Name: James Francis Cagney, Jr.
Birthdate: July 17, 1899
Number of Films James Cagney made with Humphrey Bogart: 3
Although I’ve always enjoyed James Cagney, it wasn’t until I began to write for this blog that I discovered my true love for the man. Rivaled only by Bogart as far as onscreen charisma is concerned, James Cagney could steal every scene and command every frame that he was in with just a few menacing words, a well-timed comedic line, or just the right smile – a smile that could often combine joy and danger. The man was bursting with an endless stream of energy that seemed to be contagious to any cast that surrounded him.
Cutting his teeth in vaudeville as a dancer and comedian, Cagney would go on to work with Warner Brothers in what would turn out to be an incredibly fruitful, but often tumultuous relationship. With films like The Public Enemy and White Heat, Cagney left behind the defining example of what it meant to be an onscreen gangster – tough, unnerving, funny, and always on the edge of emotional explosion.
Cagney made three films with Humphrey Bogart, and I have to say that I really love all three – even the one that gets the most flak from the critics and modern day TCM viewers (The Oklahoma Kid). With great pleasure, I add James Cagney to ‘The Usual Suspects.’
Angels with Dirty Faces – 1938
Cagney plays Rocky Sullivan, a small time hood that grows up to be a big time criminal. It’s a wonderfully charismatic performance from Cagney, and it’s the film that makes me think there might need to be a Cagney Film Blog when I’m done with Bogart. Cagney is able to pull off an incredible amount of likability from the viewers even while we watch him do some pretty terrible things to his friends and to the kids that he begins to mentor. A really good film is elevated to great just by the delivery of his final lines in the movie. Even though we see nothing but a quick glimpse of his hands, that last scene still has a deeply moving and painful tone that haunted me for days afterwards. Cagney said that he chose to play his final scene with enough ambiguity that the audience wouldn’t know his real motivation for what he says and does. The choice was genius. You can read my original write up on the film here.
The Oklahoma Kid – 1939
Cagney plays western outlaw Jim Kincaid, and although the real ‘bad guys’ in the film spend their time doing MUCH worse things than Cagney, the law seems to only want to pursue him. For all of the bad things that I’d heard about this film, I thought that Cagney played a great cowboy. Bogart reportedly referred to him as the mushroom because of his oversized hat, but just take a look at Bogart’s hat:
Was the wardrobe department out of mediums that day, or what? Other than the chapeau snafus, Cagney is endlessly watchable here and seemed to be enjoying himself as he flirts, cons, shoots, and rides his way through the film. I’d say it’s a must see Cagney film as he really seems to be having fun. You can read my original write up of the film here.
The Roaring Twenties – 1939
Cagney plays Eddie Bartlett, a WWII vet who returns home only to find that an honest job with a decent paycheck is all but impossible to get. So what’s a man to do other than to turn his talents towards an illegal bootlegging operation? Cagney gets to run the gamut from celebrated soldier boy, to big time gangster, and then all the way down to flat broke drunk. Cagney’s charisma is off the charts and every moment he’s on screen you just can’t take your eyes off of him. He looks great in a uniform, a tuxedo, and a bum’s clothes. He can switch from coy and charming one minute, to fierce and ruthless the next, and it always plays believably. His comedic timing is perfect and there’s wonderful chemistry with the entire cast. You can read my original write up of the film here.
*UPDATE* – You gotta check out this rare clip that Judy posted on her Movie Classics blog of Cagney in a screen test! What a great moment! Linkety-link.
‘The Usual Suspects’ is an ongoing feature on the blog that highlights some of Bogart’s best collaborators. You can find the ever-growing list of names here.