It’s difficult to imagine how the classic Hollywood stars would fare if they were making movies in the 1990s. Gable would lack the irony for the times, Wayne would be too obdurate, Grant would have too much class. But James Cagney? He’d be jostling Gary Oldman and Tim Roth and Robert De Niro for roles that hector and strut — and he’d probably be beating them out. Only Cagney and Edward G. Robinson were so unself-consciously aggressive on screen, and only Cagney had the looks to lend a dicey romantic edge to his malice. Watching him, you’re never sure whether he’s going to reach for the girl or the grapefruit.

Was it an act? Was it for real? The paradox that hangs in the background of John McCabe’s Cagney is that it seems to have been both. On screen, the actor may have been the closest to an American id that golden-age Hollywood gave us, but off screen, Jim Cagney — he loathed being called Jimmy — was the film industry’s superego: a thoughtful performer, a conscientious man, and a deeply devoted husband to Frances ”Willie” Cagney for 64 years.

It reflects too much on the reader, perhaps, that such self-effacing niceness makes for dull biography. But it may also be that McCabe is too close to his subject, having served as the star’s ghostwriter for the engaging 1976 autobiography Cagney by Cagney; written a biography of song-and-dance man George M. Cohan (whom Cagney won his lone acting Oscar for portraying, in 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy); and enjoyed a clearly affectionate friendship with the aging actor. You can sense McCabe sweeping the few handfuls of dirt under the rug: There are vague, unsatisfying references to bad blood between Cagney’s inseparable family and his wife, to the odd upbringing of the actor’s two adopted children (who were raised from infancy in a separate house on the Cagney grounds). Not that all biographers need be Kitty Kelley, but a thumb is on the scale here, however tactful.

Well, at least McCabe gives us a startling account of the one time Cagney strayed from his wife — you might too if you found Merle Oberon waiting naked in your sleeping-car berth — and the sections on the actor’s brutally poor youth in the Upper East Side slums of New York feel shocking and real. This harsh urban milieu gave Cagney not only much raw source material — Rocky Sullivan’s shoulder twitch in Angels With Dirty Faces came from a Yorkville pimp, while the alcoholic keenings of Cagney’s father were echoed by White Heat‘s Cody Jarrett — but also the cautious distance that made friend Pat O’Brien label Jim ”the faraway fella.”

You feel that distance when Cagney gets to Hollywood: Despite colorful accounts of contract battles with the hated Jack ”The Shvontz” Warner, the book devolves into dutiful, and-then-he-filmed history. McCabe never develops an overall critical approach to the work, either: You’d never know from his appraisal of 1933’s Lady Killer — ”It’s fun” — how profanely comic and demonically energetic this forerunner of Get Shorty really is.

The lesson here is that the movies may be the best biography for some stars, and that additional commentary may be beside the point. When Cagney had his 1931 career breakthrough in The Public Enemy, one high-toned critic wrote that ”no one expresses more clearly…the tendency towards destruction, towards anarchy which is the basis of American sex appeal.” To which the actor responded — could only respond — ”The hell he says!” C+

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