Cagney and the Mob: Kenneth Tynan on Hollywood’s original gangster

In this profile from our May 1951 issue, the legendary critic Kenneth Tynan reflects on the extraordinary career and influence of James Cagney, Hollywood’s original gangster, who blurred the line between hero and villain.

Kenneth Tynan
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James Cagney

James Cagney

Twenty one years ago James Cagney, playing in his first film, invented a new kind of screen character. In more than fifty subsequent appearances he has polished and complicated it, but the type has remained substantially unchanged; and it may now be time to investigate its extraordinary influence. Morally and psychologically it could be maintained that the Cagney code and manners have come to dominate a whole tradition of American melodrama.

Before Cagney boffed Mae Clark with a grapefruit in The Public Enemy, Hollywood had adhered to what was, by general consent, a reasonably stringent set of moral principles. The film is no exception to the other popular narrative arts: in its infancy it clings to a broad and exaggerated ethical system, based on pure blacks and whites.

In the theatre this period is represented by the morality play, and was superseded by Marlowe, whose heroes were noble and wicked, fraudulent and pious, cruel and idealistic, at the same time. In the novel the period of over-simplification ended with the Romantics; and in the film it ended with Cagney.

This is not to say that the American movie before 1930 was never immoral: the very urgency of the need for a Hays Office demonstrates the contrary. But its immorality, however blatant, was always incidental and subordinate: a sheikh might flay his wives with scorpions to enliven the curious, but he would be sure to be trampled on, baked or impaled in the last reel. He was always transparently evil, and the flayee transparently innocent.

This article first appeared in our May 1951 issue

This article first appeared in our May 1951 issue

In the early Westerns there is no doubt who is the villain; he is the man leaning against the bar in black frock-coat, ribbon bow-tie and pencilled moustache. He is a killer, charmless and unfunny, and suffers dreadfully by comparison with the bronzed hero on the white horse; his part, too, is much shorter than the star’s. In the twenties there was not only a rigid distinction between the good characters and the bad; they were also evenly balanced in numbers and fame. Vice and virtue proclaimed themselves irrevocably within the first hundred feet, or the director was failing at his job.

Cagney changed all this. In The Public Enemy he presented, for the first time, a hero who was callous and evil, while being simultaneously equipped with charm, courage and a sense of fun. Even more significantly, he was co-starred not with the grave young district attorney who would finally ensnare him, but with a bright, callow moll for him to slap. The result was that in one stroke Cagney abolished both the convention of the pure hero and that of approximately numerical equipoise between vice and virtue.

The full impact of this minor revolution was manifested at last in the 1942-47 period, when Ladd, Widmark, Duryea and Bogart were able to cash in on Cagney’s strenuous pioneering. It now becomes fascinating to trace the stages of development by which the Cagney villain (lover, brute, humorist and killer) was translated into the Bogart hero (lover, brute, humorist, but non-killer). It is an involved story.

Mae Clarke and James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931)

Mae Clarke and James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931)

Probably it begins with the physical attributes of Cagney himself. One finds it hard to take such a small man seriously: how, after all, can a playful redhead of 5 ft. 8 ins. really be a baron of vice? It is safe to say that if Cagney had been four inches taller, his popularity would be fathoms less than it is.

Villains before him had tended to be huge: they loomed and slobbered, bellowed and shambled: you could see them coming. Cagney was and is spruce, dapper and grinning: when he hits a friend over the ear with a revolver-butt, he does it as casually as he will presently press the elevator button on his way out. By retaining his brisk little smile throughout he makes one react warmly, with a grin, not coldly and aghast.

Nobody in 1930, the year after Chicago’s St. Valentine’s Day massacre, at which Capone’s lieutenants slaughtered nine men in a disused garage, would have tolerated any romanticisation of the gangster legend. When Muni played Scarface for Howard Hawks two years later, he presented the mob leader as an unhealthy, ungainly lout, a conception clearly in key with contemporary taste.

Cagney unconsciously paved the way for the advent of the smooth, romantic gangster of the late ‘thirties; he softened public opinion by sneaking up on it through a forgotten and unguarded loophole. He was never a romantic figure himself – at his height you can’t be – nor was he sentimental – Cheshire cats never are – but he possessed, possibly in greater abundance than any other name star of the time, irresistible charm. It was a cocky, picaresque charm; the charm of pert urchins: the gaminerie of unlicked juvenile delinquents.

The Public Enemy (1931)

The Public Enemy (1931)

Cagney, even with sub-machine gun hot in hand and corpses piling at his ankles, can still persuade many people that it was not his fault. By such means he made gang law acceptable to the screen, and became by accident one of the most genuinely corrupting influences Hollywood has ever sent us. Cagney brought organised crime within the mental horizon of errand-boys, who saw him as a cavalier of the gutters – their stocky patron saint.

