When I was a child, summer holidays meant Jimmy Cagney movies on TV: White Heat, The Public Enemy, G-Men, Each Dawn I Die, Angels With Dirty Faces and so on. Cagney never looked like he was acting, he became whatever character he played, which explains why he was once asked, “Well, did you turn yella that time you went to da electric chair?”
Orson Welles once told chat show host Michael Parkinson that he thought Cagney was “maybe the greatest actor who ever appeared in front of a camera.” I tend to agree with this—as no doubt did Marlon Brando and Stanley Kubrick who were both major fans of the brilliant, diminutive Irish-American.
Like many of the characters he played, Cagney was tough. He was born into a poor working class family in New York’s Lower East Side in 1899. He worked hard, held down several jobs, and was always ready with his fists should the need arise. His fighting skills were such that family, friends and neighbors came to Jimmy to knock out any troublemaker. But Cagney was also disciplined and assiduous. He was a vaudevillian, a song and dance man first and foremost, who learnt his trade working up through chorus lines and repertory companies before being spotted by Al Jolson in a play with Joan Blondell and cast in a movie Sinners’ Holiday. Cagney went to Hollywood for three weeks’ work, but ended with a legendary career that lasted over 31 years.
I’ve been reading his autobiography Cagney By Cagney (which I recommend) and in amongst his tales of career, family, early left wing politics—he was considered a communist because of his support of the unions, and was the target of a planned Mafia hit until actor and friend George Raft put a stop to it, though he switched allegiances to Reagan in the 1980s—his deep love of the country and concern for the environment and his fine talent for anecdote, Cagney revealed his liking for writing poetry. To be fair, some of it is okay—funny, amusing, enjoyable—but then there are those poems—like the one on the passing of friend Clark Gable—that maybe should have stayed in the bottom drawer:
The King, long bled, is newly dead.
Uneasily wore his crown, ‘tis said;
Quite naturally, since it was made of lead;
On those who gathered about his throne,
Y-clept Mayer, Mannix, Katz, and Cohn
He spat contempt in generous doses,
But whatever he gave, they made their own.
Unhappy man, he chose seclusion,
To the unremitting crass intrusion
Of John and Jane whose names meant dough
To Louie, Eddie, Sam, and Joe.
This is a small slap to the Hollywood producers “who controlled his destinies.” Cagney hated the exploitative nature of the Hollywood system.
Cagney began writing in his Broadway days in the 1920s—“a habit triggered by reading Stephen Vincent Benet’s magnificent John Brown’s Body.” He was also influenced by William Blake and Robert Burns, who gave “food for thought” for when he tired of Hollywood and Hugh Kingsmill’s Anthology of Invective and Abuse, which inspired his putdown of a Tinsel Town ass-kisser:
Where once were vertebrae is now a tangle,
From constant kissing at an awkward angle.
Throughout his autobiography, Cagney dipped into one of poems whenever he felt like it. Though he claimed few of his verses were ever written down, he had “quite a number stored in [his] memory.” These ranged from:
A pheasant called in a distant thicket,
And lovingly my old friend said,
“I hear you, I hear you.”
And he loved that bird, till he gunned him dead.
A lady spider met a fella
And made all haste to date him;
She loved him with a love sublime,
Up to and including—
The time, when in ecstasy,
She ate him.
Of course Cagney was just enjoying himself—relishing the pleasure of words. But his poetry often dealt with serious issues, like the poem he sent to the Irish Times under the pseudonym Harley Quinn on the damage industry was doing to the environment:
You want to see the Shannon like the Hudson
Or the Liffey just as filthy as the Seine?
Bring in the arrogant asses
And their garbage and their gasses—
The pollutants plunging poison down each drain:
Killing everything that’s living
For which nature’s unforgiving,
And the punishment will certainly fit the crime.
Where man, the creeping cancer,
Will have to make the final answer
As he smothers ‘neath his self-created slime.
These kind of poems are all well-meant, which is all fine and dandy, but there are those moments when I wished Mister Cagney had stuck to the prose and saved the doggerel for McGonagall.
Here’s but a brief selection of four poems to further whet your appetite….
Man comes and trees go,
The waters soon follow apace.
They make their way toward the mother sea
In broad fingers of liquid lace;
Carrying with them the willing land
For which they have much affinity.
Making up, as they do, with the good clean air,
God’s very own blessed trinity—
Air, Soil, and Water.
When one considers just what man is,
Happy it be that short his span is.
If God is the ideal quite unattainable
And Nature’s fierce logic is most unassailable;
If we observe with great care the human condition
As we hurry in haste down the road to perdition,
One phrase is large on mankind’s scroll:
All is ephemera—except soil and soul.
On Hollywood’s habit for imposing fake personalities on their stars:
She walks in a beauty so proudly paradable
It’s hard to believe that it’s biodegradable.
The function, soul, of genius,
Is to renovate the new,
And to open doors to vistas
Hitherto unseen or even partly known,
So that those who follow after
Can make some part, however small, their own.
In 1981, Cagney appeared with his long-time friend and associate Pat O’Brien on Michael Parkinson’s TV chat show. O’Brien gave a splendid and heartfelt tribute to his friend of over fifty years.
Bonus: In 1931, Cagney gave a rather good interview with Dorothy West for Intimate Interviews—kicks off about two minutes in.