James Cagney as Arthur “Cody” Jarrett, ruthless gang leader and devoted son
Los Angeles, Spring 1950
Film: White Heat
Release Date: September 2, 1949
Director: Raoul Walsh
Wardrobe Credit: Leah Rhodes
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Today would have been the 120th birthday of James Cagney, the intense actor who brought realism and energy to his performances that ranged from deadpan comedy to complex tough guys. It was for the latter that Cagney, who Orson Welles described as “maybe the greatest actor who ever appeared in front of the camera,” is most remembered, particularly for his mature performance as the complex gangster Cody Jarrett in White Heat.
Released 70 years ago this September, White Heat capped off nearly two decades of Cagney’s iconic gangster roles from his explosive star-making performance in The Public Enemy (1931) through more developed, nuanced criminal characters in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939). The latter marked Cagney’s last gangster role for nearly a decade as his career evolved with more romantic and comedic roles through the ’40s, and it was his performance as the decidedly non-criminal George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) that earned Cagney his Academy Award. “Movies should be entertaining, not blood baths,” Cagney had stated during the waning days of his contract with Warner Brothers. “I’m sick of carrying a gun and beating up women.”
However, his subsequent movies were received with decreasing enthusiasm, and Cagney found himself back where he started: playing a gangster for Warner Brothers. “It’s what people want me to do,” the actor expressed around the time he signed on for White Heat in May 1949, shortly before his 50th birthday. “Someday, though, I’d like to make just one picture kids could go see.”
Though Cagney had hoped to avoid the typecasting that came with playing gangsters in “blood baths,” White Heat had the potential to be a much different kind of movie, a noir-ish character study written by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, based on a story by Virginia Kellogg. To Jack Warner’s dismay, both screenwriters suggested Cagney for the role, explaining that “there’s only one man who can play [Cody Jarrett] and make the rafters rock.” Cagney, however, was initially disappointed with his and stereotypical character and the formulaic plot so, with the help of pals Humphrey Bogart and Frank McHugh, he worked on script revisions that added dimension to the Cody Jarrett character with his blinding migraines and psychotic rage based on what Cagney recalled of his own alcoholic father.
The new direction also took inspiration from the true story of Ma Barker and her criminal sons who terrorized the Depression-era Midwest with a half-decade spree of bank robberies, kidnappings, and killings. While the real “Ma” no doubt sympathized with her offspring, she was hardly the ruthless gang leader that the FBI posthumously presented her to be. In fact, Alvin Karpis—a Canadian-born criminal who was most likely the actual leader of the gang—described Kate Barker as “an old-fashioned homebody from the Ozarks… superstitious, gullible, simple, cantankerous and, well, generally law abiding.” Adding to that, bank robber Harvey Bailey suggested in his autobiography that the aging woman “couldn’t plan breakfast,” let alone a criminal enterprise.
In fact, the side of White Heat‘s depiction of “Ma” Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) as a sympathetic enabler of her son’s criminal plight rather than a gun-toting gang member is more consistent with the known facts of Ma Barker than the reputation that has dogged her in the 84 years since she and her son Fred were killed during a gunfight with the FBI at their rural Florida hideout in January 1935. Historians have dismissed the image of Ma Barker as a vicious criminal matriarch as merely J. Edgar Hoover’s justification of the fact that a 61-year-old woman had been killed by his agents. Unfortunately for the late Mrs. Barker’s reputation, this characterization of the violent, promiscuous gang leader has clearly resonated with Hollywood, whether in retellings of the Barker-Karpis Gang’s story in movies like Ma Barker and her Killer Brood (1960), Bloody Mama (1970), and Public Enemies (1996, not the Michael Mann movie) or works of fiction inspired by the idea of a brutal old woman at the helm of a gang of criminals, like James Hadley Chase’s novel No Orchids for Miss Blandish and its 1971 adaptation, The Grissom Gang.
The inspired new direction for the character and plot led to James Cagney delivering a masterful comeback performance, cited to be Oscar-worthy by his co-star Virginia Mayo, in what is now considered one of the greatest gangster movies of all time.
