Cagney and Day: The West Point Story

Doris Day and James Cagney seem like an unlikely screen team.

But Cagney regarded Day as a great actress, however their first teaming in “The West Point Story” wouldn’t show it.

On the surface, “The West Point Story” (1950) isn’t much to look at.

It’s a run-of-the-mill Warner Brothers comedy full of double crossing, dancing and music.

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But what makes it special is it’s cast: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo and three actors still relatively new to Hollywood: Doris Day, Gene Nelson and Gordon MacRae.

Broadway director Bix Bixby (Cagney) is down on his luck, because he has a problem with betting on horse races. Gambling prevents him from getting a good show and from marrying his sweetheart Eve (Mayo).

Cagney and Mayo in musical number "B'klyn"

Cagney and Mayo in musical number “B’klyn”

Bixby is persuaded by a producer to help put on a show at West Point Military Academy, because the producer wants his nephew, Tom (MacRae) to leave the Academy and come perform on Broadway. The show the West Point men are putting on is all men, since there were no girls on campus, complete with Alan Hale Jr. playing a princess.

Coming from a Broadway background, Bixby has a hard time understanding that the cadets can only rehearse their play around their school schedules. After butting heads with cadets and school officials, Bixby is thrown off campus and is invited back only if he enrolls as a cadet. He does, having difficulty adjusting to military discipline.

Forty-five minutes in to the movie the first appearance of Doris Day as Hollywood actress Jan Wilson who Bixby discovered and made a star. Wilson is supposed to help boost Bixby’s career by replacing Alan Hale Jr. as the “Princess” in the show.

And of course, while Jan and Tom are singing and walking along Flirtation Walk, they fall in love. She wants to quit her career and he wants to leave West Point and it seems like all of Bixby’s plans will fall apart…

But in the typical Warner Brother’s musical fashion-everything ends happily with an elaborate musical number.

All star musical finish with Hale Jr, Nelson,Mayor, Cagne, Day and MacRae

All star musical finish with Hale Jr, Nelson,Mayor, Cagne, Day and MacRae

I’m a fan of every actor in this film but will admit this isn’t any of their best. And Doris Day agrees.

“I had already been in a film with Jimmy (Cagney), but that was a real idiot picture,” Day says in her autobiography. “Almost all my scenes were with Gordon MacRae and Jimmy’s scenes were with Virginia Mayor. I couldn’t possibly tell you about the plot. Zero. Gordon was a cadet and Jimmy was a Broadway hoofer. End of memory.” (154).

Cagney and Day in The West Point Story

Cagney and Day in The West Point Story

It is probably one of James Cagney’s most forgotten films. Day doesn’t sing any good songs, and Nelson isn’t in it nearly enough. Cagney is hot headed and yells a lot, but we get to see some of his famous, excellent dance moves.

Cagney is remembered for his 1930s roles as a gangster, but he shows his versatility in films like “West Point Story” with his comedic and musical expertise.

“West Point Story” is also notable, because it is one of two films Cagney starred in with Day- setting the stage for a successful film for both of them:  “Love Me or Leave Me”(1955). The film is a biopic about singer Ruth Etting (Day) and Cagney as her gangster husband, Marty Snyder.

Cagney probably didn’t have a high praise for “West Point Story,” but he certainly did for Doris Day as well as “Love Me or Leave Me.”

Sunny Doris Day and gruff James Cagney seem like an unlikely pair, but the two have excellent screen chemistry and respected each other off the camera.

“The first time I saw Doris perform, it affected me as I had only been affected twice before in my life,” said James Cagney in a written passage in Day’s autobiography “Doris Day: Her Own Story.

Cagney and Day rehearse for "Love Me or Leave Me"

Cagney and Day rehearse for “Love Me or Leave Me”

Cagney continues to say those two times were when he saw actress Laurette Taylor in the play “The Glass Menagerie” and Pauline Lord in the play “Anna Christie” (155).

“So what Doris has, and all the good ones have, is the ability to project the simple, direct statement of a simple, direct idea with cluttering it,” he said. “That’s what she brought to ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ which is a movie I rate among the top five of the 62 pictures I made.

“Doris and I have both had long careers in films, and I’m sometimes asked how to account for this longevity. Not easy. A lot of very talented people have very short careers. One factor is certainly timing. I came along during a tough time when gangsters and prohibition had captured the front pages and become a kind of romantic aspect of those times.

“Doris came along when we were beginning the postwar era, and there was something about her that caught the mood and fancy of those times. It could very well have been that I never would have made my way if I had come along a couple of years later.

“And the same holds true for Doris. Who knows?….As an actress, she perfectly illustrates my definition of good acting: just plant yourself, look the other actor in the eye, and tell him the truth. That’s what she does.”

