John McCabe Cagney

ISBN 13: 9780679446071

Cagney

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John McCabe's participation in the writing of James Cagney's autobiography, the many years of friendship that followed, and an intense period of interview and discussion in preparation for a musical comedy based on Cagney's life--a show that never saw the light of day--make him Cagney's ideal biographer. And, indeed, he has written a searching chronicle of this major actor's life and career, packed with history and anecdote, and profusely illustrated.

Cagney came from a poor Irish-American New York family but once he found his métier as an actor, it was not long before he was recognized as a brilliantly energetic and powerful phenomenon. After the tremendous impact of Public Enemy--in which he notoriously pushed half a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face--he was typecast as a gangster because of the terrifying violence that seemed to be pent up within him. Years of pitched battle with Warner Brothers finally liberated him from those roles, and he went on to star in such triumphs as the musicals Yankee Doodle Dandy (winning the 1942 Oscar for best actor) and Love Me or Leave Me. Even so, one of his greatest later roles involved a return to crime--as the psychopathic killer in the terrifying White Heat. He retired from films in 1961 after making Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three, only to return twenty years later for Ragtime.

But however much Cagney personified violence and  explosive energy on the screen, in life he was a quiet, introspective, and deeply private man, a poet, painter, and environmentalist, whose marriage to his early vaudeville partner was famously loyal and happy. His story is one of the few Hollywood biographies that reflect a fulfilled life as well as a spectacular career.

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Review:

If you're looking for an impersonal, gossipy, take-no-prisoners account of James Cagney's life, this is not the book for you. Author John McCabe is in love with his subject. After ghost-writing Cagney's autobiography in the 1970s, the two remained close until Cagney's death in 1986. But his bias toward the actor, whom McCabe describes as "a great artist and an even greater man," has opened many doors. In particular, it has allowed McCabe to collect an immense repository of quotations and testimonials from Cagney's friends and from the actor himself. Dipping frequently into his archive, McCabe has fashioned a book that makes for a thrilling, revelatory read. Many readers find the section devoted to the actor's impoverished childhood the most riveting, but I was just as captivated by the account of his professional career. McCabe recounts Cagney's many successes at Warner Brothers studios, his Oscar for Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1943, his tussle with the beloved S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall during the shooting of that film, his command of the Yiddish language (picked up on the streets of New York and a great help to him when negotiating with Jack Warner), his escape (just barely) from the seductions of gorgeous actress Merle Oberon, his decision to retire while still at the peak of his power, and many other wonderful stories and anecdotes. I love the section, late in the book, where the author and Cagney meet, and biography suddenly becomes autobiography. --Raphael Shargel

From the Back Cover:

Cagney came from a poor Irish-American New York family but once he found his metier as an actor, it was not long before he was recognized as a brilliantly energetic and powerful phenomenon. After the tremendous impact of Public Enemy - in which he notoriously pushed half a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face - he was typecast as a gangster because of the terrifying violence that seemed to be pent up within him. Years of pitched battle with Warner Brothers finally liberated him from those roles, and he went on to star in such triumphs as the musicals Yankee Doodle Dandy (winning the 1942 Oscar for best actor) and Love Me or Leave Me. Even so, one of his greatest later roles involved a return to crime - as the psychopathic killer in the terrifying White Heat. He retired from films in 1961 after making Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three, only to return twenty years later for Ragtime. But however much Cagney personified violence and explosive energy on the screen, in life he was a quiet, introspective, and deeply private man, a poet, painter, and environmentalist, whose marriage to his early vaudeville partner was famously loyal and happy. His story is one of the few Hollywood biographies that reflect a fulfilled life as well as a spectacular career.

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