James Cagney was one of Warner Bros. Studio’s primary “tough guy” actors in the 1930s. His huge success as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy from 1931 secured his image as an excellent gangster actor. In the four or five films he made before this, he usually played a criminal’s assistant, some type of hoodlum, or a mama’s boy. However, during the ten years he performed in vaudeville in New York City before he went to Hollywood, he flourished as a song and dance man, using his talents of singing and tap dancing which few films utilized. To honor James Cagney’s 118th birthday today, I am going to hypothesize about the musical career he could have had.
Footlight Parade from 1933 was Jimmy Cagney’s fourteenth film, but it was the first picture in which he sang and danced. Some say that his only other starring musical role was George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy from 1942, for which he won his only Best Actor Academy Award. Thankfully, this is not true. He also made Something To Sing About in 1937, The West Point Story in 1950, and Never Steal Anything Small in 1959. He also had a chance to dance when he did a one-scene reprise of his Cohan role in The Seven Little Foys in 1955. It is ridiculous that a man with his musical talents was an important leading man at a major Hollywood studio during the Golden Age of musicals, yet he performed in so few. While this is frustrating to realize, it is enjoyable to imagine some musicals in which he could have performed and dancers with whom he could have been paired.
James Cagney showed audiences that he had unsuspected talents in Footlight Parade. In the marvelous “Shanghai Lil” number, he sings and dances; it is excellent but all too brief. He had previously been acknowledged as an excellent dramatic actor, a convincing villain, and a romantic leading man, but Footlight Parade proved that he could do more than pull a trigger and deliver a good punch. At this point, he could have been promoted as one of the foremost musical actors at WB. He could have made records and been touted as the Warners’ shining new musical discovery. His tap dancing skills easily rivaled Fred Astaire’s, who made his film debut that year in Flying Down to Rio. Their styles were different, but they were equally talented. Fred Astaire sang in most of his pictures, and he made several albums, but his voice was really no better than James Cagney’s; neither could rival the vocal excellence of Nelson Eddy, but both could carry a tune and sell a song. Also, consider Rudy Vallee; he was a matinee idol and a popular singer as well as an actor, but I think that James Cagney’s voice and looks were superior to his. The difference was that Mr. Vallee had publicity and ballyhoo behind his musical career, whereas Mr. Cagney did not. It was more profitable in the long run for Warner Bros. to use him in gangster films, which could be made cheaply and quickly and earned huge profits. Elaborate musicals earned a lot of money, but they also cost a lot of money. The mogul brothers also knew that he was excellent in the dark, grimly realistic pictures for which they were famous.
Footlight Parade was produced at the perfect time to be the beginning of a new career for James Cagney. It was released in October. By July of 1934, Joseph Breen would be in charge of the Production Code Administration, and the Code would be in full force. Although it did not stop gangster films, it slowed them down. All crime films had to be treated with extreme caution; ridicule of the law and sympathy for gangsters were now forbidden. Because of this, Mr. Cagney’s main genre was on probation. This would have been the perfect time for Warner Bros. to focus on a new genre for him. He could have been in less expensive and elaborate musicals than the three extravaganzas WB made in 1933. They could have been simpler musicals which focused on talent rather than shock tactics such as suggestive songs, blue choreography, and ridiculously scanty costumes.
Firstly, Warner Bros. could have made a full-length movie of “Shanghai Lil.” Ruby Keeler could have reprised her role of Lil, and James Cagney could have reprised his role of Bill. The story could have been expanded to begin when Bill first visits Shanghai and meets Lil. After that, more backstage musicals could have been made. Mr. Cagney could have played producers and performers. I can imagine him as a hoofer who is always fighting with his boss for higher billing, better pay, and better treatment. He could have excellently depicted Broadway performers as well as vaudevillians. He also could have been a pugnacious dancer with a lady partner who was perhaps his sweetheart or wife; I can imagine him fighting to get their team higher up the ladder of success. Of course, there is the virtually unexplored potential of a dancer who is also a tough guy. People often call James Cagney a tough guy in tap shoes; why not have a character who was like that? Warner Bros. could have included his talent in a gangster picture. He could have played a dancer who works at a speakeasy and gets blackmailed by the owner, who perhaps would be played by Edward G. Robinson, into joining the racket. You could add the interesting angle of him being interested in the boss’s girl; of course, if this was a Code film, the filmmakers would have to be careful to not depict her as the boss’s moll. There is also the possible scenario of him being a talented gangster who decides to quit the racket so that he can go into show business; he could blackmail and threaten his way straight to Broadway. In addition, there was another marvelous possibility which was never tapped. George Raft was another Warner Bros. tough guy; he frequently played side-kick roles. Like Cagney, he was a tap dancer before he was a gangster actor. In fact, he went to Hollywood as strictly a hoofer. As far as I know, he didn’t perform in any musicals. Warner Bros. owned two tap dancing tough guys, and they never put the good friends in a musical together. There are dozens of possibilities for collaborations with them. They could have been a couple of gangsters who want to break into show business, a dancing team that gets roped into joining the mob, competitor tough guy tap dancers who are willing to fight it out with their fists as well as their feet, rival gangsters who both join show business and become dancing competitors, or a dancing team with one crooked, double-crossing member who becomes a mobster, to name a few possibilities. Cagney and Raft could have become a fabulous, famous Warner Bros. team which acted and danced unlike any other. Why didn’t Jack Warner think of that? Maybe if he had been given more musical roles, James Cagney would have been more satisfied and would have spent less time fighting the studio. Of course, even a tap dancer deserves his rights, and the “Professional Againster” wasn’t going to let anyone take advantage of him.
