By Jim Rees
Think of James Cagney and what image springs to mind? Is it the maniacal Cody Jarrett on top of a blazing oil tank imploring his mother to see him “On top of the world, Ma”?
Or what about his shedding the hard-man image to break down in tears as he entered the execution room in Angels with Dirty Faces? Whatever it is, the image you conjure up will not be of him calling someone a dirty rat – he never used that line in any of his films.
My personal favourite is not Cagney as a gangster, but as a song-and-dance man – and it is not from Yankee Doodle Dandy. It is a dancing duet, more like a dancing duel, from the 1955 Bob Hope film The Seven Little Foys.
In that film, Cagney plays George M. Cohan, the role he made famous in the aforementioned Yankee Doodle Dandy. The highlight of the film is the three-and-a-half minute sequence in which the two great performers show how it’s done.
Cagney was a man of culture, an appreciator of art and how it enhances everyday life. In 1974, he was awarded the American Institute Life Achievement Award and in his acceptance speech, he quoted what he believed was the greatest definition of art he had ever heard. “Art,” he said, “is life plus.” He said that it is how a simple sentence when properly delivered becomes a line from Shakespeare. It is when a string of musical notes becomes a Beethoven sonata or when a walk becomes a dance. “That’s art.”
Some of the greatest names in film and showbusiness were there that night, and he held them in the palm of his hand for his nine-minute speech. John Wayne, Ronald Reagan (then governor of California), and a host of household names all hung on every word.
Frank Sinatra led the great man to the podium, and in his speech Cagney thanked him and referred to him as ‘one of the neighbours’ kids’.
It was all a far cry from his origins in New York’s district of Yorkville on the Lower East Side.