James Cagney Biography
                                                                                                                                                     By James Ayala
Born at the turn of the century on July 17, 1899 James Francis Cagney became one of America's greatest actors. He was born above his father’s saloon at avenue D and Eighth Street in New York City. The area was then known as the gas house district. He was the second of five children, when he was two the family moved uptown to 429 east seventy-Ninth Street. Seven years later they moved to 166 east ninety-Sixth Street. Cagney would later say "that always sticks in my memory as a street of stark tragedy, there was always crepe hanging on a door or two somewhere on the block. There was always the clanging of an ambulance bell. Patrol wagons came often..." The Cagney's neighbors included Germans, Italians, Hungarians, Irish and Jews. By his teens Jimmy could speak fluent Yiddish, a talent used in several of his films. At seventeen he was a bellhop at the friars club, while attending Stuyvesant high school. Upon graduation he got a job as a junior architect the pay was good and as jimmy later put it "we needed every penny". His mother encouraged him to continue his education so he entered Columbia University for a course in fine arts. Along with his brothers Harry and Edward Jimmy was sent to the Lenox Hill Settlement house to take a course in public speaking. From time to time the settlement staged little plays in which neighborhood kids took part. His first part was in a Chinese pantomime. The next role was as an Emperor in a Japanese musical comedy called “what, for why”? His first starring role was in Lors Dunsany's one-act play "The Lost Silk Hat. 

In the fall of 1918 a Spanish influenza epidemic swept the eastern seaboard and Jimmy’s father died at forty-two. Shortly thereafter his sister Jeanne was born. In his sixth month at Columbia he withdrew to help out with family expenses. While employed at Wanamakers he became friendly with a salesman who had been a vaudeville actor, he told Jimmy about a show at Keith's 86th Street Theater that needed a replacement for a boy who had left the cast. Cagney auditioned and was accepted for a role in the vaudeville show called "Every Sailor". He was horrified to learn that he was to play a comic female impersonator, along with seven other boys. The weekly salary of $35 was too good to pass up; he would remain with the show for eight weeks. He then returned to more stable employment at a brokerage house on Broad Street in lower Manhattan. In the summer of 1920 Jimmy went to an open-call for a Broadway musical called Pitter Patter. He was hired as a chorus boy, to earn extra Jimmy became a Dresser for the star of the show. It was in this show that he would meet his future wife Frances. They were married in 1921, after the close of the show. Several vaudeville shows followed like "Ritz girls of 1922" and "Snapshots of 1923". Cagney would later say that with the exception of his wife Vaudeville had the greatest affect on his life, he always thought of himself as; "Just a Song and Dance man.

In the 1926-27 New York season the biggest hit was George Abbot and Phil Dunnings "Broadway." Cagney was cast as the lead in the London production wife bill (Frances) as a dancer. At the last minute he was replaced, but was kept on the payroll because he had been given run of the play contract. Jimmy understudied for the lead actor Lee Tracy.  
In 1929 Cagney appeared in a show that lasted only three weeks on Broadway but would lead him to Hollywood. "Penny Arcade" was purchased by then superstar Al Jolson who then sold it to Warner Brothers with the stipulation the Cagney and a young actress named Joan Blonde be hired for the film. It was renamed called "Sinner's Holiday", and filmed in just three weeks. The leading man was Grant Withers. Other films to follow were "Doorway to hell" with leading man Lew Ayers "Other Men's Women “and the "The Millionaire" with George Arliss, Jimmy appeared in only one scene as a fast talking life insurance salesman, while only lasting two minutes Cagney made it memorable. The next project "The Public Enemy" was to be his big break. Originally cast as second lead to Eddie Woods, director William A. Wellman realized he had the wrong actor in the part. A problem arose in that Woods was engaged to the then powerful gossip columnist Louella Parsons daughter. Production head Darryl F. Zanuck was quick to point out the potential back lash, Wellman argued and won. Cagney was excellent as the sadistic rumrunner who meets with a tragic end. The scene in which he slams a grapefruit into girlfriend Mae Clarke's face was to create quite a stir and is one of the memorable film moments of the thirties. The film became one of the first low-budget million dollar grossers in the business, costing $150,000 it was shot in just twenty-six days. 

