Song and dance man or gangster? Few stars of Hollywood’s Golden Era could claim they were equally well known for two such diverse genres. Yet, the legendary James Cagney worked hard to be able to make such a claim.
He was born on July 17, 1899, in New York City. His family was poor, and Cagney was sickly as a child. While growing up in a rough neighborhood, he learned a variety of skills, including tap dancing, street fighting, baseball and boxing. When he was 19, his father died, and he took odd jobs to help support his mother and siblings. On a whim, he auditioned for a role of a chorus girl in a local production. Although he had never had professional training, he landed the role and learned the dances from watching the other performers – and it never bothered him to dress as a girl and perform. Despite his mother’s desire that he get an education, Cagney decided to pursue stage work, gaining a role in the musical “Pitter Patter.” He continued to work several jobs at once, steadily sending money home, and met chorus girl Frances “Billie” Vernon, whom he married in 1922.
He continued stage work in New York and California for several years, finally gaining attention for a performance in “Penny Arcade” with co-star Joan Blondell. They were cast in the film version, and Cagney was given a contract to Warner Bros. He played in a few more films to good reviews before his breakout role in 1931 in the highly successful “The Public Enemy,” one of the films that set the standard for the gangster genre. Its success led to several similar parts until Cagney’s status as one of the top 10 moneymakers in Hollywood, as well as the enforcement of the Production Code that discouraged violence in movies, led Warner Bros to offer him non-gangster roles. The first time he danced onscreen was in “Taxi!” (1932) and he also re-teamed with Blondell to make the comedy “Blonde Crazy”(1931). They would eventually co-star in seven titles total; her wisecracking dame was the perfect foil to his fast-talking smart aleck. He also made several films with with his very good friend, fellow Irish-American Pat O’Brien that were hugely successful.
Cagney fought hard to maintain creative control over his career, earning the nickname “The Professional Againster”. He was one of the few stars of the day who was willing to walk out of a studio and find work in another venue before he gave in. In 1935, he became one of the first actors to win over a studio for breach of contract. As a result, he negotiated deals unheard of at the time, with large salaries, limits on number of movies made in a year and some creative control. Warner Bros wanted to pigeon-hole him into the gangster stereotype; he wanted to break free, so he eventually formed his own production company. However, it did not fare well, and after a few years, was back at Warner Bros.
His last film for Warner Bros in 1942 had been one he took great pride in, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” for which he won the Best Actor Academy Award. His first picture back at Warner Bros in 1949 would become one of his most memorable films, and brought him full circle back to his gangster roots: “White Heat.” He made several successful movies over the next 12 years, but decided to retire to his farm after Billy Wilder‘s “One, Two, Three” in 1961. He turned down several parts over the next 20 years, including “My Fair Lady” and “The Godfather Part II.” However, in 1981, he accepted a small role in Milos Forman’s “Ragtime,” mostly to help overcome depression after a series of health problems. His final acting role was in the television film “The Terrible Joe Moran” in 1984.
Cagney was as active and persistent in his personal life as he was in his professional life. He and Billie adopted two children, and he remained faithful to her until his death from a heart attack on March 30, 1986. He and O’Brien, along with Spencer Tracy and Frank McHugh, were lifelong friends, earning the nickname the “Irish Mafia.” He continued to send at least half his salary to his mother until her death. He fought to gain and protect rights for actors, becoming the 50th member of the Screen Actors Guild, serving on the board for a decade before becoming its president in 1942. As a part of the Guild, he fought Mafia interest in the movie history; legend has it there was a gang hit on him that actor George Raft stopped. He was very active politically, and was influential in stopping studios from taxing actors and then sending underhanded financial support to a political candidate. During World War II, he toured military bases in the UK, giving several performances for the soldiers.
Besides his win for “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” Cagney received two other Best Actor nominations, for “Angels with Dirty Faces” (1938) and “Love Me or Leave Me” (1955). He received the American Film Institute life achievement award in 1974, Kennedy Center Honors in 1980, the National Board of Review Career Achievement Award in 1981 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from good friend President Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Many actors, including Marlon Brando and Clint Eastwood, have pointed to Cagney as a powerful influence. Orson Welles once claimed that he “may be the greatest actor to ever appear in front of a camera.” Indeed, he is one of the greatest performers of his generation, his advice to many thespians being, “You walk in, you plant yourself squarely on both feet, look the other fella in the eye, and tell the truth.”