The 1930s had a wealth of marvelous dancers, yet James Cagney got few opportunities to dance with any of them. Aside from the “Shanghai Lil” number with Ruby Keeler, he danced solo. He and Ruby could have been paired in other musicals, since they worked well together. I also can imagine him with other dancers. Ginger Rogers would have worked well with him. She was in Gold Diggers of 1933, one of the big Warner musicals that year, but he was not. I can imagine them as a feuding dance team; they also would have done well with her as a fiery dancer and him as her hot-headed manager. She had an edge to her personality which would have struck his stubbornness and created magnificent sparks on the screen. Also, they could have tap danced well together and done some ballroom dancing. He made one movie with Rita Hayworth, Strawberry Blonde in 1942, but it was not a musical; they did waltz together, though. In 1942, I can imagine them in a real musical together. She was a good tap dancer, and she had Latin dance training from her childhood. However, the only leading lady I know who could really have matched his tap dancing is Eleanor Powell. In Broadway Melody of 1940, she and Fred Astaire danced together as no one else could. Both danced with excellent dancers, but few ladies could match Mr. Astaire’s intricate taps, and few men could match Miss Powell’s. However, I think James Cagney could have. Both he and Eleanor Powell were light on their feet while doing intricate taps. Also, both did amazingly high kicks unlike other dancers. I can imagine a finale of an MGM musical with them on a dark stage under a single spotlight, both wearing full dress suits and top hats with canes. I can just see them tapping and kicking. It would have been amazing! I am writing a movie like this for the “Great Breening Fest” in October, so I will save the rest of my idea for then.
I can’t forget Doris Day, Warner Bros. Studio’s singing sweetheart of the screen. She and James Cagney made two pictures together, but they weren’t enough. The first one was The West Point Story, in which she played a rather small part. She was his protege, and they danced together a little, but Virginia Mayo was his girl, and Doris fell in love
with Gordon MacRae’s character. Their other picture together was Love Me Or Leave Me from 1955, but that hardly counts as a musical collaboration. He neither sang nor dance, and Doris Day’s character did not really like him at all.
They should have been in more musicals together in the late 1940s and the early 50s, since they had amazing chemistry together. She was one of the only actresses who seems to make her character be able to stand up to the stubbornness of his characters. Plus, her popularity led to another surge of Warner Bros. musicals, in more than one of which he should have participated. They could have made a film which captured the fire of their acting as well as their amazing talent, since Doris Day was a good tap dancer, but let them get together in the end.
James Cagney could have done some interesting duets with the other male tap dancers of the day. He and Fred Astaire could have played competitors who are fighting for the same role or who compete in opposing Broadway shows. They also could have been competitors in love, fighting for Ginger Rogers or Rita Hayworth. Perhaps all four of them could have been in a picture together. In an MGM musical, I can picture Cagney doing a comical duet with Buddy Ebsen. With Ebsen being so tall and lanky, and Cagney being so short and compact, the duo seems strange at first, but I think the contrast could have been hilarious. Mr. Cagney’s fast, tight, energetic style would have offset Mr. Ebsen’s relaxed, slightly-hunched, loose-legged dancing. Can you imagine it? He even could have been good with Shirley Temple. He could have played her father, brother, uncle, or simply her friend. What about a film in which they are an unlikely dance team of orphaned cousins who are trying to break into show business together? It could have been very cute.
Well, these are my hypotheses about this great, unappreciated song and dance man who got shamefully few opportunities to dance and sing. I hope you have enjoyed my ideas about his unused potential. My sister Rebekah and I constantly make up films which could have been made with long-deceased performers during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Please tell me your ideas and thoughts in the comments section. I would love to hear what you think Warner Bros. and the other studios could have done with James Cagney’s musical talents. Today, to celebrate his birthday, watch one of the marvelous musicals he made, or appreciate his talent in any one of his magnificent films. Happy birthday to one of the greatest performers of the Golden Era of Hollywood!
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