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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 440

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This is the grave of James Cagney.

What to even say about someone like Cagney? A true great of the early sound era. Everyone knows him for his gangster pictures–and they are amazing, real gritty characters made at the very moment when Hollywood and prudish censorious politicians were cracking down on what that could be.

Born in 1899 in Manhattan, Cagney was pure New York Irish, a boy of the streets who also had a ton of smarts and talent. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School in 1918 and attended Columbia for a semester, but dropped out after his father died of the Spanish Flu. So he just worked a huge variety of jobs to support his family. After all, he was the second oldest child of a family without a father. He was always interested in art. He intended to major in that at Columbia. He had tap danced since he was a child. He had an aunt who lived in Brooklyn across from Vitagraph Studio, that great company of the silent years. He used to hop the fence to check it all out. His brother was a performer too. Once his brother was sick. So Jimmy stepped in. As he had a photographic memory for repeating rehearsals–a useful trait as an actor to say the least–he stepped in and did a great job. That led to him slowly rising in the theater and then the film world. Amusingly, his first role was as a chorus girl because he was a good dancer and he wasn’t major enough for people to recognize he was a man. He got more roles and became a fairly major vaudeville performer. He began teaching acting and dancing too. He and his wife were social radicals for the time and lived in experimental communities, eating up this world. But making it financially was really hard and he nearly quit more than once.

In 1929, Cagney and Joan Blondell were the stars of a couple of plays together. Al Jolson liked them both and bought the rights to a play called Penny Arcade, then sold it to Warner Brothers with the stipulation that the two be the stars. Retitled Sinners’ Holiday, it wasn’t a huge hit, but it went a long way to making both of their outstanding careers. Although his background was in song and dance, Cagney had played some gangsters in plays and those roles made him a star in film, especially 1931’s The Public Enemy, a truly great gangster film. He played a complete scumbag, an anti-hero who was really unlovable–violent, awful to women, someone who was a menace to society–in other words, a great character that the audiences and critics loved. Despite that fact that Cagney put up with no shit from the studios–he was constantly fighting with them–his star was born. After 1932’s Taxi, he refused to allow himself to be shot at with live ammunition, which was actually the norm since fake bullets were more expensive. He also spoke in Yiddish in that film, which he knew from the streets of New York. He refused to work more than four films a year to prevent burnout and helped start the Screen Actors Guild to protect actors’ rights. He was president of SAG from 1942-44, when he worked hard to repel the mob’s involvement in the film industry. Eventually, his endless conflicts with Jack Warner led him into semi-retirement and he made no films for a year while suing the famed movie mogul. That he won the suit and got a better contract was unprecedented in Hollywood.

He returned to Warner in 1938 and made some more great films, including Angels with Dirty Faces, for which received a Best Actor nomination, and The Roaring Twenties. The latter was directed by the great Raoul Walsh and is a genius film. By this time, only Gary Cooper made more money among actors. He did not do another gangster film for a full decade in the aftermath. Instead, he returned to his dancing roots for Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942, for which he won Best Actor. He left Warner after this to start an independent film company. He did a few films over the next several years, but none are particularly remembered today. When he returned to gangster films in 1949 with White Heat, all the romance and sympathy was stripped out. His character was a complete psychopath, and with Cagney 50 years old and far beyond his romantic lead years, that was fine by him. He was nominated for Best Actor again for the 1955 film Love Me or Leave Me, where he played a lame Jewish gangster from Chicago. He played Lon Chaney in 1957’s The Man of a Thousand Faces, possibly one of the only really useful biopics in Hollywood history. But he was starting to get sick of acting. Rich and tired, he quit after 1961’s One, Two, Three, directed by Billy Wilder.

It’s really too bad. Cagney as an old actor would have been really interesting. He was offered the part of Hyman Roth in Godfather Part II and damn it that would have been awesome. His health was dodgy, but he got it under control in the late 70s. He did return for one role–Milos Forman’s Ragtime, in 1981, for which he of course received rave reviews.

Unfortunately, Cagney’s politics turned pretty right-wing as he aged. He left his support for left-wing causes behind, hated on hippies, supported Reagan, etc. Sigh. On the other hand, he was a genuinely active farmer, who, when he received a honorary degree from Rollins College in Florida, gave a speech about soil conservation. He died in 1986 on his farm in New York.

Let’s watch some Cagney!

James Cagney is buried in Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Hawthorne, New York.

If you would like this series to visit some of the many people Cagney worked with over the years, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Billy Wilder is in Los Angeles and the wonderful Joan Blondell, who made every movie she was in better, is in Glendale, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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