The Public Enemy (1931)

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Director: William A. Wellman

Producer: Daryl F. Zanuck (Warner Bros.)

Writers: Harvey F. Thew (screenplay), John Bright and Kubec Glasmon (story)

Photography: Devereaux Jennings

Music: David Mendoza

Cast: James Cagney, Edward Woods, Jean Harlow, Joan Blondell, Beryl Mercer, Donald Cook, Mae Clarke, Mia Marvin, Leslie Fenton, Robert Emmett O’Connor, Murray Kinnell, Snitz Edwards, Rita Flynn, Frank Coghlan Jr., Frankie Darr

In preparation for this summary, I sat down to find The Public Enemy on my cable DVR. In doing so, I caught the middle of an episode of Home Improvement (1991), and no sooner could I play the movie than I heard Tim Allen invoke James Cagney with his own impression of “Ooh, you dirty rat!” I kid you not. What a testament to Cagney’s pop culture prevelence, that in the several minutes it took to find the movie on my DVR, I heard an impersonation of the very persona launched by the movie I set out to find — a movie made 60 years prior.

It all goes back to 1931, the year of the “genre film” in American cinema. It was a time when the silent era was folding and in its place emerged a new studio system full of specialization. Just as studios broke down production into a series of categories (writers, editors, directors), so they also did their product, finding genre niches to appeal to very targeted audiences. The most famous of these were the horror film at Universal, riding the success of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), and the gangster picture over at Warner Bros., building a brand of fast-talkers, dirty coppers and bullet-riddled set pieces.

It was in this environment that producer Daryl F. Zanuck brought us two gangster classics at roughly the same time, Little Caesar (1930) and The Public Enemy. Both were huge successes in their day and would become seminal films in the gangster canon, eventually placed back to back on AFI’s Top 10 Gangster Films. But The Public Enemy carries its own unique reputation, simply for its establishment of the studio most identified with the genre, and the man most synonymous with the genre, who with one smash of a grapefruit went from unknown to gangster superstar.

Based on John Bright’s novel Beer and Blood, aptly named for its subject of murderous bootleggers, The Public Enemy begins in 1909 Chicago, where young Tom Powers makes mischief with best friend Matt Doyle. The cause for this mischief is attributed to his policeman father, who beats him and becomes, in essence, the first “copper” he hates. By the time he is an adult (played by Cagney), Tom is a ruthless individual, teaming with Matt (Edward Woods) in a series of thefts, accidentally killing a cop, and graduating to bootlegging under boss Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O’Connor). Meantime, Tom’s well-behaved brother Mike (Donald Cook) has returned home from war and disapproves of his brother’s choice of lifestyle. He refuses to let his mother (Beryl Mercer) accept money from Tom, which he deems as blood money, and he tries to convince his brother to go straight. This pisses Tom off and hardens in resolve of becoming the baddest gangster in town.

He comes to work for a new boss, Nails Nathan (Leslie Fenton), and runs through a whole string of women, from nightclub floozy Kitty (Mae Clarke), to blonde bombshell Gwen (Jean Harlow), even Matt’s girlfriend Mamie (Joan Blondell). But the partying stops when Nathan is killed in a horseback accident, leaving their side vulnerable to rival gang Schemer Burns. It’s they who eventually mow down Matt, leaving Tom one last revenge mission in which he pops a bunch of Schemer’s men and is hospitalized himself. It seems the hospitalization causes Tom to repent. But just as his elated mom is expecting him home, his body shows up on the doorstep of her home, flopping to the floor in one of the most powerful final shots in movie history.

Yes, that’s really Cagney flopping face-first to the floor. He was such a gifted performer, even when playing dead. How powerful is his performance? Only one answer is necessary, and it’s in the form of a question — Have you ever heard of Edward Woods? It was Woods who was first offered the lead part in the film, but supporting actor Cagney was so compelling in rehearsals that director William Wellman bumped him to the lead. The ensuing contract disputes are the reason Woods is billed above Cagney in the credits (D). Could this be why the Academy overlooked Cagney for a Best Actor nomination, or was it purposely trying to gget it wrong? No worries. History has corrected that, as it always does. In the AFI’s countdown of the 50 Greatest Stars, Cagney placed #8. And on its countdown of the 50 Greatest Villains, Cagney’s Powers placed #42.

