James Cagney: George M. Cohan vs. Cody Jarrett

James Cagney: George M. Cohan vs. Cody Jarrett

One actor. Two film roles. You tell us which portrayal was the best. The most memorable. Or iconic. Or simply your favorite.

But before you pass judgment, a few words defending the “character” of each…

The case for Cody Jarrett

Made it, Ma! Top of the world!: Famous last lines of Cody Jarrett in the 1949 film noir White Heat. It also sums up Cagney’s acclaimed stature in Hollywood following its release, as his previous experiences portraying criminals and hoodlums all led to this performance par excellence. Initially Cagney thought the script and his character were pedestrian, so he took it upon himself to make it more interesting, recalling in an interview: “it was essentially a cheapie one-two-three-four kind of thing, so I suggested we make him nuts. It was agreed so we put in all those fits and headaches.” Thus was born a gangster classic.

The case for George M. Cohan

Though predominantly known for his tough guy roles, James Cagney won his lone Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). It was a role Cagney was born to play. As Cohan he was a tour de force. Cagney noted that it was probably his best performance. The film-going public concurred, making it Warner Bros.’ biggest box office success in their history ‘til then. And movie critics across the board laud Cagney’s acting-singing-dancing trifecta. What more need be said?

Now that you’ve heard the arguments for both it’s time to render your verdict!


  • Steve O.

    Both great performances! But I have to go with Jarrett — that portrayal is seared in my memory!

    • Ralph

      I refuse to choose. Since the two performances came out of one person, my vote goes for James Cagney as the greatest film actor of his time.

  • mike

    Cohan by a mile!

  • mew403229

    Definitely Cohan. Love watching him on July 4th on TOM.

  • jbourne5181

    I could watch him dance all day but suggesting to producers and .the director that he play Cody Jarett as a nut was brilliant

  • Gord Jackson

    Absolutely Cohan altho two other favourite Cagney performances come out of the fifties – tough guy/thug Martin “The Gimp” Snyder in LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (1955) and his sensitive, touching impersonation of Lon Chaney in MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES (1957), with honorable mention to another low-key impersonation as Admiral Falsey in THE GALLANT HOURS (1960).

  • Knoze

    Although I never saw Cagney turn in a bad performance, I’ve got to vote for Cohan. It’s the only one of his films where he got to truly
    show off what he could do as a dancer.

  • bornagain710

    Both were Best Actor nominations. But only one was chosen.Cohan

    • Winklefriend

      Sorry, but the Academy passed on a nomination for WHITE HEAT.

  • Ron

    Cody…..anyday. But Marty the Gimp Snyder is his crowning glory opposite the glorious Doris Day.

  • Blair Kramer

    Cody Jarrett Of “White Heat” was a wonderful character study (let’s face it: Jarrett was nuts!). Cohan of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” was a great deal more one dimensional. Be that as it may, for me, a light hearted musical is more entertaining than a grim and dark “film noir” late 40s gangster movie. But after all is said and done, when it comes to straight up acting, Jarrett gets the nod.

  • Leonard Ulman

    YANKEE DOODLE DANDY showed what a versatile performer Cagney was/is and will forever remain. Oscar please.

  • Michele Wood

    I would choose Cohan, though I do like Cody. A little known film I like, but it’s hard to find is “Come Fill the Cup”. Cagney is a reformed alcoholic who is asked to help his employer’s nephew to sobriety.

    • Winklefriend

      COME FILL THE CUP is indeed a gem and it’s absence from DVD is a mystery, to be sure.

      • George

        Anyone else who plays a drunk looks like they are acting, but not Cagney in this.

  • Kevin Garvey

    I would pick Cody Jarrett of “White Heat”. I love his 40s gangster movies.

  • Buddy P

    What would the Forth of July be without Yankee Doodle Dandy?. Light hearted entertainment that has endured for all these years.

  • williamsommerwerck

    Why choose? Cagney was a wildly talented and versatile performer.

    That said… //As movies//, I prefer “White Heat” to “Yankee Doodle Dandy”.

  • Bob

    Cody Jarrett, all the way.

  • EldersburgRick

    Given the choices, I gotta go with Cody Jarrett. But my favorite Cagney role was Rocky Sullivan in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES.

    • hypatiab7

      I love “Angels With Dirty Faces:”, City for Conquest”, Come Fill the Cup” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. Don’t make me choose between them.

