James Cagney: Career, Movies, Height, Hit Movies, Roles

James Cagney

Ranking at number eight in the list of “Greatest Male Star of the Golden Age of Hollywood,” James Cagney as described by Orson Welles was “maybe the greatest actor who ever appeared in front of a camera.” 

James Cagney was a performer in the true sense, from acting, dancing, theatre acting, energetic performances and impeccable comedic timing. James Cagney indeed is a man of many talents. 

Today we are here to know more about this charismatic and quintessential “tough guy” of the Golden era of Hollywood. So let’s move along to know more about this incredible actor, who is James Cagney. 

Personal Biography

Here are a few details about James Cagney that should be helpful for you, to understand the man properly. 

BornJames Francis Cagney Jr. 
July 17, 1899,
New York City, U.S.
DiedMarch 30, 1986 (aged )
Resting PlaceGate of Heaven Cemetery
Occupation Actor, Director, Dancer
Years Active1919-1961, 1981, 1984
SpouseFrances Vernon (m.1922)
Height 1.65m 

Early Life: Who Is James Cagney? 

James Cagney

Born in New York, James Cagney is a New Yorker through and through although having Irish ancestry. Cagney’s father was a bartender along with a boxer and according to his birth certificate he was a telegraphist. 

Cagney had seven siblings, although two of them died within a few months after they were born. James Cagney was so sickly when he was born that his parents were worried that he might die even before he was baptised. 

The boy grew up to have red hair and blue eyes, and joined Columbia College with German and joined Student Army Training Corps. Although he had to drop out after the death of his father due to the flu pandemic in 1918. 

To support his family Cagney worked various roles as copy boy at the New York Sun, junior architect, bellhop, night doorkeeper, book custodian at the public library and draughtsman. That is when he met Florence James who brought out the actor inside of him. 

He used to tap dance ever since he was a kid and later, he was given the nickname “Cellar-Door Cagney,” as he used to dance on cellar doors that are slanted.

Cagney was also good with his hands, as a fighter. He was good at fighting and defending his siblings occasionally, and was good at sports like baseball as well, even played semi-professional. 

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James Cagney Filmography

James Cagney

The entry to the film industry was rather accidental for James Cagney. When his older brother Harry was performing in a Chinese pantomime which was directed by Florence James. 

One day when Harry was sick, James was able to fill in for his brother, and he had an Eidetic memory, he was able to memorise the whale script without any mistake. That was when his first acting career began. 

A colleague of James saw him dancing once and said to him about a role for the production of “Every Sailor.” After performing for the producers he was immediately hired, and when he steps into the stage, Cagney drops his shy personality and becomes someone else totally. 

After working for them for two months, Cagney left and looked for more opportunity, then landing “Pitter Patter ”, a musical by William B. Friedlander. That is where he met his wife Frances Willard Vernon, a sixteen year old dancer. 

Cagney joined different troupes to tour the country and to one of his troops he was joined by Leach, Rand and Parker, he took Archie Leach left, Leach went ahead and changed his name to Cary Grant

Along with Pitter Patter, Cagney was looking for other plays, when he became a part of the play Outside Looking In. And while acting with them he met George M. Cohen. Caagney later played the character of Cohen for the musical “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” 

James Cagney into films when one of his plays Penny Arcade was turned into a film, by Warner Bros., The title was then changed to “Sinner’s Holiday.” Although he wasn’t the lead like in the play, he was well received playing a tough guy in the film. 

Breakthrough Moment

James Cagney

That opened doors for him, like for the movies, The Doorway To Hell, where he was casted in a supporting role. Cagney’s breakthrough movie was “The Public Enemy,” He was initially casted as the nice guy opposite the bad guy played by Edward Woods. But the roles were soon switched, seeing Jame’s amazing onscreen charisma. 

The film that had a budget of $151,000 went on to make over $1 million. James Cagney received huge praise for his role, New York Herald Tribune said, “The most ruthless, unsentimental appraisal of the meanness of a petty killer the cinema has yet devised.”

The success of The Public Enemy opened many doors for James Cagney, he went on to act in movies like Smart Money, Blonde Crazy, Taxi, The Crowd Roars and also later Winner Takes All. 

After a brief period of fighting with Warner Bros regarding his contract, Cagney eventually returned to the studio in 1933 and made the film Hard to Handle. Then came a bunch of films like Footlight Parade, Here Comes the Navy and Jimmy the Gent. 

He soon became the “Top ten Money Makers in Hollywood for the first time,” and was seen in gangster movies frequently, like “G-Men.” But he changed character to act in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

From then, he made highly acclaimed movies like Something to Sing About, Great Guy, Boy Meets Girl and also Angels with Dirty Faces.

Personal Life

James Cagney

James Cagney met his wife when he first started acting in theatres when she was only a sixteen year old teenage dancer. The couple got married on 28th September 1922, and they stayed married until he died in 1986. The adopted two children a son James Francis Cagney III and later a daughter Cathleen “Casey ” Cagney.

Both their children became estranged from them later in life. Cagney’s son died two years before him. And his daughter died in 2004. James Cageny lived a very private life, only giving photographers permission to photograph him occasionally. 

Since he was young Cagney was very much interested in farming, and helped found a farm in Martha’s Vineyard. He surrounded the property with dirty tracks. It was rumoured that due to fans, he fired a gunman as a security measure. 

Cagney even bought a 120-acre farm land here in Dutchess County in New York and named it by his wife’s maiden name and a part of his surname Verney Farm. 

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Wrapping Up!

James Cagney was an amazing actor and a strong personality, who stood his ground even against Warner Bros. His performance and acting skills cannot be expressed through words, you have to see his movies to understand his onscreen charisma, in your own way. 

So if you are intrigued by James Cagney and his films then go watch a few of his films and let us know in the comment section which are the ones you like the most.

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