How can one argue with that, other than to say he should be higher? Plain and simply, Tom Powers is one of the meanest sons-of-bitches ever to take the screen. Case in point, when Nathan is accidentally killed when thrown for the horse, Powers storms out to the stable and shoots the horse right in the stall. Still, because Cagney is so appealing, so utterly charming, we the viewers find excitement, even from his most brutal decisions. It’s like the character is the bastard and the actor playing him is the hero. Throughout the film, Cagney demonstrates an extreme likability, and often solely through movement, from the affectionate fist bumps he gives to his friends’ chins, to the graceful jig he does after wooing Harlow. This is a man in complete control of his body, shades of Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), and we can’t help but smile watching it.

Of course, no scene packs a higher fusion of simultaneously likability and cruelty than the film’s famous grapefruit scene. If you’ve ever watched a movie highlight reel, you’ve seen it, Mae Clarke’s accusatory statement, “Maybe you found someone else you like better,” and Cagney, dressed in striped pajamas at the breakfast table, picking up a cut grapefruit and mashing it right into her face. The action is at once shocking and fitting, simple and pround, brutal and hilarious. The scene has been surrounded by such much discussion, but the best story of them all comes from Cagney himself. In his autobiography, he writes about how Clarke’s ex-husband had the grapefruit scene timed, would buy a ticket just in time to see the scene, then leave and come back during the next showing just in time to see that single scene again. (E)

Needless to say, the scene gained Cagney immediate fame. Americans want to be James Cagney. They wanted to act like him, talk like him, and the scene’s mysogynistic impact is a valid debate. But people of the Depression-era ’30s related to Cagney in a way that can never be fully experienced today. Mike Newell, director of the modern gangster film Donnie Brasco, explains: “The fact that James Cagney is a tough guy may be something to do with the audience wanting a representative who simply would fight, who would not accept the world the way it was. That was a good thing to be in the ’30s when so many people were squashed by impossible forces.” (A)

In real life, Cagney himself came from the gutter, from nothing, just like millions of his fans. Such is why critic Leonard Maltin finds Tom Powers easier to identify with than Little Caesar (A). They see in him a champion of ambition, an example of someone rising above their circumstance. But what does this say about the life of crime? Remember Tom’s statement about his well-behaved brother who works a job and goes to school — he’ “learnin’ how to be poor.” For the first time, the moral brother was the bore while his immoral brother was the hero, and so audiences became torn over how they should feel toward criminals. In public, they despised them. But in private, did they admire them? Imagine viewers saying to themselves, I know crime doesn’t pay, but in the movies this guy Cagney is kind of fun.

Thus The Public Enemy, like Little Caesar before it and Scarface (1932) after it, led to the establishment of censorship in the form of the Production Code. The powers that be deemed such films dangerous, and no matter how much they tried not to, the films suffered some form of appeasement. In Public Enemy, the film’s incessent need to moralize is just as dated as its opening credits or the stock footage of bustling pre-Prohibition Chicago. One can draw a line from one moralizing effort to the next, from the film’s title, to its dichotomy between the naughty-and-nice brothers; from Tom’s realization, “I ain’t so tough,” to the foreward that was tacked on in 1954, as part of a combo release with Little Caesar. It read, “Tom Powers in Public Enemy and Rico in Little Caesar are not two men, nor are they merely characters—they are a problem that sooner or later we, the public, must solve.”

But let’s give Wellman and Zanuck a little credit for resisting the powers that be as much as they could. There’s no better evidence of this than the final scene, so brutal that Zanuck had to fight Jack L. Warner to keep it in the picture. Acoording to Wellman, Warner turned away from Zanuck to ask the opinion of company director Michael Curtiz, who stood by with cigar in mouth. When Curtiz agreed with boss Warner, Zanuck hauled off and knocked the cigar down his throat, and the ending stayed in the picture. “That’s how movies were made in those days!” (A)

