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Faraway Fella

CAGNEY A Biography By John McCabe Alfred A. Knopf: 439 pp., $27.50

January 04, 1998|DAVID THOMSON | David Thomson is the author of "Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts."

In a cheerful and encouraging way, Alfred A. Knopf speaks of this biography as "long overdue." But John McCabe is a little more cautionary in his introduction. Nearly 25 years ago, after all, another publisher, Doubleday, asked McCabe to ghostwrite the memoirs of James Cagney. That deal was made; the actor and the author got along well, and "Cagney by Cagney" was published in 1976. It got a friendly reception, for Cagney in his last decades was much loved and respected. But no one had any reason to regard it as the white heat of unexpected revelation. As McCabe admits, Doubleday prodded Cagney for more stories, more material, more heat. The tough guy gently resisted.

"The reticence about his professional life," writes McCabe, "flowed directly from his deeply quiet nature, his loner instincts, and his honest belief that there was not a lot to say about what was to him 'just a job.' It was a phrase he used--indeed, overused--constantly. But he meant it. His personal life was so joyous--he had married his dream girl at 23, thereby earning long, uneventful decades of happiness--that he could not understand why anyone would really be interested in 'just' that."

"Long, Uneventful Decades of Happiness" remains available as a title for anyone's biography--yours perhaps, you lucky soul?--and we may count on it going begging. But McCabe was persuaded to give Cagney another go. Not that this biography reveals astonishing geysers of steaminess that discretion or reticence smothered in 1976. McCabe is essentially faithful to the ghost he was 20 years ago; he shows us an eminently quiet, naturally patient, decent man, a devoted husband, a guy who liked to live on his farm, do a little poetry or painting and who had amiably given up trying to convince the world that he didn't spend sleepless nights waiting on breakfast so he could squeeze a grapefruit on some slut's face.

But where does that leave us, the people who never knew the real "Jim" Cagney--the "faraway fella," as his pal, actor Pat O'Brien, called him? We have the uncomplicated needs of audiences and star-struck fantasists. Don't befuddle us with dull facts; don't preach the bliss of long, uneventful decades. We know Cagney as that sublime imp of the 1930s, the little guy with explosive fists and sudden marauding impulses. We see those beady eyes daring himself into outrage. We see him dance and die, strut and talk. We hear his voice in our heads, the lovely teasing staccato, and that sneer that was enough to peel your chops off. We know what fatalistic cockiness is and was because of Cagney. As for uneventfulness, we recall how the guy made four, five and even six flicks a year at Warner: 70- and 80-minute gems of urban violence, witty insolence and the unashamed merriment of a hood so dainty he was poetic and leprechaun-like. Cagney was boxer, dancer, comic, Mr. Punch, the spirit of the streets and an actor so good that he could leave the young Elia Kazan (they acted together in "City for Conquest" in 1941) wondering whether his theories on acting were worth 10 cents next to these lethal instincts.

Orson Welles called Cagney the No. 1 screen filler in history: "He was one of the biggest actors in the whole history of the screen." And so we treasure a string of "small" pictures, throwaway genre pieces that ring with the vitality of this man: "Jimmy the Gent," "Lady Killer," "Picture Snatcher," "Hard to Handle," "Taxi," "Blonde Crazy," "The Public Enemy" and so on, all the way to "Angels With Dirty Faces," in which he does a flamboyant stricken-coward act on his way to his execution to deter the Dead End Kids from a life of crime; "The Roaring Twenties"; and then, a war and a lifetime later, the magnificent, piercing, unaccountable "White Heat," in which nothing less than evil is somehow moderated by Cody Jarrett's woeful reliance on his stone-faced Ma. That's Cagney! Or it is if you throw in "Yankee Doodle Dandy," the strange life story of showman George M. Cohan, the film for which Cagney won his Oscar and created a man who moved (or danced) and thought like an unstoppable patriotic machine.

Cagney didn't much like Cody Jarrett or "White Heat," or so he said afterward. He didn't want to play only guys like Cody. He had a soft spot for quieter films, in which he played ordinary losers--and some of those are well worth pursuing, notably "The Strawberry Blonde," "The Time of Your Life" (the adaptation of William Saroyan's novel made by Cagney's production company) and even "Man of a Thousand Faces," in which he seemed in love with the humility and the suffering of silent actor Lon Chaney. We finish McCabe's book quite sure about Cagney the private man: considerate to his wife, moved by animals, urged to write banal poetry. So be it. That actual man is not just faraway--he's gone. The tight-lipped smile of the 1930s haunts us still, just as the perpetually cocked state of that hard, balletic body is something we long to see.

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