“There you go with that wishin' stuff again. I wish you was a wishing well. So that I could tie a bucket to ya and sink ya!”
~Tom Powers (James Cagney) in The Public Enemy (1931)
The results (44 votes total):
James Cagney- 29 (65%) Edward G. Robinson- 8 (18%) Humphrey Bogart- 5 (11%) George Raft- 2 (4%)
Warning: spoilers ahead!
Was there any doubt as to the outcome? James Cagney won our poll-- Who is the greatest gangster of the Golden Age of Hollywood-- and the voters shoved a grapefruit into the face of Cagney’s collective opposition. I can see how he won so easily. Cagney’s gangster characters were more ferocious and intimidating than his contemporaries, because at any given moment you never knew when a Cagney gangster would lash out. He is part of Hollywood lore with two immortal moments in two of his best-known gangster films, The Public Enemy (1931) where Cagney’s Tom Powers is rotten to the core, shoves citrus in Mae Clarke’s mug, and drops dead in a rain-drenched gutter. Later, in the 1940s, Cagney is nihilistic gangster Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949) with an Oedipus complex as he goes up sky high, but not before uttering one of the most famous lines in cinema history: “Made it ma, top of the world!!!” But as bad as his character is, he’s still nobler than amoral rat fink S.O.B. Edmond O’Brien, who drops a dime on our boy Cody after infiltrating Jarrett’s gang and gains his trust; I still get ticked off about that every time I see White Heat! That’s testament to Cagney’s likeability and sheer screen magnetism. I half-jokingly tell anyone who’ll listen that I’d pay real money to reenact Cody Jarrett’s prison cafeteria meltdown when he learns that his “ma” has died.
Cagney’s competition in this poll were all notable tough guys, and all played gangsters in their own special way, but none of them have the fury, rage, and potential for sudden unpredictable violence as Cagney’s characters do. Edward G. Robinson was menacing, Humphrey Bogart had the stare, and George Raft had that coin-flipping prelude to putting some mug’s lights out. But they don’t have—forgive me—the white-hot rage and mayhem of a Cagney character. No one does. They also didn’t get such memorable writing and visuals that are associated with James Cagney’s most frightening characters.
By the way, my fedora’s off to the two of you that voted for George Raft. You guys must be really tough to take a beating like he did in this poll, which tallied the most votes since we started doing this error-free, unscientific, HollywoodDreamland poll.
Say it with Me: "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!!!" Boom.