It’s always fun to tell the story of how you met someone. How did you meet your best friend? A loved one? Your hero? Chances are, no one else’s experience is ever quite like yours.
I’m here reflect upon how I encountered James Cagney. My experience was neither in person, nor through correspondence. I’m sorry to say it wasn’t even under the soft glow of the silver screen. My first encounter with James Cagney came in the form of an audio animatronic.
When I was six, I begged my parents to take me to every six-year-old’s dream vacation spot—Disney World. I cleaned my room. I folded my clothes. And, horror of horrors, I even ate broccoli. Once I had overcome these seemingly daunting tribulations of a six-year-old, I was overjoyed to one day hear that I would indeed be traveling to Disney World.
When in Orlando, I paused for my obligatory photos with Mickey, but then I made a beeline for the Great Movie Ride. This is where the real stars were housed, after all.
While I could dwell upon viewing the faux façade of Grauman’s Chinese, or encountering my first name amidst the hodgepodge of cement prints, and dealing with the sensory overload of waiting in line as four classic film trailers played in a constant loop, I was fascinated by the caricatures of some of my favorite actors and actresses featured throughout the ride.
At that point, I had a pretty superficial knowledge of Golden Age cinema (as all six-year-olds do?), so the vast majority of these caricatures were new to me. I can still recall the Wicked Witch’s frightful appearance in Oz, John Wayne astride a horse, silhouetted against the setting sun, and Rick and Ilsa’s heartfelt goodbye. Among these scattered memories, I can also recall James Cagney’s animatronic manifestation on a street corner, clad in a dark suit with a white scarf draped over his shoulders, and fitted with a pale pink carnation. Light settled upon his waxlike profile in such a way that his particular animatronic stood out to me.
As my fondness for classic film continued to grow, so too did my knowledge of many of the stars of which I had seen portrayals in the Great Movie Ride. While my list of favorite actors and actresses lengthened, I gained an appreciation for their immense bodies of work, iconic characters, and profound impacts upon American cinema. Usually, I was able to link particular actors to specific genres in which they would feature frequently, but on occasion, it was difficult for me to pinpoint an actor to a precise variety.
Cagney was one such actor. The first Cagney film I viewed was Footlight Parade. Drawing from Irish step dancing and the vaudevillian tradition, some of the first Cagney films I beheld were musical, featuring Cagney in song and dance numbers. Most memorably, Cagney dances atop a bar with Ruby Keeler in the “Shanghai Lil” number depicted in Footlight Parade. After viewing Footlight Parade, I then enjoyed his vigorous performance as Broadway’s George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, which highlighted Cagney in another especially notable musical number. Early on, I had reasonably begun to associate Cagney with the movie musical.
It was not until I encountered Cagney again in the 1935 depiction of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that my understanding of Cagney began to expand. Amidst the extravagance of Reinhardt and Dieterle’s adaptation, Cagney portrayed the narcissistic Nick Bottom, who—true to Shakespearean form—is aptly named to foreshadow his character as being no better than an ass. The role of Bottom is exhausting, as it calls for an actor to play an exuberant thespian who wishes to take over every part of a production. Bottom is overly-enthusiastic, but is not particularly good at his craft. Additionally, the actor portraying Bottom is also called to depict a show within a show—essentially two roles, rather than just one role in depth. A far cry from the early musical, Cagney excelled in a role that nodded to the early days of theatre itself, immersing himself into the portrayal of one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comic characters.
Later, I encountered yet another genre to which Cagney made important contributions: the crime drama. Cagney possesses an especially powerful presence within this genre, with fast-talking, no-nonsense characters out to achieve their objectives. Nothing stands in Cagney’s way. In films like The Public Enemy and Angels with Dirty Faces, Cagney cements himself as one of the best actors of the genre. It is no surprise that he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, regarding his performance in Angels with Dirty Faces. But it was Cagney’s performance in The Public Enemy, the oldest film reference featured in the Great Movie Ride, which was presented in the animatronic display I had witnessed years ago. I’m glad they didn’t go with another scene.
To clarify my approach to Cagney’s films, I must mention that I did not view the aforementioned films in order of their release date. In their proper order, they would have listed as The Public Enemy, Footlight Parade, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Angels with Dirty Faces, and Yankee Doodle Dandy. Rearranging these films shows that Cagney could shift seamlessly between characters and genres. His first professional performance featured him on the vaudeville stage, dressed as a woman. Who would have thought this same actor would play a multi-facted “tough guy” in The Public Enemy? After working in crime dramas, then tackling Shakespearean performance, Cagney returned to the musical in Yankee Doodle Dandy and received an Academy Award for his fantastic performance.
Cagney possessed a deep love for his craft and worked tirelessly to continue sharing his talents with ardent filmgoers. For twenty years, however, Cagney retired from acting and dancing and devoted himself to family life on a farm. Afterwards, he exited retirement for a role in the 1981 film Ragtime, namely to aid in his recovery from a stroke.
Cagney has a funny way of reappearing in my life every now and then. When I view TCM, I am almost always exposed to yet another Cagney classic, and my appreciation for this immense talent continues to build. I work at a public library, and once found a lost library card. Whose? Cagney’s, of course. It’s a rare opportunity to page James Cagney on the intercom. And, more recently, I was delighted to share in my younger sister’s first trip to Disney World.
You may safely assume which ride we explored first.