Cagney by John McCabe More Yankee Doodle than White Heat

When I was a kid, I idolised James Cagney. To me he was not only an actor, but was an actor of short stature who came over on the screen as someone who was huge. He was a giant. I’m not talking about the old cinema screens of my youth that made anyone who appeared on them about 50 feet tall. He looked like a giant on the small television screen. He had power in his performances, an aura that made his characters bigger than life.

I did not even see Cagney on the big screen. I first saw him in a Bob Hope film called The Seven Little Foys (1955 from Paramount studios, three years before I was born), on television. Cagney played George M. Cohan, he was reprising his role in the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy; a biopic of the grand old man [Cohan] of American entertainment.

There is a scene where Bob Hope, as the equally legendary entertainment figure Eddie Foy, has a table top “dance off” with Cagney as Cohan. It is, as they say, a show stopper. Hope has always been a more than capable hoofer (dancer) and Cagney actually seemed to “tone himself down” in the scene. After I watched this film, I became almost fixated on this short dancer from New York who, I knew from my parents, had started playing gangsters for Warner Brothers.

In my youth it was not easy to see really old films (in my day that counted as films made before the 60’s). The VCR had not been invented yet and apart from “all nighters” that showed a wealth of work from any given actor, you just had to hope you could catch future screenings on TV by reading the TV Guide in advance.

“Top of the world, Ma!” As Cody Jarrett, White Heat 1949.

The next film of Cagney’s I watched was White Heat. There cannot be a film fan in the world who doesn’t immediately think of Cody Jarrett screaming, “Top of the World, Ma!” Surrounded by fire, his world is about to end in a blaze of irony. The two characters that I’d seen Cagney play were polar opposites and he sold each one, completely.

I have read about James Cagney over the years in various books, Hollywood anthologies, and other biographies of entertainers, but McCabe does a brilliant job of bringing this legend to life. Perhaps the fact that John McCabe was a personal friend of Cagney’s and as a result was able to see more of the entertainer’s humanity and lack of guile.

I always refer to James Cagney as an entertainer versus an actor because he started out in vaudeville as a song and dance man (where he met his only wife, Willie, who stayed with him till he died) and he never lost his ability to dance the feet off of most of his peers. *He used to say he could never come close to Fred Astaire.*

Cagney was born in an area of New York that was heavily Jewish (he learned Yiddish as a boy) and poor. Most of his boyhood pals wound up in prison or at the gallows. His tough Irish mother taught him and his brothers how to box. The amount of things that McCabe relays, with the help of Cagney, is astonishing.

He paints as thorough a picture of the entertainer as possible. He does so without being overly sensitive with the more “unhappy” moments in Cagney’s life. If you are a Cagney fan, this book will be a revelation. Printed in 1997, there are very few things not covered in Cagney’s career and personal life.

When I read actor’s biographies I always finish feeling slightly down. Most “celebrities” pay highly for their success in the entertainment business. Some, like David Niven, seem to have almost been punished by their success. (Don’t go by the two self-penned books by Niven, but read the other two books about his live by Sheridan Morley or Graham Lord) When I finished McCabe’s recounting of Cagney’s life and career I felt happy and uplifted.

Cagney, despite the ravages of old age and all the pain that it brings, was a deeply contented man, who wrote poetry, painted, raised horses and cattle and loved the same woman till he died. This same contented man entertained literally millions of people over the years by his portrayal of a broad spectrum of characters.

This book is one that I would call the definitive work on Cagney; his work and his life. One that shows how he became a Hollywood legend and adored by his fans the world over; this is a real 5 star book that you should not miss if you’re a fan of Cagney or film.

A grapefruit in the mush…as Tom Power in The Public Enemy 1931.

Author: Mike's Film Talk

Former Actor, Former Writer, Former Journalist, USAF Veteran, Former Member Nevada Film Critics Society

19 thoughts on “Cagney by John McCabe More Yankee Doodle than White Heat”

  1. the studio system had it’s faults, but we don’t see the likes of a Cagney these anymore …
    he could do it all: song, dance, drama, comedy …
    and had class.
    and looks the schlock they idolize these day. poor bastards … they don’t know any different.


    1. The one “bad” thing about the studio system was its death and the subsequent change brought about in the acting community. No more multi-talented actors and actresses put through their paces. To badly paraphrase Gloria Swanson’s character in Sunset Blvd. “Back then they had stars [sic].” Thanks for sharing mate!!


      1. Mike, funny you should mention Swanson in talking about Cagney and demise of the studio system. Marilyn and I just watched a new Blu-Ray edition of “Sunset Boulevard”. Looks wonderful and is as marvelous as ever right down to that chilling close. I need to amend my original Cagney comments. I first saw him on the big screen as Cody Jarrett. I was just a kid and forgot. Another tidbit: In that personal encounter, HE mentioned “The Oklahoma Kid”, winced and laughed. Believe he was reassuring me that we all make mistakes. In that case, the blame fell on the studio “suits”.


      2. I’m not surprised that he winced; funnily enough he made that picture with Bogart (whom I’m about to blog about) and neither of them liked the film! Yeah those “suits” had a lot to answer for! LOL


  2. I am looking forward to the newest Cagney read. I think the first Cagney film I saw on the big screen was “Run For Cover”. I had the incredibly great fortune of meeting the legendary actor IN PERSON — on Martha’s Vineyard — in the early 70’s. He actually approached me and chatted about my work as a reporter on a Boston TV station. I was dumbstruck!! Turned into a memorable two hour lunch with Cagney sharing anecdotes and counselling me on dealing with “suits”. Doesn’t get much better than that, Ma!! (Aside from the perennial Cagney classics, My Wife Marilyn and I frequently watch “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “One, two, Three”. Wish “Dandy” has been shot in color. And Cagney’s frenetic machine gun dialogue in “One, Two, Three” is a work for the ages).


    1. You may colour me green with envy! How totally amazing. Yes, indeed Cagney had a lot of “heartburn” with the “suits” all right. You’ve certainly had contact with some of the great celluloid heroes! Thanks for sharing that Gary!! 😀


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