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James Cagney and His Tough Guy Tears


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This morning I briefly watched a scene from Each Dawn I Die. It's a sequence in which James Cagney, as an innocent man unjustly sent to prison, has a meeting with a parole board in order to seek an early release from the institution. The head of the board, played by Victor Jory, clearly already has his mind made up to not let Cagney get out.

 

Cagney has a typical tough guy moment in which he suddenly has an emotional outburst and swears that one day he'll get back at the board members for keeping him locked up. The power of the scene comes next. Cagney then breaks free of the guard who had placed a strangle hold on him and walks back to the table where the board members are now standing on their feet in reaction to his threat.

 

Leaning forward on the table with his hands, starring down at the table, Cagney starts to cry. He apologizes for his outburst and pleads with the members to please let him out. "I can't take it anymore," he says, "I can't take it". He comes as close as he can to grovelling. One of the board members has a look of compassion, saying that they'll do what they can. Cagney is lead from the room, still weeping, as Victor Jory cold bloodedly says, "Next case."

 

It's interesting, considering Cagney's tough guy image, that Warners would allow him to cry like that on screen. Perhaps because in his early screen days there was something of the man child about Cagney, but he cried on a few other occasions in the movies too. He cried after his brother was killed in Taxi, weeping uncontrollably on Loretta Young's shoulder. It's been a while since I've seen The Crowd Roars but I think he cries in that film, too.

 

In no way did any of these crying scenes compromise Cagney's on screen manhood. He could compellingly play a human being in anguish and then, in the next scene, convincingly be playing the tough guy once again. Audiences accepted Cagney crying, as long as he didn't do it too much, which meant that, when he did do it in the occasional film, the scene had far greater impact.

 

Cagney cried as a time in Hollywood filmmaking when not many macho screen stars would ever contemplate doing such a thing. It's a reflection of Cagney's courage as an actor, allowing the audience to see his character's vulnerablity so openly without concern that some viewers (I guess we're talking about some of the men watching) may feel contemptuous towards him for "weakness."

 

Can anybody think of other male stars in the '30s or '40s (and I'm talking macho male stars) who had scenes in which they cried? Gable, of course, did it once and only once, in Gone with the Wind. Gary Cooper had a few tears role down his face at the final scene of Meet John Doe, though that was a Capra film and Coop wasn't playing it macho that time. John Garfield had some tears in his eyes at one moment in The Breaking Point. Flynn shed a couple of tears when he saw a friend die in Objective Burma.

 

Almost all those actors were shedding a few tears in films in the '40s. Cagney was doing it before any of them, at the beginning of the Depression in 1932.

 

Am I wrong in considering Cagney is be fairly unique in his time for being almost the only tough guy actor who had no problem throwing in some tears when the occasion called for it? And aren't you a bit surprised, too, that an image-conscious studio, keeping their eyes on the box office returns at all time, also had the courage to allow him to do that? Since Taxi, the first film in which Cagney cried, was a box office hit, I guess Warners thought it was okay. Still, they had the courage to experiment by allowing that scene to occur in the first place. Pretty amazing.

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Lavender, the only Cagney tears that I can recall from Angels with Dirty Faces are when the cops hit him with tear gas. But I'll take your word for it.

 

But you're certainly right about San Francisco. I had fogotten about Gable's final scene in that film (considering how unconvincing Gable is in that scene, maybe he would have preferred that we all forget it). But that's not the point- MGM did allow his decidedly type A character to shed tears (I bet Gable wasn't happy about it, though, considering his reluctance to do the same in GWTW).

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Remember Pat O'Brien asking Rocky (Cagney) to turn yellow for the sake of the kids. While the guards are taking him to the electric chair, Cagney breaks down, turns yellow by crying and pleading for his life up until the end. Another crying scene, I think for Cagney was Huston's death bed scene in *Yankee Doodle Dandy* . Another film, although I haven't seen this one in decades is *Penny Serenade* . Would Cary Grant fit your criteria?

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lavender, thanks for mentioning the Cagney crying scene from Yankee Doodle Dandy.

 

Certainly we don't see him cry in Angels but I forgot that you do hear the sounds of his pleading in the death house scene. Those, however, that feel that Cagney's Rocky character was faking fear in that sequence might argue that any sounds of crying in this scene doesn't count. I suppose that's an ambiguous scene to discuss in that respect but, still, it deserves mention because it does portray a macho guy potentially breaking down.

 

I really don't think that Cary Grant in Penny Serenade is quite what I'm talking about. The film itself is a soap opera (the land of tears) and Grant, a major star, to be sure, was actor enough to play some macho parts but he never specialized it in like a Cagney or Gable or Garfield or Flynn.

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A better example of Grant weeping is in None But the Lonely Heart, after his mother visits him in jail. Grant's performance in that film is one of his best.

 

 

Coop toward the end of High Noon also quietly shed a few tears of desperation when no one in town will help him. He also tears up in the last scene of A Farewell to Arms, which is the superior version of that novel.

 

 

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Rosebette, thanks for the reminder about A Farewell to Arms, a 1932 release. Coop does tear up when Helen Hayes is dying. You don't actually see him cry in High Noon. He puts his head down on his desk but it doesn't matter - you know that his character is probably weeping from frustration and fear. Not a lot of cowboys cry in the movies, and I can't think of another western in which Coop did either.

 

I guess the difference is that, unlike Cooper, Cagney was a high voltage actor. When Cagney cried in a scene it was played full out with cries and heavy sobbing. When he weeps on Loretta Young's shoulder in Taxi it's almost like his character reverts back to being a little boy leaning against his mother for support. It took a lot of courage for Cagney to play a scene that way.

