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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Kellow Fiorini

Jame Cagney - Sensitive Artist and Public Enemy

Updated: Mar 20, 2021

James Cagney worked on stage as a dancer/actor before becoming part of a new group of stars who, in 1931, were experimenting and refining their on-screen personas in the pre-Code era. Pre-Code villains had dimension — not the cardboard cut-outs labeled “good guys, bad guys” that dominated silent pictures less than a decade before.

Claire Dodd and James Cagney in Footlight Parade 1933.

Along with sound, realism was the new trend. “All I’m trying to get across is realism,” said Cagney in an interview. “The idea that heroes ain’t always the perfect gentleman and bad guys aren’t always stinking blackguards — they can come from the same mold.”

An artist who approached his craft with a great deal of thought, Cagney spent time developing ways to express his characters physically. Music was another interest of Cagney’s, along with social issues which he talked about a lot in the early years of his stardom — highly unusual for actors of this era who stuck to promoting their latest films in interviews and not much else. Cagney often talked about his acting techniques, discussing the difference between working on stage and the new opportunities the camera and sound gave to actors. His talent and openness about developing his technique made him an actor’s actor, and an influence on male stars for the next ninety years.

James Cagney and Loretta Young in Taxi, 1931.

Born in 1899 in Manhattan, Cagney grew up on 79th Street. His father was in and out of employment and had a drinking problem which contributed to his death from the 1918 flu epidemic when Cagney was a child. A red-headed Irish street kid, he grew up in and around poverty, which had a huge impact on his world view and insight into the characters he played. He was able to bring context to the social messages of his films and often talked about growing up in the slums. He complained that “Sixty percent of the wealth of this country is controlled by one percent of the people.” Having seen his school friends rummage through garbage for something to eat he said, “It was my first contact with the fact that one half of the world starves while the other half gorges. I tell you I grew old that minute. You don’t get over things like that.” One schoolmate became a murderer and died in the electric chair. “Poverty was the exact cause of that old schoolmate of mine going to the chair,” recalled Cagney. “Environment conditioned by the personalities surrounding him.”

James Cagney and Edward Woods in The Public Enemy, 1931.

Cagney used his celebrity status to let rich people know that poor people had feelings and a wealth of talent. In his book Dangerous Men, Mick Lasalle says, “In interview after interview, he did three things: He made a case for the common man, presented himself as one of their ranks, and demonstrated his sensitive, artistic nature.” With actors like Cagney and Edward G. Robinson and the success of two gangster films in 1931, The Public Enemy and Little Caesar, Warner Brothers became a studio known for its gangster and socially conscious films.

Edward Woods and James Cagney in The Public Enemy 1931.

The Public Enemy is one of the few pre-Code films that is still widely known today. Cagney’s Tom Powers is a chilling psychopath, and clearly influenced Joe Pesci’s Tommy in Goodfellas. Its final scene still has the power to make modern audiences gasp. Cagney’s pre-Code films differ from his later work in that they show a young actor brimming with rambunctious energy and confidence. In Blonde Crazy, he stars opposite Joan Blondell as a hotel bellhop who works every angle. He sells bootleg whiskey and scams the wealthy and corrupt with anarchic, smart-alecky joy. “The world owes me a living,” he tells Joan Blondell, “The age of chivalry is dead. This is the age of chiselry!”

Publicity still for Blonde Crazy 1931.

A lot of pre-Code films had a huge influence on modern lingo and Cagney’s films are no exception. Although the line “You dirty rat” is attributed to him, it’s actually misquoted from his 1931 film, Taxi. It’s in Blonde Crazy that Cagney says, “Honey, I’m Santa Claus, Robin Hood, and the Goose that laid the golden egg all in one!” and tempts her to take their scam on the open road. “Everybody’s got larceny in their heart,” his character rationalizes.

Although he felt typecast in gangster roles, Cagney was a sensitive artist, dancer extraordinaire, and deeply involved in the social issues of his time who enjoyed a long and prolific acting career. He died in 1986 at age 86.

Cagney at the piano in the 1930's.

On the set of Footlight Parade with Ruby Keeler and Busby Berkeley 1933.

Cagney - world class dancer.

With Blondell in Blonde Crazy 1931.

In Blonde Crazy 1933.

Sources for this article

(this book can also be found at the Toledo Public Library)


Jul 16, 2021

Is it true that he became more conservative in his later years?

Jul 16, 2021
Replying to

I think you are right about that. I was a few chapters shy of finishing his autobiography and it did seem to turn much more conservative.


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