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What is "THE" James Cagney Film For You?


TomJH

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There are, as we know, a lot of James Cagney fans on these message boards. And why not? One of the most charismatic personalites of the screen was also was one of its greatest, most instinctive actors.

 

Cagney said, or, at least, indicated that if there was only one film in his career that he could have placed in a time capsule it would be Yankee Doodle Dandy.

 

What about those Cagney fans here? Do you agree with the actor's choice or would you choose another?

 

If you had to go with just one Cagney film which one would you pick as your favourite. If you want to state your reasons for the selection, that is even better.

 

Me? It's White Heat all the way.

 

Physically past his prime when he played Cody Jarrett (starting to show a paunch that would only get bigger as the years passed) Cagney's most complex and vicious screen hoodlum remains a towering screen achievement, in my opinion.

 

Director Raoul Walsh, even when he has a fairly ordinary tale to tell such as this one, was, at his best, a great story teller. This film moves, though at times adopting an almost documentary style in its portrait of police tracking methods, right up to the film's fiery inferno ending, with Cagney, of course, having one of the most famous closing lines in film history.

 

If only for its final ten minutes I would call this one of the great gangster films. But Walsh and Cagney also give the viewer that prison cafeteria scene, the one in which the actor had the courage to play the scene all out after his mother-worshipping character hears that Ma has died. That sequence, with the actor crawling through inmates' food and slugging a few cops, could have easily deteriated into unintentional slapstick comedy.

 

How many actors of the studio system days (or any other time) do you see having the audacity to play a scene like that? The day they shot that scene, by the way, no one, including Walsh knew exactly what Cagney was going to do. Cagney asked the screenwriters before the cameras rolled, "How crazy do you want it?" and they gave him their blessing to do whatever he felt would work.

 

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For myself, there's little doubt that White Heat has Cagney's greatest performance.

 

However, that's just my take. What about you? What is the one Cagney film that you have to have in your film library if you can only have one?

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Public Enemy without a doubt.  It's a very raw and exciting film, almost crude.  Also, interesting how a character so immoral and even brutal engages our interest and even at times sympathy.  You can see how it's a star-making performance; Cagney's like a lightning bolt.

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Public Enemy without a doubt.  It's a very raw and exciting film, almost crude.  Also, interesting how a character so immoral and even brutal engages our interest and even at times sympathy.  You can see how it's a star-making performance; Cagney's like a lightning bolt.

 

What,  it isn't The Strawberry Blonde where DeHavilland and Cagney work so well together?  ;)   

 

My favorite Cagney film is Torrid Zone: In some ways this is a silly picture but it is very enjoyable and the banter between Cagney and Ann Sheridan is great.   Fun picture,  campy in places with the WB stock company going along for the ride. 

 

Of course I love both of the crime dramas mentioned but I'm going with lighter fare.  It is too early in the morning for me to start the day on a crime spree.  

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Public Enemy without a doubt.  It's a very raw and exciting film, almost crude.  Also, interesting how a character so immoral and even brutal engages our interest and even at times sympathy.  You can see how it's a star-making performance; Cagney's like a lightning bolt.

I agree, rosebette, that The Public Enemy still has a jolting impact with its rawness. A problem that I have always had with the film, though, is that none of the rest of the cast bring that street reality to the film that Cagney does.

 

Actually, some of those other actors (not Joanie Blondell, of course, or even the limited Mae Clarke) are downright BAD. I have great difficulty bearing through the unbearably syrupy performance of Beryl Mercer as the mother (even to the extent of wondering if the character is a little addled by the manner in which she is played). And what about Jean Harlow? Yes, we all know that she would very soon be asserting herself as an actress, particularly in smart comedy material at MGM. But exactly what planet is her character from in this film, based upon the stilted manner of Harlow's line delivery?

 

Having said that, Public Enemy still has plenty of primitive power, far more so than Little Caesar, in my opinion. Though I still think that Hawks' Scarface remains the greatest of the pre-code gangster dramas, and one of the best ones ever made, in general.

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I prefer him in LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME, because he has a strong role, but he is playing a supporting part with Doris Day the top billed star.

 

I also like TRIBUTE TO A BAD MAN, where he is nearly second fiddle to the scenery.

 

Come to think of it, I prefer his MGM work over his WB output.

 

And I don't mind the film he directed, where he does not appear on screen: Paramount's SHORT CUT TO HELL.