But before the actor comes the script. What literary circumstances were conspiring to produce a climate in which the brutal hero could flourish? It would be superficial to neglect Hemingway, who was beginning to project on to the American mind his own ideal of manhood – a noble savage, idly smoking, silhouetted against a background of dead illusions. Surveyed impartially, the Hemingway hero numbers among his principal characteristics that of extreme dumbness: he is the sincere fool who walks phlegmatically off the end of the pier. He is honourable, charmless, tough and laconic; and he is always, in some sense, a pirate or an adventurer.

What Cagney did was to extract the moral core from Hemingway’s creation and put smartness in its place: the result was a character charmingly dishonourable, but saved from suavity or smugness by his brute energy and swift, impetuous speech. Perhaps the simplest point of departure is that, whereas the Hemingway man never hits a woman for fun, Cagney made a secure living out of doing just that.

The success of Cagney’s methods made all sorts of variations possible; chief among them the genre popularised in the novels and films of Chandler. Here the central character is tough, cynically courageous, and predisposed towards brutality; he is in fact identical with the Cagney version in all save one vital respect – he is on the side of the law.

The process is thus completed: the problem of how to retain the glamour of the killer without the moral obloquy of murder has been solved. Let your hero be a private eye, and he can slaughter just as insensitively in the name of self-defence.

James Cagney in "G" Men (1935)

James Cagney in "G" Men (1935)

Cagney himself has rarely compromised; at the height of his career he never lined up with the police or made any concessions to public morals beyond the token one of allowing himself to be killed at the end, as an indispensable but tiresome rubric. At his best (The Public Enemy, The Mayor of Hell, G-Men, White Heat) he flouts every standard of social behaviour with a disarming Irish pungency which makes murder look like an athletic exercise of high spirits and not a mean and easy transgression. He sweetened killing; and to have done this immediately after the Capone regime, during the era of the concentration camp and between two lacerating wars, is something of an achievement.

He was born in New York in 1904 and educated at Stuyvesant High School and Columbia University; his background was East Side, but not the slum and tenement area. He began his stage career, mysteriously, as a female impersonator in 1923, and thereafter for six years danced and understudied in vaudeville. He was mostly penniless.

In 1929 William Keighley, then a Broadway director, saw Cagney and Joan Blondell in a romp called Maggie the Magnificent and starred them in Penny Arcade; the play was bought for First National and all three went to Hollywood with it. Retitled Sinners’ Holiday it was released in 1930. Cagney made eight pictures with Joan Blondell in less than four years, and she proved a perfect punchbag for his clenched, explosive talent; the best of the series, Steel Highway, started a revealing vogue for stories about men who work in dangerous proximity to high-tension electrical mechanisms.

These films came to be known as “death-dicers”, since they invariably centred on a character who was only happy close to sudden death, who enjoyed tightroping along telegraph wires or lighting cigarettes around kegs of dynamite. For such parts Cagney was a natural, and Wellman, who directed Steel Highway, quickly exploited the new star’s edgy gameness by putting him into Public Enemy with Blondell and Mae Clark.

Cagney with regular co-star Joan Blondell in Blonde Crazy (1931)

Cagney with regular co-star Joan Blondell in Blonde Crazy (1931)

When the film appeared in 1931, the age of the screen gangster had officially begun. Howard Hawks followed in 1932 with Scarface, which, though it had the advantage of one of Ben Hecht’s best scripts, lacked Cagney’s spearhead precision to hold it together. For ten years afterwards he led the gangster film to extraordinary box-office eminence, and four times appeared in the annual list of the ten top money-making stars.

In 1932, Hawks made The Crowd Roars with Cagney and Blondell; in 1933 came The Mayor of Hell; in 1934 Michael Curtiz’s Jimmy the Gent; in 1935 Keighley’s expert and sombre G-Men; and finally, feeling that things were becoming too easy for him, Warners teamed Cagney with Bogart in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939). At this point he had made thirty-two films in nine years; the association with Blondell had dissolved, and his most frequent sparring partner was Pat O’Brien.

Cagney was now maturely at his best. Even the most ascetic cineast will admit that it is impossible to forget how he looked and talked at the height of his popularity. The spring-heeled walk, poised forward on the toes; the fists clenched, the arms loosely swinging; the keen, roving eyes; the upper lip curling back in defiance and derision; the rich, high-pitched, hectoring voice; the stubby, stabbing index finger; the smug purr with which he accepts female attention – Cagney’s women always had to duck under his guard before he would permit them to make love to him.