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This is part of The Movie Projector’s Cagney Blogathon. For more Cagney posts- visit http://themovieprojector.blogspot.com/p/blog-page.html

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29 thoughts on “Cagney and Day: The West Point Story

  1. Enjoyed this piece a lot! I’ll admit I’m not a big fan of ‘The West Point Story’ as the story doesn’t really hang together, but it does have a great cast, as you say, and it’s good to see Cagney singing and dancing. The passage by Cagney you have quoted from Doris Day’s autobiography is fascinating – interesting that he felt they had both encapsulated the spirit of their own times in this way.

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  2. A most interesting post on James Cagney and Doris Day’s first experience working together. I saw this not long ago and pretty much agree with everything you said about it. But despite the film’s shortcomings, Cagney’s performance is so incredibly energetic that he just grabs your attention every time he’s onscreen, which is pretty much all the time in this picture. I did very much like the musical number near the end that Cagney performed in, “Brooklyn.” It seemed to belong in an MGM musical, reminding me of “On the Town.” If it had been in Technicolor, it would have been perfect. I can see why Cagney said that he was proud of that number. I do recall Cagney and Doris Day having some scenes together before she goes to West Point and they seemed to have a good working rapport. I’ve heard that many inexperienced actors liked working with Cagney because he always went out of his way to make them feel at ease.

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    • It sounds like Cagney was similar to Bette Davis. I know she helped out actors like Natalie Wood. It’s just a shame that Doris didn’t sing very good songs.
      But Cagney did an excellent job-seems like he was constant professional

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  3. This is probably one of my least favorite Cagney films, though no fault of his own and the rest of the cast. One thing I really hate is the way he is stuffed like a sausage in that West Point uniform. Not his best look!!!!! Thankfully, he and Doris would get a chance to show how well they worked together in “Love Me or Leave Me.” Doris and Jimmy were both generous to their co-workers and I think their kindness had a lot to do with that longevity.

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    • haha!! A stuffed sausage 🙂 That gave me a good chuckle.
      I agree though, the actors are wonderful in general but this movie does nothing for them.

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    • Thanks for sharing your memories 🙂
      I just like military musicals for some reason. I guess because my grandfather went there lol. I sure wish life was like a musical!

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  4. Cagney and Day both had that direct, simple connection with audiences when they were onscreen, no matter what the film vehicle was like.. You kinda wonder what they might have done together if they had started working at the same time.

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  5. This is one that I missed. Sounds like it was a bit of a dud, so I know why. Still, nice to read about how much Cagney respected Doris Day.

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  6. Jessica, It’s been a real, real, really long time since I saw this film but I won’t be rushing to the video store do get a copy. have never been shy to admit I am no fan of Doris Day. It’s not that she has not made any good films but I generally find her too sugar sweet and this film seems a bit corny. I actually like LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME where I think they play off each other well.

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    • Hello John!
      I’m a huge fan of Doris’s but I understand. I think Love Me or Leave Me is a good one for her because it got her away from that saccharine sweet character. She was nervous it would hurt her image as well

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  7. Those Cagney quotes were very interesting. Thanks for sharing. I agree its not in the top tier of musicals, but its enjoyable enough. I think Cagney himself probably liked it. He always had a soft spot for his musicals. Coming right after the incredibly brutal “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”, Cagney must have rally relished this one. Good job, Jessica.

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    • I’ve never seen Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye but need to check it out. He’s wonderful in musicals, that’s for sure. Thank you for reading, Kevin!

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  8. Great look at the Cagney-Day pairing–I’ve seen “Love Me or Leave Me,” and enjoyed, but apparently missed out on “The West Point Story.” Good news is that TCM aired it this week and, by coincidence, I pressed play on my DVR last night. Unfortunately it was too late for my eyes to survive beyond the first scene or so, but wow–it was impressive to see Cagney do that bit of dancing at the open! It’s a bummer that it doesn’t sound like it goes too well after that, but then again, if it had, I’d have probably seen it before!

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  9. Great post on this forgotten film, yet one that introduced Cagney and Day. I’m sure the rapport they developed on this first film carried to the second, which translated to a strong working environment for “Love Me or Leave Me.” All I can say is that “The West Point Story” has to be better than “Flirtation Walk”!

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    • Thanks for dropping by!
      There actually is a scene on the Flirtation Walk! I can’t remember much about Flirtation Walk the film, rather than the song and the cast but I think they are on an equal playing field.

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  10. Jessica, I haven’t seen “The West Side Story,” somehow I missed it, but I’d be interested in watching it if only to see Cagney and DD together again. They were sensational in “Love Me or Leave Me” and each had so much respect for the other – deservedly so, in both cases.

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    • Thanks! I love it as well. She did a wonderful job.
      It’s not a terrible movie, but if you like the folks in it-it’s definitely worth checking out

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  11. I didn’ know Cagney and Doris were paired twice! The West Point Story sounds really lousy.
    I have a book about a Brazilian film correspondent in Hollywood during the Golden age that tells when she met cagney during the filming of Love me or Leave Me. It’s a nice report and made me jealous. 😉
    Don’t forget to WATCH my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Kisses!

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