William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931) is the movie that made James Cagney a star. Cagney, who only a few months earlier had been little more than a B-grade talent with A-list experience as a hoofer and had appeared to good – if minor effect in The Doorway to Hell and Sinner’s Holiday (both made in 1930) was thrust into Wellman’s iconic gangster flick at the behest of its director who thought Cagney had ‘a touch of the gutter’ about him – a perfect quality for the despicable thug muscle he portrays as Tom Power. Along with Little Caesar, The Public Enemy created a brand for the gangster/crime melodrama – its’ ‘ripped from the headlines’ sordid tales infrequently chastised as contributing to a growing moral delinquency. To stave off the specter of censorship the glorification of the mob lifestyle was counterbalanced by an innate necessity for dark – if slightly obscure – last act finales in which the ‘star’ of such movies usually met with a bitter and untimely fate.
For his part, Production Chief Darryl F. Zanuck vehemently argued that movies like The Public Enemy were performing a public service; not in illustrating a model of ‘how to become’ a gangster, but in laying out the blueprint; thus providing a sociological study of the fundamentals that contributed to the ‘making of’ a criminal and therefore giving society a clear-cut set of circumstances to avoid for their own salvation. Okay, it’s a weak argument at best. Movies are entertainment. How much they reflect/influence the public conscience has been debated elsewhere and ad nauseam. But the gangster genre had not preceded the rise to prominence of such spurious underworld figures like Al Capone or even Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. That die had already been cast in real life. So, if anything The Public Enemy was tapping into a vein of society and the general public’s fascination with crime and its’…uh…heroes…that had yet to be represented on the screen.
The Public Enemy is very circumspect about providing its back story on Tom Power (James Cagney); a boy first glimpsed indulging in a bucket of beer taken from a saloon. Kubec Glasmon and John Bright’s novel ‘Blood and Beer’ had been penned from the vantage of a prohibition America; outlining the sordid machinations that went into the subterranean backroom culture of the speakeasy. Thus, Harvey F. Thew’s screenplay begins in 1909, with Tom (played as a boy by Frank Coghlan) and his best friend, Matt Doyle (Frankie Darro) indulging in a bit of horseplay, eluding the police by sliding down a banister on a department store escalator while knocking the top hat off a well-dressed patron’s head. It is interesting to note that Edward Wood (who plays Matt Doyle as an adult) had been originally cast in the lead with Cagney as Matt. Coghlan looks a lot more like Wood might have as a child than Darro does, and actually production notes indicate that at the time these early scenes were filmed Wood was still slated to play Tom Power. Hence, when the decision was made to switch the actors in their adult roles, director Wellman did not bother to reshoot these early scenes.
We next glimpse Tom and Matt lying by the side of the road in front of Tom’s house where he delights in tripping Matt’s sister, Molly (Rita Flynn) to whom he had earlier given a pair of roller skates stolen from the department store. Molly chides Tom and then gives him back his skates. Tom’s father, a stern disciplinarian exacts his justice on Tom’s hide with the strap. Regrettably, this brutalization does not change Tom’s disposition one bit. The film fast tracks to 1915; Tom and Matt come into the employ of local fence, Putty Nose (Murray Kinnnell); who offers the boys mere tokens in trade for the goods they manage to swipe from local merchants before selling them for pure profit on the other end. Now played by Cagney and Wood, Tom and Matt are given guns as ‘Christmas presents’ by Putty Nose – to improve their prospects for even greater heists. The boys, together with another, Larry Dalton, break into the Northwestern Fur Company to steal some pelts. But in the dimly lit warehouse Tom is spooked by stuffed grizzly bear, firing his gun and thereby attracting the police. The boys make a break for it, but Larry is shot dead and Tom exacts his revenge by killing the cop before fleeing with Matt.
At Larry’s funeral, Ma Powers (Beryl Mercer) encourages the boys to stay near and comfort Larry’s grieving mother (Lucille Ward). We move ahead to 1917. Tom’s older brother, Mike (Donald Cook), a streetcar conductor who has always been the straight arrow of the family, has enlisted to fight in the Great War, leaving Ma heartbroken. In his absence she trustingly relies on Tom to do the right thing and support the family. But Tom has already had his first taste of the high life. He won’t kowtow to the status quo. Instead he and Matt hook up with notorious bootlegger, Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O’Connor) who quickly sets the boys to work on intimidating the local pub trade into buying his beer. Tom has no compunction about roughing up the competition. He and Matt are immediate successes and well-compensated for their roughneck coercions.
