Despite only standing 5’5″, the late James Cagney stands tall in the annals of Hollywood history as the quintessential oxymoron—a cinematic gangster who was a song-and-dance-man. With a career that spanned from his days on the vaudeville circuit to a storied career during the Golden Age of Hollywood, Cagney’s creative shadow loomed large right up until he died of a heart attack at the age of 86 on March 30, 1986. With the most recent nod to his legacy being the smash Off-Broadway musical Cagney, the following are some of his most notable roles.
The Public Enemy (1931)
The film that was Cagney’s breakthrough role featured him as Tom Powers, a youth who goes down a path of crime during the Prohibition. Based on a never-published novel by two former thugs who witnessed a number of Al Capone-generated violence around Chicago, this Daryl Zanuck production featured Cagney’s infamous scene where he mashes a grapefruit in the face of his girlfriend Kitty (Mae Clark).
Cagney won his only Oscar playing the title role in this musical biopic about storied Broadway composer/playwright George M. Cohan. As a fellow Irish-American who had honed his singing and dancing in vaudeville, not unlike Cohan, Cagney was the perfect choice. Not only was he able to get away from the gangster typecasting, but helped further popularize Cohan standards like “Over There,” “Yankee Doodle Boy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway.”
White Heat (1949)
In his quest to break playing stereotypical gangsters, Cagney hadn’t played one for nine years before being wooed back to play Arthur “Cody” Jarrett, the psychotic lead character whose dysfunctional relationship with his mother dictated this performance. It also features one of the great finales for a doomed bad guy which features Jarrett crying out, “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” to his deceased mother before blowing himself up.
Love Me Or Leave Me (1955)
Cagney received his final Oscar nod for playing Martin “Moe the Gimp” Snyder, a gangster who was also the first husband/manager of Doris Day’s nightclub singer/dancer Ruth Etting. Day was recommended by Cagney to play the female lead in this musical romantic biopic about Etting’s life. It wound up being one of Cagney’s top five films he made and was also the last time he ever played a gangster.
Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)
This Academy Award-nominated performance found Cagney playing gangster William “Rocky” Sullivan, whose rise and fall in the criminal world winds up with a date with the electric chair. Sullivan’s reputation influences local kids The Dead End Kids, and when Cagney’s character is on the way to getting juiced, he is convinced by Pat O’Brien’s parish priest to beg for his life so as to turn the gang’s admiration to scorn.