James Cagney, Hollywood’s Favorite Irish Gangster

James CagneyJames Cagney was a famous gangster actor for thirty years; although the gangster films’ heyday was in the pre-Code years, they continued to be made through the Code and post-Code years, and James Cagney went right along with them. He made his big break as the nefarious gun-man Tom Powers in the 1931 film The Public Enemy. In this film, as in all pre-Code gangster films, the filmmakers make the audience feel sorry for the leading character and then have him be shot by rival gangsters at the end.

Public Enemy 3

Tom Powers is associated with wild guns and loose women like Gwenn Allen (Jean Harlow).

Public Enemy 2

Tom and Matt (Edward Woods) get their first guns.

Public Enemy 4

Even a loving mother (Beryl Mercer) cannot save this wicked son.








James Cagney’s most famous Code gangster film is the 1938 movie Angels with Dirty Faces, in which his character, Rocky Sullivan, is portrayed as a murderer, a thief, and a kidnapper; instead of being shot by other criminals, he is executed by the law. In this, you see the difference between pre-Code and Code gangster films.

Angels with Dirty Faces 3

In 1938, gangsters have lost their glamour.



Angels with Dirty Faces 4

Rocky Sullivan is addressed by his respectable friend, Father Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien).

Angels with Dirty Faces 2

Rocky threatens his lawyer and partner in crime, Jim Frazier (Humphrey Bogart).









For a post-Code gangster film starring James Cagney, I have selected Love Me or Leave Me, the 1955 film based on the life story of the popular 20’s and 30’s singer Ruth Etting; James Cagney plays Ruth’s husband and manager, Marty Sneider, whom, as in real life, she eventually divorces to marry her pianist. Although Marty is not killed at the end, he is quite considerate of Ruth, making the audience pity him and making Ruth seem unfounded in divorcing him; in this we see that the filmmakers were attempting to recapture the pre-Code sympathy angle.

Love Me Or Leave Me

James Cagney’s Marty has a compassionate, pathetic side which the real gangster never possessed.



Love Me Or Leave Me 2

Ruth (Doris Day) feels indebted to Marty, who started her career and expects love in return.









Love Me Or Leave Me 3

Marty’s love for Ruth makes him insanely and justifiably jealous of Ruth’s pianist (Cameron Mitchell), recapturing the pre-Code sympathy angle.










Watch one of these films or one of James Cagney’s many other gangster and crime films to see why he was one of the greatest gangster actors of all times.

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One thought on “James Cagney, Hollywood’s Favorite Irish Gangster

  1. Pingback: The Large Association of Movie Blogs | Acting School 101 – July 2019 – James Cagney

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