White Heat was originally based on the life of Kate “Ma” Barker, the ruthless matriarch of the Barker-Karpis gang (active 1931–35). Four members of the gang were her sons Herman, Lloyd, Arthur (“Doc”), and Fred), who began committing crimes as early as 1910. At its height, the gang had 25 members. Most of their crimes were bank robberies, though they also engaged in kidnappings.
Warner Bros. bought the rights to the story from writer Virginia Kellogg for $2,000, and Ben Roberts and Ivan Goff set to work turning it into a screenplay. Director Raoul Walsh was horrified by the finished product, which took six months to complete, and pleaded with William Cagney to talk his brother out of doing it. William was his business manager and produced several of his films.
William assured him “Jimmy [would] rewrite it as much as possible.” After many rewrites and input from multiple parties, the film only had the barest of similarities to its real-life inspiration.
Filming commenced 6 May 1949 and lasted six weeks, till 20 June. Locations included the (now razed) San Val Drive-In in Burbank, the Columbia (now Warner) Ranch, the Santa Susana Mountains, an old tunnel of the Southern Pacific Railroad, and Van Nuys.
Jack Warner wanted the famous scene of Cody going nuts in the prison mess hall to take place in a chapel, feeling the “cost of a single scene with 600 extras and only one line of dialogue would be exorbitant.” He relented when the writers pointed out Cody would never voluntarily enter a house of worship, and that the point of the scene is to have lots of noise transmogrifying into silence when Cody screams.
That scene of Cody’s total breakdown was improvised, and the looks of shock on the other actors’ faces were real. No one either behind or in front of the camera knew what was going to happen.
The cost of that scene wasn’t Jack Warner’s only headache regarding this film. He was pissed Cagney had returned to his studio in mid-1949, after leaving in 1942 to form his own company with brother William. Though Cagney never forgot how badly he was treated by Jack Warner during his contract renewal in the 1930s, he needed money badly. The four films he made on his own weren’t financially successful.
For his part, Warner called his prodigal star “that little bastard” and swore he’d never take him back. He was very displeased when Cagney was suggested for the lead of this new picture by the screenwriters, but they were positive no one else could play that role as it needed to be.
Cagney’s new contract gave him $250,000 per film, one each year, in addition to script approval and the chance to develop projects for his own company. Though he’d resisted returning to gangster roles for years, afraid of being typecast, he compromised for the sake of his waning box office draw.
Once he signed on to star in White Heat, the budget was upped to one million, and Raoul Walsh was brought on as director. Cagney had asked for Frank McHugh, but Jack Warner rejected him to save money.
The film earned $2,189,000 in the U.S. ($23,598,063 today) and $1,294,000 internationally ($13,949,700 today). Critics by and large loved it, a reputation which continues to this day. White Heat routinely features on those incessant best-of lists.
In 1950, Virginia Kellogg was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Story, and Ben Roberts and Ivan Goff were nominated by the Mystery Writers of America for the Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture. In 2003, the Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry.
White Heat has been referenced countless times in other films, music videos, cartoons, and songs over the years, most notably Cody’s famous final line (which isn’t the film’s final line).