The Public Enemy (1931)
Directed by William A. Wellman. Starring James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke, Donald Cook.
If I’m going to do a build-up to the upcoming movie Public Enemies, I have to make some mention of the film that popularized that term, even though it predates the “Public Enemies Era” by two years. It also deals with prohibition mobsters instead of bank-robbing and kidnapping spree criminals and the Federal Agents chasing them.
However, I don’t have much to say about The Public Enemy. It’s a classic. And it’s a film that already has plenty written about it, so I don’t see much I can add. Let’s run through the basics: It made James Cagney a superstar. It played twenty-four hours a day in some theaters because of demand. It annoyed censors. It has a bleak, grim ending. Cagney smashes grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face. Cagney shoots a horse in a vengeance killing (really). And it forms part of the unholy trilogy of gangster films from the early thirties, the third face of the triangle along with Little Caesar, also from Warner Bros., and RKO’s Scarface.
Scarface takes the top honors of the three; it’s the one that really leaps off the screen when we watch it today. By comparison, Wellman’s The Public Enemy feels more staid and restrained—a classic, but not as vivid as the Howard Hawks film that followed it a year later. It charts a longer story, starting with its three main male characters (Cagney, Woods, and Cook) as youngsters pre-World War I, then following them up to Prohibition when the time came to really make a difference in the crime game. It’s Cagney who shoves the film into classic territory, playing mobster Tom Powers, who goes from street urchin in 1909 to a Prohibition racketeer who gets near the top, but actually never achieves it the way Tony Carmote does in Scarface. On the other hand, Tony Carmote was a flat-out psychopath in the Paul Muni mold, while Tom Powers is misogynist bully, but essentially rational and controlled, in the Cagney mold. Powers really only loses his cool in the line of serious business once (killing a horse and grapefruiting an unwanted girlfriend don’t count), and it causes his very literal downfall—a wrapped-up corpse smashing straight into the camera.
The Public Enemy is all about it’s well-known high points, and putters around much like an early sound film when it isn’t hitting them. Cagney is a joy to watch: not only are you witnessing the creation of a mega-star, but also the creation of a stereotype movie character imitated endlessly since. But the film doesn’t have a filmmaking squad behind it willing to the extra layer of bonkers that the Scarface team did.
But the ending . . . wow, what an immense gloomy downer. People who talk about old-fashioned Hollywood endings apparently never saw this flick. Paced like a funeral dirge and decorated like a Universal Horror movie, it isn’t how anyone expects their classic gangster film to end.
The DVD includes a disclaimer slapped on the front of the film when it was re-released as a double-bill with Little Caesar in 1954. It’s the usual handwringing and moralizing that people must have snickered at behind their hands when they read it. The movie already has it’s own disclaimer from 1931 on it, which means viewers in 1954 had to watch Warner Bros. apologize twice for creating an interesting mobster character. Please, don’t apologize for great characters. Or James Cagney.