James Cagney and Allen Jenkins — Two “Toughs” from the Chorus (1934) 🇺🇸
Jimmy and Allen hot-footed it in ‘Pitter Patter.” That’s where Jimmy met the “missus”.
by Ben Maddox
In all the world there is nothing so quaint as a movie actor’s past. But, until now, one James Cagney and one Allen Jenkins, who are hard-boiled — see? — hombres on the screen, have made no reference to a certain chapter in their pre-fame days.
To the very first chapter, to be explicit.
They began — together — as chorus boys!
You know how Jimmy and Allen wade through talkie plots. They approach their victims with the gala attitude of the two carefree members of the “Three Little Pigs” trio.
Can’t you just imagine Jimmy rubbing his hands with glee and singing under his breath, “We’ll put him on the spot!” And Allen chortling, “We’ll pull him by the tail!”
Yet, these two ten-minute eggs, who advise many a quaking fillum opponent where to head and aren’t afraid of any big, bad man, got their theatrical impetus in — of all places — the chorus!
The name of the show was “Pitter Patter,” and try to fancy them in a spot like that!
Today, pals of a dozen years’ standing, and often professional partners, Cagney is a front-row Hollywood star, with a Beverly Hills mansion which is complete from swimming pool to play-room. Jenkins is a popular featured actor, a dignified resident of exclusive Brentwood Heights. Little did either of them suspect they’d ever be sitting so prettily when they first met back in 1921.
“The show was playing Boston,” Jimmy recalls with that Irish twinkle in his eyes. “There were eight fellows in our routine and one boy had to drop out because his father died suddenly.
“Allen had finished in another musical in Boston — I think he walked out on it!
He came to our theater and got the job vacant in our company. I taught him the dance steps we were doing.
“Would you believe it that he’s a limber son-of-a-gun? He doesn’t unbend much in pictures, but how he can stretch those long legs of his! Has slack ligaments, or something. He could do splits at the crack of a drumstick.”
Jimmy says he envied this double-jointedness of Allen because he was muscle-bound himself. They got an apartment with two other men in the chorus for the remaining two weeks of the Boston run.
“We were financially sad,” Jimmy explains. Their salary was thirty dollars a week, but they had to send practically all of that back to New York to cover debts. One day the now-noted pair were down to fifteen cents. They flung it down at a one-arm lunch stand for coffee and a doughnut.
“That was the day Jimmy saw a beautiful girl, who was also in the ‘Pitter Patter’ chorus, pass by,” Allen tattle-tales. “He said to me, ‘Gee, I’m crazy about that kid!’” Her name was Billie Vernon and she became Jimmy’s missus.
“Well,” snorts Mr. Cagney, “I recollect a stunning gal in that show whom Allen kind of craved. One night she stopped him backstage, and gave him to understand that he could come up any time. He was so scared at her audacity that he ran whenever he thought she was about to speak to him!”
When the theater was deserted, in the daytime, Jimmy used to go in and practice dancing by himself. The intricate effects were a natural for Allen, but not for the red-head. Eventually, however, Jimmy turned into the better prancer of the two. When the show closed in New York, where they went after Boston, he was rewarded with a specialty dance solo on the lengthy road tour.
Both of them express amazement at finding themselves actors.
Jenkins’ parents were well-known theatrical people, having headlined in musicals, but the senior Cagneys were total strangers to the smell of grease-paint. Jimmy’s papa ran a saloon on the East Side.
“I trouped as a kid with my folks,” Allen said to me, “and I loathed the stage. I wanted to be a marine engineer. Studied along that line for two years, and worked in a ship yard for a year and a half for practical experience.
“Then, like lightning, at nineteen I got the acting bug. The quickest way onto a stage seemed to be the chorus. My folks didn’t think much of me for debuting that way. Two years of it convinced me I wasn’t progressing, so I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, where my father had once been an instructor.”
