To show you just how much a late bloomer I was as a film buff, when I first read about the first archetypal screen gangster, James Cagney, I confused him with Jackie Gleason‘s Honeymooners’ co-star Art Carney.
After reading about Peggy Noonan’s express in her wonderful What I Saw at the Revolution her “intuition” that the Gipper’s
. . . idea of the presidency and how to be president was influenced by a scene in Yankee Doodle Dandy, the big hit of 1942 [where an] actor playing FDR gives a presidential medal to George M. Cohan in a private little ceremony in a room in the president’s house
I knew I had to see the movie. Cagney (of whom I then knew so little I mistook him for a small screen comedian
as Cohan, is properly awed. The FDR character is down-to-earth and expansive–he has all the time in the world as he makes the visitor feel at home. They reminisce. Cagney/Cohan speaks of his birth–born red-faced and squalling on the Fourth of July as the cannon went off in the public square in celebration.
When I rented the flick, I saw not the Cagney familiar to most film lovers, the fast-talking, self-confident, rough-playing man of the streets, but a lovable fellow, devoted to his wife, committed to his country and dedicated to his music.
Only in recent days as I look for cinematic “heroes” similar to the mythological Achilles have I discovered the “real” James Cagney, the quintessential screen tough guy. For a film lover, it has a been a real treat to experience his archetypal performances for the first time. And it’s helped me shape the beginning of one chapter of my dissertation.
Just watching him, you can see how his performances influenced generations of screen gangsters and the directors who helped bring their characters to life. Would Goodfellas have been so good had Scorsese not had Cagney to draw on as an influence? Could Coppola have ever have conceived of bringing the Godfather to the silver screen without having scene the diminutive Irishman in action?
What contrast is his character to the role he played the first time I saw him on screen. How interesting it is to experience a screen legend “backwards.” And not for the first time.