Picks and Pans Review: Cagney
Unlike many stars of his vintage, James Cagney (1899-1986) endures in the public consciousness for his incandescent work in more than 60 films, among them The Public Enemy (1931)—yes, that's the one where he squashed a grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face—and Yankee Doodle Dandy, for which he won the 1942 Academy Award as Best Actor.
Author John McCabe tracks the amiable Cagney from his Irish roots in New York City through his vaudeville days and on to Hollywood, with an analysis of each film and engaging accounts of high jinks with the Irish actors—like Pat O'Brien and Spencer Tracy—who became his best friends. But the lack of analysis about Cag-ney's personal life detracts from this biography. Much is made of Cagney's love for his wife, Willie, but halfway through the book we are told, in only 14 lines, that after years of hoping for children Cagney learned that he was infertile, Willie arranged the adoption of two children, and that, "in view of Jim's need to study his roles," the couple had another, smaller house built on their Coldwater Canyon property, where the children lived. Subsequent scattered references to the kids suggest, not surprisingly, a painful estrangement from their parents.
McCabe ghostwrote James Cagney's 1976 autobiography and became his friend. Cagney's lack of intimate detail suggests discretion, but it lessens the impact of an otherwise admirable book. (Knopf, $29.95)