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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, the last of which unfortunately is mostly remembered for a scene in which he shoves half a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face.

What isn't commonly known is that Cagney began his career as a song-and-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, and his example set a precedent for fairer studio practices. On the other hand, Cagney's activism landed him in hot water; he was even branded a communist 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. In 1992 he hosted a TV special on Cagney's life and times entitled Top of the World.

Cagney's story was immortalized in a 2016 off-Broadway musical simply titled Cagney, following his life and career from his humble beginnings as a dock worker, through his success and eventual falling out with Warner Bros., right up to his acceptance of a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute.

James Cagney films with pages on TV Tropes:

Tropes associated with James Cagney's work include:

  • Beam Me Up, Scotty!: Cagney once lampooned his 'best-known" line at the AFI awards.
    "I never said, 'MMMMmmm you dirty rat.' (Beat) What I actually said was 'Judy, Judy, Judy!'"
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': His characters almost always got their comeuppance, largely due to the encroaching Hays Code and to maintain Plausible Deniability about "glorifying violence."
  • The Cast Showoff: Was a Real Life street fighter and amateur boxer. He would insist on doing his own fight scenes in movies:
    • During the filming of Mister Roberts, director John Ford either wanted to prove himself or thought it would be funny to try and intimidate Cagney. Cagney threatened a full-out beatdown if Ford kept pushing him. Ford backed off.
    • And of course, the whole reason (well, one of the reasons) he wanted to do Yankee Doodle Dandy was because he was tired of only getting roles as rough and tough gangsters, and wanted to return to his roots as a tap dancer.
  • Chronically Killed Actor: Due to the encroaching The Hays Code and its rules about "glorifying violence."
  • Do Not Do This Cool Thing: Had to be invoked, due to his gangster characters and the Hays Code, with disclaimers aplenty.
  • Escapist Character: Most of his characters invoked the best examples of Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangster!.
  • 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 (1931) had next to no violence cut from its rereleases — but vague allusions to sexuality were left untouched.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Cagney quickly spawned tons of parodies, particularly mocking his gangster works. Looney Tunes was particularly fond of mimicking Cagney's acting style, such as in Hollywood Steps Out (where he is among multiple caricatured celebrities) and "Porky's Pastry Pirates" (where Porky is harassed by an aggressive bee with his on-screen demeanour). Perhaps to show no disrespect, their own star, Bugs Bunny, loses the Academy Award to Cagney in What's Cookin, Doc? in spite of heavy lobbying.
  • One-Book Author: Short Cut to Hell (1957) is the only film Cagney ever directed.
  • Our Lawyers Advised This Trope: His movies often come with a disclaimer decrying violence to deter accusations of glorifying violence. Warner Bros. maintained that gangster pictures were meant to serve as a warning, but no one was fooled. (Not that anyone was complaining, though...)
  • Pint-Sized Powerhouse: According to the man himself, he insisted on fighting men who were bigger than him. Had he beaten up someone his "own size", Cagney felt he would have been taking advantage of them.
  • Star-Making Role: The Public Enemy (1931).
  • 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 son of Irish immigrants who didn't make his accent poshed to work in the business.
  • Yiddish as a Second Language: Quite literally; he was fluent in Yiddish. He grew up in a neighborhood with a large population of immigrant Jews and picked it up in his childhood.


Video Example(s):


Cody's Mother is Dead

Cody Jarrett isn't the most stable person in the world, but he loves his Ma dearly, so when he learns that his Ma was killed, he snaps, spectacularly.

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5 (8 votes)

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Main / VillainousBreakdown

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