best film:  White Heat by a mile. As good as Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Roaring Twenties (Cagney’s second-best film) are – the answer here is easily the 1949 film from Raoul Walsh. James Cagney plays Cody Jarrett – a bat out of hell with a mother complex. It is a role filled from beginning to end with big, bold choices – and Cagney is pitch perfect.  If Cagney does not land this high wire act – the character – the film, in total, could be in real trouble. And as a cherry on top… by God … Cagney’s rip roaring glorious ending.


best performance:  White Heat. Cagney came to fame playing gangsters and there is no debating that White Heat is the single performance that is at least step or two above the rest. It is a little strange that his best work would come so far after his prime – he is really associated with the 1930s first and foremost. But Cody Jarrett, as a character, is so rich. Cagney plays him with unsurpassed energy, there is Freudian stuff galore here of course, and he is frankly quite unpredictably frightening – the definition of a tour de force performance.


Cagney’s dazzling “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” atop the pyrotechnics in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat


stylistic innovations/traits:  Cagney debuted in 1930, became a star with The Public Enemy in 1931 (the second of the famous trio of early gangster films that include Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932)) and dominated the first full sound decade in cinema decade along with Clark Gable and a few others. Cagney is in ten (10) archiveable films in the 1930s – eighteen (18) overall. He made two (2) films with Humphrey Bogart in 1939 and it is fascinating because Cagney is the star and Bogart is the backup heavy (and Bogart is clearly gifted – but this is such a short time before The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca and yet clearly Cagney has presence galore in scenes with Bogart). Bogart was not quite Bogart yet and Cagney is in top form. History would change quickly and Bogart would soon be Warner’s top star – even if Cagney had enough left in the tank to give his two best single performances in the 1940s. Cagney had a distinct voice, and he was a bulldog – he stood at 5’4 – mostly playing characters who were tough as nails even in his musicals.


Cagney has three (3) moments that continue to live on in celluloid history – the explosive finale of White Heat, the distinct high step dancing and singing as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, and the grapefruit smash (Mae Clarke the victim here) scene in 1931’s The Public Enemy. 


directors worked with:  Raoul Walsh (2) and this is the most important of his auteurs – Lloyd Bacon (2) gave him diversity (musical and western) and Michael Curtiz (2) … James Cagney also made one archiveable film a piece with Howard Hawks (1), John Ford (1), Billy Wilder (1), Nicholas Ray (1) and near the very end – Milos Forman (1).


the collision of two Warner Brothers’ talents in James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart – this time in Hollywood’s golden year (1939) in The Roaring Twenties


top five performances:

  1. White Heat
  2. Yankee Doodle Dandy
  3. The Roaring Twenties
  4. The Public Enemy
  5. Angels with Dirty Faces


archiveable films:

1931 – The Public Enemy
1931- Smart Money
1931- Taxi
1933- Footlight Parade
1935- A Midsummer Night’s Dream
1935- G-Men
1936 – Ceiling Zero
1938- Angels With Dirty Faces
1939- Oklahoma Kid
1939- The Roaring Twenties
1942- Yankee Doodle Dandy
1949- White Heat
1950- Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye
1955- Love Me Or Leave Me
1955- Mister Roberts
1955- Run For Cover
1961- One, Two, Three
1981- Ragtime