Sunday, April 16, 2023

James Cagney: A Master at Making Gangsters Likable

An excellent book on a Hollywood star is Cagney by John McCabe who also wrote a biography of the Broadway man who was, in my view, James Cagney's best role of all time (and not only in my view since the biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy indeed earned the star the 1942 Oscar for best actor): George M Cohan.

I bought the biography 25 years ago after reading 's New York Times book review, A Master at Making Gangsters Likable, in the International Herald Tribune. The new biography "of John McCabe, the author of several celebrity biographies and an actor himself,"

emphasizes his work as an actor. Indeed, the best parts of ''Cagney'' are the tales and reminiscences from the more than 60 movies he made in a career that spanned more than half a century, from ''Sinner's Holiday'' in 1930 to ''Ragtime'' in 1981. This is a book that should be in the reference library of any serious film buff if only for the excellent indexes and appendixes, which include all Cagney's stage roles, radio plays, television appearances and feature films: complete with writer, director, cameraman and full cast.

 … Mr. McCabe provides a wealth of stories about every movie, from the squabbles and disagreements on the set to the actor's feuds with Jack Warner to how Cagney developed his characters in each film.

 … A bonus to Mr. McCabe's film-by-film commentary on Cagney's movies, especially for aspiring actors, is the informative digressions on how he approached his roles. Cagney told Mr. McCabe he could sum up his acting technique in three words: ''Just do it.''

He added: ''Don't think of doing it, or worry about doing it, or hold a post-mortem on doing it, or stand in front of a mirror, or get out a slide rule to do it. Just . . . do it.''

But Cagney also liked to add what he called ''goodies'' to a characterization. By that he meant finding something funny, or at least human, even in the worst and nastiest of villains, through which the audience could identify with the character. Cagney was a master at it. 

 … If there was a secret hidden in the Cagney formula, it was most likely in a reply he gave to Frank Sinatra, who once asked him how he could make gangsters so likable to audiences. ''Be as tough as you want,'' Cagney said, ''but sprinkle the goodies for laughs here and there. 'Cause anything they can laugh at, they can't hate.''

Cagney drew upon his fighting experience to become a dancer. ''Fighters I admired'' were ''all the epitome of grace,'' Cagney explained. ''That is what got me into dancing. I learned how to dance from learning how to fight.''

Nothing but praise, then, for the author, John McCabe (''This is the actor I most admired. Revered.''), who has also written some definitive biographies on Laurel and Hardy (Stan and Babe), both as a team and individually, and who was friends with both Laurel and Cagney.

One has no choice, however, but to admit that is far off the mark when he praises "the excellent indexes and appendixes", in view of the extent to which the editing leaves a lot to be desired.

Two of Jimmy Cagney's brothers (in his tight-knit Irish family), Edward and Harry, are listed in the index as appearing on pages 10 and 36 and pages 32 and 36, respectively, although both also appear on pages 166, 171, 227, 239-240, 275, 283 (Edward alone), 289 (Harry alone), 310, 326, and 327.

Oliver Hardy does not appear in the index at all, although he is mentioned at least four times in the book. 

And one actor's name is spelled differently every time his name is mentioned (including in the index, where one of his mentions likewise is not listed): Jack Halloran, Jack Hollaran, and Jack Holloran.

That can't be ascribed to the author, though. 

Editing. Proof-reading. And fact-checking. Those are the editor's jobs. (Who knows? Maybe the Kindle edition has addressed those problems…)