Movie Stars: Cagney, James–Auteur of his Image

In addition to a detailed study of directors, the perspective of auteurism has also led to a series of studies of actors-stars as auteurs, namely, performers, such as John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, who had an unusual control over their careers and a strong say over the development and shape of their screen images.

The scholar Richard Dye, one of the few to have studied stradom systematically,  has proposed a classification of movie stars along the following dimensions:

1. Actors who totally controlled their screen images, such as Fred Astaire or Joan Crawford.

2. Actors who contributed actively to their screen persona, such as Marlene Dietrich and Robert Mitchum.

3. Actors who were just one disparate voice among other forces (such as the studios for which they work)  in their image construction, such as Marilyn Monroe.

4. Actors who were totally the product of the studio machine, such as Robert Taylor and Lana Turner, both products of MGM.

The extent of power movie stars possess and how they execrise their power can be determined by deconstructing them as auteurs of their films.  Some stars scripted or directed themselves in films, like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Mae West, Jerry Lewis, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood. However, stars serving as just one force in their film has been more common, since that voice is not limited to matters of performance and costume but may also affect other aspects of filmmaking.

James Cagey

In his book, “James Cagney, The Actor as Auteur,” Patrick McGilligan wishes to demonstrate that Cagney was the genuine author of his films.  According to McGilligan, under certain circumstances, an actor may influence a film as much as a writer, director, or producer.

Some actors are more influential than others, and there are few performers whose acting capabilities and screen personas are so powerful that they embody and define the very essence of their films. If actors are responsible only for acting, but are not involved in other artistic decisions, then they are more of passive icons, manipulated by writers and directors. But actors who influence artistic decisions (casting, writing, directing) and demand certain limitations on the basis of their screen personas may be regarded as “auteurs.” When actors become so important to a production as to change lines, shift meaning, influence the narrative, and signify something clear-cut to audiences, despite the intent of writers and directors, then their acting assumes the force and integrity of an auteur.

For McGilligan, Cagney’s films directed by Lloyd Bacon, William Keighley, Roy Del Ruth  (all Warner contract directors) are all similar to each other, and more like Cagney’s other films, than films by those directors that feature  different stars.

However, McGilligan doesn’t provide the specific aspects of Cagney’s individualized, multi-facted performances, specific screen characters, particular narrative structures of his films, and his statements are vague.  For starters, Cagney excelled in two vastly different movie genres: crime-gangster, with which he is most intimately associated, and musicals (especially during the 1930s and early 1940s).

In other words, McGilligan’s statements are too general and too vague to qualify as theory or empirical evidence. Moreover, he tends to single out only one major quality/or attribute of these directors’  films, such as “spontaneity” (a characteristic of Bacon), “a polished emphasis on action and dialogue” (Keighley), and “urbanity” (Del Ruth).

Cagney’s Image in War Movie

Cagney’s image is most intimately connected with the crime-gangster film, but he also appeared in a number of war films, which were completely divergent from Wayne’s.  In a typical Cagney war picture, he is cast as the rebellious or selfish recruit who learns the hard way the importance of military order and discipline, often from Pat O’Brien, his frequent co-star.

For example, in Here Comes the Navy (1934), Cagney plays a hot-tempered, undisciplined soldier, whose selfish individualism upsets the Navy tradition and alientaes his fellowmen.  But at the end, after a court martial, he redeems himself with an heroic rescue, and his reputation is restored.  In another picture, Ceiling Zero (l935), Cagney, a devil-may care pilot who enjoys his escapades, irresponsibly causes the death of a fellow pilot.  Flamboyant and loose-fibered, his major “hobby” is women.  But during the course of the story, he reforms and, regretting his behavior, volunteers to test a newly invented de-icer, an action which costs him his life.