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In 1942, when his contract was up for renewal, James Cagney decided that it was time to leave Warner Brothers. The studio attempted to keep him, especially since Yankee Doodle Dandy, released that same year, had been such a smash (read about that here).
But past experiences – especially with studio head Jack Warner – made Cagney sure that he was making the right choice. Warner, who often bumped heads with actors, called Cagney “the professional againster,” and James wore the nickname proudly.
Now a free agent, Cagney teamed with his brother to form Cagney Productions, but their venture proved to be difficult financially. So he eventually decided it was time to return…
“I sure never expected in the order of things that we’d ever go back to Warners,” he said. “Our basic reason [for returning] was a five-letter word beginning with M and ending in Y.”
The decision wasn’t just about m-o-n-e-y though. The studio was a well-oiled machine which could offer its resources (sets, costumes, etc.) during a film’s production.
White Heat was the perfect first film for Cagney’s return. After all, his star had launched thanks to another gangster film, The Public Enemy (read about that here), and he had already worked with the director, Raoul Walsh, on The Roaring Twenties (read about that here).
While the role was familiar territory, it was also different. James Cagney’s character was bad news, and this story wanted to explore the reasons why the gangster developed into who he was.
Walsh said, “Only [Cagney] could play the snarling paranoid with a mother fixation. It was a natural for his brand of talent.”
White Heat was another success for the actor and even earned him an Academy Award nomination.