Rather than the economy-size bolt of fury that flashed across the screen, he was a gentle man, an environmentalist, one who loved farming, poetry, and painting. And, in a most unHollywoodian manner, he was loyal to his wife of sixty-two years.
Such is the portrait of actor James Cagney that emerges in an affectionate biography by John McCabe who was commissioned in 1973 to ghostwrite the performer's autobiography, Cagney By Cagney. No tinsel town tell-all this for as Mr. Cagney said, ".....right I didn't tell all. All would be boring, boring, boring - and I'm in the business of entertainment. And if I choose to remember only the best parts of my life, I don't know why in hell I should apologize for that."
Yes, Mr. Cagney liked to keep his distance and he continued to do so in this memoir penned by an admittedly biased author who writes, "This was a great artist and an even greater man." In an era when privacy fences are hurdled, the actor, despite hours of taped conversations, remains as his good friend, Pat O'Brien, called him, "the faraway fella."
Raised in New York City's Lower East Side by a fiercely protective mother and an alcoholic father with blue-black hair and a magenta complexion, Mr. Cagney was one of five children. From his mother he learned how to box; a skill that led him to dancing. "I learned how to dance from learning how to fight," he said, "It was feint, duck, quick dance around your opponent on your toes mostly, then shoot out the arm like a bullet." His father taught the children how to laugh by pelting them with groan-evoking puns.
Like many turn of the century poor families the Cagneys were their own entertainment - singing songs in solo and chorus, reciting humorous poems, clog-dancing and telling jokes. The brothers were close, each devoted to family and scrambling in his own way to earn coins for Kitty, "a large battered iron pot kept near the kitchen stove." When Kitty was empty Mrs. Cagney pawned her inherited jewelry.
Feeding Kitty led Mr. Cagney to the stage - he discovered what vaudevillians were earning and tried out for the chorus line. Not only did he get the job but he met Frances Willard Vernon, the piquant featured chorus girl who became his wife. In later years the couple would adopt two children who grew up in a house built for them behind their parents' home, an arrangement given scant attention by the author.
After a brief but increasingly successful stint in vaudeville the actor landed a dramatic role in the 1930 Broadway play "Penny Arcade." When Warner Brothers adapted the play for the screen Mr. Cagney won a short-term contract. As reviews praised the untried young actor's film debut, Jack Warner realized the worth of the ex-Broadway song and dance man. Soon, all of the movie world realized it, too.
Typecast as a tough guy, epitomized by the classic grapefruit scene in "The Public Enemy,"the actor had little leisure time in California, a place he saw as another vaudeville stop but with nicer weather.
Much of Cagney is devoted to the making of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (Mr. McCabe is also George M. Cohan's biographer). This quintessential slice of Americana was filmed during the dark early days of World War II, causing one cast member to comment, "...we all worked in a kind of patriotic frenzy, as though we feared we may be sending a last message from the free world." When the completed film was run for George M. Cohan, the composer remarked, "My God, what an act to follow." James Cagney was, indeed, some act. He made a spectacular string of films over the years, dismissing his stellar performances as "my job."
Following the release of a disappointing film in 1961 Mr. Cagney bought a farm at Millbrook, New York. There he spent tranquil years breeding Scottish Highland cattle and Morgan horses. He emerged from retirement only once to make the 1981 film "Ragtime."
The onset of diabetes and heart trouble took their toll. Yet, he had fulfilled most of his dreams and left a rich cinematic legacy when he died at 86. The simple inscription on his gravestone reads, "James Cagney, 1899 - 1986. God Bless America."
More than a biography Mr. McCabe has written a tribute. James Cagney may well deserve it.