Before sound came into film, no one had ever moved like James Cagney, and no one has since. Like the face of Jerry Lewis, Cagney’s puppet limbs, his slashes of feet and gorilla-woodpecker hoots, are “where the height of artifice blends at times with the nobility of true documentary.”1 The arms move centrifugally away from the torso in a kind of dance for the rebel spirit, yet the body remains intact; take any of his body’s continuous moments and you could frame them in the Fraenkel Gallery for photographic prosperity, a tribute to an urban dandy. Cagney’s performances in his earliest and best pictures are of a piece with the contemporaneous film landscape, spiked (as we now know) with a surfeit of mutt landmarks. The Marx Brothers’s jabber, Mae West’s pimp-walk, her sass, Raoul Walsh’s Me and My Gal (1932), the insane Fleischer Studios cartoons with Cab Calloway: All were the fruits of a medium newly drunk on the possibilities gifted it by the addition of sound (soon, color) to its expressive palette. Cagney was a model of effortlessness and charm while being infested with that period's sexy, scurrilous weirdness. His central paradox—namely, how likable he was, against the danger and fright that his studio-curated personae produced in the viewer—flabbergasted Orson Welles, who once asked, “What is more real and stylized than Cagney?”
Why does Jimmy continue to move us? Why does he have the potential to keep moving? The obvious period trappings of the early-'30s films aside (misogyny and a cycle-of-abuse keeps Taxi! chugging, and Jimmy does his damndest to side-step it with Charm, though it doesn't work), Jimmy is the animated embodiment of what we now know today as the Multitasker, that curious creature whom we are told exists in the world, and after whom we desperately try to pattern our working and personal lives, else we drown in the ever-worsening maw of noise-hatred-mediocrity. But Cagney the tapdancing-flirting-driving modern is not creaky; he is not a Tradition-locked ideal whom one hates or ignores. Before he was frozen against his will as a woman-slapping, writhing-maniac gangster (a role that the cagey entertainer in him would never allow to half-ass), the Cagney on display in his early roles (1931’s Other Men’s Women and Blonde Crazy, 1932’s The Crowd Roars and Taxi!, 1933’s Footlight Parade, Hard to Handle, and Picture Snatcher, 1934’s Jimmy the Gent, 1935’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) is fast, seamless, and moves instinctively to where the action is. His every gesture is a fully-committed engagement with the lush, wet, loud world of the cities around him.
Whenever a certain MGM-type smoothness threatens to creep into a Cagney film, one can count on Cagney’s buzz saw effect to destabilize it, throw in odd angles and “off” Monk notes. He was wired all the time on an eccentric moxie, derived from his vaudeville days and his need to get close with audiences (this explains his later, earthier, softly-shaded 1940s roles in Strawberry Blonde, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Johnny Come Lately). He was tight and tense all the time, coiled and ready to eye-drop himself into whatever scenario the Brothers Warner threw at him, and to vigorously have a chew on it. A great example is his fabulously miscast interpretation of Bottom in the Max Reinhardt production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Cagney has a jolly time drawing outside of the neat lines set by Propriety and received Tradition, which puts needless clamps on Shakespeare’s language and which constantly requires artists with fresh imaginations (Robeson’s Othello, the Kurosawa Throne of Blood, Frances McDormand’s Lady Macbeth) to bring out its perverse vigor. Cagney is at his anarchic best in the first few reels of Midsummer: In the opening prim-and-proper marriage party for Theseus and Hippolyta, he stomps his feet wildly off-rhythm, treading vulgarly up and down on the serene welcome-song (“Awwww, profess’n’fight!”), distracts his fellow actors by transposing his smart-alecky, 42nd Street cabbie to ye olde Athens. Judging by how overeager he is to play Lion, Moonlight, and Thisbe in the tragedy-within-a-comedy, after he’s just been cast as the male lead Pyramus, you get the sense that his Bottom is a thinly veiled self-portrait. It’s hard to forget the moment when, as he’s about to rehearse Pyramus’s pining monologue for Thisbe, Jimmy smacks his hands, snaps his feet to attention, and stares hungrily out as if he were a tap-dancing impresario about to hoof it through the forest, “Shanghai Lil”-style. This gesture in three movements is random, hilarious, and sublime. One can even hear Cagney’s energy, aurally embodied in his rehearsal of the Lion’s roar. He so thoroughly ignores his fellow ensemble players that their Shakespearean dialogue gets momentarily forgotten—pulled in, as it were, into the whirlpool Cagney’s roar creates, a whirlpool where no other legible sound but pure Noise is allowed to pass. His roar smothers the soundtrack, crackling harshly on the 35mm print and in one’s earlobes, making the viewer ask herself: “This guy is at a 9, let's please get him down to a 3.”
