Song of The Hollywood Gangster: A Look Into James Cagney’s Rebellion From Characters and Contract

 

With an electric acting style that allowed him to tackle anything from hard-boiled gangsters to a fleet-footed hoofer, James Cagney could light up the silver screen. In him existed such a broad range of human characteristics that he was able to run the emotional gamut, whether it was solving problems with his fast, streetwise talk and a pair of fists, composing song and dance routines (and performing them), or even simply falling in love. He was a sympathetic figure, relatable, regardless of if he played the hero or the villain, and it earned him immense popularity and a spot as the eighth greatest screen legend of all time[1]. His performance as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) won him his Oscar and extremely high praise from the critics of the day. William Boehnel of the New York World-Telegram even went so far as to say, “Jimmy has never been better, and that’s saying something”[2].

Yet despite his singing and dancing skills, critical praise for emotional depth, and long-lasting influence, it is for his Hollywood prototype “tough guy” for which he is principally remembered. His flight to fame through his portrayal of guns blazing, grapefruit wielding bootlegger Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1931) and his subsequent role as a vengeful conman in Blonde Crazy (1931) cemented him in the minds of his studio, Warner Brothers, as having a perfect career ahead of him as their principal hoodlum. If not for that wayward grapefruit, Cagney might be remembered for the full spectrum of his talents, not merely as just a thug toting a gun and slapping around women[3]. Capable of so much more and so rarely offered the opportunities to showcase it, and despite the rigid control of Warner Brothers over their contracted actors, Cagney decided to fight back to determine his own star image.

As such a major influence on the genre of gangster films, Cagney is therefore, unsurprisingly, a commonly analyzed star. Many scholars have studied him, both as a man and an actor in the 61 films he starred in over the course of his three decades in Hollywood. However, due primarily to the fact that he heavily influenced the gangster genre, much study has been preliminarily geared towards his image in advertising campaigns and films that highlight him as a “tough guy” and also as a type of “immigrant ideal”. Grant Tracey, in his 1998 article “Let’s Go Places With Jimmy”, argues that Cagney’s persona throughout most of the Thirties was geared towards representing the ideal immigrant; an accepting, streetwise individual who is at ease with both his own ethnicity and the ethnicities and languages of others, but above all, represents the integration of such ethnicities into the dominant WASP society of the country. Cagney’s portrayal as an Irish, Yiddish speaking taxi driver in Taxi! (1931) and the Irish criminal-turned-protector of bad boys who encourages them to follow the system in Mayor of Hell (1933) are the primary texts Tracey uses to examine this phenomena. While for the “tough guy” persona, not one Cagney book could be cracked open that did not at first highlight his legendary status as the quintessential Hollywood “tough guy”, primarily looked at through the lenses of his most famous gangster films, including The Public Enemy, Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), and The Roaring Twenties (1939)[4]. While in each of these cases a solid argument is made that Cagney’s gangster characters are steadily evolving and becoming more psychologically complex, most attribute that not to Cagney himself but to the Warner Brothers studio. In addition, they never address the side of Cagney characters that the man himself loved best: the dancers, the lovers, the quiet, serious men. In fact, the only one that seemed to tackle him in this light was Patrick McGilligan’s Cagney: The Actor as Auteur.

In his study of Cagney’s star persona, McGilligan followed Cagney’s entire career, including the trying Thirties in which he challenged Warner Brothers and had numerous walkouts and it is here, at last, that someone identifies the “injustice of the wayward grapefruit” in its instrumental role as immortalizing him as the “tough guy”. Based on audience response and his high draw at the box office when he was portraying a rough type, Warners typecast him, forcing him to repeat the same character over and over. McGilligan claimed that throughout the Thirties, after each walkout, Cagney’s actions against Warner Brothers caused a “noticeable, qualitative alteration” in the kinds of films in which he was slotted to star in, primarily, a “sure lessening of the ‘tough guy’ factor”. It is the heart of this claim on which I wholeheartedly agree with and draw inspiration from.