With their newfound wealth the boys decide to take up with a pair of floozies at the Congress Hotel. Matt shines up to Mamie (Joan Blondell), a brassy platinum blonde while Tom prefers the more demure Kitty (Mae Clarke). In the meantime, Paddy has decided to promote Tom and Matt into his bootlegging empire. The boys are hired to oversee smuggling operations at Leehman’s Distillery, shuttered since prohibition but secretly reopened under Paddy’s watchful eye. Paddy also introduces Tom and Matt to Nails Nathan (Leslie Fenton); the charismatic and dapper man about town who operates on a higher level than any of them. Nails, Tom, Matt, Kitty and Mamie go out for a night on the town where Tom takes notice of Puddy Nose still running the same old racket. Recalling how he and Matt were exploited, Tom decides to tail Puddy back to his rather posh apartment where he murders him in cold blood. Director Wellman pans away just before Tom shoots Puddy in the head to capture Matt’s reaction – one of abject distaste for murder – foreshadowing the diverging trajectories Tom and Matt’s lives will take; regrettably achieving the same fatalist conclusion later on.
Matt marries Mamie. But Tom and Kitty’s relationship has reached an impasse. Tom seems dissatisfied or even unfulfilled in their obvious sexual relationship. The now infamous ‘grapefruit’ scene begins after a dinner party given in Mike’s honor. Suffering from a mild case of shellshock Mike is forewarned by police office and family friend, Pat Burke (Robert Homans) that in his absence Tom has lied to their mother about entering the political arena while becoming one of the most notorious bootleggers in town. Mike keeps his anger and disappointment to himself until he spies a large keg of beer in the center of the family’s dining room table. He coldly admonishes Tom for dishonoring the family. Tom storms out of the house and back to the Congress Hotel but can find no comfort in Kitty’s arms, she coolly suggesting that perhaps he already has someone else to please him. In response, Tom reaches across the table at the morning slice of grapefruit, mashing it into Kitty’s face before leaving her for good.
There has been much debate over just how much Mae Clarke knew about Cagney’s actions going into this scene. Decades later Cagney relayed the story that Wellman had given him the direction but had said nothing to his co-star. But Clarke insists she knew exactly what would happen – her only surprising being when she sat in the projection room to view the final cut and saw the scene left in the movie. She had been told by Wellman it was being played strictly as a gag for the crew.
The fraternal rift between Mike and Tom widens. Tom takes up with Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow) whom he picks up with a sly grin on a street corner. Gwen is high class and experienced – just the sort of moll Tom fancies for himself. The relationships Tom has with both women and figures of authority in the film bears closer inspection. Tom is incapable of abiding the moral precepts of his father or Mike – who becomes the de facto head of the Power family later on. But his contempt for authority goes even further by murdering the cop in the alley, then Puddy Nose whom he had once regarded as a surrogate father-figure in absence of his own. Yet, despite his prowess as an unrepentant killer – hardly an attribute ascribed a child - Tom is readily regarded as ‘just a boy’ by the women in his life. Kitty, as example, is much too solid and true to herself to remain Tom’s girl for very long, while Gwen is a racy flirt, far more worldly than Tom will ever be; particularly in her sexual conquests. She tells Tom he is ‘spoiled’ – a word having dual meaning herein. She also explains that she has known ‘many men’ – the implication being that Tom is neither her first, nor will he be the last to grace her boudoir. Tom doesn’t really believe this, however. But he is just a passing fancy; an all too prolific foreshadowing into the movie’s tragic climax.
