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The 5 Roles That Defined James Cagney's Career

By    |   Monday, 13 April 2015 09:00 PM

James Cagney was one of the most prolific actors in Hollywood's heyday. He played roles in 69 films.

His body of work includes several films in which he portrays either tough guys (“The Public Enemy,” “Taxi!,” “Angels with Dirty Faces”) or sentimental softies (“Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “The Seven Little Foys”).

Cagney was ranked eighth among its the American Film Institute's list of 50 Greatest Screen Legends, covering 100 years of films.

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Among the roles that contributed to James Cagney's undeniable success are those that established him as a force to deal with, such as:

1.Tom Powers, “The Public Enemy” (1931)

Cagney assumes the persona of a mouthy hood whose reaction to violence is unexpected and haunting. He becomes a cog in the Chicago mob machine, and finds himself paying a high price for his involvement with gangs, eventually struggling with the loss of connection to his family. The role helped establish him as the tough guy America came to love.

2. Chester Kent, “Footlight Parade” (1933)

In the role of Chester Kent, Cagney established his musical theater prowess. He showcased his experience in an uplifting dance number, "Shanghai Lil,” with musical icon Ruby Keeler.
In the film, Cagney plays Kent, a man who gives up his job as a Broadway musical director. In his new career, he creates musical numbers that are presented in movie theaters prior to the showing of the main feature. Under the pressure to produce, he is oblivious to the feelings of his loyal secretary, Nan (played by Joan Blondell).

3. Rocky Sullivan, “Angels With Dirty Faces” (1938)

In another convincing gangster roll, Cagney’s character is captured by police and sentenced to death for his crimes. In a tender plea to Rocky, old pal Father Connolly (played by Pat O'Brien) pleads for him to break down for the benefit of the young boys that idolize him. When Sullivan finally begs for mercy, Cagney leaves us wondering if the change is sincere or if he is acting out for the boys' benefit. He showcases his power to draw deep emotions, leaving his audiences in tears for Sullivan's tragic life.

The performance earned him a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor and an Academy Award nomination.

4. Eddie Bartlett, “The Roaring Twenties” (1939)

Bartlett and friends George, played by Humphrey Bogart, and Lloyd, played by Jeffrey Lynn, return from fighting the war to face the harsh reality of America in the Roaring 20s. The lives of the three continue to be intertwined as Cagney displays the sympathetic bad guy. The film is a heart-wrenching tale of prohibition, the stock market crash, and gangster-style violence.

5. George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942)

“Yankee Doodle Dandy” is a biopic based on the life of a renowned Broadway composer. Cagney's dance skills and his style of half singing/half speaking the song lyrics created a strikingly believable picture of the title character. The film also inspired patriotism during wartime.

Cagney won an Academy Award for this film.

The list of James Cagney's important films is long and includes many classics, making this list just a small sampling of the screen idol's work.

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James Cagney was once one of the most prolific actors in Hollywood — with roles in 69 films. His career is largely defined by films in which he portrays either tough guys (“The Public Enemy,” “Taxi!,” “Angels with Dirty Faces”) or sentimental softies (“Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “The Seven Little Foys”).
james cagney, roles, defined, career
Monday, 13 April 2015 09:00 PM
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