James Cagney in “A Link in the Chain”

If you’re a fan of classic movies, you likely know Academy Award-winning actor James Cagney from his roles in films like “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Angels with Dirty Faces,” “Mister Roberts,” and many, many more. What you may not know is that Cagney starred in a half-hour Christopher film during the 1950’s called “A Link in the Chain.” He plays a retiring teacher reflecting on his life and career, a career in which he tried to inspire his students to become doers, not just talkers.

In one scene, Cagney challenges a female student who claims to love her fellow man and wants to change the world. Yet when confronted with a family living in squalor, she wants to run away. Cagney tells her, “You don’t improve the world by fiery speeches and clenched fists. That’s been tried. You go out and see what’s wrong. You get a scrubbing brush and get down on your knees if a dirty floor is what’s wrong. If a child crying is what’s wrong, you dry its tears. And if a blind man trying to find his way is what’s wrong, you reach for his arm. That’s real love of people. And if you don’t believe that the way to change the world is through kindness and decency, then all this idealistic talk of yours about your concern for your fellow man is just a lot of humbug!”

Christopher lore has it that when this film ran on television, it was Cagney’s first-ever TV appearance. Though the film may seem a little corny by modern standards, it still resonates with viewers. I recently had an American who moved to Poland to become a high school teacher ask me to put the film on Youtube so he could show it to his students there. As a result, we’ve now got it online for all the world to see.

During an interview late in Cagney’s life, Father John Catoir – who was Director of The Christophers at the time – asked him to explain his approach to acting. Cagney, a man of few words, simply said, “Walk in, plant yourself, look the other fella in the eye, and tell the truth.”

Here’s James Cagney “telling the truth” in “A Link in the Chain.”

About Tony Rossi

After graduating from St. John's University in New York with degrees in Communications and English, Tony Rossi found a job at the Catholic media organization, The Christophers, that allowed him to indulge his interest in religion, media, and pop culture. He served as The Christophers' TV producer for 11 years, and is currently the host and producer of the organization's radio show/podcast Christopher Closeup, writer and editor of their syndicated Light One Candle column, and producer/scriptwriter of the annual Christopher Awards ceremony.