James Cagney (1899-1986)
- Johnny Mack Brown, Billy The Kid, 1929. Wrong Kid! Director King Vidor was never satisfied with the movie. He had always wanted Cagney - opposite Wallace Beery as Pat Garrett. Beery stayed on board as Vidor fumed.
- Edward Woods, The Public Enemy, 1930. Director William Wellman made the Chicago underworld expose by two newspapermen, with Cagney as Woods' sidekick. Watching the first rushes, Wild Bill realised his mistake. “We have the wrong guy - Cagney should be the lead.” Zanuck pointed out that Woods was engaged to Louella Parson's daughter. Wellman exploded: “For Christ's sake, are you going to let some newspaperwoman run your business.” And so it was Cagney, not Woods, pushing the grapefruit into Mae Clark's face - copying gangster Hymie Weiss' use of an omelette. And in his fifth feature, Jimmy was a star.
- Clark Gable, Night Nurse, 1930. Warner rescued their new star from the small role of a tough chauffeur for four bigger movies. After the second, he walked out for three months until they upped his $450 a week contract to $1,000. Enter: the fairly unknown Gable. And so Cagney had to wait until 1955 to finally work with Barbara Stanwyck in These Wilder Years. They danced together - The Charleston tango Black Bottom - between takes but sadly not in Roy Rowland’s film.
- Pat O'Brien, The Front Page, 1930. Impressed by his first two films, director Lewis Milestone wanted Cagney as Hildy Johnson. Uncredited producer Howard Hughes would not accept “the little runt.” Milestone got even by telling Hughes to sell the talentless Jean Harlow to MGM for $60,000! Cagney and O'Brien became firm friends during nine films together.
- Lee Tracy, Blessed Event, 1931. Tracy talked faster but had less charisma and subbed Jimmy as the Walter Winchell-style gossip columnist - “from keyhole to national institution” - when he quit, moaning about “giving the best years of my life working for inadequate compensation.” He was on $1,250 a week compared to William Powell's $6,000 and as Warners' prime asset, Cagney wanted to be paid like it.
- Paul Muni, I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, 1931. Spencer Tracy was also considered when Jimmy quit... threatening to go to medical school. Director Frank Capra arbitrated and got the actor who “couldn't obey the studio code,” $3,000 a week, to reach $4,500 by 1935.
- Spencer Tracy, 20,000 Years In Sing Sing, 1932. Cagney quit the role from Warden Lewis E Lawes’ best-seller over a contract row. George Brent came and went - and Lawes fully endorsed Tracy... for his one and only film with Bette Davis.
- Warren William, Lady For A Day, 1932. Director Frank Capra said Dave The Dude would be perfect for Jimmy. “In my book, all parts would be perfect for Cagney.” Columbia lost him, having no one to exchange him for at Warners.
- Dick Powell, Happiness Ahead, 1933. Powell and Josephine Hutchinson took the window-cleaning boss and rich heiress roles planned for Cagney and Margaret Lindsay - who made four films with Jimmy.
- Paul Cavanaugh, Goin' To Town, 1934. Warners announced it for Jimmy, but Mae West beat them to it at Paramount. And her co-star was a Cambridge-educated Englishman, no less!
- Dick Powell, Stage Struck, 1935. After their Shanghai Lil routine in Footlight Parade, 1933, Warners wanted to re-team Cagney and Ruby Keeler. He thought the script weak and for the second time Powell took over. And with his wife, Joan Blondell, rather than a seventh pairing with Ruby.
- Humphrey Bogart, Dead End, 1936. Producer Sam Goldywn wanted him as Baby Face Martin until advised against getting enmeshed in Jimmy's fights with Warner. George Raft said no - so, obvious, who got it. With clean streets. "There won't be any dirty slums," ordered Goldwyn, "not in my picture."
- Dick Foran, Over The Wall, 1936. More jailhouse blues... Sing Sing's warden wrote this one about an ex-con fighting to become a baseball player. Cagney refused a fifth film when his Warner contract said four a year. He won in court.
