In just about every interview, in most conversations, one question emerges unfailingly: what is my favorite picture? — Cagney By Cagney, the actor’s memoir published in 1976.
Which of James Cagney’s movies was his favorite because, presumably, he considered it his best? Put another way, which of Cagney’s movies was the best, or at least his favorite?
Was it William Wellman’s realistic crime drama, The Public Enemy, dating from 1931? That’s the one that established Cagney as a young gangster on the rise, an honest, brutal portrayal that still is a bit of a shocker. Who can easily forget the scene showing Cagney’s character shoving grapefruit in the face of actress Mae Clark?
Cagney wrote that he had no idea at the time he made the picture that the grapefruit scene would create such a stir. This bit of business derived from a real incident in Chicago when a hoodlum named Hymie Weiss was listening to his girlfriend endlessly yakking away at breakfast one morning.
He didn’t like it, so he took an omelet she had just prepared and shoved it in her face. Repeating this on the screen would have been a shade too messy, so we used the grapefruit half. I was not to hear the end of that little episode for years.
(The Public Enemy, incidentally, was a very big commercial success. Filmed over 26 days for $151,000, it was one of the first low-budget million dollar grossers in the business, wrote Cagney. Any way you slice it, The Public Enemy earned back at the box office nearly seven times its production cost.)
And, what classic film noir fan can overlook 1949’s White Heat, in which a very nimble Cagney jumps off prison cafeteria tables and clambers up gas tankers to explosively die, declaring that he is “on top of the world, Ma.” (By the way, let’s not overlook Virginia Mayo’s performance in the movie as a fetching but treacherous femme fatale.)
Or do you think Cagney’s favorite was one of his later films, 1955’s Mister Roberts, perhaps, or Billy Wilder’s wonderful 1961 comedy One, Two, Three, in which Gagney portrays a scheming Coca-Cola executive, stuck in cold-war Berlin long before that Wall came down?
Well, then, which of his movies did Cagney most like?
The answer is simple, and it derives from George M. Cohan’s comment about himself: once a song-and-dance man, always a song-and-dance man. In that brief statement, you have my life story; those few words tell us as much about me professionally as there is to tell, Cagney wrote.
In 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, in which Cagney played George M. Cohan, I didn’t have to pretend to be a song-and-dance man. I was one.
The musical biography of singer-dancer-actor-playwright-composer Cohan was directed by Michael Curtiz, and costarred, among others, Walter Huston, Rosemary De Camp and Cagney’s sister, Jeanne. Cagney’s leading lady was Joan Leslie (pictured with him in the photo above). The film was a huge hit, nominated in five Academy Award categories and won for Cagney 1943’s best actor Oscar.
In attaching himself to Yankee Doodle Dandy with its overt no-holds-barred patriotic theme, Cagney accomplished more than an artistic goal. At the time, he was concerned that his reputation in Hollywood had been scarred by my so-called radical activities in the thirties when I was a strong Roosevelt liberal. Anyone of that backround was usually colored pinko at the very least.