"James Cagney: Top of the World" is a documentary about the versatile star who could punch you out and then, if necessary, dance over your grave. He is remembered today primarily as a tough guy, but he did many musicals, including "Yankee Doodle Dandy," for which he won an Oscar, and "Footlight Parade." Hosted by Michael J. Fox, the documentary includes interviews with friends and coworkers: Jack Lemmon, Mae Clarke, Pat O'Brien, A.C. Lyles, Cagney's daughter, and others. Clips are shown from many of his films: "Public Enemy," "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "White Heat," "A Midsummer's Night Dream," etc., and chronicles the volatile relationship Cagney had with Jack Warner. It also covers Cagney's real love: his farm in Martha's Vineyard, his painting, and his love of horses, all of which he was afforded the opportunity to have and do thanks to the movies.
Author Harold J. Kennedy tells a story in "No Pickle, No Performance" about a small role he had where he burst through a door and announced some big news to Cagney in a film. When they rehearsed it, Cagney was on a bed, very lethargic, just muttering the lines. Kennedy was not prepared for the actual filming, when Cagney jumped up, grabbed him by the collar, and shouted. He was a man who knew how to preserve his energy.
I had a couple of problems with this documentary. One is that there is nothing of his marvelous performance in "Love Me or Leave Me," and, the biggest omission, not enough of the speech he gave when he was honored by the American Film Institute. I remember that speech well - it was beautiful, about the definition of art, and thanking people who helped him through the hard times -- and in saying that, he nearly broke down. It would have been a wonderful addition to this.
In Cagney's day, people followed the stars no matter what. My father, a boy at that time, went to see Midsummer's Night Dream because Jimmy Cagney was in it, and he never missed a Jimmy Cagney film. He kept his fans entertained for many years, but when he was ready to bow out, he did, leaving a great legacy.
As an aside, I saw a contestant on Jeopardy who said he was working in a restaurant when a man wearing an old raincoat came in. He said, "It was James Cagney, and he was the sweetest man I ever met."
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