It would be all too easy to dismiss James Cagney as a mere personality who traded too much on his tough guy image and played the same role once too often. In truth, Cagney was a much more talented and versatile actor than he may have been given credit for. True, he was easy to impersonate, and was not exactly the kind of performer who could lose himself in a characterization that was too far from himself. But within his range he was often quite effective, and as adept at drama as he was at comedy. In his early years, he was always arguing with Warner Brothers for better and different scripts (although one senses he kind of liked the tough image, especially as he probably could have been knocked over with a feather by bigger guys, truth be told). On rare occasions he was totally miscast or gave a poor performance, overdoing the nasty shtick and masticating the scenery like a male Bette Davis, but more often he was simply outstanding [Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye; Man of a Thousand Faces]. The characters he played were often unpleasant, and that goes for the "good" guys as well as the bad, as he was a product of a time when manliness was summed up by the frequent use of one's fists and insensitivity was the rule of the day. But he could also show his gentler side when it was warranted by the script, and he danced his way across many musicals [The West Point Story], which was appropriate, as in his later years he said he always considered himself a dancer first and actor second.
A few Cagney movies have already been reviewed on this blog, but we've got a fresh crop this week.:
Something to Sing About, Lady Killer, White Heat, Tribute to a Bad Man, These Wilder Years, The Strawberry Blonde, and A Lion Is In the Streets, plus a critique of a biography of the actor.