cover image Cagney


John McCabe. Alfred A. Knopf, $29.95 (416pp) ISBN 978-0-679-44607-1

In 1974, McCabe was hired by Doubleday to ghostwrite movie legend James Cagney's autobiography, Cagney by Cagney. The hours of taped conversation and McCabe's subsequent friendship with Cagney, which lasted until the actor's death in 1984, are the heart of this affectionate biography of one of the cinema's most iconic performers. In excerpts from the biography and previously unpublished portions of the tapes, Cagney comes across as an intelligent, charming raconteur, talking in detail about his tough but joyful childhood in the streets of New York, his ferocious devotion to his family and to his wife of 62 years, his love of nature and country living. Best of all are the stories by Cagney and others of his life in show business, from the street kid to the song-and-dance man to the movies' most famous gangster in Public Enemy and White Heat. This is not really a full-scale biography--McCabe's readings of the films are perfunctory, and there's a tad too much uncritical star-gazing--but the accounts of Cagney's battles with Jack Warner over billing and money, the stories of his lifetime friendships with Spencer Tracy and Pat O'Brien and Cagney's no-nonsense, ""just do it"" pronouncements on the craft of acting are worth the price of the book. Fans of Cagney--and who isn't one?--will find this to be a vivid, readable portrait of one of the movie's most charismatic stars and most entertaining storytellers. The book is illustrated with more than 100 production stills, and includes an extensive listing of Cagney's stage, film and TV appearances. (Dec.)