James Cagney: Another Look at Hollywood’s Tough Guy

Look son, I’ve been working with talent all my life and all I’ve gotta do is listen once and I know.

Now, you’ve got it.

Where you got it, how you got it, don’t know.

But the question is: what are you going to do with it?

— James Cagney as Bix Bigsby, The West Point Story

The Golden Age of Hollywood boasted numerous stars and each (for better or for worse) had her or his niche, largely based upon the star’s “personality”. Jimmy Stewart was the eternally affable everyman, all stutters and charm, while Cary Grant was the urbane gentleman, every mannerism seeming like it was rehearsed to perfection. Bette Davis was the imperiously tempestuous and often tragic figure of raw femininity, while Jean Arthur was the mildly sarcastic and self-aware gal about town. These stars occasionally played against type, but the very fact that these performances registered with an audience as being “against type” solidified the importance of their recognizable personalities.

Among them was a rather diminutive and brash man from New York’s East side who delivered his lines with the staccato rhythm of a telegraph machine and even in comic scenes appeared ready to explode. His face was itself a strange contradiction: his eyes always retained a hint of desperation while his set jaw exuded confident determination. Will Rogers once said of him: “Every time I see him work, it looks to me like a bunch of firecrackers going off all at once.” He was the epitome of the gangster, inspiring thousands of fans to imitate a line (“you dirty rat”) that he never actually uttered onscreen (the actual line from his 1932 film Taxi! was “Come out and take it, you dirty, yellow-bellied rat, or I’ll give it to you through the door”) and yet he won an Oscar for his role as the song and dance man George M. Cohan in the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy. Like many of the great Hollywood stars, he was highly versatile and yet always recognizably “himself”. I am speaking, of course, of James Cagney.

Warner Home Video is now honoring the screen legend — one of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild and the recipient of the American Film Institute’s first Lifetime Achievement Award — with a five-DVD collector’s set: James Cagney: The Signature Collection. (Each film may also be purchased separately.) Like earlier releases under the auspices of The Signature Collection series, this set features films that were not previously available on DVD. Indeed, films that are largely forgotten or at the very least are not foremost in the minds of Cagney’s admirers. However, this by no means diminishes the value of the set but rather enhances its worth. While forgoing his iconic performances in such familiar noir films as White Heat and the chilling Angels with Dirty Faces (not to mention his quirky comedic turns as the ship captain in Mister Roberts and beleaguered businessman in One, Two, Three), the set allows viewers to explore five solid performances in arguably mediocre but satisfying vehicles that admirably demonstrate Cagney’s fine abilities before the camera. After all, these were also among the “Cagney” films that audiences went to see on Friday or Saturday nights, and although none of them are likely to be found on any “Top Films” list, they bear witness to an era before television reigned supreme, when Hollywood films provided the richest source of entertainment for most middle-class families.

Indeed, Warner Home Video seeks to capitalize on the sense that we are nostalgically peeking into a lost moment in history by lavishing all five DVDs with a set of extras they call “Warner Night at the Movies”, which includes numerous short subjects from the year of the feature film’s release that might have been shown in a theater prior to the feature. There we find the ubiquitous news reel, a preview for another film of that year, a pitch by Cagney asking viewers to purchase war bonds in 1942 on the DVD for the “wartime morale booster” Captains of the Clouds, a musical short or two, and of course, the wonderful Warner Bros. cartoon. These are the kinds of short subject films that would play in a theater between showings of the feature as people entered and left. They were not necessarily designed for viewing as an entire set. Indeed, one has to have a rather extreme penchant for nostalgia to get through the tedium and banality of an entire collection of “Warner Night at the Movies”.

A particularly egregious example is the set of shorts included on the DVD of The Bride Came C.O.D., which has the frightful temerity to present an interminable musical short Carnival of Rhythm that borders on the exploitative (and clearly banks on the fascination with the seemingly primitive — and of course musical — dark-skinned Other) and then follow it with yet another interminable musical short Forty Boys and a Song about a school that trains boys to become fine choral singers. The latter, we are informed, was nominated for an Oscar, leading me to believe that America was simply too shell-shocked from the ever-growing crisis of World War II to make any responsible aesthetic decisions. The only thing that salvages the collection of shorts on that particular DVD is the pair of cartoons: Porky’s Pooch and the highly inventive Rhapsody in Rivets, also nominated for an Oscar. All right, some responsible aesthetic decisions were made.

