James Cagney – Tough Guy, Dancer

The word great is thrown around a lot, but with this guy, it’s true. James Cagney was a real tough guy and a song and dance man as well. James Cagney, of course, was born in New York City in 1899. After high school, he attended Columbia University but left school upon his father’s death in the 1918 flu pandemic.

James Cagney had a variety of jobs bellhop and night doorman. He learned to tap dance, was a street brawler, and was a good amateur boxer. His mother encouraged his boxing but refused to let him turn pro.

James Cagney, who began working behind the scenes in theater, was called one night to replace his sick brother and thus began his acting career. He began working on Broadway and in Vaudeville. In 1924, he and his wife moved to California. But they had no luck and headed back to New York.

James Cagney was in a play title “Maggie the Magnificent” with actress Joan Blondell. Al Jolson brought the right for filming but insisted that Cagney and Blondell be given their roles. The film came out under the title Sinner’s Holiday (1930) and resulted in Cagney signing a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers. Cagney made four more movies before his breakout role, in The Public Enemy (1931), a classic gangster film. The studio continued this theme casting Cagney with Edward G. Robinson in G Men (1934).

A champion of actor equity he was involved in the formation of the Screen Actors Guild in 1933. In Footlight Parade (1933) Cagney was able to show his substantial dancing ability. In Here Comes the Navy (1934), he met his lifelong friend Pat O’Brien. This movie is fascinating as it was partially shot on the USS Arizona and shows some great views of this iconic ship.

Cagney was involved in fierce contract negotiations during his entire time a Warner Brothers. In 1936, he began making independent films, but most were nothing to speak about. Cagney eventually won his lawsuit and returned to Warner’s.

Now back at Warner’s James Cagney began to make movies of different genres. But back in the gangster role in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) he played Rocky Sullivan a condemned criminal that a friendly priest begs him to “turn yellow” before his execution so young boys won’t idolize the lawbreaker.

Cagney was accused of being a communist sympathizer in 1934 and in 1940. Cagney was cleared by U.S. Representative Martin Dies, Jr., on the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

Cagney’s last gangster role for a time was The Roaring Twenties (1939) with Humphrey Bogart. In December 1941, Cagney began working on Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) playing the lead role and song and dance man George M. Cohan. Cagney received the best actor Oscar for this film.

One, Two, Three (1961)

One, Two, Three (1961)

In 1942, Cagney formed an independent studio through United Artists. That same year he was elected president of SAG. He continued to raise money for the war and perform in USO shows. Following a series of poor performing movies, Cagney returned to Warner Brothers.

Right off the bat, James Cagney turned in one of his most memorable roles in White Heat (1949). He made other films but the next one of importance to me is Mister Roberts (1955). This film was directed by John Ford.

In 1955, Cagney was cast on the Western film Tribute to a Bad Man for MGM. They offered him These Wilder Years (1956) with Barbara Stanwyck. In 1956, Cagney played Lon Chaney Sr. in Man of a Thousand Faces (1957). Later in 1957, Cagney tried directing but did not care for the work.

Another film from this later time was Shake Hands with the Devil (1959) where Cagney played an Irish Republican Army commander. In 1960, James Cagney took on the role of Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey in The Gallant Hours (1960), the story of Guadalcanal Campaign in the Pacific Theater of World War II.

Of course, in his next to the last movie, Cagney showed what a masterful talent he was with the comedy caper One, Two, Three (1961).

James Cagney retired until 1986, turning down roles in My Fair Lady (1964) and the Godfather (1972). Suffer from poor eyesight due to diabetes, Cagney rarely appeared in public. In 1974, Cagney appeared at the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award. Charlton Heston said of Cagney that he was “…one of the most significant figures of a generation when American film was dominant, Cagney, that most American of actors, somehow communicated eloquently to audiences all over the world …and to actors as well.” In his acceptance speech, Cagney said to impressionist Frank Gorshin, “Oh, Frankie, just in passing, I never said ‘MMMMmmmm, you dirty rat!’ What I actually did say was ‘Judy, Judy, Judy!'” This was a joking reference to an oft attributed misquotation of Cary Grant.

