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James Cagney-the Actor and the Man

Updated on July 22, 2012


One of Hollywood's all time leading male stars, James Cagney was small in stature at 5' 6", but was a powerful force to be reckoned with. Not only was he a gifted actor, but a remarkable dancer as well. He would spend three decades in films. His first film was Sinner's Holiday in 1930 and his final film in a comeback of sorts was Ragtime in 1981. He would do one more tv film in 1984.

Jimmy was famous for his gangster roles of the 30's and 40's, but the Oscar for Best Actor would be awarded for his role as dancer and composer George M. Cohan.

Cagney's breakout role was as a young hoodlum in The Public Enemy in 1931 in which he co-starred with Jean Harlow. Cagney's character was based upon real life Chicago gangster Hymie Weiss. The still famous scene of Cagney pushing a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face took place in this film.

In the final scene, the door at his mom's home was opened to a knock from outside only to find Cagney riddled with bullets and wrapped from head to toe in a blanket like a mummy. Cagney falls forward on the floor at his brother's feet. That scene lives with you forever.

Life would never be the same for Jimmy Cagney. He became one of Hollywood's top film gangsters along with George Raft, Paul Muni and Edward G. Robinson. There would be 3-5 films per year for the next several years, but his next success came as Rocky Sullivan in Angels With Dirty Faces in 1938 with Pat O'Brien, Ann Sheridan and Humphrey Bogart. There is one of the all time dying scenes in this film as well when Rocky is sent to die in the electric chair. He is asked by his childhood friend and current neighborhood priest portrayed by O'Brien to die like he was scared for the sake of the kids that had looked up to him as a gangster. The hope was that by dying like a coward Rocky would no longer be seen as this tough, cocky hero. Cagney refused and went into the chamber cocky and sassing the guards and seemingly ready to go down like a man. Then, one of the great dying scenes ever as he starts squirming and squealing and crying like a little girl. Thing is, you leave the movie never really knowing if Rocky did this for Father Connelly, or just chickened out. Cagney would receive his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

In 1939, Cagney would again astound the viewing public with his portrayal of a down and out cab driver after losing everything as a racketeer when the market crashed in '29. Again, he teams up with Humphrey Bogart who is still waiting for the world to discover him while playing these second banana roles. Bogey's big scene is when Cagney guns him down.

In the 40's, Cagney finally breaks away from the gangster roles in films like City for Conquest, The Strawberry Blonde and in 1942 his Oscar winning role as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. His song and dance routine on top of tables is mesmerizing as is his tap dancing down the steps of the White House as an ageing Cohan.

James Cagney would make one more gangster film in 1949. In White Heat, one of my all time favorite gangster movies, Cagney plays Cody Jarrett a ruthless gang leader that kills for the fun of it. It is one of his best if not the best role he ever played and oddly enough he would not receive an Oscar nomination.


James Cagney was born in New York City on July 17, 1899 and died in Stanfordville, NY on March 30, 1986 of a heart attack.

Considered one of the greatest male stars of all time, Cagney was named the #8 greatest actor on the 50 Greatest Screen Legends List by The American Film Institute.

As a kid, he would have many fights on the streets of New York and considered professional boxing. As an adult, he formed a group called the Irish Mafia. Among its members were Pat O'Brien, Frank McHugh, Ralph Bellamy, Frank Morgan, Bert Lahr, Allen Jenkins and the great Spencer Tracy.

He wrote that of the 62 films he made, he rated Love Me or Leave Me with Doris Day among his top five. His role was actually another gangster role. However, the movie was not about a gangster, but instead about the gangster's fanatical true life love he had for Doris Day who played the life of jazz singer Ruth Etting. Cagney played gangster Marty Snyder who helped her to stardom.

According to James Cagney's autobiography Cagney By Cagney, a Mafia plan to murder him for fighting mob infiltration into the movie industry while he was president of the Screen Actors Guild was stopped by George Raft who used his many mob connections.

Cagney was faithfully married for 64 years to Frances Cagney until his death. He lived quietly on his ranch after retiring from films for 25 years.

Cagney received the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award in 1974.


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    • discovery2020 profile image

      WILLIAM EVANS 5 years ago from GARLAND, TEXAS

      Oh, yes. Seen Thousand Faces several times. Thanks for comments.

    • HumDrummer profile image

      HumDrummer 5 years ago from Dallas Texas

      A true legend and "Icon" as you catagorize him. Just watched "Yankee Doodle Dandy" yesterday on TCM. A truly talented man of the ages.

      One of his movies you failed to mention is a favorite of mine, "Man of a Thousand Faces" where he portrays Lon Chaney. Brillient acting in that movie as well.

      Great article, and never knew about the Mafia hit and save by George Raft. Great info!

    • discovery2020 profile image

      WILLIAM EVANS 5 years ago from GARLAND, TEXAS

      Yes, he and Joel McCrea. There were a few that stayed with the same woman. Thanks, CLF.

    • cloverleaffarm profile image

      Healing Herbalist 5 years ago from The Hamlet of Effingham

      He was a great man. I think it speaks highly of him, that he remained married for 64 years. Bravo.