The toughest, most likable, and most endlessly imitated of all American film gangsters, Cagney was a paradoxical figure. His screen persona was a diamond in the rough, but he was also gifted at farce (Boy Meets Girl, 1938), physical comedy (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1935), and song and dance, winning an Academy Award® for his role as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Cagney's ruthless gangsters—Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1931), Eddie Bartlett in The Roaring Twenties (1939), and Ralph Cotter in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950), among others—seem driven at once by their harsh environment and by a psychopathology that was purely amoral, a force truly beyond their power to control. Yet from the beginning, audiences found Cagney's insouciance irresistible. Even when he led the Dead End Kids astray in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) or shoved half a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face in The Public Enemy, he came across as somehow fundamentally decent.
Cagney's best movies show him driven by uncontrollable forces. In White Heat (1949), Cody Jarrett's snarling violence is consistently linked to both headaches that periodically incapacitate him and catastrophic disturbances in the physical world, like the climactic explosion at a gas refinery that finally sends Cody to a memorably suicidal apotheosis at the "top of the world.''
Cagney was the most energetic, unreflective, and physically straightforward of all the great Hollywood studio stars. His proletarian heroes seem impatient with any thought that cannot immediately be translated into physical action. Unlike his contemporary Edward G. Robinson, another bantamweight who could play a hero of almost any ethnic background, Cagney was invincibly Irish. Indeed, many of Cagney's fans were convinced that he was always playing himself, an unpolished mick from New York who had been in plenty of scrapes on the way to the top. Yet interviewers invariably found Cagney courteous, withdrawn, and essentially private. Like Cody Jarrett, who weeps on his mother's lap and then goes into the next room to resume the role of psychotic gang leader, Cagney perfected a style of acting that concealed artifice under the guise of self-expression. Although he never parodied his screen image as actors from Robinson to Marlon Brando did, his signature gangster persona brought a hard edge to heroes as different as FBI agent Brick Davis in "G"Men (1935) and C. R. MacNamara in One, Two, Three (1961), where he ran the Berlin operation of Coca-Cola exactly as if it were a gang and he were the last gangster in the world.
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