Two gangster classics, released four months apart in 1931, didn’t just launch the careers of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. They doomed the pair to being typecast as tough guys. It didn’t matter that Cagney never actually said “You dirty rat!” on film, or that he won an Oscar singing, dancing and playing Broadway legend George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Casual fans forget that Robinson was a fine dramatic actor in Double Indemnity, and showed a flair for comedy in The Whole Town’s Talking opposite Jean Arthur (no slouch in the funny business herself).
Fact is, from the time Cagney and Robinson scorched the screen as Tommy gun-toting thugs in The Public Enemy and Little Caesar, studio execs realized that casting them as mobsters was the magic bullet (pun intended) for sagging Depression-era profits. This lather-rinse-repeat strategy enriched Warner Bros., even if it handcuffed the creative range of both stars, who were trained on the Broadway stage and yearned to portray a variety of characters.
Robinson’s Little Caesar was released first in January of 1931. As crime boss Caesar Enrico Bandello, Robinson snarled his lines, whacked his rivals and met his fate in a shower of gunfire, speaking the iconic exit lines, “Mother of Mercy. Is this the end of Rico?” Cagney’s breakout turn in The Public Enemy followed in May. He also owned every shot he appeared in, whether smashing a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face or becoming smitten with blonde bombshell Jean Harlow in one of her early (if painfully wooden) appearances.
Oddly enough, neither dude screamed “movie star” based on looks alone. Cagney stood 5’5” tall, a wiry, red-haired Irish wiseacre from the Lower East Side who could have doubled for a bantam rooster. Robinson was six years older and two inches taller, a native of Bucharest who immigrated with his family to New York City at the age of ten. Hollywood handsome? Not a chance. But they shared that elusive “It” quality that was enough to rack up 185 credits between them.
Off-camera, Cagney and Robinson bore no resemblance to the nasty personas they perfected. Cagney described himself as “Once a song and dance man, always a song and dance man.” He often escaped to his farm on Martha’s Vineyard, and remained happily married to his wife “Billie” for 63 years. Robinson was a fine art collector and painter, who spoke several languages, donated generously to worthy causes and entertained troops in World War II.
“Jimmy” and “Eddie” appeared in just one film together (Smart Money) before cranking out many criminal capers with other co-stars. Later in their careers, they circled back to their mob roots to deliver great performances in Key Largo (1948) and White Heat (1949), but I urge you to check out some of their non-larcenous roles. In addition to the flicks listed above, Robinson is memorable in Five Star Final, Two Seconds, Scarlet Street, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes and All My Sons, while Cagney shines in Footlight Parade, Torrid Zone, Love Me or Leave Me, Man of a Thousand Faces and Mister Roberts.