James Cagney

I’ve been thinking about James Cagney a lot today, because I realised it was the 25th anniversary of his death. There are many classic actors that I love and admire, but he has to be at the top of my list, as anyone who reads this blog probably realises already!  I think it’s a combination of qualities – his greatness as an actor even in a weak film, with all that nervous energy and willingness to take risks, the humour, the vulnerability and above all that expressive voice. And, yes, his looks have something to do with it too.

When I first set up this blog I was intending to review all of Cagney’s films, but for various reasons it didn’t happen, as I spread my wings a bit and started to develop my interest in other actors and directors. I do still want to review more of his works, but probably won’t get to all of them!  However, I have seen all 60 or so of Cagney’s films at least once each (except for two TV plays and his rare final TV film, Terrible Joe Moran) and thought it might be fun to list my personal top 20 favourites (not necessarily the 20 greatest, but the ones which appeal the most to me). I’ve put them in chronological order as I’d find it impossible to decide which is my absolute favourite… and would be interested to hear what other people’s favourite performances by him are.

Sinners’ Holiday  (1930)
The Public Enemy (1931)
The Crowd Roars (1932)
The Mayor of Hell (1933)
Footlight Parade (1933)
”G’ Men (1935)
Ceiling Zero (1936)
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
The Oklahoma Kid (1939)
Each Dawn I Die (1939)
The Roaring Twenties (1939)
City for Conquest (1940)
The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
Captains of the Clouds (1942)
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
White Heat (1949)
Come Fill the Cup (1951)
Run For Cover (1955)
Mister Roberts (1955)
Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)

The photo below is a signed one I bought via Ebay, which was sent out by Warner to a fan. I understand that most of the autographed photos of film stars sent out by studios were forged by people who worked there – but he could have signed it, and, anyway, it’s nice to have.

31 thoughts on “James Cagney

  1. Cagney is one of my favorite Hollywood actors also. I usually like his performance more than the movie that holds it, although there are some all-around great films in his filmography too. The titles on my own “best” list are all on yours already. I’m not about to try and rank them either, but I can name a personal absolute favorite: Footlight Parade. What a phenomenal showcase for his talents! Joan Blondell is the ideal foil/love interest and the Shanghai Lil number just blows me away every time.


    • Thanks very much for commenting, Helen – I just checked out your blog, which looks great, and will add you to my blogroll right away. I agree that ‘Footlight Parade’ is great, and also that Cagney and Blondell work very well together, though I think I probably slightly prefer him in more dramatic roles. I also agree with you that his performance is often better than the rest of the film around him.


  2. Judy –
    I’m happy you posted this. I was INCREDIBLEY bummed when I woke up this morning, and realized what date it was. I am a HUGE Cagney fan, and I realized as soon as my eyes opened, that I had JUST MISSED the 25th of his passing. I am so down now. Last year (on the 24th anniversary) I ventured to upstate new york, and went to his farm cottage to pay homage to my favorite actor. I took a brief video of the house he lived in and spent his golden years (and died in too.) (The clip is posted on Youtube “Cagney Cottage.”) I really wanted to go back on the 25th anniversary (since thats a big one) and take a better video. SHOOT!!!! But thanks for posting this to let the world remember ‘The great one.’ (PS- you also for got to put the early Cagney flick “Doorway to Hell” (1930). He made that film inbetween Sinners Holiday and Public Enemy. (I have a rare copy of that film available on Ebay if you are interested, since you wont be able to find it anywhere else.)(Or i could sell you a copy direct, if you’re interested.) Anyway, thanks again!!! -Justin


    • Thanks, Justin – it must have been really something to go to the house where he lived, and I’ll have a look at your video on Youtube! I only chose 20 films for my list of favourites, so ended up leaving out ‘Doorway to Hell’ along with some other goodies, but I do like his performance in it, though I think Lew Ayres is miscast in the lead despite being a fine actor. I have got a copy of it but thanks for the offer! Warner should really release ‘Doorway to Hell’ on DVD – I can’t understand why they haven’t included it in one of their box sets of gangster films. Thanks again!


    • very good Justin……… I loved his voice….those voices you do not hear anymore…I do not know why…there was emotion and honesty there …also he was very cool in his own way but he mixed humanity .. goodness with the cool…..he sprinkled the goodies around…today the actors stress cool but leave out humanity and add a lot of curse words at the same time….poor example for the young ones who watch movies….jim


  3. Judy, I expect CagneyFan to be here very soon with a definitive comment, and I look forward to it. But your singular love for this titan of the cinema has been well delineated at this place for a very long time. God, where would I begin?

    Angels With Dirty Faces
    The Public Enemy
    White Heat
    Yankee Doodle Dandy
    Footlight Parade
    Each Dawn I Die
    City For Conquest
    The Man of a Thousand Faces

    These are all beloved, but your reminder here rightly goes much further. On any list of the greatest actors of all time Cagney would make a strong case for #1 ranking with the likes of Brando, Olivier, Grant, Bogart, Stewart and Tracy, but I couldn’t blame anyone for going with the man who gloriously negotiated the two extremes in the acting pantheon: mob dramas and tap dancing musicals.

