White Heat

Why has James Cagney’s star faded?

By John McCabe
Knopf; 439 pages; $29.95

Should we be sad that James Cagney is slipping from memory, or was it inevitable that his star would fade? These days, Cagney’s image tends to flicker: He’s that tough guy who talks so fast you can hardly hear the words, and who, at the end of his films, gets killed. Few people know Cagney’s performances as intimately as they know the high points of the performances of Humphrey Bogart or Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant. Or compare Cagney with fellow macho icon John Wayne: The punk gangster’s stock has fallen, while the silent cowboy’s keeps on rising. What Americans do recall about Cagney they’re likely to have picked up from imitators (including, of all people, Sammy Davis Jr.), who loved to mimic his nasal, rapid-fire delivery, and to re-enact that moment at the end of his films when he gets plugged with what seems like 300 bullets and reels theatrically for 12 minutes before dropping dead.

Cagney’s slow fade is especially surprising when you consider how much the genre he helped to invent, the gangster film, thrives. As described by John McCabe in his old-fashioned and sometimes overly affectionate new biography, the street milieu that Cagney brought to the screen seems contemporary, too. He was born in 1899 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, into an Irish family facing problems you can still see every week on NYPD Blue. His father was a tragic combination of saloonkeeper and drunk who died relatively young during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. His mother was a martyr with Irish red hair–the stuff Oedipus complexes are made of. He grew up all the way east on 76th Street, in Yorkville, and although he seems to have been a mama’s boy, a loner who liked to read, tough guys in the neighborhood gave him nicknames like Red, Runt, and Short Shit, and forced him to learn how to fight. (A few of them also taught him Yiddish, a language he adored and drew on throughout his life for insults. He called his main career nemesis, studio head Jack Warner, “the Schvontz,” one of Yiddish’s many creative terms for “prick.”) Cagney’s first showbiz gig was unplanned and inauspicious: a musical revue about sailors in drag. According to McCabe, the need to support his fatherless family, not vain hopes of becoming a star, is what drove him.

H e worked his way up in vaudeville, perfecting a distinctive style of dance in which he stiffened his legs and stuck out his butt, and he was playing a sniveling bootlegger on Broadway when Warner recruited him to Hollywood in 1930. While other movie companies of the early ‘30s filmed literary adaptations or drawing-room comedies or musicals, Warner Bros., which specialized in no-frills realism, set Cagney to work in a cycle of social-problem flicks–movies drawn from headlines about striking milk truck drivers, warring taxi unions and, of course, gangsters. These films claimed to warn America about its urban ills, but what Cagney’s first breakout hit, The Public Enemy (1931), conveyed was the charisma of the amoral hood. He played Tom Powers, a street punk who gets rich running booze during Prohibition, grows too big for his britches, and winds up being shot. Other actors had played scum, but only Cagney played scum with an awesome dignity, like a predator in a nature documentary. Years later, Kenneth Tynan said this was the role that let audiences admit they’d take a stinking lowlife over a fussbudget hero any day.

The career that followed is a good example of how shrewd the old studio system was at figuring out exactly what a star is supposed to do, and an even better example of how the system locked stars into an increasingly stultifying caricature of their greatest roles. Cagney riffed on this hard-boiled persona for about a decade, most harrowingly in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), playing Rocky Sullivan, a killer who freaks out just as he’s about to go to the electric chair. (The audience is left to guess if Rocky is spineless or if he’s just trying to convince all the kids who worship him that crime doesn’t pay.) To keep his fans from getting bored, he improvised what he called “goodies,” little touches like kicking a chair out from under his co-star. Shortly before he died, Cagney described to McCabe his method of acting. Basically, he listened. Watch Cagney while someone else is speaking and you’ll see a darting eye, a quivering eyebrow, a split-second grin. He hardly moves, but he makes everyone on-screen seem important, and he creates a rare kind of in-the-scene suspense.

Nonetheless, he kept getting stuck with hack directors and predictable scripts. Relief came when he got to play the great Irish song and dance man George M. Cohan in the musical Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). At last, a showcase for his stiff-legged routine and a chance to be recognized as a wholesome patriot, instead of a rat. He thought he’d broken out of his niche, but Warner still wanted to boss him around. So, in 1942, Cagney became one of the first stars to start his own production company. Unfortunately, in his rush to change his image he picked a string of sappy, pseudo-profound roles. He was a gentle country newspaperman (Johnny Come Lately, 1943), or a lovable alcoholic who sits in a bar all day musing over the destinies of his friends (Time of Your Life, 1948). A couple of times during this period, he’d test-screen a film, the audience would object to the new passive Cagney, and he’d have to shoot a new ending in which he went crazy and punched someone out.

McCabe leaves the impression that Cagney never got over this rejection of his sentimental side. When he started out in show business, he was something of a lefty, living briefly on a quasisocialist commune in New Jersey, sending money to striking Mexican lettuce pickers, and naming Stalin and Gandhi as his favorite human beings in a survey in 1933. But he was less an ideologue than an idealist, and as he got older his views shifted to the right. In fact, beneath Cagney’s amoral public image there seems to have been a Norman Rockwell struggling to get out. In his spare time he wrote naive mystical verse about God’s presence in nature: “All space is filled with wondrous things/ Unseen by human eye./ Before us hover kings and queens,/ With realms that float and fly.” Perhaps the most shocking fact revealed in Cagney is the actor’s lifelong secret desire to leave Hollywood and go into agriculture. He bought a number of farms and apparently loved to sit in the pasture and meditate on his cows.

Cagney’s corniness never really worked on-screen–the “goodies” were drowned out by windy speeches–but when he turned it upside down in WhiteHeat, his great 1949 comeback to the gangster genre, he was unmatched as a ruthless pervert. He played Cody Jarrett, the head of a bank-robbing gang who was trained in criminality by his mother, and who, though well into middle age, still dotes on her with an infant’s fierce love. White Heat features two of Cagney’s greatest primal tantrums: in prison, when he finds out that his mother is dead and moans like a maniac; and at a chemical refinery, where he screams, “Top of the world, Ma!” and then gets shot by the police and consumed by fire.

To play someone this unpredictable today, we might turn to an actor like Nicolas Cage. But Cage’s eruptions look narcissistic next to Cagney’s: When he snaps, he’s not responding to other people in a scene, he’s hearing voices in his head. The other obvious comparisons to Cagney are Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, but they’re prestige actors–cerebral, introverted, and usually not as funny. I tried to think of a modern actor who is as natural as Cagney, and to my surprise the name that made the most sense was John Travolta. Like Cagney, he has a dancer’s grace. In Saturday Night Fever his charisma elevated junk to greatness, and in PulpFiction he played a dirt-bag with just the right winking theatricality. Also, a few years ago, when left to choose his own material, Travolta made the hideous Phenomenon, thereby demonstrating a Cagneyesque taste for treacly fables.

The search for a modern Cagney is a vain one–nobody could compare to him. So why do we remember Wayne so much better? One reason is that Cagney didn’t make enough really great films. But there’s a larger explanation. Wayne had the good luck to rule over Westerns, a genre that was set on wide-open land and commemorated the past and dealt in stark moral truths–a genre doomed to grow obsolete, leaving Wayne to dominate the landscape, a proud and lonely warrior. Cagney’s charisma launched what looks, decades later, like the most enduring film style of all. He’s been sucked into the cultural ether. His skepticism and short fuse, which once seemed so radical, are taught at the Actors Studio. His name may be vanishing, but more than ever, he’s everywhere.