Once Bottom gains the face of a donkey, the movie forces Cagney to act in a more tempered manner (he loses his all-important smirk and danger-face). But rather than limit him, this inspires Cagney to tap deep within himself and unearth a honey-velvetine sweetness to his voice, which he seldom used—only once more, with Olivia De Havilland in Strawberry Blonde—and which proved that, when he wanted to, he could act within the noble, melancholic strain of Shakespeare. Cagney could have easily play funny scene-stealers (Macbeth's Gravedigger, Hamlet's Guildenstern), but his gentle love of the Queen of the Forest and the kittenish way he plays with “Monsieur Mustard Seed” (a kid fairy) shows that he could have also been a star-crossed lover’s father, an old man who sees his teenaged hubris, his illusion of immortality within the throes of first love, repeated, tragically, by his daughter or son.
It doesn’t seem at all strange to see Jimmy soar in Shakespeare’s world, just as it makes perfect sense for his hot-tempered tough guys to suddenly do a sadistic jig in between gun- and fist-fights. Witness his ballet in The Public Enemy, where, after an off-screen massacre of hoods in which he’s been mortally wounded, he leans “Smooth Criminal”-style on top of, then away from, then into a rain-drenched New York City side-curb. In these moments, you can’t tell whether you’re looking at a gangster who wants to see his name in Broadway lights, or an Isadora Duncan stan with a very lucrative side hustle.
Just as he could destabilize any scene he appeared in, he was a destabilized force in and of himself. What’s captivating about early-’30s Cagney is this very porousness between role (as it is written) and interpretation (as he plays it). Even though his gangster role as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy made him an instant icon, it was only one of about a dozen in a stable of roles he excelled at playing. (And, from a modern standpoint, his Public Enemy hot-head is the least interesting of this fabulous period. With its lurching pace that catches director Wellman on an okay day, it’s been overburdened with a reputation far exceeding its quality—canonized and hardened, as it has been, by historians, genre obsessives, and worshippers of the AFI lists). Jimmy’s archetype as a violent monster hadn’t been locked in yet, and it would be a decade before it found its freakishly filigreed peak in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949), so he was free to wander around in various irascible leprechaun roles: impish, mischievous, absolutely lovable. He excelled as con men, organizers of Depression-era dance marathons, hot-headed cabbies, race-car drivers, Broadway musical directors, washed-up boxers, bellboys, and actors who morph into asses. (The list of childhood jobs he held reflects this working-class city need to juggle several lines: junior architect, copy boy for the New York Sun, book custodian at the New York Public Library, bellhop, draughtsman, night doorkeeper, and scenery boy at a Chinese pantomime theater.) Because of the furiously-paced schedules imposed on him by Warner Bros, there was omnipresent in Cagney’s acting something like the motion-blurring effect in photographs that have been snapped in panicky, capture-it-now moments, wherein traces of what came before bleed into the newest moment, the newest venture. No matter the arbitrary role dictated by the story, Cagney infests all his performances with the same manic busyness, the same over-caffeinated desire to hang out with nine different friends-lovers-smackoffs at the same time. A typical Cagney project is less than 80 minutes long, but the plot-moves are crazily labyrinthine and tightly-wound. Thus, they give Jimmy enough time to go through six different con jobs, romance his girl, banter like a smart-ass with her mother, and make a fortune and lose the fortune and make another fortune in a span of months condensed to minutes (Hard to Handle).
All the while, Cagney works with an astonishing range of gestures and mannerisms unique to each of his same-ish energy movies. He misogynistically pushes a grapefruit in his lover’s eye once—a grossly overrated move, much too coarse for Cagney. He is remembered thanklessly for this brutal Public Enemy gesture, and, from Palo Alto to MoMA, it will always get a sadistic laugh out of grizzled old-timers. But we should better remember Cagney's tender moments with his greatest leading lady, Joan Blondell. Peak Jimmy is delicate, viz. when he offers his cheek to Blondell leaning in for a kiss, when he lightly brushes his soft fist on mama’s chin as if to say “I love ya” silently, when he traces his hands through Joanie’s sensually textured fur stole. Despite appearing in sound films, his characters were always more comfortable expressing themselves through gestures, even though the words have their own deep chesty lust (“Huh huh—wuttu wumun”) or stubby, aphoristic beauty (“Baby, da age of chivalry has passed—dis here’s da age of chiselry”). The deployed tics in Blonde Crazy include cooing “Huhhhhh-ney!” to Joan Blondell enough times to split your skull. He also relies upon a plastic look of shock each of the countless times he is bitch-slapped by Blondell—so loud, it hurts us. Every time Jimmy kisses a sore part of the body of his Hard to Handle sweetie (Mary Brian), she yelps, “Ow! That hurt!” Jimmy’s response: “That’s love!”—a Jesus Prayer-type mantra he holds close to his oddball romantic’s heart. In the very same film, he warbles his left hand like a robin’s whistle—the giveaway sign that he’s having too much fun with a woman who hasn’t said “I love you” yet. Cagney rarely walks from Point A to Point B in a straight line, preferring 100-meter bursts of business: sprinting, channeling his inner Jesse Owens to avoid an angry Southern California mob of provincial cityfolk.
All of the above Cagney affectations mark a virile and unquenchable youth. Like the Pollock splatters whose slashing energy is arbitrarily cut off by the edges of the frame (but which could flow on forever), Cagney’s minor-major gestures suggest the endless eccentric who exists behind a stereotype, a legend ossified for the sake of easy nostalgia.