    For diversity, one need not look further than this icon.

    Magnificent showcase here Judy, and I’ve seen more than once how you regard Jimmy Cagney. Love that signed e bay treasure you have there!


    • Those are all great films, Sam, and glad to see you mention ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ as I think it is a masterpiece and often overlooked – one of Cagney’s greatest performances, and including those astonishing silent sequences which give a glimpse of what he might have been like as an actor in silent films.

      Many thanks, and glad you like my Ebay photo – I put in a low bid for it on a somewhat rough day, and it was a bonus when I “won” it. I know it was possibly/probably signed by some Warner employee forging Cagney’s signature, but it is a lovely photo anyway.


  4. Judy, Sam,

    Here I am. You knew I’d have to chime in on this one.

    Judy, that is a wonderful signed photo you got on eBay. What a great piece of memorabilia whether it’s really James Cagney’s sig or not.

    I can’t add much to what you’ve already listed on your favorite Cagneys, but I will say that other personal favorites of mine are ST LOUIS KID, THE PICTURE SNATCHER and JIMMY THE GENT, which is one of my very favorite favorites.

    Cagney’s presence even in a mediocre film (such as FRISCO KID) would transform it into something more. Will Rogers aptly put it, “‘Every time I see him work, it looks to me like a bunch of firecrackers going off all at once.” He really was a living firecracker when the cameras rolled.

    My first Cagney movie was G-MEN, and I’ll never forget how mesmerized I was by his performance. He was truly one of the greatest of the greats, and next to Errol Flynn is my favorite actor. Thanks for marking this day!


    • Thank you, CagneyFan – I definitely agree with that “firecrackers” comment. I also like ‘Picture Snatcher’ a lot and have actually just re-watched ‘Jimmy the Gent’, which is very funny although I don’t think Bette Davis gets much scope – hoping to write something about that one in the next day or two, so watch this space!

      Must admit I’m not quite so keen on ‘The St Louis Kid’ although I do enjoy Cagney and Allen Jenkins in it. I love G-Men too, especially the beginning where he is a lawyer with no clients and also the ending – must watch it again soon.


  5. One of the greatest of all time Judy. Great dramatic actor, comedy and musicals. These 20 are my favorites though I could easily add and/or change a few.

    Angels With Dirty Faces
    White Heat
    The Public Enemy
    The Roaring Twenties
    Each Dawn I Die
    Mister Roberts
    Blonde Crazy
    One, Two, Three
    Pitcher Snatcher
    Footlight Parade
    The Crowd Roars
    Ceiling Zero
    Lady Killer
    City For Conquest
    Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye
    The Mayor of Hell
    Hard to Handle
    Sinner’s Holiday
    Doorway to Hell
    He Was Her Man


    • I see our lists are quite similar, John, and most of those which you included and I didn’t were ones I like too. I see you went for most of those which team Cagney and Blondell, and must agree they go very well together. I could easily change a few of my top 20 too, probably based on whatever I’ve seen most recently. Thanks very much!


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  7. I don’t know much about James Cagney but that’s what I love about classic film. You may know the name but until you see them in a film, you don’t really get a feel for who they were like Marlon Brando. He was so handsome and full of attitude when he was young!


    • You’re right there – there are several actors who I thought I didn’t like for various reasons (I’d seen tiny clips of them or just seen them in one of their worst films!) but who were a revelation to me when I saw them in a good role. I also like Brando when he was young. Thanks for commenting!


  8. I really ought to get back into watching more Cagney. I’ve been meaning to give Ceiling Zero another spin. I don’t think it’s been mentioned but I seem to remember enjoying Torrid Zone. However, it’s been a very long time since I last saw it so it may not be what I’m expecting.

    I’m generally a fan of his later stuff – White Heat, One, Two, Three and Mister Roberts are among my favourites – and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (even though it is kind of White Heat-lite) is a very undervalued picture.


    • It’s been quite a long time since I saw Torrid Zone too – I do remember that he and Pat O’Brien try to out-fast talk each other in it, though! I don’t like One, Two, Three all that much, as the humour often seems off the mark to me (though the fast talking is amazing in that too), but I do like the others you have mentioned here, especially White Heat which is one of my absolute favourites. I should really watch Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye again – I do remember that it is a good noir and a fine performance by Cagney. Thanks, Colin.


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  10. Cagney is one of my favorites too. I love how can play tough, yet be so graceful. That signed photograph is great! I always wonder how authentic many of those items are on ebay. But like you said, it could have been signed by Cagney! You named “Ceiing Zero” amongst your 20 favorites. I really wish that film would get a DVD release, at least an MOD release.


    • Thanks, Robby – tough and graceful is just right. I had my hopes up about a DVD of Ceiling Zero being released, as UK store chain HMV briefly listed it as a forthcoming release, but the details then disappeared from their site (along with many others which were promised!) I also saw a comment from someone at Warner Archive recently saying there is a problem with the copyright for this movie.
      Warner has actually issued it as a DVD in France, though:
      I haven’t forked out for this as yet, since I had been hoping for a UK release, but may do so in future.

