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Song of the Hollywood Gangster:

A Look Into James Cagneys Rebellion From Characters and Contracts


(Published in Screen Culture)

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, always able to relate to, 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 time1. 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 going so far as to say, Jimmy has never been better, and thats saying

something2.

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

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.ThefilmsofJamesCagney.Secaucus,N.J.:CitadelPress,1972.
today be remembered for the full spectrum of his talents, not merely as just a thug toting a gun

and slapping around women3. Capable of so much more and so rarely offered the opportunities to

showcase it, and despite the 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 Lets Go Places With

Jimmy, argues that Cagneys 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. Cagneys 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 Cagneys gangster

characters are steadily evolving and becoming more psychologically complex, most attribute that

3 McGilligan,Patrick.Cagney,theactorasauteur.DaCapoPresspbk.ed.NewYork:DaCapoPress,1980.
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 McGilligans

Cagney: The Actor as Auteur.

In his study of Cagneys star persona, McGilligan followed Cagneys 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. It was 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, Cagneys 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 full, and 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

4 Smith,Jim.Gangsterfilms.London:Virgin,2004.
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 Cagneys 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, Cagneys star persona is brought into a new light. Through his desire to

pursue loftier roles that would harness his full and 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 actor5. His immediate film to follow, Smart Money (1931), alongside

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 such 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 in 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,

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


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 1942-19446. 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 and instrumented three major walkouts by

him 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 conman who ultimately is caught and

thrown in jail. Chaffing under the stigma of tough guy, Cagney balked and to show Warners

his seriousness, demanded a higher salary. The move stunned Warners; no actor had done such a

move before, particularly not such a relatively new star. But 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-appraisal7. 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.

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

7 McGilligan,Patrick.Cagney,theactorasauteur.DaCapoPresspbk.ed.NewYork:DaCapoPress,1980.

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