Tuesday, October 21, 2008

James Cagney's gangsters

Tonight on TCM, there's a tribute to the great gangster movies of the 1930s and 1940s. They're starting out with a new documentary on the subject, airing at 8:00 PM ET. Later in the evening, we get to compare James Cagney in some of his great gangster roles:

One of the earliest is in The Public Enemy at 9:45 PM. A young Cagney becomes a star, as he plays Tom Powers, a hoodlum who rapidly makes his way up the crime ladder through his willingness to resort to violence. This is, of course, the movie with the iconic image of Cagney squashing a grapefruit in his girlfriend's face. (The girlfriend was played by Mae Clarke, and not Jean Harlow as some sources erroneously claim. Harlow does have a small role in the movie, however.)

One of his last gangsters was as Cody Jarrett in White Heat which TCM is playing at 4:00 AM ET overnight. Cody isn't just violent, he's practically psychotic as he gives a guy air -- by shooting him up in the trunk of the car! White Heat also has a very memorable scene, near the end when Jarrett has cornered himself up a holding tank at a gasworks, he says, "Made it Ma! Top of the world!"

A Cagney role which isn't airing tonight is in Angels With Dirty Faces. Here, Cagney plays a gangster who is seen as a hero by the Dead End Kids, much to the consternation of priest Pat O'Brien. What's particularly fun is one scene in which Cagney is teaching the Dead End Kids how not to commit fouls while playing -- by getting even rougher with them than they were getting with Father Pat! I've already mentioned this scene once before, along with an interesting anecdote about what happened off-camera.

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