CAGNEY by John McCabe


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 McCabe is uniquely well qualified to write a Cagney biography: Not only was he the ghost on Cagney's autobiography, but he also was the authorized biographer of George M. Cohan (1973), whom Cagney famously portrayed in Yankee Doodle Dandy. McCabe draws heavily on his lengthy taped interviews with Cagney, with the result that this volume feels a bit like an extension of the actor's autobiography. Indeed, there are no major revelations here. Rather, this is a briskly written retelling of a somewhat familiar story--albeit a richer retelling than previous ones, thanks to the added texture that comes from Cagney's voice. Cagney grew up in relative poverty in New York City, the son of an alcoholic barman and a tough, no-nonsense mother (who taught her sons how to box). Some of the best moments in the book come in recounting Cagney's happy, hardscrabble youth. A compulsively modest and private man, he seems to have been ill-suited for the public life of a movie star; he took up acting because it paid well. He seldom attends Hollywood parties, spending most of his spare time reading and, later, painting and farming (his true ambition had always been to be a farmer). He brought a fiery intelligence to his acting, and McCabe, an ex-actor himself, has some nicely judged analyses of his subject's earlier work, concentrating on technique with an acuity that one seldom finds in star biographies. Regrettably, as the book goes on, McCabe offers fewer of these insights. One also wishes for more in-depth research on a wide range of matters, from the daily routine of the Warner Bros. film factory to the background of Cagney's family, from his legal wrangles with the studio to his political evolution from quasi-socialist to conservative Republican. The definitive Cagney biography has yet to be written, but this is a workmanlike and eminently readable effort. (100 photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Dec. 5th, 1997
ISBN: 0-679-44607-9
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 1997


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