I can't help it - I'm a Warner Brothers girl. So many of my favorite actors were either mainstays of or at least passed through that ultra-efficient factory of movie studios: Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield, Bette Davis, Joan Blondell, Ann Sheridan, Ann Dvorak, Kay Francis, Warren William, Olivia De Havilland, Errol Flynn and even Marilyn Miller, just to name a few. But my number 1 Warner's Guy is James Cagney.
Was there ever an actor with more charisma and star power than Jimmy at the height of his powers? I can't think of one (not even my beloved Cary Grant). Humphrey Bogart, before attaining mega-star status, served a long internship at Warner Brothers. As he inched towards stardom, he was cast three times as Cagney's antagonist in three terrific films. My immediate reaction when seeing them together? "PLEASE Jimmy - kick Bogey's butt now!" When paired together on the screen, Bogart, by nature of the roles he played, is seen to a disadvantage. He speaks slower and moves slower. Cagney is all speed and energy, Bogart seems turgid. Bogey is humorless, Jimmy is funny. Bogey never played a likable guy in these films. It's one thing to be bad, but unlikable is tough to take. This probably has a lot to do with why I still struggle to like Bogart. I admire him, I respect him, I appreciate him, but I just don't really like him. These early pictures formed a lasting impression that even "The Maltese Falcon" and "The African Queen" can't erase. I know, I know, but please don't try to convince me - it must be organic or hereditary or biological or something like that.
Angels With Dirty Faces
So, how does anyone compete with Cagney as Rocky Sullivan? In one of his greatest roles, Jimmy overpowers good priest Pat O'Brien (who is a pious bore) and bad boy Bogart. As crooked lawyer Frazier, Bogey is a shifty, snarling snake. He did Rocky (and Father Jerry) wrong and, even though Rocky paid the price, Bogey got his butt kicked real good. I was so happy when Jimmy plugged him.
The Roaring Twenties
Poor Eddie Bartlett, he's just a confused war vet who gets lured into bootlegging and falls for the wrong girl. But he's fundamentally decent and when fundamentally corrupt Bogey puts the hit on their good-guy friend, Eddie sacrifices his life (but not before, once again, kicking Bogey's butt). Cagney's death scene is a heart-breaker, but I was glad he got to turn the tables on Bogey before buying the farm at the church.
The Oklahoma Kid
Oy! If two New York City dudes ever looked out of place, it's Cagney and Bogey out west. But Jimmy, as Jim Kincaid, The Oklahoma Kid, gets to whup Bogey (as Whip McCord) one last time. It's all kind of campy fun, with Jimmy in white and Bogey in black. So there, Whip, take that from the man in the white hat (that's a mite too big for him)!!!
Well, it was only a matter of time before Cagney didn't have Humphrey Bogart to kick around any more and things were never quite the same. Bogart went on to a different kind of career and attained a noirish status with complex characterizations that a straight forward guy like Cagney would probably find irksome. But, if Bogey wasn't such a damn good actor, it all would not have been half as fun.
It's hard to give a presence like Jimmy Cagney a run for his money but Bogey, just warming up in the bullpen, was throwing pretty good stuff himself and soon he wouldn't be playing second fiddle to anyone. Still, Jimmy has my heart and every time I see Bogey I hope Cagney is somewhere waiting in the weeds, poised to magically appear and, if not kick Bogey's butt, at least muss up his lapels.
And how about you? Are you on Team Cagney or Bogart?