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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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Blast From The Past: Rockabilly Raveups

For all the countless repackaging that we are constantly drowning in, sometimes the major labels throw us a bone with brilliant anthologies. Being a fan of garage rock, the pinnacle for me might be the original Nuggets collection, although I’m certainly not sneezing at the various label series that have followed in those caveman footprints to issue regional and chronological; collections of little-known garage and punk singles.

Rhino and Sony Legacy have really stood out in this regard (although in fairness to other labels, their access to the entire Columbia and Warner Brothers libraries is a hell of a head start). When these efforts are done right, you get a great cross-section of material in its best available sonic condition combined with some entertaining and/or authoritative liner notes written with care. If there’s one major drawback to the digital download medium – and there are several – the loss of liner notes might be the leading contender.

I didn’t grow up an Elvis or rockabilly fan, but I did grow up loving rock’n’roll, and chasing the roots of an art form is a worthwhile exercise for any devotee. These collections are far from complete but are an excellent primer for someone wanting to know what the fuss was all about.

When I saw that Whistle Bait is on sale at Amazon for $6.99, I figured I should pay props to these killer anthologies once again. Here’s my original review from 2000 as it ran in PopMatters

Fifty—count ‘em—50 snips of rockabilly, America’s original punk rock music, collected on two CDs to awaken your latent juvenile delinquent tendencies. Rockabilly was the cross-cultural spawn of hillbilly country, southern R&B, urban blues and rock’n’roll (which, of course, was itself a hybrid of the previous three). If you think the ‘50s were all about American Graffiti and Happy Days, you’re as wrong as the people who think Pat Boone butchering “Tutti Fruitti” was the cat’s meow. This was rebel music, parent-scaring yelps from garages and small towns across America. In your town, it was that kid down the block who chain-smoked and had a pompadour seemingly held in place by 30-weight motor oil. Thirty miles away, some kid with a buzzcut and an attitude was making the “bad girls” swoon.

Whistle Bait and Ain’t I’m a Dog strip-mine the vaults of Columbia Records—who, through their strong country music associations had a leg up on these things—and their associated labels. Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, in their post-Sun era, are just two of the stellar names among The Collins Kids, Johnny Horton, Link Wray and Marty Robbins. Perkins checks in with some pre-requisite sharp clothing titles like “Pink Pedal Pushers” and “Pointed Toe Shoes”, but cuts like “Jive After Five” prove who Dave Alvin spent a lot of hours listening to. Billy Crash Craddock might not have been the star that Elvis was, but “Ah Poor Little Baby” could fool many people in a blind taste test. For me, the revelations were Ronnie Self and The Collins Kids—it’s no accident that the first track on each volume comes from their catalogue.

Hard not to learn a few things along the way, too. I never knew that Ronnie Dawson cut tracks under the unlikely moniker of “Commonwealth Jones”, nor did I realize that Webb Pierce had a hand in writing both “Bop-A-Lena” and “Bo Bo Ska Diddle Daddle” (although now that I look at those titles side by side, I know why Mensa passed on my application!). Then there are the classic monikers like Ornie Wheeler, Ersel Hickey and Werly Fairburn; three names impossible to pronounce without a little twang in your thang. Many of these acts had one or two records and then disappeared; some (Cash, Perkins, Dawson) had long careers, and some wound up in unexpected places (how the hell did Larry Collins cut tracks like these and then later pen schlock like “Delta Dawn”?). Although the genre primarily existed for but a few years (the tracks here range from 1955-1961), there sure were a hell of a lot of great records, and you know there are plenty more where these came from. File these two right alongside Nuggets when not playing loud.

Listen to clips from Whistle Bait

Listen to clips from Ain’t I’m a Dog

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