Read Time:7 Minute, 39 Second


Summarize this content to 100 words Twenty one years ago James Cagney, playing in his first film, invented a new kind of screen character. In more than fifty subsequent appearances he has polished and complicated it, but the type has remained substantially unchanged; and it may now be time to investigate its extraordinary influence. Morally and psychologically it could be maintained that the Cagney code and manners have come to dominate a whole tradition of American melodrama. Before Cagney boffed Mae Clark with a grapefruit in The Public Enemy, Hollywood had adhered to what was, by general consent, a reasonably stringent set of moral principles. The film is no exception to the other popular narrative arts: in its infancy it clings to a broad and exaggerated ethical system, based on pure blacks and whites. In the theatre this period is represented by the morality play, and was superseded by Marlowe, whose heroes were noble and wicked, fraudulent and pious, cruel and idealistic, at the same time. In the novel the period of over-simplification ended with the Romantics; and in the film it ended with Cagney. This is not to say that the American movie before 1930 was never immoral: the very urgency of the need for a Hays Office demonstrates the contrary. But its immorality, however blatant, was always incidental and subordinate: a sheikh might flay his wives with scorpions to enliven the curious, but he would be sure to be trampled on, baked or impaled in the last reel. He was always transparently evil, and the flayee transparently innocent. This article first appeared in our May 1951 issue In the early Westerns there is no doubt who is the villain; he is the man leaning against the bar in black frock-coat, ribbon bow-tie and pencilled moustache. He is a killer, charmless and unfunny, and suffers dreadfully by comparison with the bronzed hero on the white horse; his part, too, is much shorter than the star’s. In the twenties there was not only a rigid distinction between the good characters and the bad; they were also evenly balanced in numbers and fame. Vice and virtue proclaimed themselves irrevocably within the first hundred feet, or the director was failing at his job. Cagney changed all this. In The Public Enemy he presented, for the first time, a hero who was callous and evil, while being simultaneously equipped with charm, courage and a sense of fun. Even more significantly, he was co-starred not with the grave young district attorney who would finally ensnare him, but with a bright, callow moll for him to slap. The result was that in one stroke Cagney abolished both the convention of the pure hero and that of approximately numerical equipoise between vice and virtue. The full impact of this minor revolution was manifested at last in the 1942-47 period, when Ladd, Widmark, Duryea and Bogart were able to cash in on Cagney’s strenuous pioneering. It now becomes fascinating to trace the stages of development by which the Cagney villain (lover, brute, humorist and killer) was translated into the Bogart hero (lover, brute, humorist, but non-killer). It is an involved story. Mae Clarke and James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931) Probably it begins with the physical attributes of Cagney himself. One finds it hard to take such a small man seriously: how, after all, can a playful redhead of 5 ft. 8 ins. really be a baron of vice? It is safe to say that if Cagney had been four inches taller, his popularity would be fathoms less than it is. Villains before him had tended to be huge: they loomed and slobbered, bellowed and shambled: you could see them coming. Cagney was and is spruce, dapper and grinning: when he hits a friend over the ear with a revolver-butt, he does it as casually as he will presently press the elevator button on his way out. By retaining his brisk little smile throughout he makes one react warmly, with a grin, not coldly and aghast. Nobody in 1930, the year after Chicago’s St. Valentine’s Day massacre, at which Capone’s lieutenants slaughtered nine men in a disused garage, would have tolerated any romanticisation of the gangster legend. When Muni played Scarface for Howard Hawks two years later, he presented the mob leader as an unhealthy, ungainly lout, a conception clearly in key with contemporary taste. Cagney unconsciously paved the way for the advent of the smooth, romantic gangster of the late ‘thirties; he softened public opinion by sneaking up on it through a forgotten and unguarded loophole. He was never a romantic figure himself – at his height you can’t be – nor was he sentimental – Cheshire cats never are – but he possessed, possibly in greater abundance than any other name star of the time, irresistible charm. It was a cocky, picaresque charm; the charm of pert urchins: the gaminerie of unlicked juvenile delinquents. Cagney, even with sub-machine gun hot in hand and corpses piling at his ankles, can still persuade many people that it was not his fault. By such means he made gang law acceptable to the screen, and became by accident one of the most genuinely corrupting influences Hollywood has ever sent us. Cagney brought organised crime within the mental horizon of errand-boys, who saw him as a cavalier of the gutters – their stocky patron saint. But before the actor comes the script. What literary circumstances were conspiring to produce a climate in which the brutal hero could flourish? It would be superficial to neglect Hemingway, who was beginning to project on to the American mind his own ideal of manhood – a noble savage, idly smoking, silhouetted against a background of dead illusions. Surveyed impartially, the Hemingway hero numbers among his principal characteristics that of extreme dumbness: he is the sincere fool who walks phlegmatically off the end of the pier. He is honourable, charmless, tough and laconic; and he is always, in some sense, a pirate or an adventurer. What Cagney did was to extract the moral core from Hemingway’s creation and put smartness in its place: the result was a character charmingly dishonourable, but saved from suavity or smugness by his brute energy and swift, impetuous speech. Perhaps the simplest point of departure is that, whereas the Hemingway man never hits a woman for fun, Cagney made a secure living out of doing just that. The success of Cagney’s methods made all sorts of variations possible; chief among them the genre popularised in the novels and films of Chandler. Here the central character is tough, cynically courageous, and predisposed towards brutality; he is in fact identical with the Cagney version in all save one vital respect – he is on the side of the law. The process is thus completed: the problem of how to retain the glamour of the killer without the moral obloquy of murder has been solved. Let your hero be a private eye, and he can slaughter just as insensitively in the name of self-defence. James Cagney in “G” Men (1935) Cagney himself has rarely compromised; at the height of his career he never lined up with the police or made any concessions to public morals beyond the token one of allowing himself to be killed at the end, as an indispensable but tiresome rubric. At his best (The Public Enemy, The Mayor of Hell, G-Men, White Heat) he flouts every standard of social behaviour with a disarming Irish pungency which makes murder look like an athletic exercise of high spirits and not a mean and easy transgression. He sweetened killing; and to have done this immediately after the Capone regime, during the era of the concentration camp and between two lacerating wars, is something of an achievement. He was born in New York in 1904 and educated at Stuyvesant High School and Columbia University; his background was East Side, but not the slum and tenement area. He began his stage career, mysteriously, as a female impersonator in 1923, and thereafter for six years danced and understudied in vaudeville. He was mostly penniless. In 1929 William Keighley, then a Broadway director, saw Cagney and Joan Blondell in a romp called Maggie the Magnificent and starred them in Penny Arcade; the play was bought for First National and all three went to Hollywood with it. Retitled Sinners’ Holiday it was released in 1930. Cagney made eight pictures with Joan Blondell in less than four years, and she proved a perfect punchbag for his clenched, explosive talent; the best of the series, Steel Highway, started a revealing vogue for stories about men who work in dangerous proximity to high-tension electrical mechanisms. These films came to be known as “death-dicers”, since they invariably centred on a character who was only happy close to sudden death, who enjoyed tightroping along telegraph wires or lighting cigarettes around kegs of dynamite. For such parts Cagney was a natural, and Wellman, who directed Steel Highway, quickly exploited the new star’s…

#Cagney #Mob #Kenneth #Tynan #Hollywoods #original #gangster #Sight #Sound #archives

Happy
Happy
0 %
Sad
Sad
0 %
Excited
Excited
0 %
Sleepy
Sleepy
0 %
Angry
Angry
0 %
Surprise
Surprise
0 %
Previous post A tribute to the late Sue Bruce-Smith | Sight & Sound
Next post The tragic mountain: the making of The Epic of Everest | Sight & Sound — The Knowledge Pal