L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Tough guy, prettied-up face - early images of James Cagney

As concerns his coloring, Mr. Cagney was what we'd now call "ginger". I don't think his hair was actually red - more sandy than auburn - but he had the pallor and freckles, the light eyebrows and eyelashes of the archetypal redhead. Which caused a problem when it came to stage or film work: his face read as a blank. Hollywood, especially in the first years after his explosion as a movie star, remedied his facial indistinctness with a cosmetic vengeance. Mascara, sometimes eyeliner, frequently a little lip color, and always penciled in eyebrows; his eyebrows were naturally thick, but they drew on thin-ish but quite visible brows, and at an expressive angle. I adore Cagney as a actor and as a cinematic legend, but I also love seeing how dolled-up he is from film to film.

From 1931's "The Public Enemy", of course, the film that made him a star.
For "Footlight Parade", 1933.
Publicity for "Picture Snatcher", 1933.
Uncharacteristically moustachioed. Actually, he wore one in several films, including "Lady Killer", 1933", and "He Was Her Man", 1934.
I believe these two portraits were publicity for "Torrid Zone", 1940.
Three portraits for "Here Comes the Navy", 1934.
For "G-Men", 1935.
From "Blonde Crazy", 1931.


And without the painted-in enhancement:

Portrait by Edward Weston, circa 1933.
Portrait by Imogen Cunningham.


  1. Very interesting. I've always wondered about those eyelashes!
    It is speculated that Noel Coward had Cagney in mind when he wrote Mad About The Boy. This may be wishful thinking on someone's part; but in the biography of NC by Philip Hoare, there is a reference to a 'wrestling match' between JC and NC at NC's Gerald Road flat in the 1930s.

    1. Yes, I'd heard about that as well. Interesting thought.... At any rate, from what I gather, Cagney was rather a complicated fellow.

    2. Somewhere, in a long forgotten book about Broadway history, I read an intriguing anecdote about Cagney having a sexual encounter with the sinister producer/director Jed Harris. The encounter was described as abusive which, given Harris's sadistic nature, is fairly believable.

    3. I - hadn't - heard that. I'd really love for someone to write an authoritative biography of the fellow; like I said, he seems to have been quite complicated. I do wonder about his marriage. And then he was estranged from both of his adopted children later in life. (Seems like I heard that, growing up, the children didn't live in the same house with their parents...?) And he seems like such an unlikely person to tag with the stories of gay encounters if there wasn't - some - fire to the smoke.

  2. Wonderfully talented though,I hadn't realised before that he had so many freckles.

  3. I'm from a family of gingers (I've been called one myself!) so understand the light eyelashes, etc. - but who knew this tough guy was always so dolled up ;-) This is great.

  4. None of that is true. Cowards song yes but not about Harris. If it came from Darwin Porter's books he is notorious for telling lies to sell his books. Cagney was not gay nor had any relations with a man. He work makeup due to his blonde eyebrows and lashes. All the men wore makeup back then.

    1. I doubt anyone can say one way or another at this point. But the stories come from - several - sources, not just Darwin Porter. (And, yes, Porter is just as much a notorious Hollywood fabulist as Kenneth Anger.)

      I wasn't in any way trying to slight Cagney for wearing makeup in performance - why would I? Actually, I - like - the way he looks in these films. I was just pointing out the lack of subtlety in the application; certainly, a lot of the actors in early film sport noticeable face paint, but I find his surprisingly obvious.

  5. Great shots. He has a Dietrich look in some of them. He was brilliant. There's a scene in "White Heat" where, as psycho Cody Jarrett, he's horsing around with his gangster mother and ends up sitting in her lap. And he pulls it off. Can't imagine anyone else doing so.