Smart Money followed with Edward G. Robinson, “Blonde Crazy", and then "Taxi" in which jimmy danced for the first time on screen with Loretta Young. Cagney got a friend and fellow Vaudevillian a bit part, his name George Raft. In "The Crowd Roars" he played a race car driver and was directed by Howard Hawks, also in the cast Frank McHugh who would become one of his closest buddies. During filming Cagney had his first of many disputes with the studio, realizing there were two class of stars at Warner’s the ones making $125,000 per picture and him making $400.00 per week. After making "Winner Takes All” he went to New York where he told the press if his demands for a raise weren't met he would quit the business and become a doctor. Warner’s suspended him. During this time projects that had been considered for him went to other stars, such as "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” with Paul Muni who made film history with his vivid performance. The wage dispute was finally settled in September of 1932. Cagney would now earn $3000.00 weekly, with raises at slated intervals, to go up to $4,500.00 by 1935. The first film upon his return was interestingly called "Hard to Handle' followed by "Picture Snatcher, “and the Mayor of Hell". Cagney officially became a movie song-and dance man in his next film "The Footlight Parade, with spectacular musical numbers by the legendary Busby Berkley, it is one of the best examples of the Great Hollywood musicals of the thirties. Cagney was joined by Joan Blondell for the sixth time; also in the cast were Ruby keeler and Dick Powell who were becoming Warner’s newest sensations. 

"The Lady Killer re-teamed him with Mae Clarke who now got to be dragged by her hair out of bed by Cagney.”Jimmy the Gent" was a rather lighthearted racket picture and teamed him with Bette Davis. "He was her Man" was his last film with Joan Blondell who played a prostitute on her way to marry a fisherman; the film was not very successful. Here comes the Navy began an eight-picture association with Pat O'Brien and was a big hit. "The St. Louis Kid", "Devil Dogs of their" and G-men followed in which jimmy was on the right side of the law for a change as a lawyer turned FBI man. "The Irish in Us" cast Cagney as a fight manager in a feud over love with Brother Pat O'Brien. "A Midsummer’s Night Dream" was Cagney's only venture into Shakespeare. A gay nineties piece followed with "The Frisco Kid". After completing "Ceiling Zero" in 1935, Cagney again walked out on Warner's complaining among other things, being forced to make five films a year when his contract called for four. The walk out hurt Warner’s where it counted most the box office. By 1936 he had reached the top ten moneymakers list and since 1934 all of his films had grossed no less than $1,000,000. 

He shocked Hollywood by signing with Grand National a newly formed independent company. 
The first film for the studio was "Great Guy", while lacking the obvious budget of Warner's the film was well received. The second didn't fare to well “Something to sing about" was disappointing, but featured some marvelous solo dancing by Cagney. His next film was "Angels with dirty Faces “which had been purchased by the studio for $30,000. In the meantime Warner’s dropped the appeal it had filed with the California Supreme Court after Cagney's victory in a lower court abrogated his contract. They drew up a new one that would make Cagney's years of hard work pay off. $150,000 per picture against 10% of the profits. The contract would end five years later after "Yankee Doodle Dandy". His first film upon his return was "Boy meets girl" a fast paced farce about the movie business. 

"Angels with Dirty Faces which had been dropped by Grand National. Became his next vehicle. Directed by the great Michael Curtiz, it told the story of two kids, one who grows up to be a priest the other a career criminal. The role gave Cagney the chance to draw upon the colorful characters he observed as a kid growing up in New York Cagney remembered; “He was in part modeled on a fella I use to see when I was a kid. He was a hophead and a pimp, with four girls on his string. He worked out of a Hungarian rathskeller on first Ave between seventy seventh and seventy-eight street- a tall dude with an expensive straw hat and an electric-blue suit. All day long he would stand on that corner, hitch up his trousers, twist his neck and move his necktie, lift his shoulders, snap his fingers, then bring his hands together in a soft smack. His invariable greeting was Whadda ya hear? whadda ya say? The cast included the Bowery boys, also known as the dead end kids; they included Leo Gorcey, Billy Halop and Huntz Hall and Gabriel Dell. They would go on to make over 50 features as the East side kids/Bowery Boys. Bogart was excellent as Cagney's double crossing lawyer. Beautiful Ann Sheridan was the neighborhood girl who loved Rocky. In the film’s memorable final scene with Cagney about to meet his maker via the electric chair, O'Brien begs him to become a coward and turn yellow, thus destroying the hero-worshiping boys illusions about him. The role would earn Cagney his first Academy award nomination. He won the NY film critics award as best actor of 1938. Cagney would remember that for years kids would come up to him and ask him Didya do it for the father huh? 

