Posted by Greg Ferrara on December 12, 2014
Anyone who has seen The Public Enemy has probably noticed the same thing: In the opening scenes, where Tom and Matt as young men are seen, the character playing young Tom looks like a young version of Edward Woods and the young version of Matt looks like a young version of James Cagney. But when we see them all grown up, Woods is playing Matt and Cagney is playing Tom. So why do the young versions look the opposite? Because those scenes were shot when the original casting was still in place, which was Edward Woods in the lead as Tom and James Cagney in the supporting role as Matt. William Wellman, during rehearsals and early shoots, saw much more potential in Cagney as the lead and switched them, young lead casting be damned (they never bothered to go back and reshoot the young versions of Tom and Matt). Wellman made the right decision. Cagney simply had a vitality about him that lent itself to the psychotic lead role. Gangster roles would stay with him the rest of his career. Earlier in that same year, Edward G. Robinson had made a splash in Little Caesar and became associated with gangster roles as well. And a few months earlier, in 1930, Humphrey Bogart played his first con ever in John Ford’s little known Up the River, with Spencer Tracy. The thirties would see these three actors become the go-to guys for crime but over their entire careers, they became so much more.
There were, of course, plenty of other gangster movies in the thirties and plenty of other actors portraying them. From the renowned Paul Muni, in Scarface, to George Raft, in [insert any number of movies here], actors made good money playing gangsters but Muni was never associated with the genre, like Cagney and Robinson and Bogart, and Raft never saw the same kind of diverse, leading man career emerge. But Cagney, Robinson, and Bogart achieved something pretty spectacular: They each became typecast and at the same time flourished in a wide variety of roles until the day they died. There’s a real talent necessary to pull that off, and a certain screen charisma, and all three had it.
In fact, they each had it to the point that, to this day, I think of their gangster work as secondary from the their other work, especially Robinson and Bogart. Cagney is probably about even. I’ll think of Yankee Doodle Dandy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Bride Came C.O.D., and Mister Roberts about at the same rate that I’ll think of him in The Public Enemy, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties, and White Heat. Even so, the fact that Cagney found so much success outside of gangster/criminal roles, while remaining intimately tied to them, says a lot. And though I’d say his best performance was his most psychotic one, in White Heat, I’d rank all of his non-gangster roles quite highly, too. Bogart and Robinson, however, are different.
Bogart so successfully diversified his career that I have to remind myself he was a staple as the bad guy for so long. He also managed to not care, at all, about playing characters that were weak and petty. His Queeg in The Caine Mutiny and Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre are about as cowardly and weak as one can get without being played by Elisha Cook, Jr. Here’s the thing: Bogart was a major star. That’s important because so many stars are concerned with their image to the point where playing a weakling is something they simply won’t do. If you’re a character actor, like Cook, then that’s your bread and butter. But a star? A star has to protect his courageous image. Bogart spit all over that idea one movie after another in his career. And that’s just one of the reasons he remains one of the best.
Edward G. Robinson, however, is my personal favorite of the three and the one that I would probably rank as the best all-around actor of the three. Unfortunately, he’s also the only one of the three without a Best Actor Oscar but since that award isn’t an actual guidepost to the talent and skills of anyone in particular, ever, I suppose we can let it go even though, meaningless or not, it still chafes a bit. Robinson played such a wide range of roles in his career it’s astonishing he isn’t more celebrated than he is. When Robinson played mousy and violent, as two different men, in The Whole Town’s Talking, it was his way of showing everyone just what he could do. I don’t know if I could ever accept James Cagney as mousy, or Bogart (though that bookstore moment in The Big Sleep convinces one that he could have played an annoying, pestering nerd with precision), but Robinson pulls it off without a moment’s hardship. And his ability to play tortured (Scarlett Street), disgraced (All My Sons), or highly intelligent and analytical (Double Indemnity), was pretty good, too.
Robinson played gangsters, or cons, throughout his career but, like Cagney and Bogart, did so much more. Today, on TCM, you can enjoy multiple movies from Robinson, putting all his great acting abilities on display. It’s a great place to start and a good place to remind yourself that these three actors pulled off one for the record books: They were typecast without ever limiting their roles. A neat trick, that. And one not easily reproduced.
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