Tag Archives: Angels With Dirty Faces

Remembering James Cagney

Simply the best.

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

The Fighting 69th

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. 

Angels With Dirty Faces

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. 

Man of a Thousand Faces

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. 

Ragtime

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. 

Thanks, Mom & Dad.

James Cagney on IMDB and Wikipedia

James Cagney Online – UK site with info and trailers

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T.G.I.F. – Ten TV Memories

Cheesey? Gouda nuff for me at the time.

Cheesey? Gouda nuff for me at the time.

R.I.P. Soupy Sales.

Nostalgia is an odd thing. I think no matter how hard you try to explain something to a future generation, life goes through so many changes so fast that what was important and relevant to one generation seems odd and arcane to the next. Try explaining how you were mesmerized by the technology of “Pong” on a monochrome 12″ monitor to a kid playing “Halo 3” on a 50″ HDTV with surround sound. I’m sure that children of today who text message each other as a primary method of communication will seem like cavemen to those communicating wordlessly through sensory implants sometime in the future.

I say this only because I know some will look at these clips and just not get it. And that’s okay, not everything transcends time. But it’s pretty amazing that as a child in New York City I was able to find plenty of entertaining diversions on television even though there were only three stations, and none of them broadcast 24/7. As an adult with digital cable, I’m stunned that there sometimes isn’t a single viable program during a particular hour. Perhaps it’s the ability for children to be open-minded enough to find the value in anything. Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s all been done so many times, I’m jaded.

But I fondly remember looking forward to certain programs after school and on Saturday mornings. One of these was The Soupy Sales Show, a “kiddie show” that featured corny puns, some zingers aimed way over kid’s heads, and two of the most unlikely sidekicks on television, Black Tooth and White Fang.  Soupy played his own girlfriend (in drag), a detective named Philo Kvetch (my favorite of his characters) and probably took more pies in the face than anyone outside of the Three Stooges. He wasn’t afraid of doing the silliest thing to get a laugh, and his charm radiated through the television set.

So Rest in Peace, Milton Supman, a/k/a/ Soupy Sales.

So with nostalgia on the brain – and with apologies to several other programs that could easily make this list – here are ten early childhood memories, some of which still pop up on television (and rightfully so):

 B&W TV

Soupy Sales – “Do The Mouse” and more. Most late night hosts consider interacting with the crew an integral part of the show, but you can tell from this clip just how loose and fun it must have been on set. It was always a bit crazy – including the famous incident where Soupy asked kids to tiptoe into their parents’ bedroom and send him all the pictures of the Presidents from their wallets – but he was one of a kind.

Popeye cartoons – Another show where the content was framed and introduced by an adult authority figure – in this case “Captain Jack McCarthy”, a local host posing as a sea captain in a yellow slicker. I seem to recall that the Popeye cartoons ranged from the classic Max Fleischer originals to the later King Features editions, but I was a mere Swee’pea at the time.

The Three Stooges – When dozens of previously filmed “shorts” were made available to television, someone got the brilliant idea of marketing them to children. The Three Stooges show was also staged with an adult authority figure (“Officer Joe Bolton was the guy in NYC) who would open the program and introduce the film and a cartoon. And parents were rightly concerned that a new generation of kids would want to poke each other in the eyes.

Abbott and Costello – Not to be confused with their movies, The Abbott and Costello Show was a half hour comedy program that was a framework for the duo to perform gags and burlesque routines under the guise of a sitcom. The show originally aired before I was born but was shown in syndication for years.

Shindig – Hard to believe there was more great rock’n’roll on television in the early ’60s than there is now. Check out the guests on this last episode and the legacy of artists who…uh…shindug. This was hip at the time.

Where The Action IsDick Clark’s follow-up to American Bandstand featured Paul Revere and the Raiders as the virtual house band and was loaded with great bands and songs for thirsty music lovers like me.

The Little Rascals – I’m sure they mixed in Our Gang comedies along with the Little Rascals flicks, but the premise was the same. And odd collection of precious and precocious children with little or no adult supervision, a dilemma and usually a lesson learned. Not a happy ending in real life, though.

Hullabaloo – Yet another font of great music, this show occupied the Monday time slot that eventually went to another staple of my youthful TV diet, The Monkees. The show tried to bridge the generation gap a bit by having established artists introduce newer ones.

Rocky and Bullwinkle – Hilariously subversive and one of the best written shows ever on the air. Like many children I enjoyed the campy stories, bad puns and funny characters (not to mention the additional features including Aesop and Son and Fractured Fairy Tales). As an adult, I’m getting the jokes I can’t believe the censors missed!

The Adventures of SupermanGeorge Reeves was already dead and gone by the time I was religiously watching the program at dinnertime every weekday. I must have seen every episode of this show fifty times each.

And for your bonus round…

The Bowery Boys – Also known as the Dead End Kids, the Little Tough Guys and the East Side Kids, the Bowery Boys were a more comic descendant of the Depression-era street kids from movies like Angels With Dirty Faces and Dead End. I’ve had a lifelong argument with my father about who the leader of the gang was, but that depends upon whether you are discussing the original crime drama films or the comedy flicks. Billy Halop was the film guy but Leo Gorcey was the undisputed leader of the comic programs. Saturday mornings will never be the same without Slip Mahoney and Sach (Huntz Hall).

I gotta investegrate this citation

I gotta investegrate this citation

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