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I actually looked at Beryl Mercer's character in Public Enemy as that of the mother in denial.  My husband's family has a brother who was always getting into trouble, and his mother was very much like that, rather unintelligent and completely unaware of her son's true nature, perhaps in denial.  Jean Harlow's speech reminds me a lot of the elocution lessons in Singin' in the Rain --- I think some dialogue coach was trying to rid her of her urban speech patterns to make her sound "high class".

 

Scarface is an amazing and disturbing movie.  I saw your write-up in the other thread, and I still haven't seen the remake, for the reasons you cite.  The original is disturbing enough -- how about that incest subtext, maybe even too explicit for a subtext!   I find Muni's cowardice in the end as showing his true inner nature, animalistic and bent only on his own survival.   In some ways, the Cagney character in Public Enemy is more "admirable" if you can say that about a sociopath because he has guts and honesty, "I ain't so tough."

 

I enjoy a couple of later Cagney performances -- Tribute to a Bad Man and Shake Hands with the Devil.  I also love One, Two, Three and am ashamed at how much I laugh at the most vulgar and obvious jokes  His rapid-fire delivery in that one is amazing, although he claims making that picture almost killed him.

 

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My favorite Cagney film is Torrid Zone: In some ways this is a silly picture but it is very enjoyable and the banter between Cagney and Ann Sheridan is great.   Fun picture,  campy in places with the WB stock company going along for the ride. 

 

I'm also a big fan of Torrid Zone. It's probably my favorite version of The Front Page. I can't  understand why it's so relatively obscure.

 

Cagney has too many classics for me to pick just one. Hell I love The Oklahoma Kid.

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IMHO.....

 

I know that my selections are going to appear possibly too much like an AFI list, but I really do believe he made a lot of rally good films, some great ones I think.

 

Five stand out for me:

 

Three gangster type films:

 

The Public Enemy 1931

Angels With Dirty Faces 1938

White Heat 1949

 

And two bios:

 

Yankee Doodle Dandy 1942

The Gallant Hours 1960

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WHITE HEAT tops my list, for me his best performance in a film. Oscar worthy

 

-Angels with Dirty Faces- the look on Rocky's face going to the chair and breaking down in answer to Pat O'Brien's request

 

THE PUBLIC ENEMY- again the facial expression- Cagney walking in the rain with that look on his face is terrifying

 

THE ROARING TWENTIES- this is his sympathetic role, know how Gladys George felt, just wanted to comfort him

 

YANKEE DOODLE DANDY- it showcases his musical talents

 

WEST POINT STORY- this is one of my go to films when I need cheering up. His B'KLYN dance routine is one of my all time favorite musical numbers

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White Heat and The Public Enemy are my two longstanding favorites, but after watching the tribute yesterday, I have to add three more to the list:  Hard to Handle, Lady Killer and Jimmy the Gent, all in the Con Man genre that Cagney was so perfectly suited for.

 

I'd seen the last two before, but Hard to Handle was a revelation in more ways than one.  Not only was it the perfect vehicle for the Cagney screen persona, but it also gave Ruth Donnelly a chance to shine in a comic role as I've never seen her shine before.  The way her opinion of Cagney rose and fell about 10 times in direct proportion to his bank account, often changing about every five minutes, had to be one of the better running gags I've ever seen in what was essentially a programmer.  But few actors could ever do more with a programmer than James Cagney.

 

So I guess I'd rank them like this:

 

1. White Heat

2. The Public Enemy

3. Hard to Handle

4. The Roaring Twenties

5. 13 Rue Madelaine

6. Lady Killer

7. These Wilder Years

8. Footlight Parade

9. Blonde Crazy

10. Picture Snatcher

11. Jimmy the Gent

12. Angels With Dirty Faces

 

Three I can live without:  Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Strawberry Blonde, and Man of a Thousand Faces.  It's probably not a coincidence that those are all period pieces and/or biopics, two genres that put me to sleep.  When I want to see Cagney dance, I'll just put on Footlight Parade.

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Three I can live without:  Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Strawberry Blonde,

 

I love The Strawberry Blonde. Jack Carson is hilarious, yet the comedy never overwhelms the nostalgia or the love story. The scene where Cagney meets ODH after getting out of prison is movingly done, without ever going overboard on the schmaltz.

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Three I can live without:  Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Strawberry Blonde,

 

I love The Strawberry Blonde. Jack Carson is hilarious, yet the comedy never overwhelms the nostalgia or the love story. The scene where Cagney meets ODH after getting out of prison is movingly done, without ever going overboard on the schmaltz.

