(This post was originally published at celluloidhour.)
I discovered James Cagney one afternoon when I was home sick from school. I was around 16 then and my classic film expertise began with Shirley Temple and ended with Roy Rogers. I remember scouring the library several evenings before I got sick for some new films to watch that weekend. As I was browsing the shelves, I came across the film that would single-handedly change my life and capitulate me into the classic film community.
I’m not sure what I was expecting going into this film but it was shocking, violent, and gritty. I think that, due to the misleading posters for the film, I thought that The Public Enemy was going to be your run of the mill, 1930’s gangster b-movie. I have never been so glad to be wrong in my entire life. I understand the concept of using Jean Harlow on the cover, I really do, but I don’t think it does the film any sort of justice. If you want to watch a gangster film that defined the 1930’s, you have to watch this. Or if you’re a fan of gangster and film noir genres in general, watching The Public Enemy should be required viewing. James Cagney so embodies his role as Tom Powers that his presence on screen is terrifying and downright creepy. I can totally believe that people would be scared of him in real life! It’s also interesting to note that Edward Woods was originally cast as Tom Powers while Cagney was hired to portray Tom’s friend Matt Doyle. It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone other than Cagney as Tom Powers now and sometimes I wonder what kind of film it would’ve been like without Cagney in the lead role. Not as compelling and memorable as the film is today, I’m sure.
I spent that weekend watching as many of Cagney’s films that I could find. Not only did he become my favorite actor but he also introduced me to what would be my favorite genre of film: gangster. So, obviously, my second film was White Heat. When it comes to describing White Heat to others, I have a difficult time explaining exactly why I consider this the greatest gangster film of all time. Yet again, Cagney totally immerses himself in his role as Cody Jarrett. This was his first gangster role in almost 10 years; he was 50 years old at the time of filming. The great thing about Cagney is that he knew how he was going to play every role and this nuanced way of acting is what made him so popular in the first place. It was Cagney who suggested that Cody Jarrett by psychotic. It was Cagney who suggested that, during the prison lunch scene, Cody have a mental breakdown over a letter he had just received stating that his mother had died. The extras had no idea what Cagney had planned so their shocked faces as he climbs up on the table and completely loses it was genuine. It’s laughable that he wasn’t even nominated for a best actor Oscar.
While The Public Enemy and White Heat are synonymous with James Cagney, my favorite film of his is City for Conquest. Cagney portrays Danny Kenny, a truck driver and boxing contender. As his boxing career eventually takes off, over time he becomes disillusioned because he does not want to hurt anyone. However, he decides to continue prizefighting so he can help pay for his brother’s music career. After proposing and being turned down by his girlfriend Peggy (played by the terrific Ann Sheridan), Danny, who becomes despondent over the rejection, challenges a crooked mobster to a fight which ends tragically. His opponent places rosin dust in his gloves which leaves Danny blind and effectively ending his boxing career. Later on, Danny begins working as a newsstand operator and Peggy visits him, her own dancing career having come to a stand still. Cagney delivers a poignant and tearful performance that is completely different from his other roles. If you think Cagney is simple a one note actor or if you just know him from his tough guy roles, please check out City for Conquest. I know it’ll tug on your heartstrings as well.
James Cagney is and will always be my favorite actor. He defined artistry and virtuosity and exudes compassion and warmth. A genius in every sense of the word. I can go on and on talking about Cagney and my favorite films so I’ll leave you with a list of my top 10 Cagney films I believe everyone should watch:
- City for Conquest
- The Public Enemy
- White Heat
- The Roaring Twenties
- Angels with Dirty Faces
- Footlight Parade
- Yankee Doodle Dandy
- Here Comes the Navy
- Blonde Crazy