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James Cagney

Icons of the Century

Cagney brought such bantanweight energy to his Depression- and WWII-era movie roles that it’s hard to tell whether the cinematic rise of the urban underclass would have had as much pizzazz without him.

No film retrospective fails to include the breakfast scene in 1931’s “The Public Enemy,” where he jams a grapefruit half into his yappy girlfriend’s face.

The act is still shocking for its suddenness, and, in our PC age, a bit of enviable audacity.

“White Heat,” the title of his 1949 film, is as good a description of him as it is a clue to the story, and his tap dance glissando across the stage as George M. Cohan in 1942’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy” seemed a perfect expression of his infectious, irrepressible buoyancy.

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