Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, June 1, 2017


CAGNEY BY CAGNEY. James Cagney. Doubleday; 1976.

James Cagney had no particular interest in writing his memoirs, but he was tired of authors getting the facts wrong and decided he had better tell his own story. The first section of the book features a lot of tales detailing just how tough Cagney was growing up in a bad neighborhood where you had to prove yourself with your fists. Cagney wouldn't be the first song and dance man who felt a need to affect a super-macho image. (Ironically, one of his first jobs had him dancing in drag!) The book is more interesting when Cagney gets into his career, and he makes it clear that he considers himself, first and foremost, a dancer. Cagney felt that making movies was a grind, and he wasn't thrilled with some of the by-the-numbers assignments he was thrown into, nor with the fact that real bullets were originally used in scenes with machine guns! (Oddly, he doesn't acknowledge that he was making much, much more money than the average person.) He writes pleasantly of his fellow actors, with two exceptions: an unnamed leading lady whom he finds condescending: and Horst Buchholz, with whom he appeared in One Two Three. When Buchholz tried one of his "scene-stealing didoes," Cagney was going to "knock him on his ass." Cagey was a rarity in that he wasn't that interested in a typical Hollywood lifestyle, preferring to live in the east, and he was happily married to the same woman, a former actress, for a great many years. Liberal in his youth, Cagney became more conservative as he got older, and also became a conservationist. The book is full of ruminations on how the picture business has changed, as well as the country, and includes many samples of his poetry, which is much better than Jimmy Stewart's. Cagney comes off as a moderately cultured man with some good horse sense, who didn't allow his movie stardom to completely define him. He writes bluntly of movie colleagues who just can't accept the fact that their careers are over and no one is interested in them anymore, a fate that did not ensnare Cagney, as he became an icon instead of a has-been.

Verdict: Probably not the last word, but an interesting look at a very interesting and talented actor. ***.


angelman66 said...

I read this as a kid (I am still a huge fan of biographies and autobiographies) and fell in love with Cagney as a result. He was one of the most versatile, energetic, natural performers of all time. Very masculine but as adept at comedy and music and dance as in his tough-guy gangster persona.

Just saw A Midsummer Night's Dream from 1934 for the first time--Cagney is marvelous opposite Olivia deHavilland, Mickey Rooney and company.

William said...

Thanks for mentioning "Midsummer" -- I'm going to order the DVD from the library and get me some of that culture! Seriously, I've heard that cagney is wonderful.

I am also addicted to bios and memoirs, although I have become selective. i borrowed Alec Baldwin's memoirs from the library, but it was due too quickly and I just returned it without reading it. Cagney, yes, Baldwin (although he's a good actor), no. Maybe another time.