      Anyway, thanks again, Robby, and I will add your site to my links.


  11. No one mentions Cagney’s typology. It’s important in so favoring him: he stands for a centrally American working class male who is also not macho male but rather vulnerable, sensitive and (unbeatable this) elegant too. Since so many depictions of working class men until today present the character as somehow clownish (think of TV serials) or bumbling or anything but heroic, and often down-and-out in a desperate way, Cagney remains much beloved. The elegance goes far to break the class system (seen in English pictures very strongly).

    I’d say in the 1930s there were a lot more pro-working class male icons that come near Cagney’s persona.


    • Dear Ellen, thanks very much for commenting – Cagney’s typology is very interesting and I’ve recently read a book which goes into a lot of detail on his working-class screen persona, ‘City Boys’ by Robert Sklar – as well as Jeanine Basinger’s ‘The Star Machine’, which is very interesting on how the “type” for each star was developed.

      I’ve also seen articles arguing that Cagney’s Irishness is central to his appeal and considering him together with Edward G Robinson as the first generation of immigrant heroes (and villains) in American films. Both of these actors mingle toughness with vulnerability, as you say.


  12. My favorite Cagney film is “Hard To Handle.” It proves he was a terrific comedic actor, and is chock full of in-jokes (including a few involving grapefruit!). Loads of fun.


    • I also like ‘Hard to Handle’, especially the part about the dance marathon at the beginning – a great pre-Code and, as you say, lots of grapefruit jokes. I reviewed it a while back and it was one of those I could easily have included in my top 20. Thanks, Vincent!


  13. Hi, I just came across this site and it’s wonderful to find another Cagney fan!! He’s my all time favorite actor! I haven’t seen ALL of his movies, but I’ve seen most of them. I was reading your review of The Crowd Roars earlier, that’s also one of my favorites and I would LOVE to see it again. I’m sad that it’s not out on DVD yet. My other favorites would be: Angels with Dirty Faces, Hard to Handle, Taxi, Footlight Parade, The Bride Came C.O.D., Torrid Zone, The West Point Story, Love Me or Leave Me and many more!
    Love your blog!!!


    • Thanks very much, glad to hear from a fellow Cagney fan and also from someone who shares my love of ‘The Crowd Roars’, a sadly under-rated film in my book. I’d love to see it get a DVD release. Agree with most of your others except ‘West Point Story’ which is not one of my favourites – but I do love ‘Hard to Handle# and ‘Taxi!’ even though I didn’t put them in my list.


  14. “Jimmy the Gent” is an amazing comedy, with Bette Davis no less, for which Cagney converted himself into a typical 21st century New Yorker. Believe me, the awful haircut and fractured speech is utterly representative of most of the guys you typically see on the streets in New York City these days once you leave the most upscale areas (and even if you don’t). Cagney noted in at least one of his memoirs (he did two) that he had the makeup men put scars on the back of his head until the studio stopped it. When he did that, he was truly ushering himself into today’s New York. And it’s a lot more fun to watch that character onscreen than it is to deal with millions of him on a daily basis.


  15. I own and have seen everyone of his films. I have his AFI ceremony and have seen it many times. Cagney is awesome!

    My essential James Cagney films:

    1 Yankee Doodle Dandy
    2 Angels Wih Dirty Faces
    3 The Strawberry Blonde
    4 13 Rue Madeleine
    5 Footlight Parade
    6 The Fighting 69th
    7 G-Men
    8 Love Me Or Leave Me
    9 Man Of A Thousand Faces
    10 The Public Enemy
    11 The Roaring Twenties
    12 White Heat
    13 Each Dawn I Die
    14 These Wilder Years
    15 One Two Three
    16 Mayor Of Hell
    17 Ceiling Zero
    18 City For Conquest
    19 Mister Roberts
    20 Blonde Crazy
    21 Blood On the Sun

    Having seen everyone of his 60+ films, I believe these are his best 21 films mixing in all his styles very well. From the young to middle age to old, you have it all in these 21 films. If you want to see Cagney and Robinson together try Smart Money, the only film they have ever done together. However not a great film. For someone just discovering Cagney, these 21 films are a must see before anything else Cagney in my opinion.


  16. Hi I just found this site and had to leave a reply, so i apologize for coming to the party late. James Cagney has been my favorite actor since I can remember and the thing that never ceases to amaze me is how many other actors mention him as being their favorite. From interviews or tv appearences I’ve heard John Travolta, George C Scott, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Malcolm McDowell, Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Carroll O’ Conner, Clint Eastwood, Michael J Fox, Charles Durning, Steven Van Zandt and Mikail Baryshnikov site Cagney as a singular influence. I doubt if any other actor can claim such a diverse collection of talent. As for his films, the one’s mentioned would among my favorites as well but I have a particular affection for TAXI (1932), watch his scenes with Loretta Young and HE WAS HER MAN (1934) with the wonderful Joan Blondell. Wonderful Site.


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