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James Francis Cagney, Jr.


Jimmy Cagney in the Public Enemy (James Cagney Bio page)

James Francis Cagney, Jr., known as Red or Jimmy Cagney to his friends, spent most of his early life in Manhattan's upper east side. There he had a reputation as a street fighter. Although he never got into serious trouble several of his early friends ended up in prison and one was sent to the electric chair. A large number of the people in his neighborhood were Jewish, and subsequently he could speak fluent Yiddish, a line or two of which he occasionally inserted into some of his movies such as Taxi (1932). His father was James Cagney, Sr., a dark haired Irish-American who liked to drink. His mother, Carrie Nelson, was the

redheaded daugher of a Norwegian tugboat captain.

Cagney worked several odd jobs during his youth and attended Columbia University for six months. He dropped out to go back to work when his father died. Soon after this Cagney got his first paid part in the theatre, that of a chorus girl in the all male Every Sailor. For this part he had to learn how to dance and from that time on he considered himself a song and dance man. The next part he got was in the Broadway show Pitter Patter (1920) where he met his future wife Willard (Billie) Vernon, a chorus girl from Iowa. They were married on September 28, 1922. During their early years together they often toured the Vaudeville circuit, sometimes together, sometimes not.

Cagney got his break in the motion picture business when Al Jolson recommended him for a part in the upcoming movie Sinner's Holiday (1930). Jolson had seen him in the same part in the stage and had liked him in it. Warner Brother's signed him up for the movie and he remained with that studio until the early 1940's.

His first big, sucessful part in the cinema was that of Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1931). After this, he continued to make a series of gangster films, always playing the tough guy. In 1934 he got to play a rough and tumble sailor in Here Comes the Navy, the first of nine movies

Here Comes the Navy Poster with Pat O'Brien, Frank McHugh, and James (Jimmy) Cagney

he made with his close friend Pat O'Brien. The most popular of the movies they made together was Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), where Cagney plays a bad guy sent to the electric chair for murder.

Cagney got to break out of his tough guy image when he played song and dance man George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1941), a role which won him his only Oscar. He later reprised this role in the 1955 movie The Seven Little Foys. In 1949 Cagney made his last gangster movie, White Heat. In this movie he plays a psychotic mama's boy. White Heat is largely remembered for its explosive ending. After this he went on to star in such movies as the musical The West Point Story (1950), the Navy film Mister Roberts (1955), Lon Chaney's film biography Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), and the postwar picture set in Germany One, Two, Three (1961).

Jimmy Cagney Photo (Bio page)

After making One, Two, Three he decided to retire from acting. Cagney had always had an affinity for nature, so when he retired he had more time to do what he loved, such as sailing and raising horses. Painting and poetry writing were others of his much beloved hobbies.

He was called out of retirement in 1981 for the movie Ragtime, which also had in it his old friend Pat O'Brien. The last movie Cagney made was Terrible Joe Moran (1984), a made for television movie. He died on March 30, 1986 of a heart attack.

Sources: Cagney by Cagney (1976) by James Cagney
Cagney (1997) by John McCabe

Biographies on James Cagney are currently out-of-print but copies can still often be found on eBay, along with photos, autographs, memorabilia, other movies, etc. of Cagney.


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