Following a stroke and being unable to pursue his hobbies, Cagney was encouraged by his wife and Zimmerman his caregiver to take a role. This role turned out to be a small but very important role in Ragtime (1981).

James Cagney died at his farm in Stanfordville, New York in 1986, of a heart attack. He was 86 years old.

One of my favorite Cagney quotes on the subject of hard times and work, he said “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.”


1930    Sinners’ Holiday          Harry Delano  Film debut

1930 The Doorway to Hell  Steve Mileaway

1931    Blonde Crazy  Bert Harris

1931   Smart Money  Jack

1931   The Millionaire            Schofield, Insurance Salesman

1931   The Public Enemy       Tom Powers

1931   Other Men’s Women   Ed “Eddie” Bailey

1932    Winner Take All          Jim “Jimmy” Kane

1932   The Crowd Roars        Joe Greer

1932   Taxi!    Matt Nolan

1933    Lady Killer      Dan Quigley

1933   Footlight Parade         Chester Kent

1933   The Mayor of Hell      Richard “Patsy” Gargan

1933   Picture Snatcher          Danny Kean

1933   Hard to Handle           Myron C. “Lefty” Merrill

1934    The St. Louis Kid       Eddie Kennedy

1934  Here Comes the Navy Chester “Chesty” J. O’Conner

1934  He Was Her Man        Flicker Hayes, a.k.a. Jerry Allen

1934  Jimmy the Gent           “Jimmy” Corrigan

1935    Mutiny on the Bounty Extra   uncredited

1935  A Midsummer Night’s Dream Nick Bottom

1935  The Irish in Us Danny O’Hara

1935  G Men “Brick” Davis

1935  Devil Dogs of the Air Thomas Jefferson “Tommy” O’Toole

1935  Frisco Kid       Bat Morgan

1936    Great Guy       Johnny “Red” Cave

1936   Ceiling Zero    Dizzy Davis

1937    Something to Sing About       Terrence “Terry” Rooney        stage name of Thadeus McGillicuddy

1938    Angels with Dirty Faces         Rocky Sullivan Nominated – Academy Award for Best Actor

1938   Boy Meets Girl           Robert Law

1939    The Roaring Twenties Eddie Bartlett

1939   Each Dawn I Die        Frank Ross

1939   The Oklahoma Kid     Jim Kincaid

1940    City for Conquest       Danny Kenny (Young Samson)

1940  Torrid Zone     Nick “Nicky” Butler

1940  The Fighting 69th       Jerry Plunkett

1941    The Bride Came C.O.D.         Steve Collins

1941  The Strawberry Blonde           T. L. “Biff” Grimes

1942    Yankee Doodle Dandy           George M. Cohan       Academy Award for Best Actor

1942   Captains of the Clouds           Brian MacLean

1943    Johnny Come Lately   Tom Richards

1943   You, John Jones!         John Jones       short subject

1945    Blood on the Sun        Nick Condon

1947    13 Rue Madeleine       Robert Emmett “Bob” Sharkey a.k.a. Gabriel Chavat

1948    The Time of Your Life            Joseph T.

1949    White Heat      Arthur “Cody” Jarrett

1950    The West Point Story  Elwin “Bix” Bixby

1950  Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye       Ralph Cotter

1951    Come Fill the Cup       Lew Marsh

1952    What Price Glory?      Capt. Flagg

1953    A Lion Is in the Streets           Hank Martin

1955    Mister Roberts Capt. Morton

1955  The Seven Little Foys George M. Cohan

1955  Love Me or Leave Me Martin Snyder Nominated – Academy Award for Best Actor

1955  Run for Cover Matt Dow

1956    These Wilder Years     Steve Bradford

1956    Tribute to a Bad Man  Jeremy Rodock

1957    Man of a Thousand Faces       Lon Chaney

1959    Shake Hands with the Devil   Sean Lenihan

1959  Never Steal Anything Small   Jake MacIllaney

1960    The Gallant Hours       William F. Halsey, Jr.  also the Producer

One, Two, Three (1961)          C.R. MacNamara

1981    Ragtime           Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo

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I am a professional archaeologist, a bonsai guy, a classic movie reviewer, and database expert. Past exploits include Golden Gloves boxing, a 2nd Degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and an Eagle Scout badge.

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