The Public Enemy (1931)

Directed by William A. Wellman

The Public Enemy (released as Enemies of the Public in the United Kingdom) is a 1931 American all-talking Pre-Code gangster film produced and distributed by Warner Bros.. The film was directed by William A. Wellman and stars James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Donald Cook, and Joan Blondell. The film relates the story of a young man’s rise in the criminal underworld in prohibition-era urban America. The supporting players include Beryl Mercer, Murray Kinnell, and Mae Clarke. The screenplay is based on a never-published novel by two former street thugs — Beer and Blood by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon — who had witnessed some of Al Capone‘s murderous gang rivalries in Chicago.

As a tsunami, nothing was able to stop Cagney once he was aroused, and no one even thought to try…

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“Public Enemy” brought two things to the screen: the little tough guy, fast-talking, unscrupulous gangster characterization by James Cagney which was to follow him throughout his entire screen career, and the grapefruit scene…

Though “Public Enemy” created the Cagney image, he had already appeared in two other gangsters films for Warners, as a murderer prepared to let someone else pay for his crime in “Sinner’s Holiday,” and as a double-crossing hoodlum in “Doorway to Hell.”

“Public Enemy,” however, was a bigger-budget production, directed by William Wellman, and it contained all the elements of success… It is the story of two brothers who become Chicago booze barons in the Twenties… One was Cagney, the other Edward Woods…

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It is sometimes claimed that the story of “Public Enemy” is based on that of “Little Hymie” Weiss, leader of the North Side Chicago gang after the murder of Dion O’Banion by the Capones in 1924… What is more likely is that the Cagney characterization is based on “Little Hymie”; the plot itself is pure fiction…

When Cagney, in his striped pajama, sat opposite Mae Clarke at breakfast and decided he had had enough of this boring broad, he wasted no time… He picked up half a grapefruit and planted it full into Clarke’s face… It was a piece of screen action which has lasted down the years as the ultimate in violence from the gangster to his moll…

Of course, it isn’t – it just seems that way… Since then gir1s have been slapped, kicked, beaten up, run over, shot, stabbed and raped, all in the tradition of mobster violence…

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But at the time this scene was daring, and the more daring because it was totally unexpected… We remember Mae Clarke in “Public Enemy,” yet forget that Jean Harlow was in it, too… There may have been good reason… The New York Times, reviewing the film in 1934, commented: “The acting throughout is interesting, with the exception of Jean Harlow, who essays the role of a gangster’s mistress.”

Cagney made violence and a life of crime magically seductive, and “Public Enemy” made him Warners’ number 2 gangster, second only to Edward G. Robinson…

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A Thug’s Life

Author: lugonian from Kissimmee, Florida
1 May 2004

THE PUBLIC ENEMY (Warner Brothers, 1931), directed by William A. Wellman, is a prime example of how a motion picture produced in the early sound era can still hold up today. A worthy follow-up to the studio’s most recent gangster outing, LITTLE CAESAR (1930), that elevated Edward G. Robinson to stardom, THE PUBLIC ENEMY brought forth another new screen personality, James Cagney, displaying a different kind of movie thug: rough, with guys who betray him; tough, with women who get on his nerves or play him for a sucker; and ready, to succeed by socking, punching, slapping or killing anybody who gets in his way. His only soft spot for his mother, but far from being a “Momma’s Boy.”

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Through its passage in time element starting in 1909 Chicago, THE PUBLIC ENEMY plays in the biographical mode, displaying the origins of its main characters, Tom Powers and Matt Doyle, as boys (Junior Coughlan and Frankie Darro), leading to their adult lives (James Cagney and Edward Woods) as tough thugs. Tom Powers character, regardless of his fine upbringing, indicates he was born … to be bad. He has a brother, Mike (Donald Cook) who knows of his activities, while their mother (Beryl Mercer) may suspect but overlooks his actions. As things start going well for Tom and Matt in the bootlegging racket under Paddy Ryan’s (Robert Emmett O’Connor) leadership, Scheiner Burns, a rival gang leader, attempts on taking over Ryan’s establishment, leading to more gun-play, especially for Tom, quick on the trigger, only to have things backfire on him.

