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TNR Film Classic: James Cagney (1937)

Cagney: Great Guy

It was just four years ago, when I hadn’t been going to movies very much, that I stopped around to see Footlight Parade and made the happy discovery of James Cagney. He had been known to almost everybody else before that in heavier roles (Public Enemy, for instance), and before he was well known at all he had been doing bits in pictures. But in this one he happened to be cast as the original Cagney, the hoofer and general vaudeville knockabout. The story had him drilling a line of girls, stomping out the routines and cracking around like the end of a whip, and even the presence of Dick Powell could not dim that vitality and flow of motion, and a grace before the camera that puts him in the company of the few who seem born for pictures.

It was a sunny introduction: seeing him you couldn’t help feeling better about the industry—or the state of the nation for that matter. Because through this countrywide medium and in spite of whatever its story was about, this half-pint of East Side Irish somehow managed to be a lot of what a typical American might be, nobody’s fool and nobody’s clever ape, quick and cocky but not too wise for his own goodness, frankly vulgar in the best sense, with the dignity of the genuine worn as easily as his skin.

Since that time it has come out plainly that this character was no delusion of the flickers, that there was conscious purpose behind it. Once he was a star, Cagney used a star’s privilege to tell them what was in character and what wasn’t—gently, though, and with tactful stratagems, for he is no sea-lawyer (you will remember from the screen his trick of speaking more softly the more violent he gets). They wanted him to enounce with measure and dignity, now that he’d got to be a star on them; so he had to explain that the characters he was portraying never knew anything about this enounce, measure, etc.; and an actor should be in character, shouldn’t he? So they finally had to skip that. For Jimmie the Gent he got his head shaved and reported for work. The director was scared to death of shooting him that way (Ah, he kept saying with a slight accent, my main love interest should open with a head like a pig’s-knuckle?); and lord knows what the office would do. But Cagney gentled them and squared it with everybody—and anyway they couldn’t hold up work while his hair grew—and managed to bring out a story about a thug who chased ambulances or sneaked up on dead horses or something, giving it the works. And if this wasn’t the fastest little whirlwind of true life on the raw fringe, then I missed the other. When the picture Here Comes the Navy came out, the New York heavy lads naturally placed it for an incentive to imperialist war—Cagney had been so neat on his feet that only the common citizens got the obvious point of this bantam-weight taking his blithe falls out of the stooge tradition of the United States Navy itself.

In such seemingly little ways he has managed to ad-lib, shift emphasis and bring out his own relief. But behind that is the basic appeal he has for the audience as a person under all that tough surface and fast talk people glimpse a sweet clarity of nature, a fellow feeling and rightness and transparent personal honesty. It makes all the difference in the world, and when he rips out a statement you sense without stopping to question that it is the living truth spoken through him, and not a line rehearsed and spoken on the set any longer. His screen life is not a natural autobiography, not something he just fell into. He is not a mug but one of the intelligent few; he isn’t a perpetual handspring but a man with a troubling illness; his conversation is more a subdued questioning than a bright explosion of syllables; and while he swings all the punches in his stories he has been taking plenty on the chin in all these actual years, from down-under to up-on-top; no one can help wondering, if the ship isn’t sinking when Jimmie Fiddler creeps off over the ratguards to write a patronizing Open Letter from awfully safe ground. Don’t think because he didn’t produce Hamlet on Broadway last year that Cagney is automatically himself; and therefore, no actor. His art is in an intense projection of those qualities within himself which he feels to be honestly representative of something, and in the fact that while all that rapid fire and assurance and open charm are enough to take the audience anywhere he wants to go, he has a guiding notion of where he’s going.

Since blowing up on the Warners more than a year ago, he has made two modest semi-independent pictures. Great Guy was all right, but all right for a Class-E picture only, and it is hard to think of Cagney except on the top. The new one, Something to Sing About, is a different thing and about the happiest experience we’ve got in the last few months, what with all the lavish splashes and worthy wordage.

It’s just about Cagney as a performing band leader who goes to the Coast on contract for one film. If I told the whole story I’m sure anyone could stop me because he’d heard it—they don’t dare tell the boy how good he is, which he only finds out when the girl he’s left behind him comes out for a honeymoon, and then his marriage has to he covered up for publicity purposes, which leads to domestic misery and a final happy finale with the hand back home. But this story is less story than business, and the business is subtle, pointed and meaty. For the producer and press-agent (respectively) they have a couple of my favorite seasoned troupers, Gene Lockhart and William Frawley, who cither catch the spirit of the thing or had the spirit bred into their bones. There are also the director, who is able to act like a director, the three fates from the departments of elocution, make-up and tailoring, and the Jap valet who speaks better English than any of us and originally had the acting ambition, now hidden behind a prop accent (Sank you, please).

The romance element is not helped by the girl Jimmie is supposed to go for like pups for biscuit, played by Evelyn Daw, a “find” who would be a mild sensation as typist on a WPA project but is fazed by the camera (not that she is afraid of it: there are times when she seems about to chew the hood), with a cute twitter of walking knock-kneed and a jaw always there ahead of her, the little-girl’s voice pinched up under her nose, etc. (oh it isn’t her fault, poor girl, but neither is it ours). But in the way the rest of it is worked out there is enough snap and good fun about the movies to make it go.

It is likely that Cagney was responsible for a lot of the spoofing (“I’ve heard all I want to about Robert Taylor”) and someone with union experience was certainly behind that comeback to the four-weeks-vacation offer: “Four weeks successively?”—and the Goldwyn producer answers with majesty, “Successively and positively.” The fight is one of his favorite subjects: how to set the camera and throw a punch that will miss by millimeters, the precautions to take with green actors. Then his line about, Do these heavies understand this swing-to-miss stuff? You know him—Johnny Come Lately; he just doesn’t want to be the only one around there playing house. And the business of the Hollywood double-take, the triple-take, the triple-take with a slow burn and the one-eye fadeaway, is brilliant.

Except for the scenes of the gang around the camera and boom, the actor on the set, the jam in the cutting room—the most quietly natural I’ve seen—and for bits like the cut in rhythm from the rushing minor thirds of the band to the westbound limited, the direction was run-of-the-mill and sometimes ham—Victor Schertzinger being still punchdrunk no doubt from the film he did with the great Grace (“Moo-moo”) Moore. The good time comes from the feeling that they had a good time making it, that Cagney said. Let’s put this in and everybody said. Why not, and they worked it out, a black eye for authority here, a bit of fun at their own expense there. The independence and small budget gives them more leeway and genial leisure, and perhaps we ought to have more of the same (though it is true that Cagney’s best film was made in the mass-production pattern: Ceiling Zero, still one of the finest).

I think much can be done by good people who break away and bring the industry up short by independent accomplishment. But when all is said and wherever he is, Jim Cagney is bound to shape up as a regular great guy you’d like to have around the house or on any job you’re doing. Would anyone argue that in the sacred fields of art there is no room for such?

This article ran in the October 13, 1937, issue of the magazine.