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James Cagney and the portrayal of Irish Americans in US cinema

March 24, 2011

DR Jacqui Miller of Liverpool Hope University gave a brilliant paper today to the Irish Studies Research Group focusing on the portrayal of Irish Americans in two classic films of the 1930s – The Public Enemy (1931) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), both starring James Cagney.

She concentrated on the ethnic particularities of the Irish American identity and how they played out in a complex system of values and loyalties which underpin both movies, and how both movies are incredibly advanced in their critiques of their societies.

Cagney loomed large in her presentation, his Irish mother and Irish American Lower East Side father, gave him an air of authenticity other stars of his generation were either deprived of, or chose not to play on. His hot headed, red head fiery Irish temper and passions were seen contemporarily, not as the act of an ethnic minority, but as representative of the American majority sandwiched between the Wall Street Crash and WWII.

The ideology of the Warner Bros studio, which focused on gritty, realistic portrayals of American life in crisis and the forgotten man forced into lawlessness, said Dr Miller, suited Cagney’s on screen persona further. His characters in both movies, Tom Powers (in The Public Enemy), and Rocky Sullivan (in Angels With Dirty Faces), are men abandoned by the American Dream that they have been assimilated into. Set in the new American urban environment, these characters are those that exist on the fringes of society, moulded both by gang bosses and the complex familial loyalties of their identity.

In The Public Enemy, Powers, who has ready touchstones to the old world through his mother and older brother, becomes a bootlegger and gangster thanks to the society of the time. In an examination of the Irish American experience of early 20th century Chicago, he is representative of the American Dream corrupted. He is  a man who turns to crime to pay for suits, glamourous girlfriends and big cars. His love of the thug life even leads him to condemn his war hero brother returning from WWI saying ‘Don’t tell me you didn’t enjoy killing those Germans.’ He also coins the iconic ‘Stick ’em up’, a phrase that would make him legendary among young men across three generations.

Having been a killer in the picture, thanks to the film code, he has to die, and does.

In Angels With Dirty Faces, Cagney is a gangster just out of prison, who meets an old friend, Jerry, who has become a priest, and for whom he has taken a rap for many years before. As Fr Jerry sets about rehabilitating the youth gang in his area, he hits on using Cagney’s Rocky as a conduit for redemption (a good not embedded clip here). But, thanks to Rocky, who has become involved with Humphrey Bogart’s corrupt lawyer Frasier, Jerry, reveals bribery and civic corruption. Frasier wants Jerry killed and Cagney’s Rocky kills him and his henchman out of loyalty.

Again according to the code, he has to die. And die he does in one of the most powerful and beautifully lit sequences in all of cinema (top of page). The bullish, unafraid Rocky is led to his cell, full of bravado, only to plead for his life in the electric chair that kills him.

Dr Miller’s paper was rich with political context which revealed the motivations of both movies. The Warners, Democrats and contributors to Franklin D Roosevelt’s campaigns, made The Public Enemy at the end of a Republican administration, hence the bleak, post-crash feel to its nihilistic and doomed narrative. Angels, released in 1938 and midway into FDR’s second term, has a more redemptive tone, at least redemption is possible, even if Rocky refuses it.

Both films, said Dr Miller, are rooted in particular visions of the Irish American Catholic experience, where the old world and the new world often move in a fractious co-existence. Catholicism is seen as a redemptive force, particularly in the figure of Fr Jerry, whose socially crusading reformism clearly pre-figures Karl Malden’s Fr Barry in Elia Kazan’s  On the Waterfront (1954).

A tremendous paper from a brilliant, engaging and versatile scholar.

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