Tour our photo gallery featuring Cagney’s 20 greatest film performances, ranked worst to best.
20. LADY KILLER (1933)
Fired theater usher Dan Quigley (Cagney) finds success with a group of con artist. However, he is soon on the run from the law, eventually happening upon a chance to be an extra in a Hollywood film. He becomes a star in the industry and goes straight, but his old gang catches up with him, and they are not above blackmail. This precode comedy crime thriller is a gem for Cagney fans. It costars Mae Clarke, the actress whose face he famously smashed with a grapefruit in “Public Enemy.” That and other early gangster stereotypes are parodied here.
19. A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (1935)
Cagney received top billing in his only foray into a William Shakespeare production. Besides him, this all-star fantasy included other actors not exactly known for Shakespearean work, including Dick Powell and Mickey Rooney, and was the movie debut of Olivia de Havilland. Cagney plays Nick Bottom, an overly enthusiastic actor in a stage show being performed within the Shakespeare play. It received mixed reviews at the time, but nonetheless picked up four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and won for Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing. Despite the mixed reactions, Cagney himself received favorable notices. Today, it is considered one of the finest adaptations for the big screen of the Bard’s work.
18. THE BRIDE CAME C.O.D. (1941)
Fans of James Cagney and Bette Davis shouldn’t miss their rare foray into screwball comedy. Heiress Joan Winfield (Davis) wants to marry a bandleader against her father’s wishes. Pilot Steve Collins (Cagney) offers to fly them so they can elope; however, he needs money to get out of debt and makes a deal with her dad to “kidnap” her. When he is forced to make a crash landing, the heiress and cocky pilot are stranded together, and sparks fly. Although considered a bit of a rip off of “It Happened One Night,” it’s enjoyable in its on right. Davis said later she hated everything about the film; nonetheless, it is an excellent opportunity to see two of Warner Bros’s biggest stars out of their usual elements.
17. BLONDE CRAZY (1931)
Cagney stars with Joan Blondell in this sexy precode comedy. Bellhop Bert Harris (Cagney) is a smooth-talking con artist who takes a fancy to wisecracking chambermaid Anne Roberts (Blondell). They eventually team up on cons at their hotel, eventually moving on to bigger stakes. However, things take a dark turn when she marries someone else and Bert tries to leave his life of crime behind. “Blonde Crazy” came out about the same time as “The Public Enemy”, and Cagney had not been typecast into the gangster genre yet. His and Blondell’s chemistry is up to par with the likes of Tracy and Hepburn, and it’s unfortunate they didn’t make more films like this. There’s a lot of precode tantalizing innuendo and even a risqué bathtub scene, with a lot of sassy back and forth between the two. Each time he makes a romantic advance at her – usually calling her “huuuunnnyy”- she slaps him, both of them grinning with delight. “Blonde Crazy” has been preserved by the Library of Congress, and is a must see for any fan of its star or early Hollywood.
16. RAGTIME (1981)
Set in the early 1900s, this film follows several stories, some based on actual events, mostly revolving around one family, and focusing on topics such as racial discrimination and social injustice. Cagney came out of a 20-year retirement on the advisement of his doctors, with the thought that the work would help his health. His part as Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo was small but important. His scenes revolved around his confinement to a wheelchair, but he finished his scenes on time, reportedly remaining afterwards to help the other actors with their lines. “Ragtime” was the first movie for many of its cast, including Jeff Daniels, Samuel L. Jackson and Elizabeth McGovern, and also the last big screen appearances of both Cagney and his good friend Pat O’Brien. The film was nominated for eight Oscars and seven Golden Globes; although it went home empty-handed both nights, it is still considered a fine beginning to several careers, and an excellent cinematic final bow for two screen legends.
15. MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES (1957)
In this biopic, Cagney portrays the legendary silent film star Lon Chaney. The film follows him from his childhood with two deaf parents to his career from stage to silent films, as well as his two marriages and his child who would become film actor Lon Chaney, Jr. Although there is much criticism about the lack of historical accuracy and liberties taken for dramatic effect, this is considered by many to be one of Cagney’s greatest performances. Many consider his lack of an Oscar nomination an oversight; however, despite the criticism for inaccuracies, the writers were nominated for Best Screenplay.
14. 13 RUE MADELEINE (1946)
In this gripping WWII spy thriller, Cagney plays Bob Sharkey, the instructor to a group of spies, one of whom is a German mole. Sharkey and his boss decide to use the German secret agent to feed false information to the enemy; however, when their ruse is discovered, there are tragic consequences. During the war, Hollywood studios were not allowed to shoot anything concerning special intelligence operations for the government due to secrecy concerns. Espionage films became popular postwar, and “13 Rue Madeleine” is considered one of the finest, and a must see for Cagney fans.
13. ONE, TWO, THREE (1961)
Cagney shines as Coca-Cola executive C.R. “Mac” MacNamara in this Billy Wilder comedy, his last starring role (and last film for 20 years). Mac, who aspires to advance in the company, has been assigned to West Berlin, where he is given the unenviable task of looking after his boss’s flighty daughter during her two-week stay in Germany. However, Mac soon has a mess when he discovers that the daughter has secretly married an East German communist, and her clueless father is soon flying to Germany to bring her home. The film did not do well upon its release; the fact that the Berlin Wall was coincidentally built during shooting probably hurt its box office appeal. However, in the years since, it has gained quite a following. Cagney has received praise for his work – he carried much of the movie, the perfect choice for this fast-paced satire.
12. CITY FOR CONQUEST (1940)
Truck driver Danny Kenny (Cagney) resumes boxing to help his brother Eddie (Arthur Kennedy in his film debut) through music school; meanwhile, Danny’s girlfriend Peggy Nash (Ann Sheridan) pursues a dancing career with local champion Murray Burns (Anthony Quinn). Although Danny and Peggy both find success in their work, their relationship suffers. However, when one of Danny’s opponents deliberately blinds him, and Peggy’s dancing declines, they find their way back to each other. This is considered by many Cagney fans to be one of his best dramatic roles.
11. EACH DAWN I DIE (1939)
Innocent journalist Frank Ross (Cagney) is framed for murder by a corrupt politician running for governor. While his fellow reporters try to prove his innocence from the outside, Ross befriends infamous gangster “Hood” Stacey (George Raft). Stacey promises Ross that he will find evidence to prove his innocence if Ross will help him break out of jail. However, Stacey betrays him, and Ross is punished further. As time marches on, will Ross get justice? This film was a huge success for Warner Bros, leading to a longterm contract for Raft. It’s considered a classic of the “great year” 1939, and one of Cagney’s best “good guy” roles.
10. THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE (1941)
Looking for a change of pace from gangster films, Cagney teamed with Olivia de Havilland and Rita Hayworth in this delightful romantic comedy. Biff (James Cagney) is a quick-tempered but good-hearted fella who, like every other guy in the neighborhood, has a crush on the “Strawberry Blonde” Virginia (Hayworth). However, she chooses his more ambitious friend as a suitor. Biff is “stuck” with Virginia’s very outspoken feminist friend, Amy (de Havilland), who proves to be the better love interest in the end, and is a supportive wife through some harsh times. Set in 1890s New York, the movie has a wonderful nostalgic feel, and holds up well under the test of time. It was a huge success, commercially and critically, and boosted Hayworth’s career. Many highlights come from Biff and Amy’s unusual and hilarious courtship, with excellent chemistry between Cagney’s fast-talking, streetwise Biff and de Havilland’s sweet, caring Amy.
9. LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (1955)
This biopic is based on the life of jazz singer Ruth Etting (Doris Day). Etting aspires to be a singer, but is going nowhere until gangster Martin Snyder (Cagney) develops an interest in her. Although she makes it clear she does not want a romantic relationship with him, she rises to success with his help, becoming indebted to him. Although she has feelings for her piano accompanist, she marries Snyder out of gratitude. However, jealousy consumes the tempestuous mobster, resulting in violence. Cagney was nominated for his third and final Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the brutish character. The film was nominated for a total of six Oscars, winning for Best Writing, and did well with critics and at the box office.