Graduating from the school which has trained many of our finest performers, his first regular job was a bit in the Broadway production of “Secrets.” A succession of good parts in outstanding dramas followed. When Warners decided to film Blessed Event, they imported Allen to recreate his original role in it.
Jimmy’s luck was slower in arriving. When “Pitter Patter” ended, he and Billie Vernon, who’d murmured “I do,” tackled vaudeville. They made precarious sums varying from $12.50 a week up, during the five years they toured the tank towns. Jimmy finally scored as a roughneck in a New York play, and thus found his forte. Three years ago Warners bought “Penny Arcade,” in which Jimmy and Joan Blondell were playing, and brought them to Hollywood to do it on celluloid.
The only argument these two regulars have ever had was over a shirt. That was when the chorus wardrobe chief sang out, “There’s one size fifteen left!” Both made a dive for the clean shirt. A knock-down, drag-out scrap, friendly-like, ensued, ending by Cagney tossing Jenkins into the farthest corner of their dressing-room. “I guess that was due to his constant smoking,” Jimmy expounds. “I never puffed.”
Aside from performing, Jimmy was “dresser” to the star. It was his duty to be completely responsible for that gentleman’s attire and he came to feel like a one-man cleaning establishment.
Cagney and Jenkins remained friends, although they never worked together again until Warners cast them in the same pictures. And each swears that the other has been unaffected by Hollywood.
“Jimmy’s still a great guy,” Allen professes. “Maybe he’s mellowed a trifle, but he hasn’t acquired the usual stellar swell-head. He always enjoyed fine music and loved to read. Now he can go to all the concerts he wants and buy books by the dozens.” Not being addicted to Beverly society, Jimmy and his Billie have plenty of time for these quiet forms of recreation.
“The chances are a hundred-to-one against a successful Hollywood marriage,” Allen contended with the cynical expression on his face of the show-me bachelor. “The trouble is that people who’ve never had big money are showered with it. They go wild. Or meet a third party who’s anxious to chisel in.”
And yet shortly after making this statement, Allen stepped happily to the altar with Mary Landee. So, after all, he followed the example of the Cagneys happy union.
The Cagney-Jenkins’ mutual hobby is boating. Every summer when Jimmy came into New York from a season on the road, they used to hang around the shipyards, examining the latest models. They frequently chugged up the Hudson in Allen’s outboard motorboat, taking a tent along and camping overnight.
In disposition these two toughs from the chorus are very different. Jimmy, in spite of his red hair, is ready to make friends with everybody and is generally easy-going. Allen is aloof and has few intimates.
“My likes and dislikes are so extreme,” he analyzes, “whereas Jimmy is tactful and can be ‘middling.’ He is studious, and a little light fiction is the extent of my reading.”
Nevertheless, of the two, Allen’s preparation for drama was much more thorough, thanks to his training at the dramatic academy. Hard knocks taught Jimmy.
“And they’re silly,” Jimmy insists, “to keep Jenkins in mug parts. Why, I saw him do a dressed-up role on the stage. He wore a tailor-made suit, sported a mustache, and he was as dapper as could be!” Loyally, Cagney argues with the studio executives not to push his pal into a rut.
It’s a long way from that tiny dressing-room four flights up in the back-stage loft, which they shared in Boston, to their present fame and fortune. Jimmy cashed in on his memories when he was called upon to portray the dance director in “Footlight Parade.” As for Jenkins, the only thing which might be a tip-off to his chorus past is a sartorial habit. He prefers berets to hats.
Pals of a dozen years standing, the only argument Cagney and Allen ever had was over a clean shirt. Each of them swears that the other is entirely unspoiled by Hollywood and film success.
And don’t drop any stitches! There’s nothing like a crochet needle for keeping girls contented on the set. These four, who worked with Paul Muni in his latest, “Hi, Nellie,” made good use of their time between scenes.
Collection: Photoplay Magazine, February 1934