James Cagney: The Ultimate Bad-Ass

Today is James Cagney day on Turner Classic Movies and over at Sitting on a Backyard Fence, bloggers worldwide have rallied together to tip their hat to one of the biggest bad-asses ever to grace the screen.

I love bad-asses. No, not this newfangled generation’s overinflated sense of importance that has managed to give every Tom Dick or Harry the belief that, because of the number of Facebook friends they have or the number of people who follow them on Twitter that they are bad-asses.

No. You’re not. You know why?

James Cagney: The Ultimate Bad-Ass

Because THIS guy could knock the stuffing out of your designer-label-wearing LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME I’M SUCH A BAD ASS narcissistic kisser.

In my humble opinon, James Cagney is the ultimate bad-ass. And not for any one specific reason. Yes, his onscreen persona is often tough-as-nails. But, it’s also charming. Even when he’s the most sociopathic lunatic you’ve ever laid your eyes on… there’s still something undeniably likeable about him. He smashes grapefruits into women’s faces. And he’ll kill a man for his mama. On screen, Cagney is, indeed, capable of ANYTHING.His dangerous charm is part of what make Cagney’s best villains so deeply villainous, and what made him perfectly adept at playing lighter, romantic roles. While people might generally only think of Cagney as a “you dirty rat” mobster (a line that he actually never uttered onscreen), his range is terrific. You’ve got Angels With Dirty Faces, a film ending with one of the most unforgettably harrowing images ever filmed—Cagney’s demented, I’m-going-to-hell-and-I’m-proud-of-it close-up; a wholesome musical like Yankee Doodle Dandy with some of the best fancy footwork you’ll ever see; a charming romantic comedy like The Strawberry Blonde; a political comedy like One, Two, Three, with Cagney in a comic tour-de-force; and a sexy pre-code like Blonde Crazy.

Blonde Crazy isn’t one of Cagney’s best known films, and it isn’t one of his best (it’s no White Heat, let’s just say that), but it’s one of my favorites because Cagney is a sparkling firecracker in this fast, fun, frivolous precode. Cagney is young—terrifically young—as this is one of his first leading roles, coming hot on the heels of his star-making turn in The Public Enemy, and he is nothing but a ball of hotheaded charisma and, with the equally as hotheaded Blondell at his side, makes for a presence that is quintessential Cagney: rough, tough, yet somehow tender.

Being a bad-ass, you see, is not synonymous with being an ass-hole. Big difference. One that, for me, is wonderfully illustrated in the much overlooked Blonde Crazy. Directed by Roy Del Ruth, a director whose roster includes some of the very best precodes, Blonde Crazy is a rather average melodrama about a conman (Cagney) his partner in crime (Blondell) and their on-again-off-again love affair. After hooking up at a hotel (legitimately: they were coworkers) Cagney coerces Blondell to go into business with him on the small con. Cagney’s a know-it-all wiseguy who thinks he can take the world with his brains… and Blondell’s legs. He’s right, too. They run a successful racket with Blondell as the Venus Fly Trap and Cagney the guy pulling the strings. Until, of course, inevitably, Cagney gets pulled in by another con artist. You know what happens: he loses a load of lettuce and does anything to win it back. Including exacting revenge of the guy who suckered him.

The plot is light, the dialogue even lighter, but what makes this film sparkle is the pure starpower of Cagney and Blondell. Little touches, like Cagney’s adorable habit of calling Blondell “honey”, or as he pronounces it, “huuuuuuun-eeee”, playing around with Blondell’s undergarments, or my favorite: the beaming delight on Cagney’s face when Blondell, also beaming, smacks his face. Flirting doesn’t get much sexier than that.

And that goes for Cagney too.

Super sexy pre-code duo of James Cagney and Joan Blondell in Roy Del Ruth’s Blonde Crazy (1931)

Joan Blondell shows Cagney what she thinks of him with a playful slap to the face.

Cagney plays around in Joan Blondell’s boudoir

Cagney notices a noticeable posterior…

Sexy Joan Blondell


A white-hot young Cagney

Blonde Crazy shuts with Cagney’s unforgettably cheeky line “If I had the wings of an angel, honnnney: over these prison walls I would flyyyyyy.”

Pre-Code Gams and Dams(els).

Marlene Dietrich... they're alllll Dietrich.



A whole lotta tomato.

Pick your hyperbole, the fact is that 1930s cinema were full of that most suggestive of appendages in a way never quite paralleled since.

Sure, they’re still everywhere because they’re still sexy. They’ve always been sexy– ever since skirts first hiked heavenward in the late 20s straight through to today. But never quite this sexy. Perhaps for the fact that the definition of “sexy” is dependent upon the word “suggestive.” Today, sex on film is hardly suggestive. It is blatant, forthright, overpowering, and leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination.

These shots? They leave everything to the imagination.

Wherein the real power lies…

This post is not meant to spark any sort of debate on feminism v. femininity v. sexism … although I’m always game for it.

And since the fundamental core of feminism is the freedom of female CHOICE, I choose to see the following images, not as sexual exploitation, but rather as strong, working women, embracing their newly won sexuality.

And, largely unknown to them, so deeply changing the game in the process.

Chorus girl gams in 42nd STREET

Thelma Todd

Clara Bow, cinema's original IT girl, in 1927.

Joan Blondell

Carole Lombard

Our Dancing Daughters-- Joan Crawford and Anita Page

Eleanor Powell, 1935

Ruby Keeler

Ginger sur la plage.

Joan- Oh Joan - Blondell

Sexy Harlow

Anita Page... in charge, no holds bars.

Myrna Loy

Barbara Stanwyck in LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT, 1933

Toby Wing

Bette Davis, Santa Monica CA

Busby Berkeley's DAMES

From the Vaults: Footlight Parade

This poster of the 1933 musical Footlight Parade is definitive sexy pre-code ‘tude.

If you’ve not had the pleasure of viewing Lloyd Bacon’s  film, it is ceratinly one that belongs in your Netflix queue. Its admittedly throwaway backstage plot is more than compensated by all manner of early 30s cellophane fancies, namely, a scorchingly hot Joan Blondell, a never-been-better Ruby Keeler and Cagney–oh, Cagney–proving once and for all that a tough little cuss can strut a softshoe and still be a hell of a he-man.

And then, of course, there’s the matter of the music. Harry Warren and Al Dubin bringing to the screen the delicious subtle salaciousness that can only come from pre-code cinema.

Shanghai Lil, anyone?

Footlight Parade, 1933. Directed by Lloyd Bacon.

Footlight Parade, 1933. Directed by Lloyd Bacon.

Don’t you just adore the early 30s deco geometry?