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Each year since 1973, the American Film Institute has given its Lifetime Achievement Award to a prominent film star or director. To date, every recipient has been genuinely deserving, but the choice of whom to honour has been motivated by various factors ... such as whose name will sell the most tickets. The guest of honour must be a living person who is willing to attend in person and give an acceptance speech. The first four annual awards were given to male recipients: in 1977, the AFI decided it was time to honour a woman, but their committee's first choice (Katherine Hepburn) refused to accept the award in person, so they gave it to Bette Davis (who apparently didn't mind being second choice for an award based on gender). Cary Grant had a standing offer to receive the AFI award, but he was never willing to make an acceptance speech and so he was never chosen.
The first person honoured by the AFI was director John Ford. In 1974, their second award went to James Cagney. At the beginning of this star-studded evening, Charlton Heston read out one of Cagney's earliest press notices in 'Variety', from his days as a vaudeville hoofer: "James Cagney can dance a little, but the big time is not for him." (Heston mercifully neglected to point out that Cagney began his show-biz career as a chorus "girl" in a drag act!)
This very enjoyable tribute to Cagney alternates between film clips (from his many movies) and live tributes from some of Hollywood's greatest stars. Ronald Reagan (former governor of California, not yet President) presents a clip from "Boy Meets Girl" in which he and Cagney appeared together. To great applause, Reagan announces that the AFI film archives contain copies of every James Cagney film. Frank Gorshin (abetted by George Segal) does a burlesque imitation of Cagney, singing and dancing to "Yankee Doodle Dandy".
At the end of the evening, it's time for the great man to speak. To the tune of "Yankee Doodle Dandy", Cagney strides to the platform amid a standing ovation. As he mounts the stage, Cagney (well into his seventies) does a fast Maxiford shuffle (a tap-dance step). Then he sets the record straight: "I never said 'You dirty rat!' My line was 'Judy, Judy, Judy!'"
People who do imitations of Cagney (including Frank Gorshin) usually copy his distinctive shoulder hitch, but in fact Cagney used this in only one movie ("Angels with Dirty Faces"). In his acceptance speech, Cagney tells a very funny story about how he copied the shoulder hitch from a guy who stood on a street corner all day in the slum neighbourhood where Cagney grew up. (Without actually saying so, Cagney makes it clear that this man was a pimp.)
And, just to be accurate: in the 1932 film "Taxi!", Cagney said to actor David Landau: "Take that, you dirty yellow rat!" That's the closest he ever got to speaking the line he "never" said.
After a thirteen-year absence from the screen, James Cagney proved again what a great entertainment talent he was. At the 1974 AFI Salute to him, his acceptance speech began with laughter and ended with laughter. His performance at the Salute was perfect - well-paced, witty, sardonic, heartfelt, and memorable. In spite of his fame as a movie tough guy, he preferred comedy and made some really funny films. Don't miss the gem, "Jimmy the Gent," with Bette Davis. Regarding the famous line attributed to him -- "You dirty rat," it's true that he did not say those exact words. However, in both "Blonde Crazy" and Taxi," he said variations of that line: In the final scene of "Blonde Crazy," Cagney says to Joan Blondell, "Why, the dirty, double-crossing rat, I'd like to get my hooks on him, I'd tear him to pieces." In the next to the last scene of "Taxi," Cagney finally corners his brother's killer. As he aims his gun at the closed closet door, he says, "Come out and take it, you dirty yellow-bellied rat or I'll give it to you through the door." He closed his 1974 AFI acceptance speech by saying, "And, just in passing, I never said, 'Hmmm, you dirty rat.' What I did say was, 'Judy, Judy, Judy!'" (For those who don't know, that's a reference to Cary Grant.)
I would have given this a ten if Virginia Mayo had been there that
night. Miss Mayo was a very significant part of James Cagney's career.
She starred in two films opposite Mr. Cagney: "White Heat" and "The
West Point Story." The good news, however, is that Doris Day was
present, but it would have been incredible if she had sung "live"
instead of opting for that film clip from "Love Me or Leave Me" ("You
Made Me Love You").
Cagney was in heaven here. It was so interesting to watch him watch himself on the screen. I purchased this tape directly from the American Film Institute, which has a website on the Net.
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