- Henry Fonda, Slim, 1937. The legal victory allowed Cagney to quit Warners, where his movies had all grossed more than $1m. He signed with Grand National, quitting a Warner's script for him and Pat O'Brien... among nine other properties bought to woo him back. Such as...
- Errol Flynn, The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1937. At MGM, the plan was a Nelson Eddy-Jeanette McDonald songfest! Then, according to Warner records, first person to nominate Cagney for Sherwood Forest was Dwight Franklin, special visual consultant on Captain Blood. His July 1935 memo to Jack Warner even suggested Cagney's gang as the Merrie Men: contract players Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins, Ross Alexander, Hugh Herbert. Cagney (but not his gang) was then announced for the film, but he quit the studio long before Flynn was insisting on a new wig,
- Eddie Albert, On Your Toes, 1938. Not even Ginger Rogers plus Rodgers and Hart music tempted him. So, she split, too.
- George Raft, Invisible Stripes, l938. Initially intended for Cagney and John Garfield (wow!). Jimmy had got Raft a bit role in Taxi eight years before. By 1939, they were starring together in Each Dawn I Die.
- John Garfield, Dust Be My Destiny, 1939. Another innocent jailed and trying hard to go straight number.
- John Garfield, East of the River, 1939. Or, Mama Raviola when secured for Jimmy.
- Walter Pidgeon, The House Across The Bay, 1939. Before producer Walter Wanger got his hands on it - for his lover Joan Bennett - Warner had been planning the thriller for Dietrich and Cagney! Alfred Hitchcock directed some scenes with Bennett and Pidgeon to help out because Wanger produced Hitch’s Foreign Correspondent, 1939.
- Pat O'Brien, Knute Rockne - All American (UK: A Modern Hero), 1939. Jimmy's image as a movie gangster and siding with the Loyalists in the Spanish war meant Notre Dame University refused ton sully its reputation with him as their coach - in a film more (in)famous for Ronald Reagan's Gipper.
- Dennis Morgan, Three Cheers For The Irish, 1939. Actually, a Scot, marrying into an Irish cop's family and job.
- Burgess Meredith, Of Mice and Men, 1939. Paradoxically, the first film of a John Steinbeck work came from “presenter” Hal Roach’s comedy studio. Following the success of the Depression era play in 1937-1938, there was quite a battle for the two itinerant workers - Bogart and Cagney cited for George, with Broderick Crawford repeating his Broadway role of the mentally challenged Lennie. Director Lewis Milestone – an ex-itinerant worker, himself - was praised and scorned for choosing the largely unknown Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr.
- Tyrone Power, A Yank in the RAF, 1940. Change of hero as Hollywood prepariedg Americans for entering WWII - with, therefore, a happy ending patched on instead of Power’s heroic death because “audiences would resent his dying… and not getting the girl.”(!) The UK government agreed, not wishing to show US audiences how Americans helping the UK could die. In truth, head Fox Darryl Zanuck (who wrote this story) had already decreed that Fox films would never have any sad ends following the public anger over Power’s death in Blood and Sand, 1940.
- Humphrey Bogart, High Sierra, 1940. George Raft stupidly nixed a third successive ex-Cagney script because he refused to “die” on-screen. Bogart, supporting Cagney in three previous films, became a star slightly later than Warners planned, having intended him to be John Dillinger, Outlaw with Cagney as FBI Man Melvin Purvis. When Jimmy did go back to Warners it was for his first Oscar nomination in Angels With Dirty Faces opposite Bogie.
- Errol Flynn, They Died With Their Boots On, 1941. Second only to MGM boss LB Mayer, Jimmy was the highest paid US citizen. He was still not quite right for General George Armstrong Custer.
- Robert Cummings, Kings Row, 1941. Despite the central character being a medical student, Henry Bellamann's novel was the last Warners carrot refused by Jimmy. Warner’s planned trio of Cagney, Bette Davis, Pat O'Brien became Cummings, Ann Sheridan, Reagan. Far too weak.
