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Michael Sragow on SOTM James Cagney


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Here's an article reprinted in today's LATimes on TCM's Star Of The Month salute to James Cagney.

 

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http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-et-cagney9jan09,1,6768779.story

 

COMMENTARY

 

In any role, Cagney sparkles

By Michael Sragow / Baltimore Sun

 

January 9, 2008

 

These days we're often told that stars become stars after a role defines them -- as hard guy, swashbuckler or romantic leading man -- and that audiences accept them only in variations on that role.

 

But the career of James Cagney, the most protean acting talent in the first three decades of talking pictures, obliterates that conventional wisdom. What drew audiences to him was the way he made acting seem like a form of controlled euphoria. With breakneck ease, he expressed the galvanizing speed and variety -- and the breakneck rhythms -- of 20th-century America.

 

All this month, you can see him draw a zigzag signature over the American landscape in Turner Classic Movies' salute to Cagney as its Star of the Month.

 

Born on New York's Lower East Side and bred in the equally rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Yorkville, Cagney gave the sleepy world of the early talkies an adrenaline-charged dose of metropolitan energy. He made 53 movies in just over three decades, from the 1930 crime melodrama "Sinner's Holiday" to Billy Wilder's 1961 satiric comedy about East and West Berlin, "One, Two, Three."

 

Those two films are opposite in every way. That's why they're appropriate bookends for the body of Cagney's work. He was the most versatile Hollywood star of them all. His credits ranged from gangster movies such as 1931's "The Public Enemy" and 1949's "White Heat" to screwball comedies such as 1941's "The Bride Came C.O.D."

 

In 1932, Lincoln Kirstein wrote, "When Cagney gets down off a truck, or deals a hand at cards, or curses, or slaps his girl . . . he is, for the time being, the American hero, whom ordinary men and boys recognize as themselves and women consider 'cute.' It is impossible to tell whether his handshake is cordial or threatening. He is 'cute' -- the way Abraham Lincoln said a certain trapper was 'cute,' that is, quick, candid and ambiguous."

 

The actor's surplus energy expressed itself in fellow feeling or psychosis, in youthful high spirits as well as embittered rage and in a 100-proof charm that alternated on screen with homicidal cruelty. Once he started to take his career into his own hands (after widely publicized disputes with Warner Bros.), it was impossible from film to film to predict which Cagney would emerge -- Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde.

 

The grapefruit he mashed into Mae Clarke's face in "The Public Enemy" grew to epitomize sexual sadism in the movies; soon afterward, Cagney complained that every script he read contained some wife-beating. But he didn't squawk when the role honestly called for it. As torch singer Ruth Etting's brutal lover in the 1955 biopic "Love Me or Leave Me," he slapped Doris Day so convincingly that he stole the picture clean away from her.

 

Cagney could be equally convincing playing gentler men. In 1948, he even brought off the role of William Saroyan's San Francisco saloon saint in "The Time of Your Life." As Joe, a free-floating philosopher, he tried to save men and women from their own worst instincts instead of cuffing them around. In this one-of-a-kind Cagney movie, he proved that he could convey emotion without resorting to kinetics: He spent most of his screen time sitting down. So great was his banked energy that his chair became the anchor of the film.

 

But Cagney's special genius lay in movement. Whether he tripped the light fantastic or shot up the town, this former vaudeville dancer had split-second control. Whether he was in the pink of youth or sporting a sizable middle-aged paunch, he moved as if he were a marionette pulling his own strings -- a punk Pinocchio with kapow. Imagine a wire running from his **** through his neck, giving his torso and head a swiveling motion and letting his feet tap and hands dangle, and you've got the basic Cagney posture for both dance and destruction.

 

He made that posture infinitely flexible. In 1939's "The Roaring Twenties," it allowed him to perform a dance of death that sent him ricocheting up and down a set of New York City church steps, as if he were a fatally wounded, hard-boiled Bojangles. In "Angels With Dirty Faces" from 1938, it allowed him to make rapid swaggering gestures -- shooting out his shirt cuffs and half-hitching his shoulders -- while playing gangland god for the Dead End Kids. And it allowed him to win the best actor Oscar in 1942 as George M. Cohan in "Yankee Doodle Dandy," for tapping like a one-man percussion team and flying like Peter Pan all over the stage, even up the proscenium wall.

 

What put across Cagney's inspired showboating was the sheer glee he took in performing. Without a hint of self-consciousness, he seemed to invite audiences to join in. His furtive smiles, feline glances and quicksilver receptiveness, his all-out physicality and angular elegance, became trademarks.

 

His final feature film role was in Milos Forman's 1981 "Ragtime"; he died five years later, at age 86. He left the movies as he entered them: a star who created distinct characters. Cagney, who played Lon Chaney in "The Man With a Thousand Faces," was himself the Man With a Thousand Personalities -- each different, yet because of their agility or fierceness or pride, each still unmistakably Cagney.

 

Michael Sragow is a film critic at the Baltimore Sun.