Freshly escaped from prison with his new pal Vic Pardo (Edmund O’Brien)—in fact an undercover police agent named Hank Fallon—Cody Jarrett has already taken revenge on the treacherous gang member who ran away with his wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo), and is deep in planning his next caper, the “Trojan Horse”-style robbery of $426,000 from a chemical plant’s payroll office, filmed at the Shell Oil refinery at 198th Street and Figueroa in Torrance. “Vic” has used Verna’s radio to send a transmitter signal to his pals on the police who track the gang’s tanker to Long Beach and surround the building. Having watched most of his gang fall whether to police bullets or those fired by his own gun, Cody flees to the top of a spherical gas tank that provides him one last opportunity to toast his deceased mother before two of his own gunshots set the whole structure aflame…
Cody Jarrett’s last words also reflect another inspiration for his character, the diminutive New York spree killer Francis “Two Gun” Crowley, whose brief but brutal streak of shootings in the spring of 1931 ended the lives of dance hall stewardess Virginia Brannen and Nassau County police officer Fred Hirsch. Crowley was finally cornered in his West 91st Street apartment on May 7, the day after he killed Hirsch, engaging in a two-hour gun battle with police that attracted nearly 15,000 bystanders before Crowley was finally wounded four times and arrested, though police had to remove two additional pistols strapped to his legs as he was being brought into custody.
Convicted of Hirsch’s murder (while his partner Rudolph “Fats” Derringer was found guilty of killing Brannen), the 19-year-old Crowley was executed on January 21, 1932, having reportedly uttered the final words, “You sons of bitches. Send my love to my mother,” though others report his final words were to ask for a rag to wipe down the electric chair after it had just been used to fry Derringer.
What’d He Wear?
During the Depression-era crime wave, a pattern emerged of outlaws like John Dillinger, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, and even the scrappy Clyde Barrow of dressing in their finest suits, ties, hats, and coats for their bank takeovers, treating them almost as debutante balls rather than dangerous armed robberies. The fictional Cody Jarrett of White Heat takes the opposite approach, dressing in double-breasted suits and silk ties while at leisure but donning utilitarian and casual work wear for his heists.
Cody dresses for the climactic chemical plant heist in a casual jacket, fedora, and khaki trousers, essentially a retread of his outfit from the film’s opening train robbery in the Sierra Mountains though he replaces the rural-appropriate corded jacket with a leather blouson jacket more fitting for this urban scenario.
Made from what appears to be seal brown horsehide, Cody Jarrett’s leather jacket has a zip front, hip pockets that close with single-snap flaps, and ribbed-knit cuffs and waist hem. The epaulettes (shoulder straps) suggest a military influence, particularly suitable during the postwar wave of patriotism that popularized the look of the heroic American aviation officers in their leather A-2 jackets as they piloted bombers across the skies during World War II. (Read more about the history of American flight jackets and bomber jackets in this two-part series from Heddel’s, focusing on 1927 through 1946 and 1947 to the present day.)
White Heat may be one of the first post-war pop culture appearances of the modern military-style flight jacket as casual civilian wear. In fact, Cody’s leather flight jacket takes many styling cues from the classic A-2, though the collar lacks the A-2’s hidden snaps at the collar points and hook-and-eye throat latch, instead fitted with a shirt-style collar that lays flat and a snap closure at the neck.
Modern A-2 jackets are also a dime a dozen (or several hundred for a single jacket) on Amazon, offered by brands like Cockpit USA and Landing Leathers. Those seeking to crib Cody Jarrett’s look could find success with the vintage-inspired Expedition Shirt offered in several colors for $125 by Magnoli Clothiers, paired with the same brand’s Adventure Jacket ($635) or Civilian A-2 Jacket ($670).
Cody wears a dark cotton work shirt with a long point collar, wide front placket, and button cuffs. The shirt has two patch pockets on the chest that each close with a single button through a mitred-corner flap. Though dark, Cody’s shirt is a few shades lighter in color than his leather jacket.
Cody wears a pair of medium-colored work trousers almost certainly made from khaki chino cotton, adding more military pedigree to the bandit’s casual ensemble. Chino cloth developed with the Spanish introduction of “pantalones chinos” made from a durable Chinese cotton twill to European militaries in the 1800s. The distinctive khaki color was a by-product of British Army Lieutenant Harry Lumdsen’s experimentation of using either river mud or tea to dye his bright white cotton uniform while serving in India. By the end of the 19th century, the material now popularized as khaki chino cloth found its way to the United States in time to meet the lightweight uniform requirements of soldiers fighting the Spanish-American War in tropical Cuba. (You can read more about the evolution of menswear originally developed for the military in my 2018 piece for Primer.)
These flat front trousers have a high rise to his natural waist, where Cody wears a dark leather belt with a dulled rectangular single-prong buckle. The belt loops themselves are inconsistent in width with loops nearly an inch long in the front but only a thin loop in the rear center.
Cody’s trousers have a button fly, slightly slanted side pockets, and jetted back pockets with a button closing through the top of the left pocket only. They have a full cut and are straight through the legs down to the plain-hemmed bottoms. Cody wears a pair of dark leather work boots with open derby-style lacing and speed hooks.
Like the classic black-hatted villains of Western serials, the irredeemable baddie Cody Jarrett wears a dark fedora, likely made from black felt, with a black ribbed silk grosgrain band.