- George Raft, Nob Hill, 1944. For the second re-tread of Alexander’s Ragtime Band, 1937… which, recalled New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, had been nothing to write home about. Raft beat Cagney, Brian Donlevy, Fred MacMurray, Michael O’Shea to saloon owner Tony Angelo. But then, poor Raft knew zilch about choosing movies. He nearly walked off this one.
- Fred McMurray, Double Indemnity, 1943. Director Billy Wilder's first thoughts for the murdering adulterer Walter Neff: Cagney, Brian Donlevy, Alan Ladd, Fredric March, Gregory Peck, George Raft. Spencer Tracy. They all fled. Next time MacMurray inherited a Cagney pass, it was for some 1961 Disney candyfloss, Bon Voyage!
- John Hodiak, A Bell from Adano, 1944. Fox house-star Andrews and bigger A stars - Cagney, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy - jockeyed to be Major Joppolo (in reality, Lieutenant Colonel Frank E Toscani) running a WWII damaged Italian town requiring a new town bell. In John Hersey’s book, Joppolo supplied a modest ship’s bell. In Hollywood, it was a full blown carillon. Rather like the difference between Hodiak and Cagney.
- Larry Parks, The Jolson Story, 1945. Not, he said, another show-biz biopic so soon after Yankee Doodle Dandy - the precise reason he was offered it. He regretted refusing as it was Al Jolson who brought him to Hollywood after buying the rights to his 1930 Broadway show, selling it to Warners as Sinner's Holiday and insisting that Jimmy and Joan Blondell repeat their roles (first of seven films together). For Jolson, Columbia's hated chief Harry Cohn next tried Danny Thomas (who refused to have a nose-job!), Richard Conte, José Ferrer - before re-examining the test of one of his own B-movie contract players. Poor Parks was later blacklisted - ruined! - by such oafs as Senator Joe McCarthy and numbnuts Ward Bond.
- John Payne, Mother Wore Tights, 1945. Fox and director Walter Lang wanted Cagney or Fred Astaire for song-and-dancer Frank Burt. Betty Grable wanted John Payne - and got Dailey. She was not miffed. She made four films each with them.
- Victor Mature, Kiss of Death 1946. Mature took over from the first announced Cagney. Having been there (with a grapefruit), Cagney knew that Richard Widmark would steal the entire proceeeding as the sadistic psycho throwing poor Mildred Dunnock down a flight of stairs.
- Fred MacMurray, The Miracle of the Bells, 1947. Cagney’s brother, William, was beaten to the novel by producers Jesse L Lasky and Walter MacEwen - who immediately offered the lead, a Hollywood flack, to… Cagney! But he wanted to produce, as well. Lasky then chased after Clark Gable and Cary Grant before settling for a MacMurray, with “the air of an embalmer” (New York Times), in a truncated and limp version of Russell Janney’s book.
- Dan Dailey, My Blue Heaven, 1948. Fox tried hard to get to Jimmy or Fred Astaire as a song ’n’ dance team with Betty Grable. Betty, they didn’t mind but not the fact that the couple in the script couldn’t have kids.
- Pat O’Brien, Knute Rockne All American, 1948. Just as Ronald Reagan wanted to be George Gipp - “win one for The Gipper” - and got his way, Cagney ached to be Knute, the legendary Notre Dame football coach. Great idea! Except Notre Dame University barred him because he had signed a petition supporting of the anti-Catholic Republican government during the Spanish Civil War.
- James Stewart, Harvey, 1949. Playwright Mary Chase had final approval of the movie Elwood P Dowd, an alcoholic who sees and relates to an invisible giant rabbit called Harvey. Stewart and Joe E Brown were the only contenders who had played the role on-stage (Jim never stopped reviving the play in the UK and US). Other potential Elwoods were: Cagney, Jack Benny, Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, Jack Haley (The Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz), even crooner Rudy Vallee.
