Cagney - Just a Family Man At Heart
TV Times 9th - 15th August 1986
Bimmy Cagney would find it difficult to recognise the myth he left behind him. And yet... and yet... the characters he created from the studio scripts he was handed were as much a part of his own background, his own character.
Cagney's affectionate jabs on actresses' chins were gestures culled from his saloon keeper father (He drank two for every drink he served — not good business'). In The St Louis Kid (1934), fed up with punching, he not so affectionately slammed an antagonist with his forehead. This gesture came from the streets of New York's Yorkville — as did his most lasting characterisation in Angels With Dirty Faces. He adopted the mannerisms of a hoodlum in Yorkville, hitching up his trousers, twisting his neck, snapping his fingers and bringing his hands together in a soft smack. It was the performance that has been so imitated since.
Cagney also inherited a tough attitude, one that he employed in his negotiations with Warner Brothers. In 1938, after he had made charges that he was underpaid and overworked, he became the studio's highest-paid star, earning 234,000 dollars a year. Twelve months later he was listed in the top 10 highest-salaried Americans, with an income of 368,333 dollars.
He loved the financial fight and recalled: 'I first came to Hollywood with the guarantee of SOO dollars a week for three weeks. I figured that would keep my wife and me for a full year. It was renewed for another three weeks and I said, "Well, now we're set for two years." Then they offered me a contract at 400 dollars a week with the promise of an increase after a year if everything went well. I figured they'd fire me after six months but I'd make 400 dollars a week for 25 weeks.
You always expect to be fired. Clark Gable once told my friend Ralph Bellamy, "It won't last. I don't buy anything I can't take back east on the train."'
In the event, it was Cagney who took the train east — and stayed for six months until Warners set his pay at 550 dollars a week. You had to fight like hell to get even that. There were no rules and regulations. You worked, worked, worked and they didn't give you anything without a fight.
'At one point, Humphrey Bogart was making three films at once. Not leading parts, of course. I ran into him one morning and asked him what he was doing. He said he didn't know — they'd just asked him to come in. It was part of the set-up.
'We called ourselves bread and butter actors, grinding no axes. We did the job and waited for the next one.
'The Public Enemy was the film that launched my career. I played a mean, mixed-up hood — a tough kid who tried to throw his weight around and ended up dead. It was a good part.
'In The Roaring Twenties and White Heat, lots of gangster roles and too much of the same thing gets to be too much. I don't really understand why the public never tired of these awful hoodlums.'
It was something completely different which won Cagney his only Oscar — Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) —which was always his personal favourite. He played showman-actor-songwriter George M Cohan in a patriotic tribute, the casting choice of the dying Cohan. Cagney charged at it. He got Warners to hire Cohan's dancing 'coach, Johnny Boyle, and said: 'From Johnny I learned Cohan's stiff-legged technique and I had a great time rehearsing, but it was hard, hard work.'
Privately, Cagney was a different type of Hollywood star. Even during the years of his greatest success he never joined the party circuit. After a day's work he would go home to his wife Frances, known as Willie. When a picture was over they would take the sleeper train east, to their home and farm in Dutchess County in New York State or their house at Marthas Vineyard on the coast of Massachusetts.
In his retirement years, he devoted himself to painting, reading and — a great irony for the movies' greatest gangster — writing verse. Upstate in Dutchess County he bred cattle and horses on his farm.
His last years were disturbed by stories of manipulation of himself and his legend by his manager Marge Zimmerman. She had become part of his and Willie's life, a sort of 'caretaker' of them. She was instrumental in getting Cagney out of retirement in 1981—after 62 films, this was something he had vowed never to do — to make Ragtime, followed
a rather sad legacy, the 1983 TV movie Terrible Joe Moran, which was a Cagney movie without a real Cagney.
Zimmerman was much criticised for this, but she maintained that her actions were not for profit but intended to lengthen Cagney's life, Cagney himself never accepted the criticism of her. In fact, in his will he left money in trust, to be administered by Marge and her husband.
When he died on Easter Sunday this year, she was there. 'We were getting him ready to have breakfast and he just closed his eyes and went to sleep.'
It was one of Cagney's least dramatic exits.
Although he wouldn't accept it, the movies made Cagney a continuing legend. He played his success down all the time: 'Silly words — I hate the word superstar. Who hung it on the business anyway? You don't hear them speak of Shakespeare as a "superpoet". You don't hear them call Michelangelo a "superpainter". They only apply the word to this mundane market.'
Cagney recalled sending a note of congratulations to George Burns, following George's rave reviews for The Sunshine Boys (1975). 'George wrote back, "I'm a buck dancer and you're a buck dancer and it's un-American of us to think of ourselves as anything else. Actors are a dime a dozen. I know. I just became one."
'And there you are. You're a hoofer who did the work and it all went well — fine. Jack Warner once said that he didn't know why Darryl Zanuck ever hired that lug, meaning me.'
It was at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles on a rainy March evening 12 years ago, that Cagney was given the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award When all the tributes were done, he spoke. He played things down as always: 'What I have I was bom with. I had nothing to do with it. You can't take bows for having red hair or blue eyes. And the drive is part of what you receive, too.
'I had the drive. It was part of me. And I'm glad and grateful it all happened, but you have to keep things in perspective. My parents were a gift and so were my family; I was lucky enough to marry the girl I did and have the children I did My good friends came to me unbidden; my job was one I enjoyed.' That evening, James Cagney put his finger on the ingredient which, given the times and the man, helped make the magic: 'I have to thank my childhood — a stimulating early environment, which produced that unmistakable touch of the gutter without which this evening might never have happened at all.'
For a guide to the seven Cagney movies on Channel Four this week | turn to films on page 27.
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