Happy Tuesday Everyone!
Once a song and dance man, always a song and dance man. Those few words tell as much about me professionally as there is to tell.
James Francis Cagney, Jr. (July 17, 1899 – March 30, 1986) was an American actor and dancer, both on stage and in film, though it is film where he has had his greatest impact. Known for his consistently energetic performances, distinctive vocal stylings and deadpan comic timing he won acclaim and major awards for a wide variety of performances. He is best remembered for playing multi-faceted tough guys in movies like The Public Enemy and Angels With Dirty Faces and was even typecast or limited by this view earlier in his career. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked him eighth among its 50 Greatest American Screen Legends. No less a student of drama than Orson Welles said of Cagney that he was “maybe the greatest actor to ever appear in front of a camera.”
Cagney was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City. His biographers disagree as to the actual location: either on the corner of Avenue D and 8th Street or in a top floor apartment at 391 East Eighth. His father, James Francis Cagney, Sr., was of Irish descent. By the time of his son’s birth, he was a bartender and amateur boxer, though on Cagney’s birth certificate, he is listed as a telegraphist. His mother was Carolyn (née Nelson); her father was a Norwegian ship captain while her mother was Irish. Cagney was the second of seven children, two of whom died within months of birth; he himself was very sick as a young child, so much so that his mother feared he would die before he could be baptized. He later attributed his sickness to the poverty in which they grew up. The family moved twice while he was still young, first to East 79th Street, and then to East 96th Street.
The red-haired, blue-eyed Cagney graduated from Stuyvesant High School in New York City in 1918, and attended Columbia College of Columbia University where he intended to major in art. He also took German and joined the Student Army Training Corps, but dropped out after one semester, returning home upon the death of his father during the 1918 flu pandemic.
He held a variety of jobs early in his life, giving all his earnings to his family: junior architect, copy boy for the New York Sun, book custodian at the New York Public Library, bellhop, draughtsman, and night doorman. It was while Cagney was working for the New York Public Library that he met Florence James, who would help him on his way to an acting career. Cagney believed in hard work, later stating, “It was good for me. I feel sorry for the kid who has too cushy a time of it. Suddenly he has to come face-to-face with the realities of life without any mama or papa to do his thinking for him.”
He started tap dancing as a boy (a skill that would eventually contribute to his Academy Award) and was nicknamed “Cellar-Door Cagney” after his habit of dancing on slanted cellar doors.
He was a good street fighter, defending his older brother Harry, a medical student, against all comers when necessary. He engaged in amateur boxing, and was a runner-up for the New York State lightweight title. His coaches encouraged him to turn professional, but his mother would not allow it. He also played semi-professional baseball for a local team, and entertained dreams of playing in the Major Leagues.
His introduction to films was unusual; when visiting an aunt in Brooklyn who lived opposite Vitagraph Studios, Cagney would climb over the fence to watch the filming of John Bunny movies. He became involved in amateur dramatics, starting as a scenery boy for a Chinese pantomime at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, one of the first settlement houses in the nation, where his brother Harry performed and his soon-to-be friend, Florence James, directed. He was initially content working behind the scenes and had no interest in performing. One night, however, Harry became ill, and although Cagney was not an understudy, his photographic memory of rehearsals enabled him to stand in for his brother without making a single mistake. Therefore, Florence James has the unique distinction of being the first director to put him on a stage. Afterward, he joined a number of companies as a performer in a variety of roles.
In his first professional acting performance, Cagney danced costumed as a woman in the chorus line of the 1919 revue Every Sailor. He spent several years in vaudeville as a hoofer and comedian, until he got his first major acting part in 1925. He secured several other roles, receiving good notices, before landing the lead in the 1929 play Penny Arcade. After rave reviews, Warner Bros. signed him for an initial $500-a-week, three-week contract to reprise his role; this was quickly extended to a seven-year contract.
Cagney’s seventh film, The Public Enemy, became one of the most influential gangster movies of the period. Notable for a famous scene that makes dramatic use of a grapefruit, the film thrust Cagney into the spotlight, making him one of Hollywood’s biggest stars as well as one of Warner Brothers’ biggest contracts. In 1938, he received his first Academy Award for Best Actor nomination, for Angels with Dirty Faces for his subtle portrayal of the tough guy/man-child Rocky Sullivan. In 1942 Cagney was awarded the Oscar for his energetic portrayal of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. He was nominated a third time in 1955 for Love Me or Leave Me. Cagney retired from acting and dancing in 1961, deciding to spend time on his farm with his family. He exited retirement, twenty years later, for a part in the 1981 movie Ragtime, mainly to aid his recovery from a stroke.
Cagney walked out on Warners several times over the course of his career, each time returning upon much improved personal and artistic terms. In 1935, he sued Warners for breach of contract and won; this marked one of the first times an actor had beaten a studio over a contract issue. He worked for an independent film company for a year while the suit was being settled, and also established his own production company, Cagney Productions, in 1942, before returning to Warners again four years later. Jack Warner called him “The Professional Againster”, in reference to Cagney’s refusal to be pushed around. Cagney also made numerous morale-boosting troop tours before and during World War II, and was president of the Screen Actors Guild for two years.
James Cagney shows us how to dance down stairs
Great Dance Routine: James Cagney and Bob Hope
Yankee Doodle Dandy
Fun Facts about Mr. Jimmy Cagney:
Famous for his gangster roles he played in the 1930s and 1940s (which made his only Oscar win as the musical composer/dancer/actor George M.Cohan most ironic).
Cagney’s first job as an entertainer was as a female dancer in a chorus line.
(1942-1944) President of Screen Actors Guild (SAG)
Pictured on a 33¢ USA commemorative postage stamp in the Legends of Hollywood series, issued 22 July 1999.
Was best friends with actors Pat O’Brien and Frank McHugh.
Earned a Black Belt in Judo.
He was voted the 14th Greatest Movie Star of all time by Entertainment Weekly.
Extraordinarily (for Hollywood), he never cheated on his wife Frances, resulting in a marriage that lasted 64 years (ending with his death). The closest he came was nearly giving into a seduction attempt by Merle Oberon while the two stars were on tour to entertain WWII GIs.
His electric acting style was a huge influence on future generations of actors. Actors as diverse as Clint Eastwood and Malcolm McDowell point to him as their number one influence to become actors.
Lived in a Gramercy Park building in New York City that was also occupied by Margaret Hamilton and now boasts Jimmy Fallon as one of its tenants.
Though most Cagney imitators use the line “You dirty rat!”, Cagney never actually said it in any of his films.
His performance as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) is ranked #6 on Premiere Magazine’s 100 Greatest Performances of All Time (2006).
His performance as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1931) is ranked #57 on Premiere Magazine’s 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) is ranked #88 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time.
Turned down Stanley Holloway’s role as Eliza’s father in My Fair Lady (1964).
Turned down the lead role in The Jolson Story (1946), which went to Larry Parks.
Broke a rib while filming the dance scene in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) but continued dancing until it was completed.
Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan at a ceremony at the White House on 26 March 1984.
Wrote that of the sixty-two films he made, he rated Love Me or Leave Me (1955) costarring Doris Day among his top five.
A studio changed his birth date from 1899 to 1904 to capitalize on his youthful appearance.
He refused payment for his cameo in The Seven Little Foys (1955) even though he spent ten days learning his complicated tap routine for the film.