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CRITIC'S NOTES

Lessons From A Man Named Jimmy

April 06, 1986|SHEILA BENSON

I had wanted to write a few thoughts about Jimmy Cagney, who was as near to a godfatherly figure as I had, growing up. But it's been hard to pull apart the skeins of two lives, drawing to a close at the same time, Jimmy's and my mother's.

In the '20s, they were all friends in New York together: Jimmy, his dancer-wife, Bill (christened Willard), Dwight Franklin and Mary McCall, my artist-father and writer-mother, and all struggling at the same time. Jimmy, the ex-vaudevillian who was a chorus boy, then an actor on Broadway, never had less than two jobs at a time. On the road as a dancer he earned a hair more by "checking" the baggage, physically tagging and hauling the cast's trunks around in the baggage car.

(Once, when I was doing a school paper on theatrical superstitions, I was trying to discover why "turkey topped" trunks, big rounded-topped monstrosities, were considered unlucky. "You'd know why if you ever tried to stack 'em," Jimmy said firmly.)

Then their lives changed abruptly in the '30s. These four, three New Yorkers and Iowa-born Bill, found themselves in Hollywood, their lives crisscrossing even more. By the time my mother (and Charles Kenyon) adapted "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in which Jimmy played Bottom, it was his 23rd movie. Delivering the script was something of an achievement for my mother, too, who 2 1/2 weeks later delivered 15 pounds of twin sons.

(Cagney's fine, droll performance, infused with his dancer's spirit, and, in fact, all the rustics--Joe E. Brown, Frank McHugh, Hugh Herbert--delighted my mother. But, she sighed, if Max Reinhardt or William Dieterle mentioned to the writers one more time that to truly appreciate Shakespeare, one had to read him in German , they would have her to contend with. She had read to us from the plays; the wall at home was decorated with Shakespeare's tombstone rubbing which ends, ". . . Blest be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones." That made somber pondering for young children, I can tell you.)

Oh God, they were Irish, the McCalls and the Cagneys, from big, sturdy, close-knit families and, part of a loose-jointed collection in and around Hollywood--Jimmy and Lucille Gleason, the great Abbey player Joe Kerrigan, billed always as J. M. Kerrigan, Ed McNamara, of course the Pat O'Briens--who knew something about the history and a lot about the songs of Ireland, and loved to swap the lore.

McNamara, invariably cast as a New York cop and dead far too early, had the loveliest singing voice of them all; he could bring a room to tears with a song like "The Croppy Boy." Or, on a scratchy phonograph record, they listened to the likes of Jimmy O'Dea and Harry O'Donovan doing a vaudeville dialect routine, "Crossing the Border," with both the Dublin and the Belfast dialects. My mother, Irish on both sides, who had spent a post-graduate year at Trinity College, Dublin, had mastered (as well she might) a decent brogue, a store of lovely stories and a phrase that amused her, "A speedy recovery, or the grace of a happy death."

What did you learn from a crowd like that? Well, from Jimmy, I learned my first smatterings of Yiddish. That carefully drawn-out story about the little boy who was so afraid of kreplach ? It came with Cagney's impeccable Yiddish accent, something he was always proud of. If you managed to stay out of the penitentiary, growing up in Hell's Kitchen could be useful to an actor in a lot of ways.

If you were around my mother much at all, you learned that there was one, immutable sin--the worst thing one could call a person: a plagiarist. So, if you came home with a halfway decent joke from the playground, you preceded it by the name of the person you'd heard it from. It tended to make stories lumber a bit before they took off, but it was proper.

One trait ran like a common vein through both of them: honesty. It illuminates every piece of Jimmy's work, and it came home to me startlingly one night.

Children were noticeably absent from the grown-up's dinner table in that era, so I must have been about 10 and theoretically trusted to keep quiet as much as possible to have been allowed there at all. And the Cagneys were Jimmy and Bill and family friends, but at the same time, from a schoolchild's point of view there was no doubt that he was a big something on the outside world. During the dinner-time conversation, one of the other guests used an esoteric word.

Cagney's soft voice cut across the table, interested. "Sorry, baby, but I don't know what that means." No big moment, except to the listening kid. If Jimmy Cagney could admit that, nicely and without embarrassment, then anyone could.

You don't always know where you picked up the markers of your life. I know that from my mother, I learned the cadences of Shakespeare and E. B. White. And that you must always do the very best work you can, no matter where you are. From Jimmy, I learned several things: that the time-step was irrevocably beyond me, that Joseph Wood Krutch was a writer worth looking into, and that it's no disgrace to say, "I don't know what that means."

So to one dear Irish heart, "A speedy recovery, or the grace of a happy death." And to the other, his beloved Shakespeare never seemed more appropriate:

"And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."

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