 

Different strokes for different folks.  To me Cagney's the quintessential midcentury motormouthed city boy, either a gangster or a con man.  13 Rue Madelaine is a "good guy" variant on that, and These Wilder Years is just an exception, in a movie where Stanwyck's counterpoint is really what sells me on it. I have no interest in seeing him in Breen era romantic comedies or in any sort of period pieces.

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To me Cagney's the quintessential midcentury motormouthed city boy, either a gangster or a con man. 

But I think that The Strawberry Blonde successfully demonstrated that Cagney could be something other than just that. The tough little mug with a touch of sensitivity who mellows in middle age and discovers that his dream girl was just an illusion and that the "plain" girl he married (not that Olivia de havilland is anything like plain) was the real gem, after all.

 

The Gay 90s sentimentality of Biff Grimes in The Strawberry Blonde is such a contrast to the diamond like hardness of a big city psychopath in White Heat. But both films are brilliantly directed by the same man Raoul Walsh, with two of the actor's most enduring performances. For that reason, Walsh gets my nomination as the director with whom Cagney had his most profitable professional relationship. (Walsh was also the guiding hand behind The Roaring Twenties, which doesn't hurt).

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The Gay 90s sentimentality of Biff Grimes in The Strawberry Blonde is such a contrast to the diamond like hardness of a big city psychopath in White Heat. But both films are brilliantly directed by the same man Raoul Walsh, with two of the actor's most enduring performances. For that reason, Walsh gets my nomination as the director with whom Cagney had his most profitable professional relationship. (Walsh was also the guiding hand behind The Roaring Twenties, which doesn't hurt).

 

Walsh also directed the similar Gentleman Jim which, although it starred Errol Flynn, might very well have been originally intended (like Robin Hood) as a Cagney vehicle.

 

Walsh was Flynn's favorite director (as well as a close friend) and GJ was his favorite role. My favorite scene in GJ, where Ward Bond visits Flynn's party after losing the title to him, is reminiscent of The Strawberry Blonde's reunion in how it is touching without ever seeming schmaltzy.

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What,  it isn't The Strawberry Blonde where DeHavilland and Cagney work so well together?  ;)   

 

My favorite Cagney film is Torrid Zone: In some ways this is a silly picture but it is very enjoyable and the banter between Cagney and Ann Sheridan is great.   Fun picture,  campy in places with the WB stock company going along for the ride. 

 

Of course I love both of the crime dramas mentioned but I'm going with lighter fare.  It is too early in the morning for me to start the day on a crime spree.  

Thanks for reminding me of The Strawberry Blonde!  I was thinking in "gangster mode" because of the gangster flicks last night.   I think that's one of my favorite Olivia deHavilland films, too.

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But I think that The Strawberry Blonde successfully demonstrated that Cagney could be something other than just that. The tough little mug with a touch of sensitivity who mellows in middle age and discovers that his dream girl was just an illusion and that the "plain" girl he married (not that Olivia de havilland is anything like plain) was the real gem, after all.

 

But I'm not saying for a second that Cagney wasn't versatile, or that he wasn't good in The Strawberry Blonde.  I just don't care for the entire genre.  As I said, different strokes for different folks.

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No love for Billy Wilder's Cold War comedy "One, Two, Three" (1961)? It was supposed to be Cagney's last film, but he came out of retirement to appear in "Ragtime" (1981). I also love Pamela Tiffin! And the use of Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance" as a recurring musical theme.

 

 

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Public Enemy without a doubt.  It's a very raw and exciting film, almost crude.  Also, interesting how a character so immoral and even brutal engages our interest and even at times sympathy.  You can see how it's a star-making performance; Cagney's like a lightning bolt.

My top 5, in no particular order-----ONE, TWO, THREE, LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE, FOOTLIGHT PARADE

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I agree with OP - "White Heat" is the ultimate Cagney film - much as I love "One, Two, Three" , " Love Me or Leave Me" and many others. But WH just seems to embody all that we would expect in a Cagney film - tough visceral performance, hard as nails script and then that memorable ending and line - "Top of the world, Ma!". Love it.

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I agree with OP - "White Heat" is the ultimate Cagney film

 

IMHO it isn't, if only because it doesn't exploit his comic ability

 

My pick for the "the ultimate Cagney film" would probably be Angels With Dirty Faces or The Roaring Twenties: likable gangster with a sense of humor.

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