Faraway Fella

David Thomson is the author of "Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts."

In a cheerful and encouraging way, Alfred A. Knopf speaks of this biography as “long overdue.” But John McCabe is a little more cautionary in his introduction. Nearly 25 years ago, after all, another publisher, Doubleday, asked McCabe to ghostwrite the memoirs of James Cagney. That deal was made; the actor and the author got along well, and “Cagney by Cagney” was published in 1976. It got a friendly reception, for Cagney in his last decades was much loved and respected. But no one had any reason to regard it as the white heat of unexpected revelation. As McCabe admits, Doubleday prodded Cagney for more stories, more material, more heat. The tough guy gently resisted.

“The reticence about his professional life,” writes McCabe, “flowed directly from his deeply quiet nature, his loner instincts, and his honest belief that there was not a lot to say about what was to him ‘just a job.’ It was a phrase he used--indeed, overused--constantly. But he meant it. His personal life was so joyous--he had married his dream girl at 23, thereby earning long, uneventful decades of happiness--that he could not understand why anyone would really be interested in ‘just’ that.”

“Long, Uneventful Decades of Happiness” remains available as a title for anyone’s biography--yours perhaps, you lucky soul?--and we may count on it going begging. But McCabe was persuaded to give Cagney another go. Not that this biography reveals astonishing geysers of steaminess that discretion or reticence smothered in 1976. McCabe is essentially faithful to the ghost he was 20 years ago; he shows us an eminently quiet, naturally patient, decent man, a devoted husband, a guy who liked to live on his farm, do a little poetry or painting and who had amiably given up trying to convince the world that he didn’t spend sleepless nights waiting on breakfast so he could squeeze a grapefruit on some slut’s face.


But where does that leave us, the people who never knew the real “Jim” Cagney--the “faraway fella,” as his pal, actor Pat O’Brien, called him? We have the uncomplicated needs of audiences and star-struck fantasists. Don’t befuddle us with dull facts; don’t preach the bliss of long, uneventful decades. We know Cagney as that sublime imp of the 1930s, the little guy with explosive fists and sudden marauding impulses. We see those beady eyes daring himself into outrage. We see him dance and die, strut and talk. We hear his voice in our heads, the lovely teasing staccato, and that sneer that was enough to peel your chops off. We know what fatalistic cockiness is and was because of Cagney. As for uneventfulness, we recall how the guy made four, five and even six flicks a year at Warner: 70- and 80-minute gems of urban violence, witty insolence and the unashamed merriment of a hood so dainty he was poetic and leprechaun-like. Cagney was boxer, dancer, comic, Mr. Punch, the spirit of the streets and an actor so good that he could leave the young Elia Kazan (they acted together in “City for Conquest” in 1941) wondering whether his theories on acting were worth 10 cents next to these lethal instincts.

Orson Welles called Cagney the No. 1 screen filler in history: “He was one of the biggest actors in the whole history of the screen.” And so we treasure a string of “small” pictures, throwaway genre pieces that ring with the vitality of this man: “Jimmy the Gent,” “Lady Killer,” “Picture Snatcher,” “Hard to Handle,” “Taxi,” “Blonde Crazy,” “The Public Enemy” and so on, all the way to “Angels With Dirty Faces,” in which he does a flamboyant stricken-coward act on his way to his execution to deter the Dead End Kids from a life of crime; “The Roaring Twenties”; and then, a war and a lifetime later, the magnificent, piercing, unaccountable “White Heat,” in which nothing less than evil is somehow moderated by Cody Jarrett’s woeful reliance on his stone-faced Ma. That’s Cagney! Or it is if you throw in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” the strange life story of showman George M. Cohan, the film for which Cagney won his Oscar and created a man who moved (or danced) and thought like an unstoppable patriotic machine.

Cagney didn’t much like Cody Jarrett or “White Heat,” or so he said afterward. He didn’t want to play only guys like Cody. He had a soft spot for quieter films, in which he played ordinary losers--and some of those are well worth pursuing, notably “The Strawberry Blonde,” “The Time of Your Life” (the adaptation of William Saroyan’s novel made by Cagney’s production company) and even “Man of a Thousand Faces,” in which he seemed in love with the humility and the suffering of silent actor Lon Chaney. We finish McCabe’s book quite sure about Cagney the private man: considerate to his wife, moved by animals, urged to write banal poetry. So be it. That actual man is not just faraway--he’s gone. The tight-lipped smile of the 1930s haunts us still, just as the perpetually cocked state of that hard, balletic body is something we long to see.