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

He was practically unkillable; it would generally take a dozen Thompson guns and a bomb or two to bring him to his knees; and he would always die running at, not away from, his pursuers, in a spluttering, staggering zig-zag, ending with a solid and satisfying thump. He moved more gracefully than any other actor in Hollywood. And he had a beguiling capacity for reassuring while he murdered: he would wrinkle up his face into a chubby mask of sympathy and then let you have it in the stomach. His relaxedness, even when springing, was absolute; he released his compact energy quite without effort. When circumstances forced him to shout, his face would register how distasteful he found it.

Cagney’s first rival in the game of romantic murder appeared in 1936. Humphrey Bogart, five years Cagney’s senior, had made half a dozen mediocre pictures since 1932, and had returned to the stage to play the escaping gangster, Duke Mantee, in The Petrified Forest. In 1936 the play was filmed and Bogart was established.

It was a new style; speculative, sardonic, sourly lisping, he stood out in direct contrast to Cagney, who was agile, cleancut, and totally unreflective. Bogart frequently appeared unshaven; Cagney, never; but the challenge was clear, for both men specialised in whimsical law-breaking and both commanded alarming sex-appeal.

Cagney, who had captured several million infant hearts with pictures like Here Comes the Navy, Devil Dogs of the Air, and Howard Hawks’s Ceiling Zero had access to an audience to which Bogart never appealed; but Bogart split Cagney’s female admirers, and was usually featured with bigger stars and better directors than Warners could offer Cagney. Bullets or Ballots (1936) followed The Petrified Forest; in 1937, following a brief and unsuccessful venture into legality as the D.A. in Marked Woman, he made San Quentin and Kid Galahad; and he breasted the year with his superbly metallic playing of Baby-Face Morgan in Wyler’s Dead End.

He had added to the gangster film something which Cagney always avoided: the dimension of squalor. In Cagney’s looting there had been an atmosphere, almost, of knight-errantry; Bogart, tired, creased and gnarled, effectively debunked it. The two films they made together for Warners made an absorbing conflict of styles – with Cagney throwing his hard, screwing punches and Bogart lazily ducking them.

The Roaring Twenties (1939)

The Roaring Twenties (1939)

Cagney’s was the more accomplished exhibition of ringcraft, but Bogart’s sewage snarl won him the decision. At times both men found themselves using the same tricks; each had perfected his own version of the fanged killer’s smile, and a good deal of The Roaring Twenties developed into a sort of grinning contest.

The experience must have proved something to both Cagney and Warners, because he made no more gangster films for ten years: by then the war had begun, the mob was very small beer, and the echo of machine-guns across deserted lots had lost its fascination for movie audiences.

Bogart graduated to the side of justice, and the second important change in the history of filmed mayhem had taken place. In 1941 he played Sam Spade for Huston in The Maltese Falcon – still the same wry brute, but more insidiously immoral, since now there was a righteous justification for his savagery. He repeated this performance in Across the Pacific, and when The Big Sleep appeared in 1946 it looked as if the pure gangster film was dead.

In 1942, Paramount produced their answer to Bogart in This Gun for Hire: the soft and silky thuggishness of Alan Ladd; and Dick Powell entered what was by now a very competitive market with Farewell My Lovely (aka Murder My Sweet, 1944) and Cornered (1945). Screen melodrama in this period was filled with ageing bandits, battering their way to glory under police protection.

Meanwhile Cagney had not been idle, though films like The Strawberry Blonde, Captains of the Clouds and The Bride Came C.O.D. (in which he daintily plucked cactus needles from Bette Davis’s seat) were not materially helping his reputation. In 1942, Curtiz made Yankee Doodle Dandy, a masterpiece of heartfelt hokum, and Cagney won an Academy Award with his sturdy, chirpy pirouetting; but the shamelessness of his early days seemed to have vanished.

The woman-slapping outlaws of the forties were the creations of feature players, not of stars, and they were mostly in the hands of Dan Duryea, the impact of whose rancid and lascivious unpleasantness in The Little Foxes had been confirmed by his straw-hatted blackmailer in Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944) and his raucous pimp in Scarlet Street (1945). The courage of nastiness had gone.

13 Rue Madeleine (1946)

13 Rue Madeleine (1946)

In 1942, Cagney formed his own production unit with his brother William, and in seven years made only four films – Johnny Vagabond, a philosophical failure; Blood on the Sun, a commonplace espionage thriller; 13 Rue Madeleine (for Twentieth Century Fox) a documentary-style spy story; and The Time of Your Life – a shrug of a film, charmingly aimless and inexpensive, in which Cagney, as a talkative drinker, gave his best performance since Yankee Doodle Dandy. The critics were suggesting that Cagney had agreed to accept middle age and abandoned the orgiastic killing of his youth. Then, in 1950, he suddenly returned to Warners and, with Raoul Walsh, made White Heat.

