I’m probably not alone in remembering Jimmy Cagney primarily as a tough guy. His role in The Public Enemy no doubt implanted that notion in our minds. But in reality he was a tremendously versatile actor, and one of the most talented song-and-dance men to ever perform on film.
Cagney started out with the typical Irish-American upbringing of his period. His dad was a bartender; Cagney was born in a room above his father’s saloon. He had six siblings, was a noted street fighter, became an accomplished tap dancer and yet played semi-pro baseball.
After success on Broadway and Vaudeville, Cagney moved to California to see if he could break into the movies. Following several small parts, he got the assignment to play the good guy in The Public Enemy. After the first rushes came in, producers decided to switch him to bad guy Tom Powers. When Cagney smashed a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face, his reputation was set. (Cagney was offered grapefruit in restaurants for years afterward.)
Cagney starred in more than 60 movies, chief among them: Angels with Dirty Faces (1938 – Nomination), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942 – Oscar), White Heat (1949), The Seven Little Foys (1955), Mister Roberts (1955), Love Me or Leave Me (1955 – Nomination).
Cagney considered George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy his best role, and was especially pleased at the opportunity to free himself from the tough guy image the studios had built for him. If you haven’t seen him sing and dance in this film, you really should – it’s a revelation.
Oh, and Cagney never said the line used to parody him: “You dirty rat!” He did come close in the movie Taxi! when he said, “Come out and take it, you dirty, yellow-bellied rat, or I’ll give it to you through the door!”