hollywood megastar james cagney and the system -- 5/29/20

Today's selection -- from The Whole Equation by David Thomson. In the first half of the 20th century, Hollywood actors were governed by contracts with the major studios, which dictated their roles, their schedules, and their pay—leaving many to feel they were little more than "slaves" to the studio system. Only the most powerful stars were able to break free, and not without considerable effort. A case in point was megastar James Cagney:

"Consider the magnificent case of James Cagney. We can omit praise or adoration here, I think. Let's just say that the Warner brothers might never have identified the nature of their tough, urban films but for Cagney. With every testy inhalation and snort, with every abrupt motion, he created the world around him. And he set it trembling. As Orson Welles put it, Cagney 'displaced air.' That extraordinary intimacy I discussed in the last chapter had this effect with Cagney: he sucked in our air -- watch him and you have to breathe with him to survive.

James Francis Cagney Jr.

"How fruitful this slavery seemed. The son of an Irish bartender, Cagney was born in 1899 and raised on the Lower East Side. It was a tough life, though Jimmy was far gentler a soul than the public guessed. To help support his large family, he went into show business and by 1925 was a Broadway dancing star, later signed up by Warners, along with co-star Joan Blondell, for the picture version of their hit show, Penny Arcade (retitled Sinner's Holiday for the screen).

"Talk about a factory. From Sinners' Holiday (1930) to Hard to Handle (1933) he made ten films. 'He still grins that crooked mick grin that made him famous,' said his pal, actor Pat O'Brien. On the surface, all seemed productive and tranquil, all of his assignments were for Warner Brothers, and by 1932 Cagney was getting $1,250 a week. However, he complained bitterly about the cheapness and the violence of the films, and he used his kid brother Bill (who was as tough and foul-mouthed as the on-screen Jimmy we 'know') to go in and browbeat Warners, especially Jack Warner, for whom the Cagney brothers kept the nickname 'The Shvontz' (the prick). Moreover, the Cagney boys were forever threatening legal action, and getting a better deal as a result.

"Cagney was not alone among actors in hating to play rotten guys. He wanted to look better. He threatened to walk out over his discontent -- but added that he wanted $4,000 a week. He even offered, in public, to do three films for nothing if Warners would then let him out of his contract. He said he reckoned to go back to Columbia University (he had a scholarship) to study medicine or art. Jack Warner refused to cave in. He replaced Cagney in projects (Spencer Tracy got a big break by picking up 20,000 Years in Sing Sing), until, finally, Frank Capra stepped in as a conciliator (an angel, let's say). Cagney got $3,000 a week. By 1935 it would be up to $4,500.

"Nothing changed. Cagney moved leftward: in 1933, he said that Stalin and Gandhi were the best living human beings. He would be an active board member of the Screen Actors Guild. And he continued to agitate against his own studio. He never let up on the Shvontz. It was in this straitjacket that, from 1931 to 1939, Cagney made (among others) The Public Enemy, Taxi!, Footlight Parade, The Crowd Roars, Hard to Handle, The Picture Snatcher, Jimmy the Gent, Ceiling Zero, Angels with Dirty Faces, Each Dawn I Die, and The Roaring Twenties.

"This then culminated in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), a Warners film but produced by Bill Cagney under the shadow of Jimmy's announced departure from the studio, and as unbelievable yet as exactly right as only Michael Curtiz could pull off. It won Cagney his Oscar, doing George M. Cohan but also bringing together an amalgam of hoodlum, hoofer, and nightmare patriot. Cohan got $125,000 and 10 percent of the rentals for the rights to his life. The film cost $1.5 million and earned nearly $5 million. Still, a charity premiere of the picture, in May 1942, as America took on its own war, raised the astounding sum of $4.75 million in one night.

"Thereupon, Jimmy and Bill took leave of Warners and set up as Cagney Productions. They had a bank behind them, with United Artists as their distributor. They would pick and choose, and so they did -- four films in seven years, including William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life, and every one a dud.

"Then, dismayed but still defiant, they staggered back to Warners: 'I sure as hell never expected in the order of things that we'd ever go back to Warners. Our basic reason was a five-letter word beginning with m and ending in y. But it wasn't just the dough. It's easier to make pictures when you have a factory setup. And I'd never have to face The Shvontz. Brother Bill was there to face the old bastard, and those two money-oriented businessmen could talk on the same level and be perfectly happy together.'

"Bill had another angle: a top-up fee if Jimmy's old films were reissued (or sold to television). In 1949, and back home, for $250,000, Jimmy did White Heat. The screenwriters said it was the old gangster stuff but with some fresh angles -- now you could see that the rotten guy was crazy.

"Of course, actors -- not even ones as air-displacing as Cagney -- don't have to be business geniuses or artists. There's no shame in finding shelter in the factory. Temperament or the urge to be 'difficult' is the artist's curse or right, and in truth the factory system was pretty good at handling its spoiled babies. Stories abound on how Judy Garland, say, was harassed to her grave by M-G-M, and horribly exploited by men like Mayer. Well, sure, the work was hard. But other child stars, like Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor (at the same studio), went on and on (and sometimes put executives in the hospital). The person who introduced Judy to drugs was her mother. And if you see fit to cry for Judy then I can only suggest that you take a weekend and read one of the biographies -- Gerald Clarke's will do well -- and I challenge you on Monday morning to be filled with regret. A lot of artists are pains in the ass, self-destructive beyond the merciful efforts of family and friends, and prepared to get away with anything and everything possible, including the clothes they had to wear in a part."

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David Thomson


The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood


First Vintage Books


Copyright 2004 by David Thomson


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