James Cagney


  1. 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.  
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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. 
  7. Spencer Tracy, 20,000 Years In Sing Sing,  1932.   1931.   Inevitably, Cagney was first chice for Tommy Connors – but rowing with Warner Bros at the time. Over money. What else. Enter Tracy for his first and only movie with Bette Davis. “One of my great dreams in later years,” she said in her autobiography, “was that we could find a really great script to do together. Spencer and I were both born on April 5. What a marvelous actor he was.”
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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!

  11. 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.
  12.  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.”
  13. 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.
  14. 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…
  15. Errol Flynn, The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1937.      At MGM, one plan was a Nelson Eddy-Jeanette McDonald songfest!  But in 1934,  the brothers Warner gave Sherwood to Cagney. Shooting began. Cagney strutted off the set – and out of Warners.  Such a shock that the Bros couldn’t start over for three years –  with Errol Flynn, 28, the youngesg Hood until Jason Connery, 23,  in the UK’s ITVersion in 1986. 
  16. Humphrey Bogart, The Last Gangster, 1937. Producer Samuel Goldwyn wanted Cagney to safeguard the $165,000 held spent on bought Sidney Kingsley’s play for $165,000  – an amazing figure at thew time (and today – about $3m in 2020). Director William Wyler disagreed $3.)  an exorbitant amount of money at the time (equivalent to nearly $3m in 2020)  Director William Wyler disagreed, booking Bogie for  Baby Face Martin.
  17. Eddie Albert, On Your Toes, 1939.    Head brother Jacvk Waner had stopped musicals since losing Busby Berkely  to MGM. But one mo’  time… Yet he surprisingly dropped Cagney for Albert, Broadway’s newest star in (another Rodgers & Hartz musical) The Boys From Syracuse. Also involved: the German danseuse Vera Zorina, billed as Zorina. Or zero, after a mere seven movies and one TV  shot (in 1937!). 
  18. George Raft, Invisible Stripes, 1938.   The brothers Warner (well, head boy Jack) bought the novel by Sing Sing Prison warden Lewis E Lawes for Bogart, Cagney, Garfield. (Wow!). They weren’t keen on supporting George Raft.  And the   parole drama was finally made with Paramount’s new golden boy. Jimmy had arranged a bit part for Raft in Taxi eight years before. By 1939, they were co-starring in Each Dawn I Die.
  19. Ole Olsen, Boy Meets Girl, 1938.      Olsen and (of course) Chic Johnson (of Hellzapoppin’ fame) were first thoughts for the Hollywood screnwriters in the Film City comedy. Before they went to the leaders of LA’s Irish mafia, lifelong pals, Cagney and Pat O’Brien.   The most hypocritical joke was real – powerful Press baron William Randolph Hearst, forbidding his lover, Marion Davies, from co-starring as… heaven forfend… an unmarried mother. It was OK for Marion to be a zillionaire’s real mistress but not a fictional unwed mother!
  20. John Garfield,  Dust Be My Destiny, 1939.    Another innocent jailed and trying hard to go straight number.

  21. John Garfield,  East of the River,  1939.    Or, Mama Raviola  when secured for Jimmy.  
  22. George Raft, The House Across the Bay, 1939.      Warner Bros first planned the thriller for Cagney and Marlene Dietrich. Producer Walter Wanger got the rights for a much less expensive couple: Raft and Joan Bennett – aka Mrs Wanger. (Not for much longer). Alfred Hitchcock directed some scenes with Bennett and Pidgeon to help out because Wanger produced Hitch’s Foreign Correspondent, 1939.
  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. Dennis Morgan, Three Cheers For The Irish, 1939.    Actually,  a Scot, marrying into an Irish cop’s family and job.

  26. 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.
  27. 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.
  28. 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.
  29. 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.
  30. Errol Flynn, Dive Bomber, 1941.  Flynn is a young surgeon going into WWII in Fred McMurray’s bomber. Although, as the New York Times kindly pointed iour tius was “less about dive bombing than it is about aviation medicine, less about the fellows who fight in airplanes than it is about the surgeons who fight the strange and unpredictable ailments that attack a flying man high in the blue. 
  31. Dennis Morgan, Bad Men of Missouri, 1941.  “Are you kidding me?” rasped Humphrey Bogart when told he’d be playing Cole Younger, leader of the Confederate bushwacker-turned-outlaw brothers In the Ray McEnright Western. (He was promptly suspended… until The Maltese Falcon needed a Sam Spade).   The sheriff, of course, was Wade Boteler, as another of his lawmen in a staggering 448 movies  – 23 in ’41, alone.   PS Cole Younger, (1884-1916)   ended his days as  a tombstone salesman. Sounds about right

  32. 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.

  33. Charles Laughton, The Man From Down Under, 1942. Unfortunately for all concerned, Cagney and his producer brother William were beaten by MGM to the rights of the saga of an Aussie back from WWI with a pair of Belgian brother and sister orphans. When incest looms, all turns out fine. Except for the wholly lamentable Laughton. But just imagine Jimmy trying an Aussie accent. Take dat, ya dirty Bruce!

