“The Roaring Twenties” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, July 26, 2014 in the Durwood Film Vault of the Kansas City Central Library, 14W. 10th St. Admission is free. It’s part of the year-long film series Hollywood’s Greatest Year, featuring movies released in 1939.
From the moment in 1931’s “The Public Enemy” when he squished half a grapefruit into the face of his nagging girlfriend (Mae Clarke), James Cagney was a movie star.
And not just any star, but a tough-guy star — an unapologetic, hard-nosed thug.
Over the next decade, Cagney often portrayed cocky gangsters who relished their power and outlaw status. Audiences loved him for it.
As critic Leonard Kirstein wrote of Cagney: “No one expresses more clearly in terms of pictorial action the delights of violence, the overtones of semiconscious sadism, the tendency toward destruction, toward anarchy, which is the base of American sex appeal.”
As the ‘30s were drawing to a close, Cagney was preparing to shut the door on that phase of his career. His resume during that decade was packed with films — “Smart Money,” “Blonde Crazy,” “The Mayor of Hell,” “Frisco Kid,” “Hard to Handle,” “He Was Her Man,” “Angels with Dirty Faces”– in which he had played con artists, professional gamblers, vice kingpins, and no-nonsense gangsters.
Of course he also played a boxer, a race car driver, a federal agent and, in Max Reinhardt’s all-star version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Bottom the ass-headed weaver. Cagney was smart enough to see that as he aged he’d have to develop other talents and film personas – he couldn’t go forever shooting his way through life.
But now he was putting a cap on his career as a tough guy with 1939’s “The Roaring Twenties,” a film that allowed him to play both a good guy and a bad guy.