McCabe knows this: He’s genuinely fond of and inspired by Cagney, and he often writes well about the screen persona, the dangerousness in Cagney’s movements and the serene closeness to death. I do not dispute the accuracy of the story he tells about the happy, modest success, domestic tranquillity and a retirement that trailed away into a series of strokes, a sense of emptiness and ill-advised efforts at comeback (“Ragtime” on screen and the lamentable “Terrible Joe Moran” on TV). And so, the radical and troublemaker of the ‘30s became settled, conservative, still and . . . God knows, I’m doing what I can to avoid writing this, but . . . dull. As a young man, Cagney was a leftist, active in civil rights cases and a fierce opponent of his boss, the loathed Jack Warner, “the shvontz,” Cagney called him, who, he felt, exploited and chiseled him. Indeed, it’s a fair notion that the demon in Cagney the actor was most inspired by hatred of Warner.


So the life is not quite immediate or arresting. Still, one moment in the book gave me the shivers, and I think it’s worth exploiting. First you should know that on Sept. 28, 1922, Cagney married Frances Willard Vernon (Willie), a chorus girl with whom he had danced the Peabody in the show “Pitter Patter.” They were still husband and wife on the day he died, March 29, 1986. Every account suggests not just that they were faithful, close and shyly turned toward each other and away from the press or the world but always in love. But they could not have children because Cagney himself, that powerhouse, was sterile (McCabe passes over this rather quickly, I think; the simpler a man Cagney was, the more confounding that discovery must have been). So he and Willie adopted two children in 1940. Whereupon Willie built a separate house on their land for the kids, so that Jim might not be disturbed as he learned his lines and dwelt in happy, if uneventful, marital bliss.

McCabe is shaken by that. He feels the oddity, and he is not surprised that the two adopted kids grew up a little distant from their father. He doesn’t remark on the added meaning it brings to “faraway,” or explore the notion--raised in some other writing about Cagney: that the tough guy was rather dominated and directed by Willie. Among other things, she sought to limit the influence of Cagney’s brother Bill, a look-alike, a drab actor but every bit the spark and carouser in life that Jim could not be. Still, McCabe does tell a story about a moment at which Cagney’s cast-iron fidelity was threatened.


During the war, Cagney was active with the Hollywood Victory Committee, a body that organized touring shows to keep the troops entertained. And so it happened that on a train taking the stars across the country, Merle Oberon began to make a play for Cagney. She was one of the most exotically beautiful women in the movies, and he was the embodiment of challenging maleness. She would sit close to him and flash her extravagant legs. He begged friends not to leave him alone with Oberon. But she bribed a porter, got into the actor’s sleeping compartment and inserted herself in his bed, naked.

When the paragon arrived, he was tempted. He was far from home. He had not had sex in an age. She was lovely. He joined her. And before long Oberon was ecstatic. “Ooohh!” she cried out, “Jimmy Cagney’s f------ me!” At which, the tough guy was stopped in his tracks. He got out of bed, dressed and said good night. Which is not exactly the stuff of “Made it Ma, top of the world!”

Was there something in Cagney uncommonly dutiful, straight and narrow? I’m not sure if this amounts even to a theory; and if it does I advance it with caution. But a reviewer feels bound to try rescuing this book. Cagney had a weak father and a strong mother. The father was irresponsible, charismatic, a rascal charmer; the mother held the family together in hard times. Cagney adored Dad and revered Mom. It seems evident that Willie was in many ways the second mother in his life, sheltering him from family pressures, from the noise and distraction of children, helping him concentrate on the job. Much later still, when Jim and Willie were elderly, another firm woman, a care-giver, housekeeper and protector, came into their lives and took over some of his affairs.

I cannot forget those bonds when I recollect Cagney and Margaret Wycherly in “White Heat” and the astonishing way in which the middle-aged gangster at one point curls up on his mother’s lap seeking protection. Moreover, McCabe’s account of the scene misses the point raised by Patrick McGilligan that the maternal embrace was not in the script but was apparently suggested and improvised by Cagney. This improvisation may seem a moment only, but it is also among the finest things Cagney ever did. And it begins to help us understand the great gulf between Cagney the man and Cagney the screen force. Was he just one more person, like so many of us, thrilled and tempted by the movie’s dark to be the rogue and wanton who horrified and ashamed him in real life? Is he perhaps film history’s finest version of Jekyll and Hyde?