealous cattle rancher in Tribute to a Bad Man (1956); a high-strung Coca-Cola executive in One, Two, Three (1961).
All of these performances prove that Cagney really could do anything if given the chance.
Today we will look at four different James Cagney performances from the 1930s and 1940s, all recently released by Warner Archive…and there’s not a gangster flick in sight.
Winner Take All (1932)
The year following Cagney’s success in The Public Enemy, audiences got their first glimpse of his boxing talents and overall physicality in Winner Take All, co-staring Marian Nixon,Virginia Bruce, Guy Kibbee, and Dickie Moore. Cagney is Jimmy Kane, a lightweight boxer with a good shot at winning a championship title. After a particularly rough match resulting in a really nasty cauliflower ear, Jimmy is sent out west to a resort to recuperate. It’s at the resort that Jimmy meets single mother, Peggy (Nixon), and her son, who’s terribly sick. The two fall in love, and Kane discovers that Peggy is out of money, forcing her to leave the health resort. With no prospects for a stable future, Peggy realizes that leaving will put her son’s health at risk, but she has no other choice. Jimmy promises to look after them, providing both Peggy and her son with whatever they need. In order to do so, he must get back in the ring to win prize money.
Jimmy returns to New York with the best of intentions to earn enough money to send for Peggy. He meets Joan (Bruce), a beautiful socialite who expresses interest in him. Oh, how those high class dames will bring a man to his knees! Unfortunately Joan isn’t really in love with Jimmy, preferring to lead him on, trotting him about her society friends like he’s a tamed beast.
Running at a very pre-code length of a little over an hour, Winner Take All still manages to pack a lot of punch (sorry) in a short amount of time. Cagney really gets to show off his athleticism (his boxing is a lot like his dancing); apparently he refused a stunt double for his boxing scenes. The end result is a truly authentic performance from Cagney. Then again, he never gave anything but.
Winner Take All is available as a manufacture-on-demand (MOD) DVD from Warner Archive.
Here Comes the Navy (1934)
In Here Comes the Navy, we see the first of nine pairings with James Cagney and fellow actor and good friend, Pat O’Brien. With a cast rounded out by Gloria Stuart (unfortunately known to modern audiences as simply “the old lady from Titanic”), and Frank McHugh, who also frequently co-starred with Cagney and O’Brien, True to the Navy is a fun, if problematic gem.
Cagney is Chesty O’Connor (can we all agree this is the greatest name ever?), a loud-mouthed, arrogant worker at a navy shipyard in New York City. His behavior frequently gets him in trouble, but it isn’t until a brawl with naval officer Biff Martin (O’Brien) that really puts him in a tight spot. Chesty loses the fight, coming away with a badly bruised ego and no job. It would be wise for a person in this situation to just forget it, move on, and find something else. Oh, no. He’s Chesty Fucking O’Connor and come hell or high water, he will not be made to look like a sap.
And so, to get back at his newly-made enemy, Chesty enlists in the navy and commences to raise hell for Officer Martin. Except when one raises hell in the navy, it comes with serious consequences. So how does Chesty cope with all of these rules and regs and swabbing of the deck? Date his commanding officer’s sister, Dorothy (Stuart), of course! That should smooth things over, right?
Bad decision, Chesty.
When his liberty has been revoked for flagrant disobedience (and personal differences between him and Officer Martin), what does he do? Chesty uses a fellow sailor’s liberty pass to get off the ship to see Dorothy. There’s a catch, though: this fellow sailor is African-American. You can imagine what happens next…
Lousy move, Chesty.
Here Comes the Navy was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1934. It’s a fun film, despite the pretty lengthy, painfully awkward and offensive blackface sequence. Cagney really shines as the mischevious O’Connor, and he and Stuart have great on-screen chemistry. Pat O’Brien is a bit stiff as Officer Martin, but maybe that’s just the point. And of course Frank McHugh is…Frank McHugh!
Here Comes the Navy is available as a manufacture-on-demand (MOD) DVD from Warner Archive.
The Oklahoma Kid (1939)
Cagney starred with Humphrey Bogart in two iconic gangster films: Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939), but did you know the two also co-starred in a western? The Oklahoma Kid is one of those underrated films that is often overshadowed by its fellow cinematic classmembers Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Cagney is the Oklahoma Kid, an outlaw wanted dead or alive. His enemy, played by Bogart, is the all-black attired Whip McCord ( a great porn star name, right?). The Kid is always up to some sort of hijinks, managing to always evade the law. He may be a rascal, but he isn’t a bad man. When he learns of McCord’s takeover of the town, bringing crime, corruption, and gambling, The Kid decides he must take action, despite the price on his own head. He also rekindles a relationship with a childhood sweetheart (Rosemary Lane), who protects the Kid while he plans out his takedown of McCord.
A fun, energetic performance from Cagney is what makes The Oklahoma Kid work. Bogart, another victim of typecasting, always made a great bad guy, but as McCord he just looks uncomfortable. Bogie could play a lot of different roles, but bad guy cowboy isn’t one of them…even with the badass name.
The Oklahoma Kid is available as a manufacture-on-demand (MOD) DVD from Warner Archive.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
This biopic of the life and career of American composer George M. Cohan is arguably Cagney’s finest performance. It’s certainly his most famous, next to his role as psychotic mama’s boy Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949).
Yankee Doodle Dandy is best described as absolute pure joy. With a soundtrack comprised solely from Cohan’s extensive musical catalog, the result is an uplifting, thoroughly American, flag-waving excercise. It’s sappy and sentimental, optimistic and patriotic–all of it proudly worn on Cagney’s sleeve–and that is perfectly fine. It’s heartfelt, genuine, and just a whole hell of a lot of fun. With the United States recently thrust into war following the Pearl Harbor attacks, this film is exactly what the American public needed. Cagney boasts a confident, quirky dance style that no one has ever been able to replicate. He wasn’t the most technically perfect dancer like an Astaire or Kelly, but he was certainly one of the most unique and passionate. Cagney won a well-deserved Academy Award for his portrayal of Cohan, finally proving to audiences he was a versatile actor. Providing strong support for Cagney is lovely girl-next-door Joan Leslie (who’s still with us!); stalwart Walter Huston (who sings and dances, people…and it’s frickin’ adorable); Rosemary DeCamp, Richard Whorf, and Cagney’s real-life sister, Jeanne, who plays Cohan’s sister, Josie.
Yankee Doodle Dandy is a favorite in this writer’s household, especially with the resident four year old who refers to the film–and Cagney himself– simply as “Doodle.” This is certainly requisite viewing every year on the Fourth of July, but really, it’s great any ol’ day.
Warner Archive recently released Yankee Doodle Dandy on blu-ray; a beautiful transfer and one of the best home video releases of 2014. A must-own for all cinephiles. “Doodle” has never looked so good.