erik lundegaard

Friday April 14, 2023

All the Diminutives

Fun fact: Jimmy Cagney didn't like being called Jimmy. Professionally he was James, his friends called him Jim, but early on Warner Bros. tagged him with the diminutive “Jimmy,” which, in their defense, made him seem like family. He was the kid down the street, your tough little brother, your ne'er-do-well son. Ruffle his hair why don’t you.

This is well-known is you know Cagney. Less talked about: Warners did the exact same thing with his character names. For about 10 years they were, if not diminutives, at least -y or -ie names.

For his big breakthrough he played Tom Powers, but the women in the film often called him Tommy. Then Warners gave him monosyllabic names like Jack, Bert, Matt and Joe. But starting in ’32, they put all their chips on the diminutive, calling him, for his next films, Jimmy, Lefty, Danny, and Patsy. He was Chester Kent for “Footlight Parade” and Dan Quigley for “Lady Killer” but then then they were back with Jimmy, Jerry, Chesty, Eddie and Tommy. As a G-Man, he was Brick, but in “The Irish in Us” he’s Danny again. Even when he broke from Warners for two pictures, he played a Johnny (Cave) and a Terry (Rooney). Once he returned, he played, among others, Rocky (Sullivan), Eddie (Bartlett), Jerry (Plunkett) and Danny (Kenny).

That last one was “City for Conquest,” a big production that went awry, and that was it for Cagney's diminutives. Did he put his foot down? “I'm 40, c'mon, guys.” 

For the last decade of his career, he didn't have much of a choice of character names since he increasingly played real people: James Cagney (a cameo in “Starlift”), Martin “Moe the Gimp” Snyder in “Love Me or Leave Me,” a George M. Cohan reprise in “The Seven Little Foys,” Lon Chaney in “Man of a Thousand Faces,” and Admiral Bill Halsey in “The Gallant Hours.” Even his ballyooed return to movies after 20 years was a non-fiction role: Rhinelander Waldo in “Ragtime.”

I am curious if Warners gave him all the diminutives because it made business sense or because it annoyed him. He was afraid to fly and they kept making him a pilot, too.

Posted at 12:34 PM on Friday April 14, 2023 in category Movies  
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