Creator / James Cagney

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"You dirty rat!"
Not James Cagney note 

James Francis Cagney (July 17, 1899 March 30, 1986) was an American film actor most famous for his gangster roles in the 1930s and '40s, as well as for his alleged catchphrase. He starred in some of the best gangster pictures ever made, including Angels with Dirty Faces, White Heat, The Roaring Twenties, and The Public Enemy, which is unfortunately mostly remembered for a scene in which he shoves a bowl of grapefruit in a woman's face.

What isn't commonly known is that Cagney began his career as a song & dance man. Even after he was type cast as thugs, he leaped at chances to act and dance in musicals whenever he could.

His tough-guy persona wasn't all for show, though; Cagney staggered Warner Bros. by walking off the lot when the studio failed to honor his contract. His example set a precedent for fairer studio practices. On the other hand, Cagney's activism landed him hot water; he was even branded a Commie in some circles, although his iconic role in Yankee Doodle Dandy dispelled such rumors pretty quick.

Michael J. Fox is one of his biggest fanboys, for obvious reasons. He hosted a TV special on Cagney's life and times entitled Top of the World.

Cagney's life story was recently immortalized in an off-broadway musical simply titled Cagney, following his humble beginnings as a dock worker, his success and eventual falling out with Warner Bros., up to his acceptance of a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute.

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Partial filmography for James Cagney:


Tropes associated with James Cagney's work include:

  • Evil Is Cool: Even if the studio pretends to have invoked that they think it isn't.
  • Large Ham: Yet pulled off hamminess in an effective and unnarmy way. Stanley Kubrick once cited him as an example how to do seemingly over-the-top acting while still making it dramatic.note 
  • Media Watchdog: A lot of his best movies were made in the early days of The Hays Code, when you could still get away with a little bit more. As the code grew in power, subsequent rereleases of some of his films had objectionable material cut. Most notably, The Public Enemy had next to no violence cut from its rereleases — but vague allusions to sexuality were left untouched.
  • Working-Class Hero: Perhaps the original. In the Depression era, Cagney's short looks, working-class accent and rambunctious energy made him an obvious hit with the times. He was a working-class Irish immigrant who didn't make his accent poshed to work in the business.

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