- Gregory Peck, Only The Valiant, 1950. Cagney bought the Cavalry v Apaches Western for William Cagney Productions (Jimmy was vp and chief asset) and off-loaded it at Warners.
- Ray Milland, Bugles in the Afternoon, 1951. Another Cagney Western - Cavalry v Sioux, this time - also produced by brother William and sold to Warners.
- Paul Douglas, This Could Be The Night, 1957. Notable not so much for Anthony Franciosa's debut, as the delightful dancing of Neile Adams - then Mrs Steve McQueen.
- Rod Steiger, Oklahoma, 1954. Hailed by critics as the preeminent US musical for seamlessly combining song, dance, music and story, everyone wanted the movies. Among the first, contenders in 1944 were producers David Lewis, and the Cagney brothers, James and William Cagney. With Jimmy playing p’or Jud Fry - “a bullet-coloured, growly man,” as Curly called him.
- Dean Martin, Rio Bravo, 1958.
- Spencer Tracy, The Last Hurrah, 1958. Directing legend John Ford flirted with Cagney long enough to arouse Spence’s interest in the old Irish politico, Frank Sheffington - and the longest death scene in screen history. First, the ex-pals had to meet up anew. The last meet was in 1936! Katharine Hepburn acted as agent and peace-maker. Cagney, who had replaced an ill Tracy in Tribute To A Bad Man, 1955, was another old friend. And huge fan.... “I’m easy to imitate, but you never saw anyone imitate Spence Tracy. You can’t mimic reserve and control.”
- Robert Stack, John Paul Jones, 1959. An old Cagney project... dating back some 20 years!
- Burt Lancaster, Elmer Gantry, 1959. Somewhat perversely, director Richard Brooks thought of Montgomery Clift or Cagney - for the firey preacher man.
- Fred MacMurray, Bon Voyage! 1962. No wonder he stayed retired, when offered stuff like this mild Disney candyfloss (even with Greer Garson for his wife). MacMurray squeezed it in between his Flubber movies.
- Stanley Holloway, My Fair Lady, 1964. “That was inviting but I’d made up my mind. When I drove through the studio gate and the thrill was gone, I knew it was time to quit. ” Jimmy would have literally stopped the show when getting to the church on time. “I don't have the enthusiasm anymore. Acting is not the beginning and end of everything.”
- Walter Matthau, Kotch, 1971. New director Jack Lemmon could not tempt him. “Just forget any little rumours you may hear that the famous old grapefruit thrower will be back in front of a camera.”
- Lee Strasberg, The Godfather: Part II, 1973.
- Art Carney, Harry and Tonto, 1974. “I’m retired!” Paul Mazursky wrote it for Jimmy: a widower of 72, on an odyssey across the US after being evicted with his cat, Tonto. After also losing Cary Grant, Danny Kate, Laurence Olivier and Frank Sinatra as well, Art Carney got the job - and the Oscar.
- Burgess Meredith, The Day of the Locust, 1975. The perfect comeback role for Cagney - Meredith stole the movie as Karen Black’s ex-vaudevillian father. Cagney did not recognise the 30s’ Hollywood painted by Nathanel West’s novel and stayed home until (unwisely) Ragtime, 1981.
- Peter Ustinov, Logan’s Run, 1976. The Old Man, like all old men of the hour, was offered to Jimmy but the US movie remained very UK: Michael Anderson directing Jenny Agutter, Ustinov, Michael York.
- Robert Mitchum, That Championship Season, 1982. Ten years earlier, Jason Miller talked to Jack Lemmon about helming the film of his play. Over lunch, Miller asked how Cagney would be as the coach - Los Angeles answered with an earthquake. “That, ” said Lemmon, “is how I think James Cagney would be! ”
- Robert De Niro, Once Upon A Time In America, 1984. As the hoods aged from teen to 80s, Sergio Leone thought they could finish as Cagney and Jean Gabin. “Cagney was flattered by the proposition,” reported the maestro, “but he showed me his hands - which trembled.”