While he is immortalized as the original “tough guy” and while he was undeniably amazing in such portrayals, Cagney resented the typecasting, the oppressive contractual measures and “tough guy” advertising campaigns for his star image at Warner Brothers, and the deliberate curtailing of his extensive talent. Despite the inevitable conciliations with Warners, Cagney stood up for himself and for all actors in a time when the studios were in complete control. He defied the norm not only because he wanted better compensation and respect as an actor but so that he could control his own image and steer his career along the path he so desperately wanted to go. His determination to fight back against Warner Bros’ desire to continually portray him as a “tough guy” and exploit his onscreen gangster persona, resulted in a slow but steady shift in the quality and complexity of his characters throughout the Thirties, culminating in his role as song-and-dance man George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. By examining the ponderous but noticeable metamorphosis of Cagney’s roles in various of his Thirties movies, primarily his roles centered around his 1931, 1932, and 1936 walkouts, coupled with critical analysis of his films and performances from both contemporary sources and reviews at the height of his fame, Cagney’s star persona is brought into a new light. Through his desire to pursue loftier roles that would harness his wide range of talents, he slowly, arduously, charted the course that would help lead him out of the pits of gangsterdom and onto the star-spangled set of his greatest song-and-dance dream.

Ever since he became a star via The Public Enemy, Cagney had been signed on to Warner Brothers as a contracted actor[5]. His immediate film to follow was Smart Money (1931), co-starring Edward G. Robinson who the same year had starred in Warners’ blockbuster gangster film, Little Caesar. This deliberate placement of Cagney alongside Robinson, both rising actors whose preliminary roles were as criminals, cemented him in the public mind as Warners’ “tough guy”, destined to take on more such roles and delight the audience with harsh, melodramatic antics. Cagney loathed it. While it pleased him that he was a success, he disliked that it came at the cost of being labeled as someone who abuses women and fires willy-nilly at cops and pedestrians. He also disliked the studio system itself, believing that the studios abused their actors by making them work obscene hours for little pay and making them contractually obligated to appear in whatever film they placed them in and in whatever advertising campaign they deemed necessary. He would do small things to shake both his roles and Jack Warner up, including cropping his hair for Jimmy the Gent (1934) and growing a mustache for several films including, He Was Her Man (1934), Ceiling Zero (1935), and Torrid Zone (1940). In addition, he joined the actors’ rights group in 1933 which was to later become the Screen Actors Guild, even becoming its president from the period of 1942-1944[6]. Despite these poignant little demonstrations of individuality and a desire for a voice and fair treatment, Cagney was still under the boot of contractual obligation to Warners he instrumented three major walkouts against the studio throughout the Thirties.

His first walkout in 1931 occurred after the completion of Blonde Crazy, his first film following Smart Money, and his second since The Public Enemy. His third consecutive film in which he was a gangster, in Blonde Crazy he plays a vengeful con artist who ultimately is caught and thrown in jail. Chafing under the stigma of “tough guy”, Cagney balked. To show Warners his seriousness, demanded a higher salary. The move stunned Warners; no actor had pulled such a move before, particularly not such a relatively new star. Despite rumors that he was finished, Cagney returned to Warners under a new contract which raised his salary to $1000 a week and periodic re-appraisal[7]. Upon his return, he was slated into the 1932 film Taxi!. In this film, he plays a taxi driver fighting the powerful taxi trusts, determined to avenge the death of his brother at the hands of the trust. While this does still herald Cagney as a hotheaded antihero, Taxi! had him fighting organized trusts and not simply scavenging off the populace as a typical gangster. The films that immediately followed Taxi!, The Crowd Roars (1932) and Winner Take All (1932), portray Cagney as, respectively, a racer who wins the race for his injured younger brother and a recovering boxer who becomes smitten with a society lady but eventually returns to the woman who truly loves him[8]. Again, still fighting and foxy, still stereotypically “Irish”, but with a noticeable shift away from the hardcore “bad boy” of his first three major films.

With the completion of Winner Take All came another walkout. Still displeased with his rock-em-sock-em image and irate at Warners’ classification of stars which awarded some as much as $125,000 and others merely $400 a week, Cagney walked out of Hollywood, even going so far as to threaten to re-enter Columbia University and study medicine or environmentalism. Warners, believing that Cagney was merely being an arrogant actor refused to bargain and in response, Cagney stayed idle for six months on his farm back East[9]. It was this that was the crux of Cagney that Warners could never understand: to Cagney, acting was simply a job[10]. He refused to be abused, and this doggedness finally earned him a revised contract which offered $1750 a week and periodic readjustment.

Following the 1932 walkout, his returning film was entitled Hard to Handle (1933), with such advertising slogans as, “The Movies’ Prodigal Son-of-a-Gun Returns” (a sign that at least the advertising department at Warners had a sense of humor), and this marks a pointed change in the onscreen characters Cagney portrays. He not only dances for the first time on screen, but his character is not a criminal in any way. The character is merely a high energy individual who is constantly moving from one crazy enterprise to another, such as treasure hunts, marathon dances, and making America grapefruit conscious (or perhaps Warners in general could have a sense of humor)[11]. The critics of the time were all astounded by his change of tempo, energy, and his ability to play “light farce and romance”, things he had been jockeying to play from the beginning. Even the 1933 returns to the “tough guy” persona Warners inevitably had him portray in Picture Snatcher and Mayor of Hell were no longer “bad boys” but “conmen”, criminals reformed into society. In addition, Footlight Parade (1933) followed Hard to Handle in tone and was Cagney’s first official silver screen dancing debut and–like with his energy in Hard to Handle–critics were absolutely blown away that their Public Enemy could dance so divinely[12].

