By Jim Clarke
One of those rare breeds of people who stamp their name indelibly on the program of life’s achievements was James Cagney, the actor’s actor, a bright star in the movie land galaxy. The angel with a dirty face, a pug nose and a twinkle in his eye. Cagney; the most believable movie gangster who made his professional stage debut as a female impersonator! He spoke perfect Yiddish and never said, “You dirty rat” in any of his movies…
Cagney was born in 1899 in New York’s Lower East Side and reared a few metres from First Avenue, in a tough district known as Yorkville, where a cat with a tail was a tourist.
His father was Irish his mother was half-Irish and in a neighbourhood of German, Italian, Irish and Jews, James always referred to himself as Irish and proud of it! He had red hair, a bad temper and at an early age was the boxing Bantamweight champion of the local district.
Although James Cagney became synonymous with hard-nosed vicious gangsters, he earned his first big wage, $35 per week, playing a female impersonator in ‘Every Sailor’! This was a big improvement on his $16 per week working in Wanamaker’s department store.
Jim recalls how he taught himself to dance by watching other ‘Hoofers’. He had a passable singing voice and felt he could earn a living in his chosen trade.
For the next 11 years it was a hard grind, dancing, singing and acting on the Vaudeville Circuit. However, it was on the Circuit that he met and married a chorus girl named Francis Vernon, whose funny nickname, Billie, he shortened to Bill. Their marriage would last for 60 years!
Jimmy’s first big break came in 1931 in ‘Public Enemy’. This was to be a milestone in Jimmy’s illustrious career. One scene was to become the standout of the movie, the ‘Grapefruit Scene’!
His co-star, Mae Clarke seems, in Cagney’s opinion, to be nagging him at breakfast. In frustration he lifts half a grapefruit and pushes it straight into Mae’s face! Well, did this cause shock waves around the world? You better believe it and probably sold a lot of grapefruit??
The Irish in Jimmy Cagney was very evident in a big row with Warner Bros over a $450 a week wage compared to other star’s earnings. His new film was aptly named ‘Run for Cover’ and Jimmy won a raise to $1,000 per week!!
More claims from Jimmy earned him Jack Warner’s title of ‘The Professional Againster’ but Jimmy took the tricks and won the money…
He loved acting and dancing, but often remarked they were ‘just a job, no big deal, just a means of putting food on the table’.
A boyhood dream came true when he bought a farm at Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. Bill and Jim spent all their free time there working the soil and breeding cattle and horses. Jimmy wasn’t a bright lights or party man.
He preferred the company of a few dear friends who usually met once a week for dinner. His best friend was probably Frank McHugh. Others included Pat O’Brien, Spencer Tracy, Ralph Bellamy and Frank Morgan.
They were tagged the ‘Irish Mafia’, which, he said, was a bit of literary license.
In 1938, James Cagney starred in, what was for me, his best gangster movie, ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’. Jimmy’s co-star was ‘Father’ Pat O’Brien and a great team of kids named ‘The Dead End Kids’.
Throughout the movie, Rocky (Cagney) the likeable rogue is revered by the Kids. The climax in the movie is memorable. Rocky, sentenced to die, is on his way to the Electric Chair. In the hope that the Dead End Kids will not idolise him, in death, as a hero, the priest implores him to turn coward at the end. Cagney indignantly refuses.
As he is led into the gas chamber, however, we hear him sobbing and begging not to die as the priest gazes upwards, his lips in prayer.
Did he turn? When often asked for an answer, Jimmy would always say, with that mischievous twinkle in his eye, “What do you think?”
On the movie screen, Cagney was still; forgive the pun, knocking them dead. He starred with George Raft in ‘Each Dawn I Die’, ‘The Roaring 20s’ with Humphrey Bogart and, heroically in ‘The Fighting 69th’ – the true story about the famous Irish American Regiment.
America became part of the dreadful Second World War and James Cagney became the wonderful George Michael Cohen in ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’.
The movie was a huge success worldwide. Jim thought it was his best performance. Hollywood agreed. They awarded him The Academy Award.
It was to be some years before he came back to his old stomping grounds as a gangster in ‘White Heat’. Not a great story but an exceptional performance from Jim.
Cagney retired in 1961 aged 62. Thirteen years later, he received the American Institute’s Life Achievement Award.
He was diabetic and in 1981, his doctor and Bill persuaded him, for his health’s sake, to make one more movie. He gave one last massive performance in ‘Rag Time’ playing, of all things, a police commissioner. Ironic? James Cagney left us forever in 1986.
YOU WERE TOP OF THE BILL, JAMES! TOP OF THE BILL…