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Yeh, lavender, just like Cooper in High Noon, Bogart does the same kind of head-down-on-the-table-so-you-can't-see-him-crying thing in Casablanca.

 

When Cagney did it, however, people could probably hear him a block away.

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Yes, Lavender, you CAN see Bogey wet-eyed in *Casablanca* , and I KNOW I've seen him shed tears in other movies, although I can't bring them up at the moment. I remember an actress, name forgotten, who in a TV interview many years ago talked about doing a movie with Bogart where SHE had to cry in one scene, and found it difficult. Bogart took her aside and started giving her pointers on how to do it. And while he was telling her all that, he had TEARS rolling down his face!

 

 

We all, at first, respond to Cagney (and Bogey) on the surface. They did a LOT of "tough guy" gangster type roles, but subsequently got into deeper character portrayals that required them to be more than "cookie-cutter" hard guys. You can see it in subtle facial and eye expressions. These guys were far better at their craft than the first impressions let on. Both Cagney and Bogart were deft at showing warmth and vulnerability, and also frightening psycosis.

 

 

Many of these guys weren't obsessed with their on-screen images. I don't think any of them would pass on using the act of crying if it were integral to the story of the character they portrayed, or the storyline. In spite of what some are led to believe, or have allowed themselves to believe, it takes a REAL man, secure in his manhood, to allow himself to cry, especially if the situation warrants it. The death of a loved one, a child, intense pain. Even the "manly" Kirk Douglas has cried in more than one movie. If they have ANY artistic integrity, they'll cry if the scene requires it.

 

 

Sepiatone

 

 

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Sepiatone wrote: Many of these guys weren't obsessed with their on-screen images. I don't think any of them would pass on using the act of crying if it were integral to the story of the character they portrayed, or the storyline. In spite of what some are led to believe, or have allowed themselves to believe, it takes a REAL man, secure in his manhood, to allow himself to cry, especially if the situation warrants it.

 

Sepiatone, your statement reflects an attitude about men crying that many would feel today. I'm not so certain that that attitude was so prevalent during the '30s, though, certainly not regarding macho male screen stars.

 

I strongly suspect that when Cagney first cried on screen in Taxi, released in January, 1932, it was probably something of a revelation for audiences to see from a tough guy actor. It has been pointed out that Cooper also did it in a later 1932 release, A Farewell to Arms.

 

I don't know with certainty but I wonder if Warners and Cagney broke an unwritten code about the proper way in which an actor with a tough guy image should behave on screen when they included that crying scene in Taxi. As has been pointed out, Cagney would cry on occasion in a few other films (Yankee Doodle Dandy, Angels with Dirty Faces, Each Dawn I Die, I believe The Crowd Roars) and a few other actors would also do it.

 

I wonder, though, if Cagney in 1932's Taxi wasn't the first to break the no-crying barrier for a macho star.

 

The closest to it might have been Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar. There were a few tears in his eyes in the scene in which he can't shoot his best friend (Douglas Fairbanks Jr), but, with Cagney in Taxi, it was virtually a flood of emotion.

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I can't quite recall tears, but Cagney went berserk in jail in White Heat when learning his mother died. Anyone recall if he cried. And another can't quite recall, but Bogart put his face in his hand, I think, in Dead End either after learning what became of his old girlfriend or after his mother rejected him. Geez, you'd think I'd remember for sure about Dead End!

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deadendkid, Cagney's character was having an emotional breakdown in that chilling prison cafeteria scene in White Heat. I don't recall that tears, per se, were visible but, even if they were, it's not that same kind of thing that I'm talking about. I'm talking about Cagney crying or weeping out of emotional grief (yes, there was grief in that prison scene but the character was a psychotic going over the edge), such as when his character lost his brother in Taxi or was frustrated that he couldn't get a prison release in Each Dawn I Die.

 

I can't recall that Bogart actually cried in Dead End, though I could be wrong.

 

I still strongly suspect that, although few, if any, ever mention it, when Cagney openly wept on screen in 1932's Taxi it was the first time that audiences ever saw a tough guy actor do that. Cagney was such a great performer and dynamic personality, though, that he could get away with it, and it didn't compromise his screen image.

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*movielover11 said; Brando cried in Streetcar.*

 

But that was in a later era in filmmaking. Cagney did it almost 20 years before. Cagney's tears lead the way for later tough guys stars, like Brando, to show deeper emotions on screen.

 

Does anyone challenge my statement that James Cagney was the first macho actor that cried on screen? I think this may be a little discussed movie convention barrier that Cagney was the first to breach when he cried on his girlfriend's shoulder after his brother died in Taxi, a film released in January, 1932.

 

Much has been made of the fact that Brando was not afraid to show the sensitive, even feminine side, of a screen tough guy, such as in On the Waterfront. He didn't cry in that film, as he did in Streetcar, but it was an extension of much the same thing. Brando may well have carried it further than previous screen tough guys such as Cagney or Garfield but they lead the way for him.

 

And, as I have stated numerous times, but I think it bears repeating - it all started with a little 1932 Warners programmer called Taxi. If anyone can think of a film earlier than this in which a screen tough guy shed tears, I would welcome their input.

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There never really have been many tough guy tears shed on the screen, but this is particularly true of the macho stars of the '30s and '40s, I think. Cagney started in all, I believe. At least, he was the first major star to cry.

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