James Cagney: The Authorized Biography

First up for my Summer Reading Challenge is James Cagney: The Authorized Biography by Doug Warren with James Cagney. I bought this book over a year ago at my favorite bookshop, but I didn’t get around to starting it until recently. It was published in 1983, just a few years before Cagney’s passing. The narrative is told through a third-person perspective, with integrated first-person anecdotes from Cagney himself—along with various others. The reader gets a sense of Cagney throughout the narrative, learning more about him as well as the people he interacted with. The book is divided into six parts (with an added filmography), and includes two sets of glossy pages dedicated to personal photographs that span Cagney’s lifetime.

Part 1: The Kid from Yorkville

Here we get a glimpse of Jimmy Cagney’s early life and childhood in New York City. Family members are introduced and fleshed out, and so is Jimmy’s love for the countryside. Throughout his youth, Cagney was involved in athletics (such as baseball and boxing), agriculture, art school, and even became a WWI recruit. When his older brother Harry took up acting, Jimmy was only interested in painting the scenery and posters.

Part 2: From Street Fights to Footlights

This part tells the story of how Jimmy met Billie Vernon (also known as Willie) through show business, and eventually married her. Throughout the 1920s, Jimmy and Billie went through a lot of difficulties looking for work and obtaining roles. They traveled from Los Angeles to Chicago before ending up back in New York City. However, things started looking up when Jimmy was cast with Joan Blondell in the Broadway play Penny Arcade. The duo would then go on to work under Warner Brothers in the 1930s.

Part 3: Hollywood’s “Professional Againster”

Cagney’s first film was Sinners’ Holiday (1930), which is based on Penny Arcade. Both he and Blondell played their original roles. This section focuses more on the strenuous studio life that Cagney—and many others—experienced: nonstop filming and constantly being on set. Once Cagney (by happenstance) ended up starring in The Public Enemy (1931), he achieved his breakthrough. However, Cagney continued to face frustrations with Warner Brothers, especially after seeing no increase in his salary despite his rising popularity. Thus, a battle with the studio heads began, and he packed his bags for New York City. Warren goes into more detail on each of the films Cagney starred in (playing a variety of roles), along with the grueling 100+ hours Cagney went through each week in order to complete four (sometimes five) films a year.

Part 4: The Dance to an Oscar

Warren gives a few glimpses into what other actors were doing at the time. The 1930s also saw the rise of musicals, with Cagney winning Best Actor for Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). In this section, I was alarmed to read that live ammunition had been used while filming some of his well-known gangster flicks. Their use was eventually called off due to a close call. Warren also touches upon Cagney’s continued support and involvement in the formation of the Screen Actors Guild.

Part 5: “Made It, Ma! Top of the World!”

In the early 1940s, Cagney became the president of SAG, and also founded his own independent production company through United Artists, featuring the help of his siblings. He had his first and last directorial debut, and essentially saw the end of his film career with Billy Wilder’s One, Two Three (1961).

Conclusion: In and Out of Retirement

During the 1970s, Cagney received the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award. It was also around this time that his health started to decline, but his physician urged him to continue working in order to distract himself from it. As I reached the end of this book, I reflected on a few things: I especially loved reading about the modesty and humbleness Cagney emitted throughout his life, which made me appreciate him more as a person. I also enjoyed flipping through the photography section, as there were many images I hadn’t seen before. Lastly, I am completely aware that biographies often hold inaccuracies, so I’m not sure how this one fares in comparison to the other books. Otherwise, it seemed like a decent platform in helping me learn more about Cagney’s life beyond the screen.

Before I conclude this post, I must share some of my favorite parts. The first one is a quote from when Blondell was teaching Cagney how to drive, and I can just hear everything in his voice. This is also one of the few instances where I have laughed out loud while reading:

“She told me to drive, and I did,” says Jimmy. “I went around a corner going about forty-five or fifty, and Joan said, ‘OHHHHHH.’ The car damn near turned over. I didn’t know I was supposed to take my foot off the gas when you turned a corner. That gives you some idea of what a great driver I was. She said, ‘Slow down, Cagney.’ When I found the brake, I did.” (63)

Another favorite quote features Billie (on page 93), which simply resonates with me because I pretty much do the exact same thing at parties and large social gatherings.

The last one concerns Jimmy as an octogenarian, during a time when he was usually taken for drives around his countryside home. He was always waving at people out the window, and “he even waved to the grazing cows” (207). I mean, how precious is that? I only wish there was footage.

9 thoughts on “James Cagney: The Authorized Biography

    • There were quite a few books on him when I went, so I wasn’t too sure what to pick at first. I’ve heard of the McCabe book recently, and will definitely check that out now. Thank you!


  1. I have to admit, I haven’t been a fan of Cagney’s films. But I dig biographies, and this one sounds very interesting, as does Cagney the person. I’d like to learn more about what led to his move from painting scenery to acting and also about his modesty and humility.
    I’m ashamed to say that once in my Drivers Education class I made the same driving mistake as Cagney. And, although my driving instructor’s reaction started out the same as Blondell’s, it quickly turned into his yelling at me a lot! And he didn’t trust me the rest of that semester … I’m surprised he let me pass the class :)
    Anyway, great review. I look forward to hearing about your next book!


    • Thanks so much! It seemed to scratch the surface just enough to make me want to continue reading up on his life. He truly was a fascinating fellow.

      No shame there! I’m positive I did the same thing when I first started learning :)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Nicole,

    Greetings from the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society! This is a fine article. I’ve read little bits and pieces about James Cagney’s life online, but it must be fascinating to read a whole biography of it. This sounds like a swell book!

    I, Rebekah Brannan, have not participated much in the blog world in the past, but I intend to become more involved now.

    I would like very much for you to participate in my upcoming blogathon, The Singing Sweethearts Blogathon, which will be my first real participation in PEPS. This blogathon, which will be hosted around Valentine’s Day, is celebrating the famous singing team Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.

    You can read the rules of the blogathon at: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2017/12/20/ring-the-assembly-bell-here-comes-the-singing-sweethearts-blogathon/. If you want to join, please comment and tell me your topic, if you have chosen one. I hope you’ll join me in honoring this brilliant team and the holiday of love!


    Rebekah Brannan


    • Hi Rebekah, thanks for stopping by! I do recommend picking up some kind of biography on him, it’s surely to whet your appetite for more!

      Thank you for inviting me to your blogathon. As of now, I’m making a slow return to blogging after a long (yet unintentional) hiatus. Not too sure I’ll have the time to write a post between now and then, but hopefully I can join in on the next one!


      • Dear Nicole,

        I hope that my last comment didn’t sound as if I were trying to put pressure on you to write an article for the blogathon. I think I misread your comment, so I didn’t quite understand what you meant. If you’re not able to participate, I completely understand, and I hope you’ll be able to join us next time!

        By the way, I read your article about the “Casablanca” restaurant, and I went there with my family last night. It was a wonderful experience, and I really enjoyed it! Thanks for the recommendation. Your article really made the cozy restaurant sound like a fun place to go, and I’m sure that even a magazine about restaurants in the LA area would deem it good enough to publish!

        Thanks again!


        Rebekah Brannan


        • Not to worry, it didn’t sound like that at all. Thanks for understanding, and I look forward to next time!

          What a delight to hear that my article prompted you into visiting the restaurant! I’m glad you enjoyed it there, and thank you so much for your lovely words.

          Liked by 1 person

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