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If not the most famous of the early gangster films, THE PUBLIC ENEMY is one of the most revived. Quite frank in its actions, and adult for its intentions, much of the then so- called violence occurs out of camera range. Yet, whatever is displayed on film is something not to forget. These days, there isn’t a year that goes where THE PUBLIC ENEMY isn’t televised. Whenever a topic pertaining to THE PUBLIC ENEMY arises, it’s not the story that immediately comes to mind, but Cagney’s individual scenes consisting of squirting beer from his mouth into the bartender’s face; Tom’s cold-blooded killing of Putty Nose (the man who let him take the rap for a crime) while playing his last song on the piano; and Tom’s off-screen shootout with a rival gang in a fancy nightclub, stumbling out in the pouring rain saying to himself, “I ain’t so tough.”

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All these scenes pale in comparison until reaching its most chilling climax ever recorded on film. Yet, the one where Tom, at the breakfast table, pushes a grapefruit into his mistress Kitty’s (Mae Clarke) face, never has such a brief scene have such an long impact. Other than Clarke’s famous few minutes of grapefruit glory, Mia Marvin (whose face resembling Maureen “Marcia Brady” McCormick from TV’s 1970s sit-com, “The Brady Bunch”) playing a slut named Jane, is one who gets her face slapped after getting Tom drunk enough to seduce him. The second billed Jean Harlow doesn’t get any abuse from her leading man as did the other two actresses receiving no screen credit for their trouble. While Harlow’s performance has been criticized as one of her worst, chances are her portrayal might have been intended to be enacted in that manner. Harlow’s Gwen Allen is an uneducated blonde floozy with her gift for attracting men. What possibly hurts the film is not Harlow herself, but the inane dialog she recites, (“Oh Tommy, I can love you to death!”. Joan Blondell’s limitations on screen is mostly one involving her relation with Tom’s pal, Matt.

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Edward Woods, whose has almost equal screen time with Cagney, is a Hollywood name very few recollect today. Several documentaries profiling gangster films have indicated Woods as the initial star of THE PUBLIC ENEMY with Cagney assuming the subordinate role, with director Wellman seeing an error with the casting and wisely having these actors switch roles. While a smart move on Wellman’s part, he failed to switch roles on the boy actors who portrayed them, especially a keen observer noticing Frankie Darro playing Matt, not Junior Coughlan playing Tom, performing in the Cagney manner. Donald Cook, Beryl Mercer and Robert O’Connor appearing in subordinate roles, are essential with their parts, but never outshine Hollywood’s finest movie thug, a/k/a Public Enemy, James Cagney, whose tougher roles, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938) and WHITE HEAT (1949) were years into his future. With limited underscoring, the theme song, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” like Cagney and his grapefruit, has long become associated with THE PUBLIC ENEMY.

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THE PUBLIC ENEMY, which has become one of the first major movies from the Warner Brothers library to be distributed on video cassette (consisting mostly of prints from slightly edited reissues), and later on DVD (with either edited or restored prints), can be seen quite frequently on Turner Classic Movies. It might not have the realistic violence as any crime film of today, but THE PUBLIC ENEMY presents itself as a gangster drama that doesn’t have to be all blood and guts to become successful. Good acting, fine story, interesting characters supplied with tight action is all what is needed to make a good movie. Being a natural talent, Cagney makes THE PUBLIC ENEMY all it’s worth. (***)

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83 minutes of Cinematic Bliss

Author: J. Wellington Peevis from Malltown
9 August 2003

Larger than life classic that chronicles the life of a street hustler turned crime lord in prohibition Chicago, based loosely on the various antics of the Irish mega-hoodlums, O’Bannon and Moran.

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While we may never literally create a time machine, these old movies give you the miracle of observation at least of what life was once like. Sadly many of the old films have been destroyed through neglect, so the pickings are very slim. Public Enemy is one of the best old movies available. For only the sheer pleasure of seeing what all the fuss was about in Cagney and Harlow, it’s worth a viewing. Director Wellman creates some extremely lasting images you won’t want to miss, and it almost makes me think of the original Frankenstein for that reason. The final sequence especially is a dramatic example of lasting imagery in film, quite an unforgettable experience. If you like Godfather, Scarface, Goodfellas, and who doesn’t, you owe it yourself to watch what may be the patriarch of the entire genre. Interestingly, while the film has a campy disclaimer demonizing the subject matter and mandating public action in order to address the evils of organized crime, it’s rather obvious that the producers new exactly what they were really doing by making a film like this. Brutal as some of the action is, Cagney’s charisma glorifies the gangster as much as Coppola, Scorsese and all the rest glorify modern organized crime. See it for yourself!!

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