There was one 11-year period in which he didn’t make a single gangster movie


If it’s true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then James Cagney must have been the most adulated movie star in the history of Hollywood. It’s a safe bet that any mimic who has ever stood before a comedy-club audience, not to mention the countless party cutups and office clowns who think they should have been actors, has somewhere in his repertory an impersonation of Cagney, even if it’s nothing more than hunching his shoulders and snarling, ”You dirty rat.”

Yet for all the familiarity of Cagney the actor, the man himself remained elusive, what his close friend Pat O’Brien called ”a faraway fella.” When John McCabe, the author of several celebrity biographies and an actor himself, undertook to ghostwrite Cagney’s autobiography in 1973, the actor warned him that he had no intention to produce a ”tell all” book because the average reader did not want to know ”every jot and tittle about a guy’s life and work.” Reminded that he himself liked to learn as much detail as possible about the myriad subjects that interested him, Cagney smiled and replied, ”Jot, yes; tittle, no.”

While the autobiography concentrated more on Cagney’s early life, Mr. McCabe’s new biography emphasizes his work as an actor. Indeed, the best parts of ”Cagney” are the tales and reminiscences from the more than 60 movies he made in a career that spanned more than half a century, from ”Sinner’s Holiday” in 1930 to ”Ragtime” in 1981. This is a book that should be in the reference library of any serious film buff if only for the excellent indexes and appendixes, which include all Cagney’s stage roles, radio plays, television appearances and feature films: complete with writer, director, cameraman and full ca..

”Cagney” is unashamedly written from the point of view of a devoted fan, although Mr. McCabe makes no attempt to hide the occasional irascibility and eccentricity of his subject. It is written in straightforward, workmanlike prose in a style closer to gossip column anecdote than serious critical analysis of either the actor or his work. Even lifelong disappointments, like the estrangement between the actor’s wife and his brothers, are reported without commentary. Often, the author simply opens his interview notebooks and lets the actor speak for himself.

Mr. McCabe adopts a straight chronological approach to Cagney’s life, from the actor’s childhood on the streets of the Lower East Side and Yorkville through his days as a song-and-dance man in saloons and on the stage to Hollywood stardom. Biographical details, like Cagney’s 1922 marriage to Frances Willard Vernon, a chorus dancer whom he met during the Broadway run of ”Pitter Patter,” or the adoption of their two children, serve only as signposts charting his acting career.

Mr. McCabe’s passages on Cagney’s professional life underscore the versatility of the actor’s roles. He began life as a hoofer in Broadway chorus lines and even played vaudeville before getting his break in films in 1930. Cagney did it all: romantic comedy, westerns, war movies, musicals, Shakespeare, tear-jerkers and flag-wavers.

There was one 11-year period in which he didn’t make a single gangster movie, from ”Angels With Dirty Faces” (1938) until ”White Heat” (1949). During that time he made such diverse films as ”The Oklahoma Kid,” ”The Roaring 20’s,” ”The Fighting 69th,” ”The Strawberry Blonde,” ”Yankee Doodle Dandy” and ”The Time of Your Life.” Mr. McCabe provides a wealth of stories about every movie, from the squabbles and disagreements on the set to the actor’s feuds with Jack Warner to how Cagney developed his characters in each film.

If there are no hidden scandals revealed in the book, it is only because Cagney never provided the material, as so many of his contemporaries did. He was happily married to the same woman, whom he lovingly called Willie, for 64 years; he went home after work every day instead of carousing with the rest of the cast; he read books between scenes instead of playing cards, and he liked most of the people he worked with.

One exception to the camaraderie he felt for his fellow actors and crews was Horst Buchholz, who kept trying to upstage Cagney in Billy Wilder’s ”One, Two, Three.” ”I got riled at S. Z. Sakall in ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ for trying to steal a scene, but he was an incorrigible old ham,” Cagney said. ”No harm in the old boy. But this Horst Buchholz character I truly loathed.” Cagney never saw the finished movie because he didn’t want to set eyes on Buchholz again.

A bonus to Mr. McCabe’s film-by-film commentary on Cagney’s movies, especially for aspiring actors, is the informative digressions on how he approached his roles. Cagney told Mr. McCabe he could sum up his acting technique in three words: ”Just do it.”

He added: ”Don’t think of doing it, or worry about doing it, or hold a post-mortem on doing it, or stand in front of a mirror, or get out a slide rule to do it. Just . . . do it.”

But Cagney also liked to add what he called ”goodies” to a characterization. By that he meant finding something funny, or at least human, even in the worst and nastiest of villains, through which the audience could identify with the character. Cagney was a master at it. He took his lessons from the street (he often said he had learned to dance by watching fighters on the street) and from the young hoodlums he knew growing up there.

One film in which he added quite a few goodies was ”The Public Enemy,” and foremost among them was the famous grapefruit scene. As Mae Clarke told it, they shot the scene once with Cagney simply hurling half a grapefruit at her face and stalking out. But Cagney got together with the director, William A. Wellman, and suggested they reshoot it with his actually rubbing the grapefruit in her face. Clarke agreed, provided they do it in one take only. The result was one of the most memorable scenes in the history of Hollywood gangster movies.

Cagney said he based his portrayal of Tom Powers, who along with Cody Jarrett in ”White Heat” was among the dirtiest rats ever to appear on the silver screen, on a friend of his father back in Yorkville named Jack Lafferty, who ”was lots of fun, could tell great stories” and who ended up in Sing Sing for murder.

The goodies worked. Robert Sherwood, the playwright, wrote of Cagney’s performance: ”He does not hesitate to represent Tom Powers as a complete rat — with a rat’s sense of honor, a rat’s capacity for human love, and when cornered, a rat’s fighting courage. And what is more, although his role is consistently unsympathetic, Mr. Cagney manages to earn for Tom Powers the audience’s affection and esteem.”

If there was a secret hidden in the Cagney formula, it was most likely in a reply he gave to Frank Sinatra, who once asked him how he could make gangsters so likable to audiences. ”Be as tough as you want,” Cagney said, ”but sprinkle the goodies for laughs here and there. ‘Cause anything they can laugh at, they can’t hate.” By John McCabe


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