He danced like a virile marionette, held aloft by invisible strings, leading with taut jaw in a brash show of nerve, propelled across the screen by an ever-boyish bravado, bright-eyed and wiry and full of the devil. In his 64 movies he became 64 characters, all of whom had some measure of grit and pluck, but in one movie, he was not just a character, he was the national character.
Many of James Cagney's films had iconographic moments -- the famous if ungracious pushing of a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face in "The Public Enemy"; the bellowed "Top of the world, ma!" from high atop an exploding tank in "White Heat." One of James Cagney's movies, however, is an iconography. It was his favorite film, the one for which he received the Academy Award as Best Actor in 1942. "Yankee Doodle Dandy."
James Cagney died yesterday in Stanfordville, N.Y., at the age of 86, but in the great mind's eye of the movies, he fights on, he rattles on -- in his compelling, news-ticker staccato -- and he dances on. He liked to characterize himself as "a journeyman actor" and a mere "hoofer" who did his job and went home, but along the way, he became more than a hoofer, more than a journeyman actor, more than a star.
Along the way, he became us. Or at least the part of us that we like pointed to with pride. "Yankee Doodle Dandy" was nominally the screen biography of George M. Cohan, but James Cagney's audacious magnetism overshadows the role now. And besides, there are so many parallels. In the film's opening scene, Cagney as Cohan, recalling his youth for Capt. Jack Young as FDR, says, "I was a pretty cocky kid in those days, a pretty cocky kid."
Through tough-guy role after tough-guy role, Cagney had been a pretty cocky kid himself, and he later would recall that as one of seven children growing up on the streets of New York in the first years of the century, an assertive cockiness came in handy as well. The very Cagneyesque gesture of hunching up his shoulders as a macho gesture of menace, he picked up, he said, from an uptown pimp who plied trade at the corner of 78th Street and First Avenue.
Explaining the importance of a trademark gesture like that, Cagney said in an interview, "The idea is, if it'll give them something to remember, use it." This guy grew extraordinarily proficient at giving them something to remember.
In "Yankee Doodle Dandy," FDR gives Cohan the Medal of Honor. Forty-two years later James Cagney went to the White House to receive the Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan.
"I'm just a song-and-dance man; everybody knows that," Cohan says to FDR in the movie, and the president replies, "A man may give his life to his country in many different ways, Mr. Cohan, and quite often he isn't the best judge of how much he has given." Reagan, much less noticed at Warner Bros. during the same years Cagney ruled the studio's roost, said of Cagney when he gave him the presidential medal for real, "As a great star at the same studio where I started, he was never too busy to hold out a hand to a young fellow just trying to get under way."
Cagney could be a sweetheart in the movies. He waltzed with "The Strawberry Blonde" in one of his best and most atypical screen roles. He romped playfully with Ruby Keeler through the riotously campy "Shanghai Lil" number from Busby Berkeley's "Footlight Parade." He had touching moments as actor Lon Chaney, "Man of a Thousand Faces," in a semisuccessful film biography.
But the roles for which James Cagney is most celebrated all had their brittle, abrasive strains, and there is something in this brashness and heavy mettle that is unmistakably American. In "Dandy," a chorus asks rhetorically, "Oh say, can you see," and Cagney as Cohan pugnaciously finishes the line, "anything about a Yankee that's a phony?"
This was one way we wanted to see ourselves: spunky and confident and unpretentious. Cagney became an apt American symbol, someone so suffused with heedless brio that he was able to dance up the walls. Or, as in the penultimate scene in "Dandy," down the marble steps of the White House. Cagney starts down the huge sweeping staircase walking like any other guy, albeit with an extra measure of jaunt, but then the title tune sneaks in, and Cagney picks up the beat, and soon he is tapping out rat-a-tats in a gesture of joyous irreverence.
That dance said, "I'm as good as any other guy." A moment of incandescent exuberance, it climaxes one of the most vital and electric musical and dramatic performances ever contained in a film, a performance so full of maverick passion that it completely surmounts the dated, wartime jingoism of the film and renders it benign, salutary.
There are a lot of things more American than apple pie. But there are not a lot of things more American than James Cagney in "Yankee Doodle Dandy." His career seems in retrospect to have all been a rather magnificent dare.
