Jimmy the Gent

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

The American Film Institute tribute to James Cagney (CBS-TV, March 18) was enjoyable almost in spite of itself. Through a barrage of film clips and above all through the poise and presence of Cagney himself, the event somehow managed to keep the man’s best qualities in the air, even as that air was thickened with a fog of Hollywooden self-congratulatory egotism. Showbiz extravaganzas like this one have a way of becoming exercises in self-publicity, and the various contributions of George C. Scott, Doris Day, George Segal, Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra (most of all) and others tended to make much of the affair into a showcase for the payers of tributes, with the tributee more or less left to be part of the audience.

Especially in its televised form, the tribute very nearly became a roundabout insult—a figure from Hollywood’s past celebrated as if only the present really existed. What does George C. Scott have to do with Jimmy Cagney—Jimmy Cagney—anyway? The star himself may have been venting similar feelings when he sounded the names of many people close to him and his work in the movies, some of whom had already been mentioned and briefly glimpsed, but almost none of whom had been provided anything more than a sideline role in the event: Frank McHugh, Joan Blondell, Allen Jenkins, Pat O’Brien, Raoul Walsh, William Wellman, Howard Hawks, et al., and back even further to “Loggerhead Quinliven, Artie Klein, Jake Brodkin, Brother O’Meara, Pinky Hoolihan—all part of my stimulating early environment which produced an unmistakable touch of the gutter without which this evening might never have happened.” These were the old-timers who were there when the man of the hour was creating the things that will probably outlive him and the rest of us. But perhaps because it was felt that only the big names of a more recent era could draw a national television audience, the people who helped to create the cinema of James Cagney were rather neglected, and it was left for Cagney himself to pay them a tribute of his own.

James Cagney on top of the world

The film clips made too much of Yankee Doodle Dandy, neglecting other fine and even better moments of the Cagney hoofer in action, but also playing to the popular memory image—the girl-mauling gangster, the Yankee-doodling Cohan—instead of pursuing the brilliant behavioral moments of a most creative career. Fortunately, the Cagney who got up to speak at the end was superb. In a way, he seemed larger, grander, more whole and fulfilled than he ever did in the movies. But there was also John Wayne, hardly a member of the Cagney clan, let alone of the Warners stock company: his Fordian brevity and eloquence seemed more attuned to what Cagney has been, is, and will be; and since Wayne and Cagney are part of the same era in a way that the other speakers aren’t and weren’t, he more than the others seemed to have earned the right to speak as he did.

Copyright © 1974 Peter Hogue