–by Jennifer Kellow-Fiorini
PUBLICATION DATE: Mar 15, 2021
James Cagney worked on stage as a dancer/actor before becoming part of a new group of stars who, in 1931, were experimenting and refining their on-screen personas in the pre-Code era. Pre-Code villains had dimension — not the cardboard cut-outs labeled “good guys, bad guys” that dominated silent pictures less than a decade before.
Along with sound, realism was the new trend. “All I’m trying to get across is realism,” said Cagney in an interview. “The idea that heroes ain’t always the perfect gentleman and bad guys aren’t always stinking blackguards — they can come from the same mold.”
An artist who approached his craft with a great deal of thought, Cagney spent time developing ways to express his characters physically. Music was another interest of Cagney’s, along with social issues, which he talked about a lot in the early years of his stardom — highly unusual for actors of this era who stuck to promoting their latest films in interviews and not much else. Cagney often talked about his acting techniques, discussing the difference between working on stage and the new opportunities the camera and sound gave to actors. His talent and openness about developing his technique made him an actor’s actor, and an influence on male stars for the next ninety years.
Born in 1899 in Manhattan, Cagney grew up on 79th Street. His father was in and out of employment and had a drinking problem, which contributed to his death from the 1918 flu epidemic when Cagney was a child. A red-headed Irish street kid, he grew up in and around poverty, which had a huge impact on his world view and insight into the characters he played. He was able to bring context to the social messages of his films and often talked about growing up in the slums. He complained that “Sixty percent of the wealth of this country is controlled by one percent of the people.” Having seen his school friends rummage through garbage for something to eat he said, “It was my first contact with the fact that one half of the world starves while the other half gorges. I tell you I grew old that minute. You don’t get over things like that.” One schoolmate became a murderer and died in the electric chair. “Poverty was the exact cause of that old schoolmate of mine going to the chair,” recalled Cagney. “Environment conditioned by the personalities surrounding him.”
Cagney used his celebrity status to let rich people know that poor people had feelings and a wealth of talent. In his book “Dangerous Men,” Mick Lasalle said, “In interview after interview, he did three things: He made a case for the common man, presented himself as one of their ranks, and demonstrated his sensitive, artistic nature.” With actors like Cagney and Edward G. Robinson and the success of two gangster films in 1931, “The Public Enemy” and “Little Caesar,” Warner Brothers became a studio known for its gangster and socially conscious films.
“The Public Enemy” is one of the few pre-Code films that is still widely known today. Cagney’s Tom Powers is a chilling psychopath, and clearly influenced Joe Pesci’s Tommy in “Goodfellas.” Its
final scene still has the power to make modern audiences gasp. Cagney’s pre-Code films differ from his later work in that they show a young actor brimming with rambunctious energy and confidence. In “Blonde Crazy,” he stars opposite Joan Blondell as a hotel bellhop who works every angle. He sells bootleg whiskey and scams the wealthy and corrupt with anarchic, smart-alecky joy. “The world owes me a living,” he tells Joan Blondell, “The age of chivalry is dead. This is the age of chiselry!”
A lot of pre-Code films had a huge influence on modern lingo and Cagney’s films are no exception. Although the line “You dirty rat” is attributed to him, it’s actually misquoted from his 1931 film, “Taxi.” It’s in “Blonde Crazy” that Cagney says, “Honey, I’m Santa Claus, Robin Hood, and the goose that laid the golden egg all in one!” and tempts her to take their scam on the open road. “Everybody’s got larceny in their heart,” his character rationalizes.
Although he felt typecast in gangster roles, Cagney was a sensitive artist, dancer extraordinaire, and deeply involved in the social issues of his time. He enjoyed a long and prolific acting career. He died in 1986 at age 86.
A live-life-to-the-fullest attitude that came from surviving the great war and all that followed lead to a fetishism of youth. Forget about waiting all your life for success, youth was rebranded as “intuitive wisdom.” The new young men were individualistic anti-heroes who broke the rules to win the game of life. The system had sent them to war to die and crashed the banks — you had to beat the system, and the system was rigged. Rules were for schmucks. In pre-Code films you will often hear men saying, “What am I, a chump? A sap?”
Public Enemies and New Heroes
Pre-Code films looked at these new men and explored subjects of crime, business, politics, sex and war. This new generation had to improvise, think on their feet and chart their own course in life. Actors who maintained popularity in pre-Code all had these traits in common.
In the pre-Code era, we see types of men’s roles that come up again and again. What were those roles and why did they connect with audiences?
The gangster is the most iconic film genre to come out pre-Code. In the 1930s, the gangster wasn’t born so much out of the Depression as out of Prohibition. They were less about economic devastation and more about social morality and its gray areas. At the time, Prohibition made a criminal of anyone who took a drink. In 1920 the 18th amendment banned the sale, manufacturing, and transportation of any intoxicating liquors. Anyone who didn’t stop drinking was a criminal. If you went to a speakeasy, you were doing business with outlaws. Prohibition resulted in the contempt of law and the Constitution. Crime rates skyrocketed and respect for the law plummeted. At the time people thought Prohibition would never end, and they were outraged. To a degree, Americans were sympathetic with the gangster because of Prohibition, so it’s not hard to see why gangster films became so popular.
Crooked businessmen represented both the desire to have money and to see crooked guys lose it all, if only in the movies. Newspapermen, the guys with all the angles, with their quick thinking and used car salesman instincts for survival, flourished in the 1930s. In pre-Code movies, men bared more of their emotional selves than they would in the films of the ’40s and ’50s. Sometimes it was over love affairs, like Edward G. Robinson who fell victim to a beautiful bad woman in the film “Two Seconds.” Films that dealt with the emotional scars of the First World War showed empathy for soldiers who survived on both sides, and a decidedly pacifist attitude towards war in general.
Next month — the pre-Code films of James Cagney.
For more Reel Cinema articles, resources, and photos, check out the Reel Cin blog at jenfior.com/blog-1
Jennifer Fiorini holds a bachelor degree in advertising from The Fashion Institute of Technology where she minored in film studies, Italian film and language. Originally from Toledo, Ohio, she divides her time between New York City and Torino, Italy. She is part of Creative Oxygen’s New York team, writes for eCurrent Magazine, and contributed to Troy Howarth’s book, Murder By Design – The Unsane Films of Dario Argento.