McCabe's 'Cagney' - the real McCoy

December 07, 1997|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,SUN STAFF

"Cagney," by John McCabe. Knopf. 439 pages. $27.50.

Actor James Cagney was a man of contradictions.

On screen he personified restless energy and lurking violence, but off screen he was a quiet, introspective, private man who wrote poetry, painted and backed environmental causes.

In an industry known for promiscuity and excess, Cagney was faithfully married for 65 years; he avoided parties and rarely drank alcohol. He maintained lifelong personal and professional relationships with his three brothers and one sister, but his minimal contact with his adopted children eventually led to estrangement.

His style and technique influenced generations of actors, but he called his profession "just a job." He led efforts to unionize the film industry and ardently supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt,

but in the 1950s became a conservative Republican who decried the breakdown of American morality.

John McCabe's "Cagney" is the first fully realized, authoritative biography of the movie star whose image is most associated with American vitality, ruthlessness and charm. Because they collaborated on an autobiography 20 years ago, McCabe had unprecedented access to his subject. The new book brims with personal anecdotes and candid observations from Cagney and many people who knew him.

McCabe obviously admired Cagney, which occasionally makes the biography less analytical than it could be. But its scholarship and accuracy make it an important work.

Jim Cagney (he was never called Jimmy) was born in 1899 to a poor Irish-American New York family. His father was a charming, gentle alcoholic. His strong-willed mother made sure he stayed in school and taught him to box. In 1919, Cagney got his first professional job as a Broadway "chorus boy." In 1930, movie mogul Jack Warner saw Cagney on stage and, convinced he had star potential, signed him to movie contract.

Cagney's performance as gangster Tom Powers in "Public Enemy" (1931) made him a star. Beyond the famous scene in which he pushes a grapefruit into actress Mae Clarke's face, Cagney became the first movie actor to play a villain yet elicit sympathy.

Cagney appeared in numerous Warner Brothers films (the best was "Angels with Dirty Faces"), but came to loathe the gangster stereotype and filed numerous lawsuits against Warner's demanding salary increases and artistic freedom.

By 1942, freed from the Warner Brothers "factory," Cagney and his producer/brother Bill embarked on "Yankee Doodle Dandy," the story of vaudevillian George M. Cohan. Cagney's performance earned him an Oscar for best actor. The movie was the actor's favorite work because it embodied his early years as a song and dance man.

In 1949, the Cagney production team embarked on "White Heat." Although the lead character is a nearly demented, mother-fixated gangster, Cagney recognized the potential for success. His superb acting, an unparalleled view of a ravaged psyche, is one of the great performances in movie history.

Cagney was most successful artistically and commercially in the 1950s. In 1961, Cagney quietly retired.

McCabe makes a strong case that as a film actor, Cagney has no superior and few peers. And as a man, Cagney displayed a decency and generosity that represent the best of the American spirit.

Paul Moore is news editor of The Sun, where he has overall responsibility for the newspaper's front page. He is a serious fan and collector of films from the 1930s and 1940s.

Pub Date: 12/07/97

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