Up until this point, the walkouts coupled with both Cagney and Warners’ desires had caused a slow change in pattern of Cagney’s characters. Although a few complete antitheses to the “tough guy” persona, such as Hard to Handle and Footlight Parade, were implemented, on the whole, Cagney was still Warners’ little hoodlum. He was a box office draw in that genre and Warners was not willing to give up on such a reliable source of capital. This pattern continued until around 1936, with Cagney’s third major walkout, and it is here that a definite, concrete shift is seen to occur. Ever since 1932 and his walkout after Winner Take All, Cagney had been searching for loopholes in his revised contract due to his belief that not only was he still being typecast as the “tough guy” but because he felt that Warners was doing their best to slide out of their ends of his bargains[13]. In 1935, Cagney made Ceiling Zero under the direction of Howard Hawks, his fifth film of that year which caused a technical violation of his contract that called for him to make only four films per year. Armed with this information, Cagney did the unthinkable in Hollywood and sued Warner Brothers for contract violation. To make the situation even more extraordinary, Cagney took the opportunity to leave Warner Brothers and instead sign on with Grand National Pictures[14].

Though his stint with GNP only lasted through the production of two pictures, Great Guy (1936) and Something to Sing About (1937), it was in this period that Cagney was truly able to soar. In control at last of his image, he determined to make the kinds of movies denied him so long by Warners that would portray him in the kind of light he desired to be known for. Great Guy was very different from his Warners fare: he’s Johnny Cave, an honest public official who is chief deputy of the Bureau of Weights and Measures–a far cry from his usual criminal career with Warners. Cagney’s Cave throws the stock “tough Cagney” on its head; he is a listener, letting his girlfriend, Janet, be the dominating force in their relationship, level-headed, smart, and always doing his utmost to solve his problems without his fists. In fact, the one time when Cagney’s Cave loses his cool and slugs an unscrupulous gas station attendant, he is genuinely regretful and even sadly murmurs, “I promised…”[15]. This trend continues into his second and final film with GNP, Something to Sing About, which not only carries on the same tone of character, but still more direct significance to Cagney and his views on Hollywood’s studio system. As Terry Rooney, a band leader turned sudden Hollywood star, he dances, he refuses to let Hollywood change him, and when it gets to be too much, he leaves with his wife. Even though Cagney’s Rooney ultimately returns to Hollywood, he despises the subterfuge that makes him pretend to be a bachelor in his seven-year contract despite his wife’s acceptance, and ultimately returns to New York, the band, and freedom. This was a true slap in Warners’ face, a clear, decisively blunt statement by Cagney on how he felt under Warners’ contracts and his yearning for freedom of expression and image.

Ultimately he did return to Warners under yet another new contract (this time for $150,000 a picture plus 10% of the gross) to ensure production of his Angels With Dirty Faces[16]. While he was essentially a “tough guy” in Angels With Dirty Faces, there are two curious points to bring up about this picture. First, is that it is Cagney who brought the picture over from Grand National, which means that it is his concept and therefore his character was sculpted to suit him and him alone. Second, because it was his concept and his character, it was unlike any gangster movie he’d been in yet. As Rocky Sullivan, a criminal who got caught at a young age stealing fountain pens (but who sacrificed himself to save his friend Jerry from getting caught as well), he returns to his old neighborhood and becomes involved with some troublesome boys, Jerry, now a priest, is trying to reform. At the end when he is captured after a shootout with police and on his way to the electric chair, Cagney’s Rocky suddenly pretends to be “yellow” so that the boys believe he died a coward, fulfilling Jerry’s last request of him. Despite his inevitable bad influence, there is a sense throughout the entire film that he is doing what he believes to be right for the boys and for his friend Jerry, donating $10,000 of his hard-earned “dirty” money to Jerry to build a church recreation center for the boys, teaching the boys how to play, how to take care of themselves, and how to be a productive member of a gang. Warners’ advertising pressbook for the movie tried to enforce Cagney in his “tough guy” motif by putting such slogans as “Once upon a time, he had a heart!” beside Cagney’s face[17]. But even then, the effect is diminished when the movie is seen. The sacrifice of his own memory at the end to protect the kids and the constant aura of truly trying to do the right thing by his friends leave one with the sense of a truly evolved gangster, the kind of gangster Cagney would write and want to portray.

