My favorite James Cagney film happens to be the one he hated making so much that it drove him into retirement.
The movie is a rapid-fire 1961 Billy Wilder comedy called One, Two, Three, where Cagney plays a Coca-Cola executive in West Berlin during the Cold War who is trying to sell his brand of sugar water to the Eastern Bloc.
Cagney nearly walked off the set after clashing with Wilder and co-star Horst Buchholz, who he felt was using every trick in the book to steal scenes.
Instead, he left Hollywood altogether, and for the next 25 years occupied his time as a gentleman farmer.
This example of doing things as only he saw fit was typical of James Francis Cagney, Jr., who died twenty-five years ago today at age 86.
Cagney’s stubbornness prompted WB studio chief Jack Warner to jokingly refer to him as “The Professional Againster,” which no one quite understood, but because it was Jack Warner saying it, everyone made sure to laugh along anyway.
Cagney was born on Manhattan’s tough lower East Side in 1899 to the kind of poverty that crushes most kids. Instead, it spurred him on to work hard at every job he could find, while developing his muscles through boxing (and the occasional street fight) and semi-pro baseball. He learned tap dancing as a boy, a skill which would later help him win an Academy Award for Best Actor for Yankee Doodle Dandy.
He was working at a department store in 1919 when he tried out for a play called Every Sailor, which called for him to dress in drag as a chorus girl. Cagney followed this role up with a Broadway play called Pitter Patter. It was here that he met a 16-year-old chorus girl named Billie Vernon, who he would marry three years later and be with for the remaining 64 years of his life.
The newlyweds sang and danced on the vaudeville circuit for several years while Cagney continued to play parts on Broadway, and to somehow find the time to open his own dance school.
Cagney’s big break came in 1930 when he starred in a play called Penny Arcade alongside actress Joan Blondell. Singer Al Jolson bought the rights to the play, which he later sold to Jack Warner, who brought Cagney and Blondell west to star in the filmed version.
The part earned Cagney a seven-year contract from Warner Bros., with Cagney becoming nearly as famous for his fights with Jack Warner as for the slate of brilliant films they would make together.
Cagney’s role as gangster Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1931), made him one of the most famous actors in Hollywood, but not one of the highest paid, as Jack Warner refused any raises for the rapidly rising star. At one point, Cagney walked out on the studio for six months, threatening to go into medicine if he didn’t get a substantial raise.
Medicine’s loss was Hollywood’s gain, as Cagney successfully renegotiated his contract, and returned to make dozens of great films for WB and others over the next three decades, including Footlight Parade, G Men, Angels With Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties, Yankee Doodle Dandy, The West Point Story, Mister Roberts, Man of a Thousand Faces, Love Me or Leave Me, and the aforementioned One, Two, Three.
In 1981, Cagney returned to the screen in Ragtime, giving a terrific performance as Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo.
This was the only time Cagney ever emerged from his self-imposed exile. It was said that every other time he was tempted to make a comeback, he simply thought about Jack Warner, and the notion would quickly pass.