Movies postsMonday July 22, 2019
Cagney in “Hard to Handle” playing innocent.
“I use the words ‘Cagney’ and ‘Jim’ somewhat interchangeably, but usually the former refers to the performer in action and the latter to the man. ‘Jim’ was the name he always used in personal reference. He did not care for ‘Jimmy,’ a Warner Brothers locution.”
John McCabe, in his biography “Cagney.” McCabe was also ghost writer on Cagney's autobiography, “Cagney on Cagney.”
Cagney on Bert Williams
Williams and Odessa Warren Grey in “Lime Kiln Club Field Day” in 1913.
Excerpt from “Cagney” by John McCabe. Asked who he considered the greatest performer he'd ever seen, Cagney said Bert Williams.
Not an actor in the usual sense, yet he was a great actor—who “just” sang funny songs. A quiet genius, and talk about control! He never made an unnecessary move or uttered a needless syllable. He was the greatest performer as far as Frank McHugh and I were concerned. Bert died an early death in 1922, and what a tragic loss. I saw him in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919 on a pass, and I‘ll never forget it to my dying day. The stage lights dim, the great red plush curtains draw in, and the theater goes completely black. Then, almost like a shot—but it was totally silent—a white, white spot suddenly hits the curtain stage center. Four seconds of waiting, just enough to build up the proper suspense, and then out strolls Bert from behind the curtain, quiet, imperturbable. He looks at us with a gentle, quiet smile, bows to the orchestra leader, and says, “Professor, if you please.” Then he sings his great songs, truly comic songs that make you howl with laughter and tear your heart out at the same time: “Nobody” and “I’m a Jonah Man” and “I'd Rather Have Nothin' All of the Time Than Somethin' for a Little While.” Very funny and deeply sad underneath. For, as I‘ve said, Bert Williams was a great actor, and that tragicomic mix I’ve never seen anyone do half so well.
Also, once I saw him I was made aware for the very first time of the black man's plight in this country.
Control—“not doing anything but what was needed”—was big with Cagney. Apparently he learned it will watching Frank Fay on stage.
Arliss on Cagney
In 1931, Warner Bros. biggest star, George Arliss, who had played Disraeli in “Disraeli” (twice: silent and talkie), and who would soon resurrect his stage role as Alexander Hamilton in “Alexander Hamilton,” was casting his new comedy, “The Millionaire,” in which he, of course, played the title role. The following is from his autobiography:
There was a small but important part in The Millionaire, the part of an insurance agent. The scene was entirely with me and was the turning point in the story. I knew it depended largely on the actor of this small part whether my change of mental attitudes would appear convincing. I saw several promising young men without being much impressed one way or another, but there was one more waiting to be seen. He was a lithe, smallish man. I knew at once he was right. As I talked to him I was sure he could give me everything I wanted. He wasn't acting to me now. He wasn't trying to impress me. He was just being natural, and I thought, a trifle independent for a bit actor. There was a suggestion of here-I-am-take-me-or-leave-me, and hurry up. As I came to my decision, I remember saying, “Let him come just as he is. Those clothes and no makeup stuff. Just as he is.” The man was James Cagney. I was lucky.
Also unlucky. Arliss had had a nice run, but Cagney's naturalistic acting helped put an end to his more theatrical version. Within a year, it was Cagney who was Warner Bros.' big star—even if he wasn't treated as such by Jack Warner. He's been the longer-lasting, too. Arliss kept going, playing Voltaire in “Voltaire,” and Cardinal Richelieu in “Cardinal Richelieu,” but increasingly America wanted to see less of these guys and more of Tom Powers and Rocky Sullivan.
Talk about a grapefruit in the face! In 1931, in one of the most seminal moments in movies, Mae Clark got a grapefruit planted in her kisser by James Cagney in “Public Enemy,” but this is what she's “known for,” according to IMDb's algorithms:
James Cagney in “The Crowd Roars” (1932), directed by Howard Hawks.