However, if one has the necessary fortitude (or Buddha-like patience), one will inevitably discover some fascinating (if sometimes disturbing) insights into the cultural past by dipping selectively into the shorts. The sports short Rocky Mountain Big Game offers us an unsettling example. The short film features a group of hunters (the film claims that they will be hunting primarily with their cameras) as they arduously make their way up steep, snow-covered mountains in search of bighorn rams. We see shots of bears amicably wrestling, men pitching tents, and horses rolling about on the ground, relaxing after a long trek. All the time, the narrator indulges in that fatuous game of “speaking” to the images on the film as he relates the joys and tribulations of the pursuit. Eventually, the hunters find a ram and drop the camera in exchange for a rifle. The animal is killed on a treacherous slope and its dead body limply tumbles down the mountainside as the narrator intones: “This kind of shooting is always a satisfaction to a real sportsman for it kills instantly without crippling. It’s a long ways down.” It is a harrowingly callous moment, which only gets worse inasmuch as the very next shot features the hunters holding up the severed heads of two rams for the audience’s admiration. At the same time, the short is entirely typical of the vicarious adventure audiences sought as part of the theater-going experience. If nothing else, this is a wonderful lesson in film history.

The Bride Came C.O.D.

But let’s face it: no one is going to plunk down their hard-earned cash for the extras. Rather, it is left to the feature films to justify the purchase of such a collection. And I believe they do indeed justify such a purchase, albeit with some qualification. The first film is 1941’s The Bride Came C.O.D., a romantic comedy involving unlikely lovers played by Cagney as Steve, the financially impaired pilot and Bette Davis (in a rare comedic turn) as Joan, the spoiled Texas oil heiress. When Joan impulsively decides to elope with a bandleader whom she has only known for four days, Steve makes a deal with her millionaire father to “kidnap” her, thereby preventing the marriage and earning enough money to stop the collection agency from repossessing his plane. Rather unsurprising surprises ensue and the odd couple fall in love in that adorably antagonistic way that only occurs in fiction of a rather contrived sort. It’s a movie by the numbers, and yet it contains just enough moments of comedic ebullience to make it a thoroughly enjoyable experience. One might think Davis’s attempt at comedy forced, but I find her delightfully charming as a socialite whose fanny seems to be magnetically attracted to cactus plants and stones launched from a slingshot.

In 1942’s Captains of the Clouds Cagney is a pilot, again, but this time in one of the first war flicks to emerge after America’s active entry into World War II. Here Cagney plays Brian MacLean, a bush pilot with a knack for stealing transporting jobs away from other flyers. He relentlessly flirts with a young woman engaged to marry the saintly and earnest Johnny (why are they always named “Johnny”??) who dreams of a respectable marriage and establishing his own airline. MacLean eventually marries the girl out from under Johnny and leaves her the morning after their wedding night. All of this was supposedly designed to prevent Johnny from ruining his life by attaching himself to a girl that was just “no good”. One cannot help but wonder if MacLean actually recognized an emergent fallen woman within her or if he led her to a life of debauchery by abandoning her (presumably after deflowering her on their wedding night).

Captains of the Clouds

MacLean later joins the Royal Canadian Air Force and serves under Johnny. (Come on, you saw that coming, right?) MacLean advocates “flying by the seat of your pants” ,and his recklessness and refusal to conform get him drummed out of the RCAF — that is, until he assumes someone else’s identity and saves a bomber transport by ramming his aircraft into a Nazi fighter plane that menaces the group. It is all so heroic in that completely inscrutable fashion that arises through an over-reliance upon formula. MacLean involves himself in a string of bad decisions, displays of hubris, and downright foolishness and yet the movie demands that we see him as a hero. Perhaps that’s what makes it a “Cagney” film. The film is beautifully photographed in Technicolor but at its center is an unfathomably corrupt vision of daring masculinity. And yet, probably because of its bizarre moral stance, it makes for interesting viewing.

