Maybe What We Need is a Grapefruit in the Kisser?


Greetings once again!

After a little downtime after surgery, I thought it was time to get back to work and generate something for Blue Lines. I have to say, cabin fever is real and potentially demoralizing. The first week of recuperation is a must…maybe even the second. I mentioned to my friends that there is nothing more humbling than having your guts rearranged a few times. The body demands mandatory rest and immediately punishes those who try to push it. Then there’s that scratchy period when you’ve watched just about everything on TV and in your personal library that is worth a look and your mind begins searching for something more. Luckily for me, that was about the time I started feeling more energetic and the body would tolerate coming out of hibernation.

I tried to put some of that downtime to good use. I caught up on some reading and discovered a couple classic movie channels that offered some great selections I either hadn’t seen for a long time or not at all. One day’s programming was devoted to several James Cagney flicks that reminded me what a great talent he was, especially for his day. He became famous as a tough guy in some of the original gangster movies of the 1930s.  He famously crushed a grapefruit into the face of his leading lady, Mae Clark, in a scene from the 1931 classic, The Public Enemy.  As tough a guy as he was, on the screen and in real life, he was a vaudeville song-and-dance man at heart.

Watching those old movies motivated me to read his autobiography, Cagney by Cagney. What a great read by a quintessential showman. It was written in an entertaining conversational style that reflected the man’s energetic personality and quaint way of putting things without losing intellectual value. He expressed some wonderful thoughts on his profession, life, and politics. He shunned the romantic notions of fame and fortune, concentrating on practical efforts of survival…both in his career and in life.

Terrific stuff.

Cagney identified the one major cause of unhappiness, failure, and premature death as undue and unremitting self-interest. He described one example in a conversation he had with director Charlie Vidor, who had walked into the studio one morning feeling miserable. Cagney asked him what was wrong and Vidor said he was depressed by negative things people were saying about him. Cagney responded, “Do you want to get rid of that, Charlie? Well, just ask yourself one question and the hurt will disappear that fast. The question is this: just ask yourself, ‘Who the hell do I think I am?’ And you’ll see the hurt will disappear.” Sadly, the advice didn’t take. Cagney said Vidor told him, “Ah, Jimmy, I can’t do that.” Cagney asked him why not? Vidor said, “Because I think I’m somebody.” Cagney summarized, “And with that view, inevitably, comes insecurity and frustration, and unhappiness.”

It dawned on me that James Cagney must have been a unique individual, indeed, to maintain that attitude while making a living in Hollywood. But it not only helped him maintain emotional equilibrium and a realistic approach to his work, it also helped him maintain a 64-year marriage to his wife, Frances. She was a fellow performer during his early years in show biz—long before he made it big. The more I thought about his ability to maintain such a philosophy in the context of his life, the more I saw a consistency of such an outlook with others from his generation. The same humility was reflected in my grandparents and their friends. They all came from childhoods immersed in poverty, lived through two world wars, social upheavals, moral decline, and rough personal experiences that made daily survival a real task…even with notoriety, or because of it. Amazing people when compared to the self-indulgent propensities and extravagant tastes of subsequent generations.

Humility is such an irreplaceable virtue. James Cagney as much as said it was responsible for his longevity, on stage and off. So much depends on it: objectivity, clarity, stability, compassion, security, and resilience. How many marriages fail due to a lack of this vital component? Does it appear in any of the turmoil we see in our culture today? I’ll go so far as to say that even wisdom would either not exist or would be made moot without it.

There is an objective truth here, maybe the most important one. Obviously, humility was ever-present during Christ’s ministry so much so that he made it a poignant theme during the Last Supper before his betrayal and crucifixion. At one point, he got up and set to the work of a lowly servant, washing the feet of his followers. He did so much to the chagrin of his disciples. Simon Peter protested with great dismay until he was assured by Jesus that the act was completely appropriate and, as it were, necessary to discipleship.

So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him.  If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.’” (John 13:12-17)

Humility. As unappetizing as it may seem, maybe we could all use a grapefruit in the face once in a while.

Photo credit: Warner Bros

Michael Kelly
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