james cagney

James Cagney: Best Bad Guy in the Movies

The Classic Connoisseur’s Guide to the Best Films and Stars

Although James Cagney chafed at his constant stream of bad guy movies, he’s still known as the prototypical gangster. In the early years of his career, Warner Brothers frequently assigned him roles turned down by Humphrey Bogart. He chafed so much that at one point he started his own studio, but after a disastrous attempt at filming a very static Time of Your Life(1933)  by William Saroyan, he sold the company back to Warner Brothers. Perhaps that failure brought to mind his line from the movie that brought him fame, The Public Enemy (1931), when he said, “I ain’t so tough,” as he collapsed into a gutter.

What you may not remember about James Cagney is his background as a song and dance man. Although it seems incongruous that the psycho gangster was ever the cheerful dancer, he did make several musicals in Hollywood. His most popular movie is [amazon_link id=”B00005JKS8″ target=”_blank” ]Yankee Doodle Dandy[/amazon_link] (1942), which chronicled the life of George M. Cohan. The studio’s release of the film coincided with the beginning of America’s involvement in World War II, when patriotism swept people into the movie theater. Cagney won his only Academy Award for his portrayal of Cohan.

The skills he learned on the stage brought an unusual depth to his screen acting. He uses every muscle of his body to portray his character. His face is mobile, his attention is laser sharp, and although you won’t likely be thinking about his movements, if you study him at work, you will see how much more physicality he brings to his roles than the others around him.

In commentary on the DVD of The Public Enemy, Martin Scorsese says, “When Cagney first appeared on screen, modern screen acting was born.” That’s quite a statement, but Scorsese and the other commentators on the DVD point to the fact that in the 20s, actors were expected to enunciate like stage actors. However, Cagney spoke like himself — a machine-gun rapid delivery with a nasal twang and dropped consonants that underlined his cocky characterizations.

He was so magnetic that the studio decided at the last minute to switch the top two parts in The Public Enemy, after watching another film Cagney made that year. He was so riveting on screen that they moved him up from supporting role to main role.  Inside baseball: you may notice that the kids who play the main characters in the opening scenes don’t really look like the adults. Although Cagney and his co-star were switched, apparently no change was made in the casting of their younger selves.

I have dwelt on The Public Enemy because it was a breakthrough film for Cagney, but it is not my top choice of a film for you to watch if you need to reacquaint yourself with Cagney. Unless, that is, you want to see history in the making and a really awful (in my opinion) performance by glamour girl Jean Harlow. The Public Enemy has its virtues, including a stylish opening that has a documentary feel and a ripped-from-the-headlines story line.

Nope, I would recommend you start with [amazon_link id=”B0006HBV3C” target=”_blank” ]White Heat[/amazon_link] (1949), a much more modern chase movie  than The Public Enemy with its Dragnet-like focus on the techniques of the T-men as they hunt down the gang headed by Cagney. In White Heat, all of the characters match Cagney’s realistic acting style. The clichés are gone. The mother doesn’t act like a mother. The girlfriend doesn’t always act glamorous.The story is tight with no wasted motions.

This film seems to encapsulate all the things Cagney films are known for.  His character, a little boy at heart, relies on his momma, who’s a tough broad. His girlfriend, played magnificently by Virginia Mayo, is glamorous but very real and also a tough broad who becomes vulnerable at times. Cagney, of course, mistreats her — shoving her so she falls on a bed instead of the grapefruit-in-the-face that became the most famous scene in movies. Freudian psychology reigns. The Mama’s boy, Cagney makes his character into a psycho, and his fits of insanity and cold-blooded killing are something to behold.

Every character rivets your attention, and none more than Cagney. There is an evil heroism in his cry, “I made it, Ma! Top of the world!”

If you’re setting up your own personal Cagney marathon, after seeing his famous psycho role in White Heat, take a look at the catchy Yankee Doodle Dandy and then perhaps one of the last movies he made — [amazon_link id=”B000VZHLCY” target=”_blank” ]Mr. Roberts[/amazon_link] or Ragtime.

Cagney made 61 movies between 1930  and 1961, and returned to Hollywood in 1981 from his retirement on a Vermont farm — to play in [amazon_link id=”B00170I7AW” target=”_blank” ]Ragtime[/amazon_link].

Interesting Trivia: James Cagney never said “You dirty rat” in a movie, but this line from his 1932 film Taxi! came close.

Here’s a great piece on Cagney from Turner Pictures, hosted by Michael J. Fox.



  1. FrugalKiwi Avatar

    I’ve seen Cagney in many Noir movies, but the first thing I think of whenever I see him is George M. Cohan.

  2. melanievotaw Avatar

    LOVE Cagney.

  3. verabadert Avatar

    Jane–thanks for adding these great film clips.  I’d like to encourage people when they look at the Public Enemy, to notice in that scene shown above with Jean Harlow, to pay attention to what comes at the end of the scene. Unfortunately, it’s clipped off here, but after that slouch against the car, which says worlds about his emotional state, he actually does a little dance! That’s obviously a Cagney touch!
    Another interesting thing about that scene is that it is one of the very first movie scenes shot outdoors with dialogue. When they made the movie, technicians had just perfected sound systems that could pick up dialogue with ambient noise.

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

       @verabadert Love the little extra info. Will see if I can find a version with the Cagney dance included.

      1. verabadert Avatar

         @Jane Boursaw  Good luck finding the whole scene. Maybe we’ll just have to tell people to go see the original. (Just hold their noses when Jean Harlow comes on.)

  4. […] some really great movie clips to my post about Cagney films at Reel Life With Jane in my monthly Classic Connoisseur’s Guide to the Best Films and Stars. Hope you’ll take a look and let me know if you agree with my assessment of Jean Harlow inThe […]

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