A Trio of Diversified Gangsters

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.


12 Responses A Trio of Diversified Gangsters
Posted By Emgee : December 12, 2014 12:13 pm

Robinson hated the fact that he was constantly called on to play gangster roles. His arch-rival at WB was Paul Muni, who got all the dramatic roles that Robinson was desperate to play. That’s one reason why he never got an Oscar.( His roles got more weight after he left WB, but then he got greylisted)

Posted By a. saez : December 12, 2014 3:48 pm

John Garfield is another one who avoided typecast.

Posted By Marty : December 12, 2014 4:05 pm

These three superior actors had the ability to project character from a very tight close-up to a big scenery-chewing moment. For Cagney, it’s the exuberance of George M dancing and singing and the heartache at his father’s deathbed. It’s also the machine gun spitting of dialogue in the early 30s Warners pictures right up to Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three. Even the ruthlessness of Captain Morton in Mister Roberts, he still has a touch of Cagney charm.
For Bogart, it’s a little different. Once in a while, he could crack wise as when Sam reminds Rick that the Germans will come looking for him. “I left a note in my apartment, they’ll know where to find me.” I marvel at his concentration as Frank McCloud in Key Largo and his transformation from just a bum in Tampico to a ruthless psycho in Treasure.And one more, The Barefoot Contessa. Harry Dawes is a wonderful character.
Finally, there is Eddie G. My parents and grandparents saw Emanuel Goldenberg on the stage of the Yiddish Theater, believe it or not.
The Robinson roles that stand out for me are of course, Key Largo, Barton Keyes in Double Indemnity and Maurice Kruger in Two Weeks In Another Town.

The proof of their stellar talent is that other Warner stars Muni and Raft just couldn’t show that kind of diversity and longevity.
A great weekend would be to view all the pictures I’ve noted in this posting.

Posted By george : December 12, 2014 9:18 pm

“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 Bogart of UP THE RIVER has little in common with the hard-bitten Bogie who began to develop with PETRIFIED FOREST. The 1930 film offers Bogart in his stage-juvenile “Tennis, anyone?” mode. It’s interesting because it lets us see Bogart as he must have been on stage in the ’20s.

The movie itself is very entertaining. I’ve read that Ford planned it as a serious prison drama, but THE BIG HOUSE came out first. So Ford turned it into a comedy.

Posted By Doug : December 12, 2014 10:44 pm

I have friends who love Robinson in “Our Vines Have Tender Grapes”-I like him in most things; one favorite is “The Stranger” with Orson Welles and Loretta Young.
It’s funny, but I first saw Cagney as George M. Cohan in “The Seven Little Foys”.
A few years ago on TCM I saw Bogart in ‘weak’ mode, playing a harried movie director in “Stand-In” with his buddy Leslie Howard.
All three deserve every accolade they’ve been given.

Posted By mdr : December 13, 2014 2:10 am

Not even an Oscar nomination, talk about crime

Posted By Sharon : December 13, 2014 3:25 am

“The Caine Mutiny” insists that cowardice is NOT one of Queeg’s faults. And Jones, the Elisha Cook character in “The Big Sleep,” clearly has a lot of guts. Maybe you would like to reconsider that part of your post. As for Cagney being unable to play weakness, take another look at the scene where he goes to the electric chair in “Angels With Dirty Faces.” Is he really “yellow” or has he put on a performance for the sake of the kids? We never know, because he’s that good.

I agree that Robinson should have won every known acting prize. But amassing a great art collection may have been reward enough for him.

Posted By Richard Brandt : December 13, 2014 5:58 am

Maybe the 1930 Bogart has little in common with his harder-edged gangster roles…but then check him out in 1932′s THREE ON A MATCH. The whole persona is already set, so much so that it’s hard to believe he took years off before coming back to it.

Posted By johnnytoobad : December 13, 2014 7:38 am

“Whaddaya say … whaddaya know?!?”

Trying to think of my favorite two performances by each of these three … Maybe —

Bogie: The Big Sleep & In A Lonely Place

Cagney: Angels w/ Dirty Faces & White Heat

EGR: Double Indemnity & Woman In the Window

I guess those are fairly obvious choices …

I’m always amazed at how you can always observe the beginnings of famous personas in actors’ early roles, as the person before me commented … It’s so fascinating because it makes you realize how the personas really do derive partly from something innate and primal that that personality brings to their craft

I was just re-visiting Baby Face the other day & was astounded to really pay attention to the John Wayne bit part … Even though he’s only given a few lines of dialogue; you can clearly discern the beginnings of the legendary speech cadence!

Posted By Richard Brandt : December 14, 2014 4:06 am

johnnytoobad: Even though it’s rich to see John Wayne playing one of Stanwyck’s whiney, dejected, browbeaten, discarded ex-suitors!

Posted By Drue King : December 14, 2014 3:34 pm

I saw Eddie G in Larceny Inc. when I was a kid in the 70′s. And even to me that “old black and white movie” had me laughing out loud. If you want to see how good he is in comedy, look it up.

Posted By Jenni : December 15, 2014 1:14 am

Have Larceny Inc ready to view on the dvr. All 3 were such great actors, I find it difficult to pin one down as my fave. I watched Our Vines have Tender Grapes a couple years ago, mainly to see Robinson play a father of a little girl. He was wonderful in the part, and Agnes Moorhead was outstanding as his wife. Scarlet Street-I felt so sorry for him and yet in Little Caesar, I’m not sad that it’s the end of Rico.

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