Wellman’s enthusiasm telling that story says much about his personality. His macho reputation and “Wild Bill” nickname are fitting for a film that both used live ammunition on set (B) and was shot for just $151,000. It would gross over $1 million (C). When his career was done, Wellman had built quite a reputation in Hollywood, having directed the first ever Best Picture in Wings (1927), as well as classics like A Star is Born (1937), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and The Story of G.I. Joe (1945). But in hindsight, his work seems merely “good” up against the greats. Scholar David Thomson finds him, and The Public Enemy, a bit overrated, a comment that explains why Wellman fit so well into what Maltin calls the Warner “house style” of the early ’30s, where individual style was less apparent than the company brand. (A)

That said, there is plenty to smile about from Wellman here. The first is the long take in beginning, following a horse-drawn carriage of beer barrels exiting a brewing company, then picking up a man as he crosses a street into a saloon, then following a man with paintbuckets across another street, then following a Salvation Army marching band down the street, and finally picking up young Tommy Powers and Matt Doyle exiting a building. Later, there’s a clever set-up where the camera drops into a hole in the ground as a car zooms overtop. And even later, Wellman cleverly constructs the gunning down a piano player, where the camera pans away so that all we hear is the sound of a body falling on the keys and all we see is a skipping needle on a record player. This was long before Sam Fuller mastered it in Pickup on South Street (1953).

Most memorably, though, is the backwards tracking shot as Cagney, dressed in rain-soaked black hat and jacket, approaches the camera for a closeup with a sinister grin on his face. It’s as if the camera is trying to escape him but ultimately can’t. Shortly after, the roles are reversed, as the camera sits at a low-angle waiting for Cagney to fall face-first into the gutter, a foreshadowing of the film’s final shot. This one scene of rain-soaked revenge marks the most poignant image in Cagney’s career, right up there with Enemy‘s grapefruit smash and the tanker explosion in White Heat (1949).

These images have carried down through the years, consciously or subconsciously influencing every gangster film to follow. No doubt Mario Puzo had The Public Enemy in mind when writing the source novel to The Godfather (1972). The ties are many. Gangsters torn between business and family, be they Powerses or Corleones. The illegal rackets, be they beer or narcotics. The powerful use of fruit, be they grapefruits or oranges. The killing of police officers, be it an innocent cop during a botched robbery or one like McCluskey who had it comin’. The murder of a horse, be it in a stall or in the bed of a Hollywood big shot. The threat of your enemies kidnapping you from the hospital, be it Schemer’s men or Sollozo’s. Or the sub-theme of killing in war versus killing in the streets, be it Powers’, “You didn’t get them medals by holding hands with them Germans,” or Sonny Corleone’s, “What do you think this is, the army? Where you shoot ’em from a mile away? No you gotta get up like this and badda-bing! You blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.”

Such influence on a film as popular as The Godfather shows just how much Public Enemy has affected our culture. Did the famous hip hop group Public Enemy derive their name from Cagney? I don’t know. I’d guess no, seeing as the film itself is nowhere near as well-known as the persona it produced. Which brings us back to Cagney, and the chorus of “Ooh, you dirty rat!” that has followed him since. It’s all the more powerful that Cagney never actually said that phrase. He admitted as much in 1974 at his acceptance speech for the AFI Life Achievement Award. In Public Enemy, he comes close, saying, “Ya dirty, double-crossin’,” before the last word is covered in gunfire. The following year in Taxi (1932), he comes closer, saying, “Come out and take it, you dirty, yellow-bellied rat.”

But it doesn’t really matter if he ever said those words. They are now in the same league as “Play it again, Sam.” Generations pass, and the words still remain. Take my generation, raised on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990). That was our first exposure to the legend of Cagney. All it took was one actor in a turtle costume, doing his best “Ooh, you dirty rat!” and another saying, “Oh no, not Cagney,” for a whole new generation to become privy to the pop culture. After Turtles and Tim Taylors, God knows what it will be for the next generation.

CITE A: TCM documentary Public Enemies and the Gangster Film
CITE B: IMDB Trivia
CITE C: Warren, Doug; James Cagney (1986). “Chapter 9”. Cagney: The Authorized Biography (Mass Market Edition ed.). New York: St. Martin’s Press. pp. 77-85. ISBN 0-312-90207-7.
CITE D: Tim Dirks, filmsite.org
CITE E: Cagney, James. Cagney by Cagney. Doubleday. ISBN 0385520263.

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