Perhaps the finest film in the set is The Fighting 69th from 1940, which focuses on the vaunted regiment of mostly Irish-Americans from New York. Cagney’s off-screen buddy, Pat O’Brien, does a fine job portraying Father Duffy, the spiritual leader of the regiment, while Cagney again plays the brash and cocky ruffian but this time with a difference: beneath the façade of swagger lies the heart of a coward. After weeks of braggadocio in training camp (during which Cagney’s Jerry Plunkett assures everyone that he will single-handedly defeat the Germans once given the chance), the new recruit finds he cannot withstand the pressures of the trenches. Plunkett’s desperate attempts to remove himself from the line of fire result in the demise of 24 of his fellow soldiers. Father Duffy convinces the superior officer to give Plunkett another chance, which only results in a major blunder and more unnecessary deaths. Plunkett is sentenced to execution by firing squad but in the end redeems himself through an act of courage.

The Fighting 69th

The fascinating aspect of the film is not so much the formulaic, last-minute reversal, but rather the convincing manner in which Cagney embodies the soldier who is honestly surprised by his own innate cowardice, his inability to stand in the face of fire. And while we are ashamed on his behalf, we find it difficult to assign blame. The producers further enhanced the DVD by including a radio play version of the story (it was typical that movies in this era were also produced for radio transmission), and a haunting short that documents civilian life in London during the nightly German air raids entitled London Can Take It. London looks terrible –bombed about and hollow — and yet the people continue to stoically go about the business of living. The images seem all that more unbelievable inasmuch as we are aware that it really happened. If you are looking to purchase just one DVD of the five, this should be the one.

O’Brien and Cagney team up again (this time joined by a radiant Ann Sheridan) for Torrid Zone. This film, like The Fighting 69th, was produced in 1940 but that is where the similarities end. Torrid Zone is an action comedy set mostly on a Central American banana plantation. O’Brien plays an executive of the company and he is desperate to keep his best man on the job as a supervisor of a troublesome plantation, beleaguered by poor management and a gang of native dissidents. Meanwhile, Sheridan plays a chanteuse with a penchant for cheating at cards and Cagney splits his romantic moments between her and another man’s wife. The plot, inasmuch as the film has one, is entirely incidental and amounts to little more than a string of excuses for banter among the characters; the point is the rapid-fire exchange of one-liners.

The West Point Story

The final film of the set, The West Point Story, is also the latest; it was produced in 1950. Here Cagney is Bix Bigsby, a Broadway director down on his luck owing to his gambling habit. Bigsby agrees to go to West Point and help stage the cadets’ annual musical while attempting to entice the lead, Tom (Gordon MacRae), out of the military and onto the Broadway stage. A pretty starlet (Doris Day) serves as the inspiration for the young Tom’s change in career plans. Now just for the sake of full disclosure, I should confess that I am not much of a fan of musicals (there are exceptions, but they are few and far between and usually include Fred Astaire) and moreover I simply cannot stomach watching anything with Doris Day in it — so take my opinion with a grain of salt.

All that aside, Cagney is beguiling as a song and dance man with a shark-toothed grin and an ego that goes on for miles. He winds up being forced to live like a cadet and he does a fine job of looking like a man that is much too old to be doing so. If nothing else, the inclusion of this movie rounds out the many faces of Cagney with the glaring exception of Cagney as gangster (but there is plenty of that elsewhere).

As I write this review, it is a rainy day in New York City and I am slightly under the weather. It strikes me that there are few things I would rather be doing at the moment than watching films such as these. The set has much to recommend it; it fills a lazy day splendidly. Patterns in Cagney’s acting emerge, of course: the forced smile, the way every line is delivered as though it were an evasion, and the manner in which the writers seem to find any opportunity for Cagney to punch someone out no matter what the plot of the film. The Cagney features collected here are not “must-owns” but they are enjoyable “might-owns” for anyone who takes pleasure in watching a talented actor finding moments of undiluted joy in work-a-day films. These films demonstrate that Cagney had a lot of talent but as he says in The West Point Story “the question is: what are you going to do with it?” Evidently, Cagney did a lot with his.