Cagney then went west for the first time in "The Oklahoma kid". A big-budget western Warner’s put together for him. Bogart was the villain dressed in black named Whip McCord. The next film "Each Dawn I Die "had Cagney playing a reporter framed for manslaughter by a crooked district attorney. George Raft who Cagney had got a bit part in "Taxi' was now established and costarred. Writer Mark Hellinger next concocted a newsreel like semi-documentary of the prohibition era entitled “The Roaring Twenties". Cagney played a returning WW1 vet who unable to find work turns to bootlegging. Humphrey Bogart appeared in his third and final film with Cagney, again a double-crossing associate. Priscilla Lane then up and coming at Warner’s played the girl who spurns Cagney for his more respectable friend Jeffrey Lynn. Frank McHugh and Gladys George rounded out the excellent cast. The final scene is a classic, in which Cagney mortally wounded dies on the church steps. A policeman asks Gladys George, what was his business? She responds ... He Use to be a big Shot the camera pulls back and above. A great cinematic moment, brilliantly directed by Raoul Walsh, in his first film for Warner’s. In his Autobiography "Each man in his Time" Walsh explained: "I learned quickly that one must never kill a Gable or a Flynn or a Peck or a Cooper, but when you killed a Cagney or a Bogart the audience and the box office loved it" 

The next film was a tribute to New York's crack Irish regiment known as "The Fighting 69th." Cagney played Jerry plunked an obnoxious recruit without discipline, who by the final reel would redeem himself with a heroic death. This film featured an all male cast; a part had been written for Priscilla Lane but was later dropped. Torrid Zone was his last appearance with Pat O'Brien for forty-one years. A mustached Cagney played a plantation foreman with crop and girl problems. In his autobiography Cagney would say about his next film "City for Conquest" it was one of the reasons he disliked seeing some of his films. While one of his most successful he was unhappy about scenes edited out of the final version. As a truck driver turned boxer, who is later blinded during a fight Cagney turned in one of finest performances. Also in the cast Ann Sheridan, Arthur Kennedy as his younger brother and Anthony Quinn. Cagney trained heavily for the role and did his own boxing. The "Strawberry Blonde" was the second of three film versions of James Hagan’s “One Sunday Afternoon". Rita Hayworth later to become the movie's love goddess of the forties was borrowed from Columbia. Olivia de Havilland also costarred. Director Raoul Walsh injected loads of energy and humor and managed to retain the quaintness of the 1910 setting. Bette Davis costarred in his next vehicle a so so comedy called "The Bride Came C.O.D." "Captains of the Clouds" was Cagney's first Technicolor production, a semi-documentary look at the Royal Canadian Air force and featured spectacular aerial photography by Sol Polito who was nominated for an Academy Award. 
His next film is probably his most remembered and his personal favorite. "Yankee Doodle Dandy” was the Biography of George M. Cohan. The flag waving writer composer of countless musicals had sold the rights to his life story to Warner’s and personally Choose Cagney. It was a role he was born to play and with an excellent cast including his sister Jeanne and direction by Michael Curtiz the film was flawless. Cagney was in his element and really got to show off his incredible tap dancing ability. The film was a huge success, and would win him his only Oscar as best actor of 1942. 

On March 30.1942 Cagney signed a five picture deal with United Artist and ended his twelve year association with Warner Brothers. His brother Bill who had come out to Hollywood in the thirties and even had some smaller roles in films was the head of the new company. The first film made by William Cagney Productions was "Johnny come lately" and was a modest success with the critic's. "Blood on the Sun” followed and had Cagney playing a hotshot reporter in twenties Tokyo. it was packed with action and costarred Sylvia Sidney. In January, 1944 Cagney was offered and turned down the lead in 20th Century Fox's "Life of O. Henry" for producer George Jessel. He would accept? 13 Rue Madeline" a semi-documentary spy yarn concerning Americans working for the OSS with a Nazi agent among them. The film directed by Henry Hathaway was a big success. Cagney productions then bought the rights to the Pulitzer Prize winning play "the time of your life" by William Saroyan. Cagney concerned with bringing an accurate telling of the story to the screen contacted Saroyan to discuss the project. The film would lose Cagney productions a half a million dollars, but was beautifully captured by the excellent cast and inspired direction by HC Potter. Saroyan in particular was very pleased with the film. 

