Tags: Hollywood | james cagney | supporting | roles | star

James Cagney in Supporting Roles: Star Shined Without Being Lead Actor

By    |   Tuesday, 14 Apr 2015 04:54 PM

James Cagney had a presence that captivated audiences, and whenever he was on screen, even the lead actors seemed to fade into the background. Because of his magnetic personality, he was consistently cast in leading roles, even at the expense of some actors he was originally hired to support.

Cagney came from an Irish family in New York City. His brothers pleased their mother and became doctors while James dabbled in show business.

According to Cagney biographer Emily Smith, his first appearance on stage came at the encouragement of a department store co-worker who successfully encouraged him to audition for a wartime play called “Every Sailor.” Cagney appeared in the ensemble dressed as a woman and discovered a knack for shedding his skin and becoming a character — this time in a skirt, wig, and feathers.

He spent several years in New York, performing in Broadway plays and in vaudeville acts.

In 1919 Cagney won a role in “Pitter Patter,” working as an ensemble actor. During the run of the play he met chorus line dancer Frances Willard “Billie” Vernon, whom he married three years later. The couple struggled for a few years, taking what work they could find.  Then, Cagney's performance in "Penny Arcade"  caught the attention of Warner Brothers Studios. The studio signed Cagney to a three-week contract in 1925, which was quickly extended to seven years.

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While appearing as Little Red, a hobo, in “Outside Looking In,” Cagney outshined headliners Reginald Barlow (Baldy) and Charles A. Bickford (Oklahoma Red). A Life magazine writer acknowledged that Cagney’s performance in a mock trial scene was worthy of study by more seasoned actors.

"Mr. Cagney, in a less spectacular role [than his co-star] makes a few minutes silence during his mock-trial scene something that many a more established actor might watch with profit," wrote Life critic Robert Benchley

In his fifth film “The Public Enemy” (1931), Cagney overshadowed Ed Woods in his ability to project the qualities of a hardened gangster. Woods was originally cast as the lead, but director William Wellman switched the roles of the two actors. Cagney starred opposite Jean Harlow in the box office hit that became a classic among gangster films of the period.

Cagney performed one of his few supporting roles in “Smart Money,” starring Edward G. Robinson in 1931.

Later, Cagney was cast in the leads, with Humphrey Bogart filling the supporting slots. In his final film at Warner Brothers, Cagney was billed in a supporting role to Henry Fonda who starred in the title role in “Mister Roberts” in 1955.

That same year Cagney played a supporting role to Doris Day in MGM's “Love Me or Leave Me,” a musical drama loosely based on the life of jazz singer Ruth Ettig and her rocky marriage to her gangster husband.

According to Turner Classic Movies, "This was the only time, after becoming a star in the 1930s, that James Cagney ever accepted second billing for a major role. He thought that Doris Day's character was more central to the film's plot, and so ceded top billing to her." Ironically, Cagney was nominated by the Academy for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance in "Love Me or Leave Me."

Also in 1955, Cagney reprised his role from "Yankee Doodle Dandy" in which he won his only Best Actor Oscar for the Bob Hope movie, "The Seven Little Foys." According to IMDb, Cagney took no money for his second appearance as George M. Cohan as a tribute to the generosity of Eddie Foy (Hope), who once aided Cagney and other struggling actors.   

From his first role at Warner Brothers in 1930, Cagney was cast in some of the most influential leading roles of the times, making him one of the preeminent male stars ever to work in Hollywood.

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James Cagney had a presence that captivated audiences, and whenever he was on screen, even the lead actors seemed to fade into the background. Because of his magnetic personality, he was consistently cast in leading roles, even at the expense of some actors he was originally hired to support.
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