At this point Nails is killed in a riding accident; an unforeseen loss that weakens Paddy’s mob rule. Tom and Matt arrive at the stables; bullying one of the hired hands into selling Rajah, the horse that threw Nails. After paying off the jockey they shoot the dumb animal in its stall. This, of course, draws undue attention to the mob’s other activities. Paddy puts Tom and Matt up in an apartment managed by his much younger girlfriend, Jane (Mia Marvin) who wastes no time seducing Tom, then suggesting she will tell of their affair to Paddy. The rouse backfires as Tom isn’t about to take any guff from a girl. He belts Jane on the chops before leaving the apartment with Matt, walking right into a trap. A rival gang machine-guns the pair in broad daylight. Tom manages to escape but Matt dies in the street.
To avenge Matt’s death, Tom follows the assassins to the Western Chemical Company – waiting until the cover of night and pouring rain to break into the establishment alone. He is wounded in the hailstorm of gunfire and stumbles into the street, eventually brought to hospital where he is reunited with Mike and their mother; each promising to look after him once he is released from hospital. Regrettably, before this can happen Mike receives word that Tom has been kidnapped from his ward. A short while later another phone call to the Powers household suggests that the gang intend on returning Tom to his family. In the gruesome finale they do just that – only as a corpse, bloodied and bound to his hospital bed - Tom’s body flopping through the front door as Mike stoically looks on. How will he ever tell Ma?
The Public Enemy remains a fairly white-knuckled affair thanks to ‘wild’ Bill Wellman’s realistic fast-moving pace. The Public Enemy was made and released the same year as Little Caesar and – in years yet to follow – was frequently reissued as a double feature with some of its racier bits cut out. One such scene involved Tom going to a tailor to be fitted for some dapper clothes. The effete tailor comments on the size of Tom’s muscle and offers to measure his inseam in the crotch. Considered to be overtly homosexual in its content, this sequence was excised after 1933, but has been reinstated into the movie once again.
There’s no comparison between The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. The Public Enemy moves with all the agility of a jungle cat. Ditto for Cagney whose dancer’s training contributes to fascinating bits of business with his feet and hands throughout the film that become a part of Tom Power’s genetic makeup. Cagney is electric. It is impossible to take our eyes off of him for a single moment; those shifty glances, beady eyes piercing back at us from the screen, an animalistic or even psychotic tension coursing through his veins – mingled with a devilish uncertainty that is both intoxicating and dangerous.
Jean Harlow was considered the platinum beauty of the day. Personally, I don’t see it. I never have. Harlow really came into her own in the mid-thirties, her raunchy sass and sharp-tongued retorts able to dish the dirt with the best of both the boys and the girls. But she’s too harsh looking in The Public Enemy, those bee-stung lips trying to be a Clara Bow or Theda Bara – a bad knock off of each while achieving the resident sex symbol status of neither. Harlow’s penchant for smart talk is also subdued in The Public Enemy, thereby diluting her more obvious charms under even more obvious war paint and accoutrements.
Otherwise, everything works in The Public Enemy. Moreover, it clicked with the public’s taste for such racy fare. It’s easy to see why Wellman switched roles between Cagney and Edward Wood who is by far the better looking of the two though hardly the better performer. Wood is arguably at his best when he’s playing dead, his otherwise stoic presence something of a downer; not nearly as naturalistic as Cagney. Wood’s career never recovered from this transplant. He became increasingly relegated to bit parts while Cagney skyrocketed to superstardom overnight. Only the most genuine of stars have such staying power. Cagney had it. Wood didn’t. You gotta love Cagney…I mean, you just gotta!
The Public Enemy arrives on Blu-ray in a much improved 1080p single layer transfer. The B&W image sharpens up and film grain really becomes noticeable. It’s very natural and delivers a layer of texture to the image previously unseen on home video. The image is noticeably darker than its DVD counterpart, arguably as it should be. Contrast is solid. Age related artifacts are still present but have been tempered throughout for an image that is relatively smooth and unobtrusive. More could have been done – primarily in doing a new image harvest and dual-layer scan to improve the bit rate. Again, I suspect Warner has used the same digital files it had on The Public Enemy from their DVD release. This is 1080p, though arguably not ‘full’ 1080p. The audio is DTS mono and adequate, though we still get slight hiss and pop occurring throughout. Extras are all direct imports from the DVD, including Robert Sklar’s somewhat rambling audio commentary, a brief featurette, vintage shorts and theatrical trailer. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)