Between Cody’s gloves and the ribbed cuffs of his jacket, his wristwatch is mostly hidden for the duration of the oil refinery heist, though he appears to be wearing the same watch with its metal bracelet as he was wearing before he went to prison. His medium-colored gloves are likely made from tan leather.
The film’s wardrobe is credited to Leah Rhodes, the Warner Brothers costume designer who was born 117 years ago this Sunday (sharing my birthday of July 21!) and won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design in recognition of her work in Adventures of Don Juan (1949). The prolific Ms. Rhodes had started working at Warner Brothers upon moving to Hollywood with her husband in the late 1920s, graduating to the role of Orry-Kelly’s chief assistant and then taking over for the legendary designer’s duties in 1942 when he was called for duty in the U.S. Army. Rhodes continued her role after the war, designing costumes for iconic Warner Brothers thrillers and crime films including The Big Sleep (1946), Key Largo (1948), and Strangers on a Train (1951).
While it may have been more realistic for a group of expert bandits like Cody Jarrett’s gang to be armed with the latest technology as real-life criminals of the ’30s and ’40s often were, the Motion Picture Production Code (colloquially the “Hays Code”) that began rigorous enforcement in 1934 stipulated firearm usage among the points where “good taste be emphasized,” often interpreted to mean that law enforcement could not be outgunned by criminals. Thus, Winchester rifles and shotguns replaced Thompson submachine guns and Browning Automatic Rifles in the hands of crooks like Humphrey Bogart’s Dillinger-esque outlaw in The Petrified Forest (1936) while James Cagney and his crusading team of federal agents in G Men (1935) could freely carry Tommy guns while trading shots with the violent gangs that ruled the Midwest.
By the late 1940s, the practice had softened a bit, no doubt due to the public’s exposure to fast-firing machine guns, submachine guns, and automatic rifles in the abundance of war movies released during the World War II years. However, movies like Dillinger (1945) and White Heat (1949) remained on the safe side of the long arm of the Hays Code by arming its police with Thompsons while the criminals fired back with the non-automatic rifles and shotguns developed decades earlier while the west was still wild.
Interestingly, Cody and his crew tend to stick to handguns only for their heists, including the final chemical plant payroll job. The shotgun eventually used on screen, a Winchester Model 1897 pump-action riot gun, was dropped by the accounting department security guard who was accosted by Bo Creel (Ian MacDonald). The shotgun still remained on the floor as Cody’s men worked on cracking the safes, not entering play until a desperate Hank Fallon grabbed it once Bo identified him to Cody as “a copper!”
Cody himself gets his hands on the guard’s Winchester shotgun after one of his men knocks out Fallon and alerts Cody to the police outside, necessitating Cody to arm himself with more firepower than the snub-nosed .38 he was carrying for the job.
Of course, it isn’t long before the shotgun is out of shells and the trigger-happy Cody again turns to his trusty Colt Detective Special that he had packed in his jacket pocket. Introduced in 1927, the Detective Special found almost instant popularity among lawmen and lawbreakers alike for its ability to carry six of the powerful .38 Special rounds in an easily concealable and relatively compact package, setting a new standard for the prototypical “snub-nose” revolver that would dominate 20th century detective fiction.
While Colt introduced its updated “Second Series” of Detective Special revolvers in 1947, Cody’s weapon appears to be from the first generation as it still has a rounded “half-moon” front sight rather than one with a ramped back.
How to Get the Look
Perhaps hoping to project the image that he leads his gang with military precision, Cody Jarrett dresses for the explosive climactic robbery in White Heat in a leather flight jacket and khaki chinos that evoke the attire of U.S. Army attire who fought in World War II earlier in the decade. More than 70 years later, flight jackets and chinos remain essential staples of men’s casual wear.
- Seal brown horsehide leather flight jacket with shirt-style collar, epaulettes, zip front (with neck snap), snap-flapped hip pockets, and ribbed-knit cuffs
- Dark cotton work shirt with point collar, two patch pockets (with mitred-corner button-down flaps), and button cuffs
- Khaki chino flat front trousers with wide belt loops, slightly slanted side pockets, jetted back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Dark leather belt with squared single-prong buckle
- Dark leather derby-laced work boots
- Dark fedora with ribbed-silk grosgrain band
- Tan leather gloves
- Wristwatch on metal bracelet
To the best of my knowledge, there is no existing accessible record of the colors of Cagney’s attire in White Heat, though a colorized version of the film depicts this final outfit to consist of a dark brown leather jacket, a charcoal work shirt, and khaki trousers. (You can watch a colorized clip here!)
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Made it, Ma! Top of the world!