After completing his five year production deal with UA, Cagney returned to familiar territory at Warner Brothers, with "White Heat." As Cody Jarrett, the psychopathic criminal with a mother fixation, Cagney exploded off the screen. This was a darker and more complex role. Several scenes stand out, in particular the scene in the prison dining room where he learns of his mother’s death, and totally loses it. I remember seeing the scene for the first time in Richard Shickels PBS series "The Men who made the Movies". As a young film lover I was impressed with the seventies films I was watching at the time, not really having much exposure to older films, I was amazed and instantly gained respect for older cinema. White Heat featured a great cast and direction by Raoul Walsh, Max Steiner the legendary film composer provided an excellent score. Cagney's next was "The West Point Story “a musical that wasn't well received by critic's costarred Virginia Mayo and Doris Day. With the success of White Heat the previous year Warner's came up with another crime drama that had Cagney again playing a pretty rough character. The film was not nearly as well written, but features some good Cagney moments, in addition Warner’s repaid the banks money Cagney productions had lost on "The Time of Your Life." "Come fill the Cup" saw Cagney playing a troubled newspaperman. Gig Young also in the cast received a supporting actor nomination. Cagney then played himself in a less than spectacular vehicle that had Warner’s top stars traveling to Travis air force base to entertain the troops before they shipped off to Korea. John ford would direct his next film "What Price Glory" with mixed results. It was a remake of the far superior version directed by Raoul Walsh by 1926. 

The next film was a family affair with, William Cagney producing, Sister Jeanne in a supporting role and brother Edward the films story editor. "A lion is in the Streets" was a success. Based on Adria Lock Langley's 1945 bestseller, Cagney was excellent as Hank Martin a Huey Long type southern politician. Raoul Walsh again at the helm did a great job with the direction. Also good were Barbara Hale and a young Anne Francis. "Run for Cover" was his first western since "The Oklahoma kid" the film shot in Technicolor and the relatively new Vista Vision (a widescreen process), was a success with an older but still tough Cagney as a man sent to prison for a crime he didn't commit. John Derek was effective as his nemesis. Nicholas Ray directed. "Mister Roberts" followed and was a one of the biggest grossing films of the year. Cagney played the lunatic captain of a navy cargo vessel. Henry Fonda re-created his Broadway role, also in the cast William Powell and a young Jack Lemmon who would win the Oscar for best supporting actor. Mervyn Leroy replaced John ford who left the film due to illness. His next film was for MGM called "Love me or Leave Me “an authentic telling of the life of Ruth Etting the famed torch singer of the 20s. As her brutal domineering husband Martin (the gimp) Snyder, Cagney had one of his finest roles in years. Doris Day was excellent as Etting as was Cameron Mitchell as her second husband. The film received six Oscar nominations including one for Cagney {His third}.

Thirteen Years after his Academy winning role as George M. Cohan, Cagney reprised the role in a scene with Bob hope in "The Seven Little Foy,” A paramount picture on the life story of Vaudevillian Eddie Foy, He jumped at the chance to appear in his favorite part. He lost 15 pounds and rehearsed for three weeks  The scene proved to be the highlight of the film. He then replaced Spencer Tracy, who was reportedly fired because of disagreements over script and location conditions in "Tribute to a bad Man." I should mention that in his Autobiography Cagney stated that Tracy had become sick during production, and this was the reason for him leaving. In doing research for this site, depending on what published material on Cagney I've read there are some interesting differences in incidents that occurred. I've tried to inject as much from Cagney's Autobiography as possible. The film was not a one of his better films, but boasted Beautiful photography by Robert Sturtees, and an excellent score by Miklos Rozsa. These Wilder Years" followed with Barbara Stanwyck. Cagney made several television appearances during this period, performing a few scenes from Mister Robert's on the Ed Sullivan Show, introducing some Beauty contest winners on Bob Hope's show, and doing a dramatic role in good friend Robert Montgomery's television show. The episode was called "Soldiers from The war Returning," about an army Sergeant detailed to escort the body of a dead buddy home from Korea. Cagney was never a big fan of television saying he couldn't work up any enthusiasm for it. 

"Man of a thousand Faces" proved to be another success for Cagney. The Biography of silent film Lon Chaney was a demanding one, with all the complicated makeup Cagney had to endure. the production was top notch, while some facts about Chaney’s life had to be changed the film was pretty accurate. Also good were Dorothy Malone as Chaney's first and troubled wife cleva. The screenplay by R. Wright Campbell, Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts was nominated for an academy award. In his next film Cagney as a favor for producer and buddy A.C. Lyle's he would direct his only film. A remake of the film "This gun for Hire". Cagney worked for minimum scale in the low budget "Short cut to Hell." He did a fine job directing and got good performances from his young stars, Robert Ivers and Georgann Johnson. Cagney himself only appeared in a special Prologue to introduce them. Universal-International got him again for "Never steal anything Small" a spoof of union politics that co starred Shirley Jones. Despite the big budget the film wasn't well received. 