  • Fred B.

    To show what a great actor Cagney was, what other actor could pull off a scene where his crazy killer gangster could sit in his mama’s lap and not get laughed off the screen. No other actor, even Bogart or Eddie G. ever had a scene like the prison mess hall scene when Cody learns of his mothers death. Cagney was one of a kind….

  • Carol H

    I like both Cohan and Cody Jarrett with Rocky Sullivan a close third.

  • Father Jerry

    Waddaya hear, waddaya say? But seriously, I like Cagney’s underrated performances best, like Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or Lon Chaney in “Man of A Thousand Faces”

  • Black & White Critic in Color

    Cagney… Now here is the template for greatness as a performer. His portrayals of roles so varied and effective. From Rocky Sullivan to Lon Chaney and many others in between. The sensitive Cagney roles in Love Me or Leave Me, and in Tribute to a Bad Man are my favorites.

  • rocky-o

    cagney was always brilliant, but i’d have to give it up for cody…and personally, cagney will forever be burned in my mind as rocky in “angels with dirty faces”…

  • CagneyFan4Ever

    Cagney was amazing in both films – can’t compare the two..From his first film to his last, he’s always fantastic and always my favorite, no matter what!

  • NG

    will always love Yankkee Doodle was a great George M. Cagney was a great actor could play any part

  • dave816

    He should have won the best actor Oscar for what I think was his most brilliant acting in Love Me or Leave Me in 1955. Just my opinion but his performance in that movie was so complex and believable and he also contributed to Doris Day giving the best performance of her career.

    • Grace

      Love Me Or Leave Me: He WAS brilliant in that movie! Great performances all ’round by everyone. As to the question, I prefer his performance as George M Cohan – loved his song and dance!

  • Beth Palladino

    It’s hard to compare the brilliance of these two portrayals. However, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” will always remain one of my top favorite films; and it also includes another favorite actor, Walter Huston, as George M.’s father. Yet, in my opinion, all of Cagney’s portrayals are great. He made any picture that he was in better.

  • Al Hooper

    I didn’t care much for either of these two films but liked Cagney immensely in flicks as different as “Angels With Dirty Faces” and “Mr. Roberts.” He was `way over the top in “White Heat.” It might have been the director’s fault, but Cagney is stuck with the result.

    • Bruce Reber

      How can you call maybe THE best movie gangster portrayal of all time over the top? Cody Jarrett was psychotic, mother-fixated and suffered from blinding migraine headaches – he was supposed to be over the top! The next time you watch “White Heat” you’ll see what I mean!

  • Goldenfoxx

    No doubt about it for me, Yankee Doodle Dandy wins in my mind by a landslide. Love that film.

  • james cagney rules

    neither is my favourite but i do like them both. difficult to judge. i think they’re both fantastic performances. white heat, since it’s more dramatic, looks to be the better performance. yes he’s over the top as someone else said but his character is nuts so that’s just about right for how he plays it. favourite james cagney movie was torrid zone but now is one, two, three. billy wilder is fantastic director and writer. the dialogue is brilliant! and in case it’s not obvious, james cagney is my favourite classic movie actor. !!

  • Bill

    There was no other dance scene that stands out in my mind as much as the scene where Mr. Cagney does his stiff legged routine and comes literally off the wall in “Yankee”. Also a great scene is his last line in “White Heat” wherein he shouts, “Made it ma, top of the world.” In my opinion the two films tie for a gold medal.

  • T L Miller

    It’s James Cagney: it doesn’t matter! Anything he’s in, he chews up the scenery — you can’t take your eyes off of him. I recently watched a little known film, “Taxi” that TCM dug out of the archives, and he was WONDERFUL. I find it amazing that he did comedy, drama, musicals, and the gangster films with equal ease — sometimes all in the same film! He was both funny and crazy as hell in both “Mister Roberts,” and “White Heat,” yet, in “13 Rue Madeleine” he was all patriotic business, but totally badass! Just a terrific all-around actor.

  • Bruce Reber

    For me it’s Jimmy C as mama’s boy psycho gangster Cody Jarrett at the “Top Of The World” in “White Heat”!

  • J.christian

    I can’t understand why nobody has mentioned ” The Roaring Twenties” by far the best Cagney gangster classic!