theBCLMC     

The Long Island University Brooklyn Campus Library Media Center Newsletter 

 

We love movies, among other things.

July 2008, issue 35

"Whaddaya hear?  Whaddaya say?" --Rocky Sullivan [James Cagney], Angels with Dirty Faces [1938].

Cagney's Oscar

We love movies.  It says so above, every month.  But why do we love movies so damn much, anyway? 

James Cagney was one of the reasons I developed a love for movies, and at an absurdly young age.  My parents deserve credit, too, and so does King Kong, Sir Graves Ghastly, my brothers and sister, Abbott and Costello, the crocodile in Peter Pan, Bugs Bunny, the whole stable of Universal monsters, the Marx brothers [especially Harpo], Bill Kennedy, Raquel Welch, Godzilla, Tarzan, Ray Harryhausen, and John Wayne, among many, many other reasons.  But, since it's July, the month of Yankee Doodle Dandy, Cagney's Oscar for best actor, I want to talk about Jimmy, who really does belong at the head of the list with my parents and King Kong. 

It seems to me that when I was very young, my family was watching a documentary about Cagney's career on PBS, and all of a sudden he was the coolest guy in the world to me.   From gangster to song and dance man to boxer to Bottom, I watched every Cagney film I could, and back then, pre-VHS and pre-DVD, that meant scouring the TV Guide movie listings every week to see if any of his films were on, and maybe staying up way too late to watch them.  That is, if I went to bed early enough, my mother would wake me in the middle of the night to see something I hadn't seen before.  Obviously, I was too young to really understand most of what I saw, but it didn't matter.  It must have been his energy, the cockiness, the smile, the toughness.  I was such a fan that when my great aunt found out, she wrote Mr. Cagney a letter, telling him about her grand nephew in Toledo, and lo and behold, an autographed glossy from upstate New York showed up in our mailbox one day.  If you stop by my desk, you'll see a photocopy of it on my wall.  In a picture from later in his career, he looks tough, even in a bowtie, and it's signed "For Packy -- Best, Jim Cagney." 

Now that I can understand these movies a little better, I'm still a sucker for a Cagney flick.  The early movies in particular are fun to watch because in that era of early talkies when he got his start, and actors were making the transition from silent film acting to speaking parts, Cagney seems miles ahead of his fellow actors in his naturalism, charisma, ease before the camera and in listening and reacting to others onscreen.  In these early movies you can't pay attention to anyone else when he's in the scene, and often he's the only reason to watch, anyway. Even in The Public Enemy, a great movie that still packs a punch, as the charismatic and dangerous gangster Tom Powers, Cagney seems to be speaking an entirely different actor's language than the stilting and mannered Donald Cook and Beryl Mercer, who play Powers' brother and mother.  But of course, Jean Harlow and Joan Blondell do just fine. 

So, after all those tough guys, in 1942 Cagney plays legendary showman George M. Cohan in Michael Curtiz' Yankee Doodle Dandy, a fine old Hollywood biopic made to get the old patriotic juices flowing during the war.  And Cagney wins his Oscar.  Bit o' trivia: Curtiz also directed Jimmy in the great Angels with Dirty Faces

It is old-timey, corny, show business Americana with more than a touch of jingoism, and I should probably be a little embarrassed about loving it, but I'm not.  I loved it as a kid and I love it now.  Because Jimmy Cagney is terrific in it:  funny and natural and earnest, and he tap dances in that strange, stiff-legged, windup toy style, half-speaking his lyrics in a soft and high singing voice.  One of my favorite bits in all of movies:  at the end, after his audience with FDR [a nice framing device for the bio], Cagney as Cohan is descending the regal White House staircase when all of a sudden he breaks into a light and joyous, but understated, little bit of dancing, clicking his toes and heels on each marble step.  It is a short little bit that I always find quietly exhilerating. 


   "There's not much to say about acting but this. Never settle back on your heels. Never relax. If you relax, the audience relaxes. And always mean everything you say."  --James Cagney

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This issue of  BCLMC is brought to you all the way from the back row by Media Assistant Patrick Jewell.  I ain't so tough.  Tell your friends. 


The Media Center is located on the fifth floor of the Library Learning Center.  Come up and see us some time.

 

BCLMC  BROOKLYN CAMPUS LIBRARY MEDIA CENTER

Questions?  Comments?  Contact us. 
Media Center Staff:
Andrea Slonosky,  Media Librarian  (718) 488-1311  Andrea.Slonosky@liu.edu
Patrick Jewell,  Media Assistant  (718) 488-3392  Patrick.Jewell@liu.edu
Lisa Rivera,  Media Assistant  (718) 780-4378  Lisa.Cotton@liu.edu