The next project took Cagney to Ireland to film "Shake hands with the Devil." It depicted the struggle in 1921 of the IRA to free the Irish people from English domination. Cagney turned in another fine performance here as a surgical professor involved in the underground movement. The international cast included Don Murray, Glynis Johns, Michael Redgrave, Dana Wynter and Cyril Cusack. Michael Anderson did a fine directing job as did Erwin Hillier’s photography of the Irish countryside. "The Gallant Hours" was a tribute to Pacific Admiral William F. Halsey. Told in semi-documentary style the film covered the five week period from October 18th to December 1, 1942, when Halsey took command of the American Naval forces in the South pacific, and ending with the smashing of the Japanese counter assault on Guadal-Canal. Director Robert Montgomery downplayed the violence and focused on the quiet side of such a conflict. Cagney gave a highly individual impersonation of the admiral. His usual energetic personality gave way to the calm seriousness of the man he was portraying, it was a fine performance. His next film was to be his last one for twenty years. "One, Two, Three" was a fast paced comedy, directed by Billy Wilder it filmed entirely on location in West Berlin and Munich. It had Cagney playing a Coca-Cola manager who had to convert a shaggy beatnik into a suitable husband in a hurry. The film was one of the best comedies of the sixties. 

Cagney who had purchased a farm on Maratha's vineyard in 1936 spent the next twenty years enjoying life with his wife Frances on there several farms, two in California and a 700 acre farm in Duchess County, NY. Cagney an avid horseman and artist retired. There were a few appearances behind the camera though. 1962 saw Cagney narrating a grisly instruction film on the history of Communism. In 1966 he supplied the voice for a television special called "The ballad of Smokey the Bear." The one hour show produced by the Forest service dealt with fire prevention. In 1968 He narrated “Arizona Bushwhackers" a second rate western starring Howard Keel and Yvonne Decarlo. Asked if he planned to return to acting he said; “In this business you need enthusiasm. I don't have the enthusiasm for acting anymore. Acting is not the beginning and end of everything." He was offered the role of Alfred Doolittle in "My Fair Lady “and turned it down. He was offered $150,000 to do a ten-second TV commercial, but he was not interested saying he was studying painting with Sergei Bongart, the famous Santa Monica artist. 

In 1974 he became the second Recipient of the American Film Institute life time achievement award, the first being John Ford. The show was hosted by Frank Sinatra, and featured the biggest stars in Hollywood; many film clips of his films were shown. The event was broadcast on television. It is available on video. I remember the week of the show's original broadcast, 12 of his films were shown on TV, of course I stood up and watched everyone, many for the first time, this was before cable and home video. In 1981 his neighbor and friend director Milos Forman persuaded Cagney to appear in a small role in his film of EL Doctorow’s "Ragtime. As police Chief Rheinlander Waldo showed that while older, he still had the Cagney toughness. The film would reunite him with his good friend and frequent costar Pat O’Brien; it would be the last Theatrical film for both. That year Critic and film historian Richard Shickel directed a documentary on Cagney's career called “that Yankee Doodle Dandy" it featured interviews with Cagney, O’Brien and Donald O'Connor. His last film interestingly enough was for television, "Terrible Joe Moran “in 1984. As an aging and sickly boxer Cagney spent most of the film in a wheelchair, already suffering from various health problems, Cagney had a rough time on the shoot. Art Carney costarred as did Ellen Barkin in an early role for her. The film featured some footage from City for Conquest. 

In 1970,The Cagney's began an association with a woman named  Marge Zimmerman. They met her at a restaurant she operated in Milbrook NY, not far from their farm. Over time a friendship developed and Zimmerman was soon delivering food to the Cagney home. She would later become his manager and be named, Executor of his Estate. Rumors would soon surface that the Cagney's were being mistreated by the Zimmerman's.The couple had  also reportedly built a huge home on his property. When Cagney was hospitalized, his extended family were not put on the visitors list.  A few articles were written, and some news stories were broadcast on television at the time. I'm not sure what ever came of it, but I was very upset to think that this once powerful personality, now ailing was being treated in such a manner. Just one example of the insensitivity, was a statement she released in 1984. After the sudden death of his adopted son James, Zimmerman, referred to him as a Jack of all trades and master of none. Very strange indeed, I wondered at the time. Whether Cagney himself had approved such a statement.  

James Cagney died on March 30, 1986, his  wife Frances died in 1994. They are interred at Gates of Heaven cemetery in Valhalla NY.

​Sources included, Cagney by Cagney, The Films of James Cagney