Cagney, Hollywood renegade.
James Cagney, star
William Cagney, producer
SIMPP Members (1942-1958)
SIMPP also welcomed William Cagney into the Society during its first year. As
the business manager for his famous older brother James Cagney, William gave up
his own acting career in 1934 to serve a similar purpose as Sydney Chaplin had
for his younger brother Charlie. After the Cagneys battled against the studio
system for years, the brothers organized Cagney Productions in 1942, and joined
the independent movement.
James Cagney Against the Studio System
James Cagney began his Hollywood career at Warner Bros. in 1930 at the age of
30, and quickly gained a reputation as one of the most difficult and
independent-minded of the studio contract actors. He rode the studio's wave of
gangster films to achieve near instant popularity, then fought for years to
avoid being typecast in tough-guy roles by Warner. He complained about his
journeyman salary and the factory-like conditions in the early 1930s, and
voluntarily went on suspension in a much-publicized showdown with the studio,
then an unprecedented move by a performer. His weekly salary was doubled to
$3,000 when he returned to the studio in 1932.
He then walked out on his contract again that same year in a disagreement
largely sparked by block booking. After receiving word that his films were being
used as the primary attraction in Warner Bros. movie blocks, he sought to punish
the studio for profitably pre-selling his films by walking out on an unfinished
picture called Blessed Event which was subsequently assigned to another
Warner contract actor. Again he was reinstated at Warners, with a higher salary,
and greater creative stipulations.
In 1936, he left the studio again. No major studio would touch the free-agent
actor, and even the independent producers like Goldwyn and Selznick reportedly
were not willing to reward the highly-paid star and risk encouraging other
actors to walk away from their production commitments. So this time he began to
take his first steps as an independent with his brother William Cagney, who had
taken an active role in the contract disagreements with Jack Warner.
Cagney Exits Warner Bros.
Grand National Films, one of the independent distributors was willing deal
with the Cagney brothers. Edward L. Alperson, former Warner sales manager,
operated the up-and-coming Poverty Row studio which had acquired the backlot of
the influential Educational Pictures (the short-subject specialist that released
Felix the Cat silent cartoons in the 1920s and introduced Shirley Temple in
1934). Hoping to follow the path of Columbia Pictures, Alperson began to seek
A-list talent, and agreed to grant Cagney semi-independence with complete
creative control, $100,000 per film, and ten percent of the profits. But like
many ill-fated independent distributors that tried to make the jump to major
status, Grand National was unable to secure first-run bookings in the era of the
big studios. The debt-ridden company was liquidated in 1940.
Anticipating the demise of Grand National, William Cagney negotiated yet
another deal with Warner Bros. The studio offered James Cagney $150,000 per
picture, complete script approval, plus profit participation of any film the
reached blockbuster level of $1.5 million. William Cagney would oversee quality
control as producer, and receive screen credit as associate producer. The
Cagneys finished out their contract at Warner's with a series of well-made and
highly-regarded films, culminating with Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).
The Cagneys Go Independent
In March 1942 the brothers announced the formation of their own independent
company. William Cagney, who continued to show great promise as studio producer,
proved himself to be on par with other enterprising independents, acquiring
property and talent to expand their organization beyond a mere showcase for his
brother Jim. The company was commonly known as Cagney Productions, but its
official name was William Cagney Productions Inc.
The Cagneys were courted by United Artists at the same time as Stromberg.
Both of these production companies benefitted from UA's new willingness to
provide financing in an effort to generate more feature product. In the past
independent producers, had to bring their own money to the table, financing
their own movies through their own means. But still suffering from the product
shortage following Goldwyn's departure in 1940, UA decided to offer partial
financing through its own United Artists Productions. To help raise additional
funds, James Cagney generated collateral by deferring his own $150,000 salary,
as part of his agreement with UA.
In July 1946, William Cagney became a one-fifth owner of the General
Service Studio, operated by SIMPP member Benedict
Bogeaus. Unfortunately James Cagney's career took a downturn toward the end
of the 1940s. He continued to deplore the lack of distinguished material; the
same criticism which drove him to independent production in the first place
would also drive him into retirement. In 1949, Cagney moved out of the General
Service Studios to rejoin with Warner Bros. In 1953 William Cagney produced his
last film A Lion Is in the Streets. James Cagney's final fling as an
independent came in the late 1950s when he formed Cagney-Montgomery Productions
with actor-turned-director Robert Montgomery to make The Gallant Hours
James and William Cagney—biographical information from
McCabe, Cagney and Schickel, James Cagney; Cagney, Cagney by
Cagney; Goldwyn and Selznick's reluctance to hire Cagney mentioned in
Schickel, p. 105; Grand National Films: Balio, Grand Design, p. 323;
joining UA, providing financing: Balio, United Artists: The Company Built by
the Stars, pp. 191-193. Cagney-Montgomery Productions: McCabe, Cagney,