James Cagney: The Westerns


Yes, James Cagney was in westerns. Okay, go ahead and laugh — I can’t hear you! And Cagney definitely can’t hear you.  Yes, Cagney was primarily associated with gangster pictures, and secondarily with musicals, but the truth is that he appeared in pretty much every kind of movie made by Hollywood during the classical studio era. And practically all of the major stars appeared in some westerns during the period, including actors closely identified with New York (see yesterday’s post on Barbara Stanwyck). Furthermore, the west was NEW in the 19th century — EVERYONE out there came from SOME place farther east. While Henry Fonda’s Nebraska accent may sound the most appropriate for a western setting, the best producers and directors of westerns realized that it was equally if not more realistic to put people with Yankee accents (Walter Brennan), Southern accents (Randolph Scott), “English” accents (Errol Flynn, though he was really Tasmanian), and even Swedish accents (John Qualen, e.g., in The Searchers). That said — Cagney was just TOO good in gangster pictures and the like to waste in many westerns when there were so many others better suited to it. But Cagney is ALWAYS good, isn’t he? And he’s good in these pictures. (Warning: we always include spoilers):


The Oklahoma Kid (1939) 

This is a western only Warner Brothers would (or could) make, starring as it does Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. Cagney plays the ostensible hero, every bit as lawless as Bogart’s criminal mastermind. When Bogart’s gang robs a stagecoach containing silver meant to pay the Indians for their land in the Cherokee strip, Cagney retrieves the silver—and keeps it.  Hardly Sir Galahad. That amoral tone is uniquely Warner Bros — why is this character the hero? Because he is charming and cocky? Because he is less evil than the out and out villains?

In this story, Bogart and his gang are Sooners, literally jumping the gun for the opening of the Cherokee strip. When the town of Tulsa is built, they literally own all the vice and half the politicians. Cagney emerges from hiding to bust the ring only when they frame and lynch his father. This is the point that bothers me….Cagney is the hero is because he is likable and because he seeks vengeance for the wrong done to his father. That stops considerably short of true heroism. What about seeking justice with complete disinterestedness for someone you don’t even know? What about returning the stolen silver to the authorities?

Cast also includes Ward Bond, Donald Crisp and one of my favorites: Charles Middleton. 


Run for Cover (1955)

A “problem picture” type western directed by Nicholas Ray. Just one long string of bad luck and unpleasant events. Cagney and John Derek play a couple of cowpokes who make the mistake of target shooting at a hawk in the vicinity of an onrushing train. They are assumed to be robbers, and bags of money are tossed out. Later the authorities shoot Derek, wounding him, but they eventually straighten it out and the two friends become lawmen themselves. Everything is Jim Dandy until some real outlaws led by Ernest Borgnine arrive. All sorts of trouble arises, many are killed, and in the end Derek turns out to be in cahoots with the bad guys. And Cagney is the last man standing.


Tribute to a Bad Man (1956)

Directed by Robert Wise. Cagney (in a role originally intended for Spencer Tracy) as a lovable old horse-raising curmudgeon in Wyoming with a bad habit of hanging rustlers. Irene Pappas as his very sexy cook/concubine who unfortunately stirs the loins of his wranglers as much as she does his own. The story  is told through the POV of a young dude from Philadelphia who saves Cagney’s life when he comes upon him injured after a shoot out, digs out a bullet, and brings him back to his ranch (also helping him bring back Cagney’s dead friend). The boy’s growth experience continues as he falls in love with Pappas and is forced to witness hangings. Meanwhile, Cagney drives off his top hand, who is a bit of a wiseguy and has been going after Pappas himself. The foreman joins up with the crooks. In the end, Cagney has a change of heart, mostly because of the influence of the kid and Pappas, and because one of the rustlers is the son of his old partner. (He merely tortures them by making them walk for miles barefoot through rugged country). Pappas, who has seemed like she was going to go off with the kid, decides to stay with Cagney. This is an excellent (and beautiful) film. Deserves to be better known.


Arizona Bushwhackers (1968)

Okay! We commonly assume that the years between One, Two, Three and Ragtime (1981) were totally Cagney free but that’s not QUITE true. In 1968 he provided uncredited narration for this exceedingly cheesy movie, and I’m willing to bet audiences were mighty grateful for even that much Cagney. (His honorarium probably exceeded the budget for the rest of the picture).

Cagney’s narration informs us about a Civil War era program in which Confederate prisoners were given liberty in exchange for western posts fighting Indians and maintaining law and order. One guy played by Howard Keel is given such an assignment. The Arizona town he approaches is ready to hate him for being a Reb, including mayor Brian Donlevy, a crooked sheriff, a one armed deputy (who’d lost his arm fighting rebels in the war), a dance hall girl, and the town milliner, played by Yvonne Decarlo, fresh from her assignment on The Munsters.

The sheriff leaves town after his graft is revealed. So the main tension is between the one armed deputy and the new Reb sheriff, played by Keel. The script is mighty confused. Our sympathy initially is with the Reb, because he seems the victim of bigotry. But then he and DeCarlo turn out to be Reb spies. The way its structured they are still posited as the heroes, yet how can they be? They’re Confederate agents!!! In the end their plot is exposed, but a greater problem emerges – Apache attack. The folks who have been squabbling all band together to fight the Apaches. Then, at the very instant…they learn that the war is over.

A brief epilogue shows them all now to be fast friends. A real dinosaur effort, given a lot of the other films that were coming out at the same time. A disparaging reference to “draft dodgers” shows what this film’s agenda is, and the audience it was playing to. Sadly, that audience must have been very small. At any rate, I’m glad that Ragtime, and not Arizona Bushwackers was Cagney’s last movie.

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