Titian Red and Delft Blue: the Beauty of James Cagney
James Francis Cagney Jr. was a beautiful man, as Blondell discovered in the 1920s on the casting calls and back stages of Broadway. Of Irish-American descent, Cagney was fixed with the quintessential traits of the old country. His diminutive size called for shorter female costars. For film, his fair complexion and freckles had to be adapted to strong camera lighting with makeup. While this manipulation of his natural features served, perhaps, to add menace to his darker character portrayals, it did little to hinder his attractiveness. Women loved that wavy mop and those caterpillar lashes just as much in black and white.
As an actor, James Cagney was unforgettable, inhabiting a character like water "inhabits" a river: there was little distinction between the two. Portraying the sullen, brooding Tom Powers in his breakout film, 1931’s The Public Enemy, or impersonating another American icon, dancer/songwriter George M. Cohan, in 1942’s Oscar-winning "Yankee Doodle Dandy", Cagney became the character and the character became Cagney. When he played a bad guy, he had a way of inspiring sympathy, especially among female viewers, who saw him as the boy who never got the chances in life that he deserved. When he played a good guy, their best hopes for him were realized, and any guilt for liking him was washed away.
Cagney’s physicality was also enticing. Like the river, he was always in motion. His face, his hands – his whole body took on the part he was playing, like a man possessed by the muse; and when he danced, it was to a cadence born as much of "…the beauty of the rhythm within him" (as Blondell described it), as it was of the music that accompanied his steps. This inner rhythm tempered all his roles and it his perceptive intuition conjoined him to both his characters and his fans. "Being a Cagney fan is something that makes me happy," says Carmen, a 20 year old college student. Carmen, who is studying fashion design and marketing, has been a classic film buff for 12 years. She’s able to "connect" with Cagney, she says. "It’s that personal element… something clicks, and that person moves you, regardless of the character."
Indeed, some of the characters Cagney played were rough, rude, and even downright repugnant. He knocked women down (Virginia Mayo in "White Heat"), dragged ‘em out (Mae Clark in "Lady Killer"), and slugged them with fists and grapefruit (Clark again in "The Public Enemy"). In reality, says Jennifer, 36, a doctor, costuming hobbyist, and relatively recent Cagney fan (after seeing him in "Footlight Parade", she says it was "fandom at first sight"): "In very few of his movies is Cagney truly a bad guy, yet those few movies make up a disproportionate number of the films he’s remembered for." In any case, she feels the "woman-hating" interpretation some have applied to Cagney’s roles is misguided. "Much of the time, in those films with 'misogynist' scenes, he is supposed to be a bad guy, after all. I know we end up sympathizing with his characters to some degree (that is his gift)… but [his portrayal] is not really being held up as normal or admirable behavior."
Another way he shined, often in secret like a star behind cloud cover, was through his philanthropy. Throughout his life, Cagney not only donated to numerous charities, but spearheaded them as well. During World War II, he joined with other celebrities to support troops in overseas shows, and promoted the purchase of war bonds, raising over a million dollars with the effort. In 1942, in conjunction with studio heads Samuel Goldwyn and the Warner brothers, and actor Humphrey Bogart, Cagney helped establish the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), which continues to this day to address the current and pressing needs of society. In his latter years, Cagney continued to give generously and often donated original paintings and poetry to worthy charities.
Even as his Titian red/gold hair paled to snowy white, James Cagney remained beautiful to legions of fans. After going out with an explosive verbal bang in 1961’s One, Two, Three, he retired to his much loved horse farm in Stanfordville, New York, with his much loved wife of 64 years, Francis Willard Vernon Cagney (he called her "Willie"). His return to the big screen in 1981’s Ragtime came just three years before he passed away, and spawned a whole new generation of Cagney-curious devotees. His star still shined.
One of Jennifer’s cherished possessions is a Cagney promo shot from his shoot-to-stardom film, The Public Enemy. While the photo is from the 1931, she believes the signature was signed much later in Cagney’s life. This adds much to its personal significance for Jennifer. "I love that it captures the beginning and the end, his youth and his maturity," she says. "I'm in this with him until the end and he's just as worthy of my admiration at all ages." Her words sum up the attitude of the majority of Cagney’s female fans, who love him for more than just his "mug."
In his last interview, conducted by journalist Gregory Speck only a few months before he passed away, Cagney pondered his lasting tough guy image. "I don’t understand why the public never tired of those awful hoodlums," he said. In reality, it wasn’t the hoodlum they relished. It was the image, the looks, the pugnacity, the dynamism, the bond, the honesty – sometimes brutally intense, sometimes dramatically tragic – always felt from the nearest orchestra seat to the farthest standing-room-only back wall in the movie house. It was the revelation of a man who was more than the sum of his parts on the screen; was the sincere, inherent goodness of a human being who lived his life willingly accountable for the benefit of others.
James Cagney’s beauty, then, is multifaceted, like a jewel held to the light. Each turning reveals a radiance that elicits a smile of appreciation for his talent, a frown of regret for not having known him personally, or a transfixed expression of awe for the honesty that he laid bare in his life and on the screen, and that compels the people following his star to open their eyes wide so as not to miss a sparkle.
Theresa Ludwick is a freelance writer, poet, amateur actor, and longtime admirer of James Cagney. She has written over 60 articles for magazines and newspapers, and also writes for various websites. This is her first piece on Cagney and she thoroughly enjoyed writing it.
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