It Was All Big - and It Worked:James Cagney: 1899-1986

James Cagney: 1899-1986

  • Share
  • Read Later

He was the embodiment of big-city scrappiness, a mean-streets survivor who got ahead on a good grin, good moves and better hustle. To a generation of comic impressionists, Jimmy Cagney's mannerisms became part of the standard repertoire: the tough-guy, tommy-gun chatter, the feinted jab to convey affection (first aimed at Loretta Young in Taxi) and the square-shouldered bantam-cock strut. Public Enemy, White Heat and his other classic gangster movies traded on what he fondly called "my gutter quality." But in more than 60 films, the last of them a made-for-TV movie that aired in March 1984, Cagney stood a head above any mob of imitators. Last week he lammed out for good, dying at 86 on his upstate New York farm.

Cagney's widow Frances reportedly turned down an offer to hold the funeral in New York City's St. Patrick's Cathedral. It would have been too grand for a former street kid. His last rites were held instead in a more modest setting, the church of St. Francis de Sales in Manhattan's Yorkville neighborhood, where he once served as an altar boy. His pallbearers were like a sampling of Cagney's many sides. They included Boxer Floyd Patterson, Dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, Actor Ralph Bellamy and Director Milos Forman.

It was Forman who directed Cagney in Ragtime, the 1981 film that brought him back into the public eye after two decades of retirement. After completing Billy Wilder's 1961 comedy One, Two, Three, Cagney vowed to quit filmmaking. Content in the company of his wife and a small circle of friends, he divided his time between two farms in the East and a home in Beverly Hills. He dabbled in painting, bred horses and collected antique carriages. But with the help of Cagney's associates, Forman lured the actor out of retirement to play Ragtime's canny police commissioner, a man whose final ruthlessness was like a congealed residue of Cagney's youthful pugnacity. Cagney was rediscovered and in the years that followed treated to a flood of public affection, tributes and honors. Though age had undone his hoofer's dexterity, he made a last proud turn in the Hollywood spotlight.

It was a properly luminous finale for a man whose energy could light a city block. Born on New York City's Lower East Side, Cagney was the son of a hard- drinking bartender who was frequently absent from home. He was raised mostly by a strong mother who could cheer him on in a barefisted street brawl but stood resolutely in his way when he toyed with the idea of a professional fight career. She made no objections, however, when Cagney fast-talked his way into a $35-a-week vaudeville dancing job when he was 20.

"I didn't know the Highland fling from a sailor's hornpipe," he said later. "I watched the fellow's feet next to me and did what he did." He quickly graduated to Broadway musicals, then in 1930 was brought to Hollywood as a contract player for Warner Bros., the studio that had ushered in the talkies a few years earlier with The Jazz Singer. Many silent-film stars' careers were destroyed by the triumph of sound; Cagney's was ensured by it. He was one of the first actors to grab an audience by sending dialogue special delivery, with a style of high-speed utterance that could animate even the most inert exchanges.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2