Measuring Up To
More Than 25 Years After His Death And 115 Years Since He First Burst Forth Into The World, The Little Tough Guy Is Remembered For His Larger Than Life Persona And His Love Of Musicals And Dance
Studio publicity photo of James Cagney from the early 1930s.
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
July 14, 2014 — The iconic screen tough guy was born July 17, 1899, but even 115 years later, his frenetic screen presence still leaves audiences mesmerized. It’s still hard to believe that in 1979 we shared time with this Golden Age legend.
The visit occurred at Cagney’s rustic hideaway atop Coldwater Canyon in Beverly Hills, Calif. Seated on a rocking chair, dressed in a terrycloth bathrobe and with a severe case of early morning bed-head (his unruly white hair stood almost straight up as if he had just seen a ghost), Cagney took one look at Tom and said, “Hell, you must be a six-footer!”
Even at 79, age had not diminished that unique high-pitched, Irish-by-way-of-Yorkville, New York, pitch and machine-gun cadence.
While he cut his screen toughs playing tough guys in such classics as The Public Enemy, Angels with Dirty Faces, White Heat and Love Me or Leave Me, he was more comfortable talking about the handful of musical films he made, including his Oscar-winning turn as George M. Cohan in the 1942 biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy.
He told us that as a self-taught dancer, when he was young he would “acquire” steps from stage performers as he sat in the audience watching vaudeville acts, and then immediately swap them with other aspiring hoofers on the streets of New York. There was nothing deviant to this and it was considered an accepted practice, Cagney told us, provided one used the proper discretion and didn’t cop an entire routine outright.
It was during those early years – in the 1920s – that Cagney formulated his distinctive stiff – but rhythmic – style of dancing and his raspy enunciation of song lyrics. This combination meshed to a pinnacle in his Academy Award-winning role in Yankee Doodle Dandy, admittedly his favorite screen role.
As for the perennially asked question of all great movie stars: “Do you watch your films when they’re shown on TV?”
“Not the hoodlum one,” said Cagney. “But if it’s one of my musicals I might stick around for the dance numbers.”
In 1961 Cagney retired from the screen, with the exception of a small role in the 1981 film Ragtimeand a TV appearance in a 1984 TV movie, Terrible Joe Moran.
Cagney passed away at his Upstate New York farm on Easter Sunday, 1986. Our memories of our visit still make us feel six-feet tall!
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from Hollywood’s Golden Age. They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 years of celebrity profiles from vaudeville to movies to TV. Reach them at www.reeltoreal.com.
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