  34. 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!  
  35. 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.
  36. 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.
  37. 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.
  38. 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.
  39. 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.
  40. Dan Dailey, Mother Wore Tights, 1946.     Fox set out, chequebook in hand, to nab Cagney or Fred Astaire as Betty Grable’s husband in the bio-musical of the vaudeville duo, Frank A. Burt and Myrtle McKinley, billed as Burt and Rosedale. This first of four Dailey-Grable ensembles was sheer hokum.  

  41. 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.
  42. Victor Mature, Kiss of Death, 1947. Jimmy gave some  thought (short) to being Nick Bianco .  But he could see that the maniacal Tommy Udo character – pushing poor  Mildred Dunnock down the stairs in her wheelchair  –  would steal the show.  This was Richard Widmark’s debut and his one and only Oscar nomination of his 77 screen roles.
  43. 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.
  44. 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.
  45. 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 the silent era comic Harold Lloyd and crooner Rudy Vallee. In 2000, another Harvey – the later disgraced New York producer Harvey Weinstein – planned a re-tread. With Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler or John Travolta. Spielberg as well. With classier choices  Tom Hanks or  Robert Downey Jr.

  46. Gregory Peck, Twelve O’Clock High, 1948.  
    The  greatest Hollywood fiction of USAF WWII pilots, often unfairly compared to the  weaker  Command Decision – which is why Peck nearly passed.  “Duke told me he’d turned it down,” recalledPeck.  “And I seized it!”   Just not that fast… Clark Gable was extremely keen on General Savage (he made Command Decision, instead). Peck read it again and  was also won over by director Henry King’s empathy for the subject. King was a pilot, himself, and he  would helm five more Peck  films). “A fine film,” said Peck, “much honoured  and  respected,  about the psychological stress of total involvement of these men.” Too honest for such a gung-ho movie-hero as John Wayne. This was Peck’s finest hour; forget To Kill A Mockingbird.   Seeing him glued to his chair in a catonic state of battle-fatigue made one helluva impression on me when I saw it in, hell, I was 11 years old!  It marked me for life.  It also affected Rian Johnson, who called it an influence on his Star Wars:  Episode VII – The Last Jedi, 2016. Others in the Savage loop were Dana Andrews, Ralph Bellamy, James Cagney, Van Heflin, Burt Lancaster, Edmond O’Brien – and three-bobs-worth of Roberts: Montgomery, Preston and Young.

  47. 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.
  48. Ray Milland, Bugles in the Afternoon, 1951.     Another Cagney Western – Cavalry v Sioux, this time – also produced by brother William and sold to Warners.
  49. 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.
  50.  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.  

  51. Dean Martin, Rio Bravo, 1958.
  52. 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.
  53. Robert  Stack, John Paul Jones,  1959.   An old, very old   Cagney project.  – dating back 1939 and then 1949 – after Warner Bros bought Clements Ripley’s biography,  Clear for Action, for him.
  54. Burt Lancaster, Elmer Gantry, 1959.     Somewhat perversely, director Richard Brooks  thought of Montgomery Clift  or Cagney – for the firey preacher man.
  55. John Mills, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (UK: Summer of the 17th Doll; US: Season of Passion), Australia-UK-US, 1961.  According to Tony Harrison’s Australian Film & TV Companion, Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth and Cagney were supposed to head the screen version of Australian Ray Lawler’s play. Instead, it was Ernest Borgnine and John Mills as the sugarcane-cutters spending their annual five-month Sydney vacation with their mistresses: Anne Baxter and Angela Lansbury.
  56. 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.
  57. 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.”
  58. 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.”
  59. Lee Strasberg, The Godfather: Part II,  1973.
  60. 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.  And I was there when he gpto it on April  8, 1975.

  61. 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.  
  62. 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.  Seven years before, the first James Bond scenarist Richard Maibaum, had adapted the book for Hollywood’s most sf-minded producer, George Pal.
  63. 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! ”

  64. Robert De Niro, Once Upon A Time In America, 1984.    
    After his epic about the West, Sergio Leone planned another on the East – based on The Hoods, “an autobiographical account” of New York Jewish gangster Harry Goldberg. He wrote it in Sing Sing prison asHarry Grey. Leone thought he resembled Edward G Robinson.  Harry probably agreed.He certainly used “a repertoire of cinematic citations, of gestures and words seen and heard thousands of times on the big screen…” But then, so did Leone with a 400 page script packed with echoes of Angels with Dirty Faces, Bullets or Ballots, Dead End, High Sierra, Little Cesar andWhite Heat. In October 1975, he even fancied the elderly James Cagney and Jean Gabin as the older Noodles and Max –  the younger being Gérard Depardieu and Richard Dreyfuss. “Cagney was flattered by the proposition,” reported the maestro, “but he showed me his hands – which trembled.”The maestro claimed  he interviewed “over 3,000 actors,” taping 500 auditions for the 110 speaking roles. Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino passed on Noodles. In 1980, Tom Berenger and Paul Newman were up for Noodles (young andold) with either John Belushi, Dustin Hoffman, William Hurt, Harvey Keitel, John Malkovich or Jon Voight as Max… then Joe Pesci (he became Frankie) and James Woods was Max with Scott Tiler and Rusty Jacobs as the younger guys in the three hours-49 minutes unfurled at the ’84 Cannes festival… instead of Leone’s aim: two three-hour movies. 


 Birth year: 1899Death year: 1986Other name: Casting Calls:  64