8. ‘G’ MEN (1935)
Once the Production Code became enforced, the gangster films of old were frowned upon for their positive portrayals of criminals and the implied ineptness of police. Warner Bros decided to make a movie that flipped that formula, with their most famous street thug taking on the lead role as a G-man (“government man”). Cagney plays “Brick” Davis, an unsuccessful lawyer whose education was funded by a benevolent mobster, who encouraged Brick to stay on the right side of the law. An old friend of Brick’s tries to recruit him as a federal agent; Brick resists until that friend is killed by a gangster. Although federal agents at the time were restricted in power (they couldn’t even carry guns), Brick decides to join up so he can track down his friend’s murderer. Before it’s over, he has to make some tough decisions when the gang belonging to his old benefactor begins a violent crime spree. This is considered one of Cagney’s best films by many; indeed, his presence on either side of the law is equally magnetic.
7. FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933)
In this precode musical, Cagney stars as Chester Kent, a producer who is trying to produce a stage show at a time when “talking pictures” have become all the rage. With live musicals out, Kent comes up with the idea of staging numbers, “prologues,” before a film starts. However, a rival is stealing his ideas, and a looming contract depends on his ability to perform three live, original prologues in one night at three separate theaters. Featuring frequent costar Joan Blondell as his secretary who he’s too dense to see is in love with him, and three extravagant Busby-Berkeley- choreographed numbers (including the famous “human waterfall”), “Footlight Parade” is considered one of the best musicals of the period, and has been preserved in the National Film Registry. It also allowed Cagney to return to his song and dance roots, and he performs “Shanghai Lil” with the great tap dancer Ruby Keeler.
6. THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939)
At the end of World War I, three friends are trying to make a living in America during Prohibition. George Halley (Humphrey Bogart) is a bootlegger; Eddie Bartlett (Cagney) becomes a cab driver, but soon teams with the owner of a speakeasy to become a bootlegger as well; and Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn) becomes a lawyer, whom Eddie hires to protect his interest. However, bootlegging rivalry and a love triangle with Eddie, Lloyd, and Lloyd’s wife lead to a violent and tragic end. This was the third and final film costarring two of the era’s greatest actors, Cagney and Bogart. It was also Cagney’s last role as a gangster until “White Heat” 10 years later. This movie was wildly successful both commercially and critically at the time, and is still considered one of the great gangster titles of the era.
5. MISTER ROBERTS (1955)
As World War II is coming to an end, Lt Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda) is aboard a cargo ship stationed in the Pacific Ocean. He wants to join the action, but his tyrannical captain, Lieutenant Commander Morton (Cagney), refuses to endorse his requests for transfer. Also onboard is Ensign Frank Pulver (Jack Lemmon), who avoids Morton and hard labor at all costs. Despite his requests for transfer, Roberts cares about his crew and tries to protect them from Morton’s harsh rules. Morton promises a day of shore leave – if Roberts will agree to stop requesting transfers and start agreeing with him on everything. Unaware of the deal, the crew is confused by Roberts’s actions; however, when they find out, they aid their friend, to the despair of Morton. This well-loved comedy-drama received three Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, with a win for Lemmon as Best Supporting Actor.
4. ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938)
Growing up in a rough neighborhood, childhood friends Rocky (Cagney) and Jerry (Pat O’Brien) commit petty crimes; Rocky is eventually caught while Jerry gets away. Years later, Rocky has turned to a life of crime, partnering with shady lawyer Jim Frazier (Humphrey Bogart), who owes him $100,000. Jerry has become a priest in their old neighborhood, trying to be a good influence on the kids there; but when Rocky returns, the kids idolize the criminal. Tensions mount as Jim tries to cheat Rocky, and Jerry’s life is at risk when he decides to expose the corrupt Jim. In the end, Rocky honors Jerry’s request to deglamorize his life for the sake of the kids who look up to him by turning “yellow” as he faces his execution, which has become one of the most famous scenes in a gangster film. Cagney won the Best Actor Award from the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle. He and director Michael Curtiz were both nominated for Academy Awards. Many consider this one of the best gangster films, and one of the best movies period, of all time.
3. THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931)
This is the film that skyrocketed Cagney to fame, and sealed his legacy as one of the greatest film gangsters of all time. Tom Powers (Cagney) and his childhood friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) begin their lives of crime as petty crooks in the early 1900s. During Prohibition, Tom ruthlessly and unrepentantly pushes his way to the top of organized crime. By contrast, his brother becomes a World War I hero. Tom has convinced his doting mother that he has gained his riches legitimately; the good brother and the bad seed clash. Released before the enforcement of the Production Code, “The Public Enemy” was accused of glorifying the gangster lifestyle. Indeed, Tom glories in his riches, and enjoys the violence that comes with his chosen path. And he is felled by an equally ruthless enemy as opposed to law enforcement. Ironically, as so often happens in the fateful cinematic universe, Cagney was originally cast as Matt, and Woods as Tom. Director William Wellman decided to switch the two, thus launching one of the greatest careers of the Golden Era. Also notable is an early effort by Jean Harlow, although this is by far not her best picture. The movie is also famous for the “grapefruit scene,” in which an angry Tom smashes half a citrus fruit into the face of his girlfriend when she argues with him. “Public Enemy,” “Little Caesar” and “Scarface: The Shame of a Nation” are the three movies cited as the most influential at the start of the gangster era, and is still considered one of the greatest gangster films with one of the most memorable mobster portrayals of all time.
2. YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942)
“My mother thanks you. My father thanks you. My sister thanks you. And I thank you.” Cagney earned his second Academy Award nomination and only win for Best Actor in this biopic of the great George M. Cohan. The film is told in flashback by an older Cohan as he meets with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and chronicles his life from his birth on “the Fourth of July” to vaudeville parents, through his youth as part of an act with his family, to his adulthood as a cocky songwriter and entertainer. Filled with Cohan’s patriotic and entertaining numbers, such as “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Over There,” “You’re a Grand Ole Flag” and “Give My Regards to Broadway,” this movie is still considered one of the most patriotic Hollywood productions, and is a July Fourth standard. Cagney also won Best Actor awards from the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle. The film received a total of eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture; besides Cagney’s win, the Oscars rewarded it in the sound and music categories. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” ranks high on many “best of” list, with the American Film Institute placing it on several of theirs. For Cagney fans, musical lovers and movie buffs, this is essential viewing.
1. WHITE HEAT (1949)
If Cagney’s greatness as an actor is called into question, one only has to look to his two most famous gangster roles for proof of it: precode Tom Powers of “Public Enemy” is a young, ruthless criminal, made sympathetic by his poor background; post-code Cody Jarrett of “White Heat” is an aging and absolute psychopath, with no redeeming qualities. One similarity between the two is each character’s obsession with his mother. However, Tom’s mother is a loving figure who only sees the best in her son and wants to lead him away from crime; Cody’s mother is as obsessed with power as he is and is her son’s constant supporter and confidante, even more so than his wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo). When Cody’s gang is involved in a robbery that ends in murder and the police close in, Cody decides to confess to a lesser crime that took place in another state to receive a lighter sentence and to provide an alibi. While in prison, the police establish a mole to infiltrate his gang once he gets out. Meanwhile, his right hand man on the outside is taking over his crew and Verna’s affections. This was Cagney’s first gangster role in a decade, and it was his decision to play Cody as a psychotic, with debilitating migraines. His descent into madness – from the horrific headaches, the betrayal of his wife and best friend, and finally, the death of his mom – is one of the greatest in cinema history. Cody’s belief that he is indestructible leads to a powerful ending, with his final words, “Top of the world, Ma!,” cemented in film history as one of its greatest quotes. As is true of many Hollywood classics, “White Heat” didn’t win a lot of awards, and only received one Oscar nomination (Best Story). However, it is considered one of the best movies, and certainly one of the best gangster films, ever made, earning preservation status in the National Film Registry.