Cagney played not only tough guys but bad guys even after his triumph as Cohan. Cody Jarrett of "White Heat" was a homicidal psychotic. With customary ingenuousness, Cagney said in later years that the film as written was an ordinary gangster picture until he suggested of the Jarrett character, "Why don't we make him nuts?" Second in memorability to the literally explosive finale is a scene in which the jailed Jarrett hears from other convicts that his mother has died and throws a wild, anguished fit in the mess hall.
In "Love Me or Leave Me," he was beastly to Doris Day (as singer Ruth Etting); in "Mr. Roberts" he was a rancorous, paranoid Navy captain -- sort of a berserk cousin to old Warner pal Humphrey Bogart's Capt. Queeg in "The Caine Mutiny"; and in Billy Wilder's "One, Two, Three," Cagney went all the mimics at least one better with a merciless breakneck caricature of his most frantic and furious movie performances.
Never a sex symbol, probably not a heartthrob, by his own assessment "nothing to photograph" and really rather ordinary in appearance, James Cagney lit up the screen with the proverbial fire in the belly. You couldn't take your eyes off him. He was often like the ticking bomb. He might go off at any minute. You didn't want to miss it.
And yet somewhere along the way, without ever pleading for the affection of the audience, James Cagney also became beloved. It's fortunate that in his later years, Cagney may quietly have realized in what singular esteem the public, the nation, held him.
In "Yankee Doodle Dandy," George M. Cohan is lured out of retirement -- to play FDR in a Broadway show -- when vexed that young visitors to his farm have never heard of him. Something like that may have been behind Cagney's agreeing to accept, after two decades of retirement, the role of police commissioner Waldo in Milos Forman's film of "Ragtime," a picture that was largely ponderous except for Cagney's presence.
He said at the time that doctors had urged him to take the role and resume work, that it would be good for his soul. When he emerged from his New York State retreat and made himself accessible to an interviewer or two, it signaled a revival of interest in the man, the legend and his films. In 1974, he'd made a brief earlier reemergence to accept the first of the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Awards to be awarded to an actor.
In these rather hesitant appearances, Cagney always looked slightly amazed at the outpouring of affection he received. It was an expression of admiration for his craftsmanship, yes, but also for the values of the Old Hollywood that he represented (he survived many of his screen contemporaries) and, as the country grew out of its post-Vietnam malaise, a celebration, too, of the simple assertive Americanism that Cagney had come to epitomize.
Then, early in 1982, when producer Alexander H. Cohen staged his "Night of 100 Stars" gala at Radio City Music Hall, Cagney, though not in the best of health, was persuaded to make another public appearance. It came at the end of a long medley saluting Hollywood. Cagney, who'd been forced to wait in the Music Hall basement through arduous delays in the program, was suddenly beamed up through a hole in the floor and materialized magically, seated in a chair.
The crowd rose instantly from its seats in a spontaneous ovation and Cagney, realizing this, appeared moved to tears by the display. Somehow this tiny instant overshadowed most everything else on the "Night of 100 Stars." James Cagney was a night of 100 stars all by himself.
"I'm going back to the farm and sit it out," he said to an interviewer shortly before returning to his retirement, which was interrupted briefly for the CBS movie "Terrible Joe Moran," about an aging fighter, which by this time he was. He said he wanted his remaining years to be a time of "no strain" to him. The man who had played so many rambunctious upstarts on the screen wanted and cherished peace and tranquility. Fortunately, he couldn't have returned to the farm with any rational doubts about the high regard in which his peers and his countrymen hold him.
"Regard"? Hell, we love the guy. We loved it when he danced down the marble steps, we loved it when he waltzed with the strawberry blonde, we loved it when he stood up to demons and even when the demons got inside him and had to be stood up to by others. James Cagney wanted to give us something to remember. And he did.
We'll do more than remember, Mr. Cagney. We'll smile. We'll laugh. We'll get a little teary over a beer. We'll speak of how we miss you, we'll marvel at the way you hoofed. We'll whisper of how you're yearning, to mingle with that old-time throng. We'll give your regards to old Broadway, and say that you'll be there 'ere long.