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Good piece on Cagney, who is right up there with Bogie as my 1 and 1a favorite actors of all time. The article does have one mistake though. Cagney made 63 films, not 53, from the thirties through 1961 (and later appeared in Ragtime and one TV movie after he had officially retired from Hollywood after One, Two Three.) Thanks to TCM I've seen 61 of one them, and hope to catch the final two later this month. Cagney never gave a bad performance EVER, even if some of the films he was in were sub-par. He is immortal.

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I happen to like the transition era and its clunkiness... this was just a boring movie with lousy performances. The only one I liked was Pat the Cop played (nicely) by Robert Elliott. And it was 1930, not 1933 with Cagney getting like 5th billing... I think you're thinking of THE MAYOR OF HELL

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Hi Rick, Since you have seen the majority of James Cagney`s movies, did you enjoy the film Come Fill The Cup?A few years ago I taped A Lion In The Streets, Run For Cover, and Never Steal Anything Small. Unfortunately I have never seen Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye either.

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Hi Cashette,

 

It's been years since I've seen that one, but I do remember liking it very much. A bit of a different role for Cagney, who plays a recovering alcoholic newsman struggling to stay sober and keep a rich and spoiled Gig Young from going down the same path he did. It also features a wonderful performance by one of my all-time favorite character actors, James Gleason. Catch it some time. And Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is worth seeing also, although in some ways it's a bt of a pale rip-off of White Heat. Nothing compares with that one!

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Hi Rick, I haven`t been able to see all of James Cagney films shown on TCM. The films that I have seen this month are Public Enemy, White Heat, The Roaring Twenties, and Angels With Dirty Faces. Doris Day is one of my favorite actresses, and I love Jimmy`s performance as Marty Snyder in Love Me Or Leave Me. He remembered Doris`s talent in the lousy West Point Story, and he wanted to do this film with her.Two great performances were the result.

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Hi Cashette,

 

Well, you picked four of Cagney's best this month, all top-notch. Coincidentally, Doris Day is one of my wife's very favorite actresses, too. She's never seen "Love Me or Leave Me" and I'm planning to tape it later this month (It's on at 11:00 p.m. in our time zone, a little past our bedtime). Anyway, I remember "The West Point Story" as not being very good, except of course for Jimmy's usual high-octane performance, always worthwhile. As for other Cagney films this month, I can give you a few personal recommendations, just from a fellow Cagney fan. From his early period I think the three best ones TCM is showing this month are: "Jimmy the Gent" (w/ a very young Bette Davis), Thursday, Jan. 24, 8:30 a.m. PST; "Lady Killer," a really good comedy send-up of the movie business in the 1930s, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 5:00 PST; and "Hard to Handle," another very funny film with a mile-a-minute Cagney performance and great support from a terrifc character actress named Ruth Donnelly, Thursday January 31, 7:30 a.m. PST. Also on Thursday the 31st at 4:30 a.m. PST, is the GREAT comedy "Torrid Zone," one of my top three Cagney films, because his co-star is my favorite actress, Ann Sheridan. As a Cagney fan you've probably seen that one, and maybe even the others I've mentioned. Anyway, it's always nice to chat with another Cagney fan.

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Excellent article! Thank you for sharing it, Kyle. The writer perfectly captures the electrical New Yorker. I was especially intrigued by what he had to say about one particular moive:

 

Cagney could be equally convincing playing gentler men. In 1948, he even brought off the role of William Saroyan's San Francisco saloon saint in "The Time of Your Life." As Joe, a free-floating philosopher, he tried to save men and women from their own worst instincts instead of cuffing them around. In this one-of-a-kind Cagney movie, he proved that he could convey emotion without resorting to kinetics: He spent most of his screen time sitting down. So great was his banked energy that his chair became the anchor of the film.

 

I've never seen this movie so I hope I haven't missed it already in this month's salute.

 

I see that it is airing on January 30th. I *will* be recording this.

 

Message was edited by: MissGoddess

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Hi Miss Goddess,

 

You're so right. Cagney, Sheridan and O'Brien are all terrific, as they are in Angels w/ Dirty Faces, admittedly a very different type of movie. Of course Torrid Zone is a somewhat loose reworking of The Front Page, or more accurately, His Girl Friday, which is a brilliant film in its own right. Both are done at a breakneck speed, and both concern an employer using every trick in the book to compel an employee to remain on the job. Anyway, I wish Cagney and Sheridan had made about ten films together, instead of the three they only did. They were made for each other as a team.

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Cagney month has been great. I've finally seen a bunch I haven't before, particularly the "pre" PUBLIC ENEMY films, which I'm enjoying BIG TIME.

He was quite the independent, Jimmy. He does have a modern "spiritual son", although son doesn't quite live up to Dads towering shadow. Chris Walkin, a broadway song and dance guy, who seems often cast as gangsters and other degenerates. He can act against type, as well, but thats how the public likes him.

Anyway, I'm enjoying Cagney. He is clearly one of Hollwoods most "magnetic" film performers.

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