James Cagney died twenty-four years ago today.
When I was a kid my Dad and I would watch a lot of movies together, and that’s where I first saw this pugnacious little punk light up the screen. It didn’t seem to matter what film he was in; when he was on camera he attracted your attention with laser-like intensity. I guess that’s what they call a movie star.
Dad loved war movies – still does – and I have vivid memories of watching The Fighting 69th several times (as Irishmen, that’s almost a requirement). Later I discovered What Price Glory and 13 Rue Madeline, which I guess weren’t in rotation on the three or four New York stations available at the time. And his performance in Mr. Roberts was also a classic, although that was a comedy.
But it was the gangster films that were seared into my memory. Public Enemy and Angels With Dirty Faces were the two we watched most often; stone-cold classics that I still enjoy today. The latter also featured The Dead End Kids, who I would later follow through their comedic incarnation as The Bowery Boys. Two others that rank alongside them in his canon are The Roaring Twenties and the iconic White Heat; how Cagney did not win the Academy Award for the latter is still a mystery. (He eventually won for his performance as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, and deservedly so.)
I learned a bit later that Cagney was constantly battling the studio system – and Harry Warner in particular - to be able to have more control over his career. The studios treated actors like indentured servants back then, although that also meant that you were used in a lot of movies and even loaned out to other studios on occasion as a favor between moguls. If you had the magic, as they say, soon enough you’d get a chance to prove it. But Cagney was getting typecast and didn’t like it.
As I was growing up I caught up with several that I had missed, including other genres like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Time of Your Life (which was perhaps my own favorite moment on a college stage). His fierce performance in Love Me Or Leave Me was thrilling; he had played many bad men before but his gangsters always had some charm; Martin Snyder was an unlikeable character. And I got to see Man of a Thousand Faces again and understand what a magnificent performance it was; Cagney as Lon Chaney being other characters. There’s a wordless scene where Cagney re-enacts a brutally deformed cripple being healed and given the ability to walk; it is a master class in acting.
I respected Cagney the man almost as much as I admired Cagney the actor. He fought for better working conditions for actors in general (his own behavior inspired others to stand up for themselves) and was president of the Screen Actors Guild. He was a patriot and generously devoted his time and services in support of the troops long before it became fashionable (or a savvy career move). His marriage at 22 lasted sixty-four years until his death at 86. And he avoided the hoopla of Hollywood, buying a farm first in Martha’s Vineyard and later another north of New York City. He approached life on his own terms, supported causes and people without fanfare or fear and set the bar early for the transition to a new style of acting.
When Cagney died in 1986 it wasn’t a shock, as he had been in poor health for many years. He all but retired from movies twenty-five years earlier, but did return to the big screen in 1981 to play a supporting role in Ragtime as the cantankerous Police Commissioner. But thanks to my Dad and those many nights enjoying his work together, he always seemed vividly alive to me. If I’m flipping channels today and come across a Cagney movie, I automatically lock in and watch it even though the odds are I can recite every line of dialogue from memory.
I was thrilled when Warners finally started releasing classic Cagney films on DVD (perhaps in an upcoming TGIF I will rank my ten favorites). But one of my great thrills was being able to record the many unreleased Cagney films that TCM aired during a month-long tribute to Cagney and sharing them with my Dad. He had no idea that these had even aired, and some of them (Taxi, The Strawberry Blonde) he hadn’t seen since we watched them together all those years ago. Sometimes payback isn’t a bitch.
March 1986 was a tough month. I lost my Mom to cancer; she had never really been sick a day in her life and was not a drinker or smoker. She felt some discomfort that January and it was determined that she needed minor surgery which was supposed to be routine. When under the knife in early February it was discovered that she had cancer. The pre-operative scans missed because it was too small, but it was scattered throughout her liver like buckshot, which meant her bloodstream, which meant it was now invasive everywhere. She never left the hospital. Every time I think of her I’m amazed that twenty-four years seems both like a long time ago and also like yesterday.
When I think back to my childhood I remember her sitting nearby as my Dad and I watched Cagney’s movies. She probably enjoyed some of them herself, but knew that Dads and sons need to bond over certain things, and she gave us that space. (That was my Mom in a nutshell – unselfish.) So as I warmly remember the man who is still my favorite actor of all time, I do the same for the two people who always supported me unconditionally. March is a little easier to take these days.
James Cagney Online – UK site with info and trailers