Throughout the next several years, Cagney continued to make films with Warners, some continuing to exploit his image as Hollywood’s “tough guy”, others advancing his image as a true actor. The true fruition of Cagney’s work, his magnum opus and his personal all-time favorite film that he starred in, was to come in 1942 with the star-spangled, all-American musical, Yankee Doodle Dandy, which won him both his Academy Award and hard-earned fame as an accomplished song-and-dance man[18]. The culmination of Yankee Doodle Dandy and his tiredness of working for a studio for whom he had to constantly be on the alert that he wasn’t being cheated by, encouraged him to permanently break with the studio the same year and pursue business on his own, setting up Cagney Productions through United Artists with his brothers, William and Edward[19]. He would continue to produce films that satisfied his thirst for multi-faceted roles and his image. Though he will forever be renowned as the original Hollywood baddie, Cagney strove to be so much more than just a gun-wielding gangster. To sing, to dance, to be tender, to be soft, to be dynamic; to be a broad-ranged, multi-talented actor. He may have never been in complete control (that’s simply the nature of show business) but he made his voice heard. Using the one weapon he had, the right to simply leave the studio and not allow his talents to be exploited, he helped charter the types of characters he portrayed, and ensured that his name would go down in history not just as the Public Enemy, but also as America’s singing, dancing, lighthearted and spry, Yankee Doodle Boy.

 

 

[1] AFI’s 100 YEARS…100 STARS.” AFI’s 100 YEARS…100 STARS. American Film Institute, June-July 1999. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.

[2] Dickens, Homer. The films of James Cagney. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1972.

[3] McGilligan, Patrick. Cagney, the actor as auteur. Da Capo Press pbk. ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 1980.

[4] Smith, Jim. Gangster films. London: Virgin, 2004.

[5] Cagney, James. Cagney by Cagney. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976.

[6] Cagney, James. Cagney by Cagney. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976.

[7] McGilligan, Patrick. Cagney, the actor as auteur. Da Capo Press pbk. ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 1980.

[8] Dickens, Homer. The films of James Cagney. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1972.

[9] McGilligan, Patrick. Cagney, the actor as auteur. Da Capo Press pbk. ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 1980.

[10] A job he loved, but a job nevertheless whose prime purpose was to put groceries on the table. If the studios were not going to keep up their end of the bargains, than why should he? — Cagney, James. Cagney by Cagney. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976.

[11] McGilligan, Patrick. Cagney, the actor as auteur. Da Capo Press pbk. ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 1980.

[12] Dickens, Homer. The films of James Cagney. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1972.

[13] McGilligan, Patrick. Cagney, the actor as auteur. Da Capo Press pbk. ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 1980.

[14] Cagney, James. Cagney by Cagney. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976.

[15] McGilligan, Patrick. Cagney, the actor as auteur. Da Capo Press pbk. ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 1980.

[16] McGilligan, Patrick. Cagney, the actor as auteur. Da Capo Press pbk. ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 1980.

[17] Pressbook. Angels with dirty faces. CIN 301, Professor K. Edwards. January 2014.

[18] Cagney, James. Cagney by Cagney. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976.

[19] McGilligan, Patrick. Cagney, the actor as auteur. Da Capo Press pbk. ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 1980.

Morgan Dean is a cinema and creative writing double major who has won several awards for writing and film, including publication. This essay sprung from her love of the film ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’, the brilliant performances of James Cagney, and her fascination with his desire to break free of the constrictions of the Production Code and control his own destiny. Her areas of cinematic interest primarily include classical Hollywood and feature film animation such as Disney and Pixar, for whom she strives to work for as a story artist. She will continue her research in the following year by analyzing the evolution of the Disney animated woman, and turning her feature length script, ‘Tempus Avenue’, into a novel

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Morgan Dean is a cinema and creative writing double major who has won several awards for writing and film, including publication. This essay sprung from her love of the film ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’, the brilliant performances of James Cagney, and her fascination with his desire to break free of the constrictions of the Production Code and control his own destiny. Her areas of cinematic interest primarily include classical Hollywood and feature film animation such as Disney and Pixar, for whom she strives to work for as a story artist. She will continue her research in the following year by analyzing the evolution of the Disney animated woman, and turning her feature length script, ‘Tempus Avenue’, into a novel