The style, in that amazing film, was the man himself: Cagney had never been more characteristic – flamboyant, serio-comic, and tricky as a menagerie. It is not easy to decide why he came back to straight gangster vehicles; though I have the impression that Twentieth Century Fox had much to do with it for, in 1947, they had begun their campaign to sell Richard Widmark to the public. His weedy, snickering murderer in Kiss of Death gave an unexpected lease of life to the gangster film. Playing within the semi-documentary convention, he could not be permitted to dominate his films as Cagney had in the lawless thirties; but he had the same gimlet appeal and was tapping the same love of clever violence. By 1949, his popularity was such that it must have persuaded Warners to disturb the retirement of their senior hoodlum.

Walsh and Cagney reverted in White Heat to the frankly artificial framework of The Public Enemy: there were a few location sequences, but the main burden fell on the star’s personality. The scenario made a genuflection to contemporary demand by giving its hero a mother-complex: whereat Cagney staggered even his devotees by acting it up to the hilt with a blind conviction which was often terrifying: he never let up.

The film dealt with the breakdown of a killer’s mind, and his slow, unwitting, unadmitting approach to the long tunnel of insanity. Cagney never indulged in self-pity for a moment: if the script called for a fit, he would throw one, outrageous and full-blooded; and by a miracle his integrity never gave out. The result was a lesson in neurosis which ranks, in recent memory, only with Richard Basehart’s in Fourteen Hours.

One cannot unlearn the sequence in which Cagney, attempting to ward off a mutiny amongst the boys, drives himself into one of his recurring blackouts, and drags himself to the cover of a bedroom, moaning in deep thick sighs like a wounded animal. And above all, the scene in the prison refectory. Word is passed down the table to Cagney that his mother has been killed: he stops eating, grins spasmodically, murmuring to himself, and then goes berserk, Jetting out strange, bestial cries and punching, punching at everyone with a compulsive defiance as he scampers the length of the hall. No other actor in Hollywood could have got away with that.

The older, crisper Cagney was there too; even he has never outdone, for sheer casualness, the murder of the stoolpigeon, whom he has locked up in the luggage-trap of his car. “Kinda stuffy in here”, the prisoner complains. “Like some air, eh?” says Cagney, cocking a wicked eyebrow; and, stopping only to pop a hot dog in his mouth, fires six shots into him through the body of the car.

 ‘Made it, Ma! Top of the world!’. James Cagney in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949)

 ‘Made it, Ma! Top of the world!’. James Cagney in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949)

The climax was nerve-wracking: cornered, he takes refuge in an explosives plant and is chased to the top of a huge circular vat of, presumably, T.N.T. Yelling: “On top of the world, Ma, on top of the world!” he sends his last bullet into it, and is blown sky-high. It was audacious and incredible in retrospect, but such was the intensity of Cagney’s playing that one refused to laugh.

It is always unworthy to deride perfect stylists, even if one disapproves of the ends to which the style is being put. There could be no question, in this sequence, that a very remarkable actor had hit his full stride and was carrying his audience with him.

The last Cagney film, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, was completely unsuccessful; spurred by his triumph in White Heat, the star tries too hard, and the consequent heap of corpses smothers even his panache. It now appears that he has returned to Warners for good, though probably not to make more than one film a year.

Fine and Dandy, a musical, will be followed by a comedy called Come Fill the Cup. Warners’ press department have recently announced that Cagney intends soon to leave the screen and go to classes at Connecticut Agricultural College with his son. Like the surly bravo in The Asphalt Jungle, he loves farming best.

I do not mean, by all this, to suggest that the crime film deserves over-serious analysis: it has always been openly unreal in structure, depending for its excitement on jazzed dialogue and overstated photography. But its influence on scripting and camera-work has been incalculable, involving many of the most expert and adult intelligences in Hollywood  – Hecht, Hawks, Wyler, Toland, Huston, Wellman, Lang, Chandler and Hellinger among them – and it has provided an imcomparable outlet for at least one unique acting talent.

If it has had a pernicious social influence, that is probably Cagney’s fault, and there is no space here to balance the old scales between art and morality. For myself, I do not mind walking the Edgware Road in peril, as long as there is a Cagney picture at Marble Arch.

A great deal of desperate urgency and attack would have been lost to the cinema, if the gang film had not arrived, making fantastic technical demands on cameraman and electrician and recording engineer, with Cagney, safe and exulting, at the wheel of a bullet-riddled Cadillac. 

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