Just as "Little Caesar" made a star of Edward G. Robinson, so did the 1931 film "The Public Enemy" make a star of James Cagney. The performances of both actors are so memorable that the men were never fully able to shake the screen images they created in those landmark films.
The two movies are now available in "Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection," along with four other films of the thirties and forties that helped define the genre. Fortunately, for those without the means or ambition to purchase the big, six-disc set, the films are also available separately. See the end of the review for details.
In director William Wellman's "The Public Enemy," Cagney plays a brash young gangster, Tom Powers, a portrayal so vivid, so electric, that it's hard to remember much else about the film except Cagney. Today, we take this actor's style for granted, but it had to start somewhere, and "The Public Enemy" was Cagney's first starring role. Yet it was a role he wasn't even supposed to have. He was initially slated to play the co-starring part, Tom's best friend, Matt Doyle. But when Wellman noticed Cagney in a minor earlier role and saw his confidence, his cockiness, his body language, and his energy, he decided he'd better switch him to the lead. Obviously, it was one of the great decisions in movie history, as Cagney absolutely dominates every scene he's in. And that would be virtually every scene in the movie. So it was Cagney's film from beginning to end, to win or to lose, and he came out one of the biggest winners in Hollywood.
In an accompanying featurette on the disc, director Martin Scorsese says he showed "The Public Enemy" (along with "Wings," another Wellman film) to the cast of the movie he was making at the time, "The Aviator," in order to help give them a feel for the late twenties and early thirties in which much of his movie was set. After watching "The Public Enemy" there was applause from his group. They recognized what audiences have been seeing in Cagney's performance for decades--that it's a turning point in modern screen acting. Gone are the stilted gestures, the long stares, the over-enunciated diction, and the melodramatic stage mannerisms of most other early talking pictures. Cagney was himself, the real thing, or at least it appeared that way. His cocksure, strutting behavior won over everybody. Which, however, didn't endear Cagney or the movie to the newly instituted Motion Picture Production Code.
You see, the new, self-imposed, Hollywood censorship code in 1931 stated that "Crimes against the law...shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with a desire for imitation." In other words, you couldn't celebrate crime or exalt gangsters. Yet that's exactly what Cagney did. His Tom Powers is so charismatic, it doesn't matter that he's a ruthless, cold-blooded killer; audiences like him anyway!
To help assuage matters, the story uses an older brother, Mike (Donald Cook), as an ultra-honest counterweight to Tom, a WWI war hero, a college student, and a family man, who tries to steer his wayward sibling into the paths of righteousness. In addition, Warner Bros. prefaced the movie with a disclaimer: "It is the ambition of the authors of 'The Public Enemy' to honestly depict an environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life, rather than glorify the hoodlums or the criminal. While the story of 'The Public Enemy' is essentially a true story, all names and characters appearing herein are purely fictional." As a final added precaution, WB appended the following postscript: "The end of Tom Powers is the end of every hoodlum...." Yes, Tom had to die; that was part of the Production Code. Crime could be shown in films, but it could never go unpunished.
The movie was written by Harvey Thew from a novel, "Beer and Blood," by Kubic Glasmon and John Bright. The director, William Wellman, was already well known for the aforementioned "Wings," which had the distinction of being the first and only silent film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. Wellman went on to do "A Star Is Born" (1937), "Beau Geste" (1939), "Roxie Hart" (1942), "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943), "The Big Country" (1951), and "The High and the Mighty" (1954), among many other notable achievements. The combination of Wellman's naturalistic style and Cagney's natural impetuosity proved an ideal combination for success.
The story itself probably tackles a few too many things, trying to cover too much ground in giving us a whole history of the rise of gangsterism in America in the beginning of the twentieth century. Tom Powers and his pal Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) become symbols of how the lure of fast cars, fancy clothes, and wild, wild women could easily be within anyone's grasp if they were willing to stoop to crime. Apparently, many people were more than willing to stoop, especially when Prohibition came along in the 1920s, and Americans would pay anything for booze. The national per capita consumption of alcohol rose to an all-time high during Prohibition, and gangsterism rose right along with it.
The story of "The Public Enemy" begins in Chicago, 1909, where Tom and Matt are childhood chums already in trouble with the law for petty thievery and fencing. By 1915 they pull their first big job, using their first guns ("gats" in the lingo of the era). After that, the bulk of the story takes place in the early 1920s as Tom and Matt make their way up through the bootlegging mobs of the city.
With the money come the girls. The first two we encounter are Mamie (Joan Blondell) and Kitty (Mae Clarke), a pair of young women the boys pick up in a nightclub. Kitty is somewhat surprised at what Tom whispers in her ear the first time they meet (something we never hear), but shortly afterwards we find them in Tom's apartment, Tom in his pajamas and she sitting at the breakfast table. It's another example of Wellman sneaking something past the censors.
Next comes the famous, or to some people infamous, grapefruit scene. When the quiet-spoken Kitty suggests to Tom that he not drink so much, Tom takes a grapefruit and shoves it forcibly in her face. Even today it comes across as a rather brutal and startling move and shows us what a hothead Tom is. Women's groups of the day protested, but it has become one of the most celebrated and oft parodied scenes in movie history. There is some question, however, about whether this particular action was scripted the way it appears or whether Cagney improvised it. Some critics have suggested he was only supposed to simulate the deed. But clearly he punches Ms. Clarke pretty hard with the grapefruit, much to the delight of audiences ever since. Not that her character deserved it, mind you; Clarke plays a rather demure lady. But the scene was another indication of the maturity that movies had attained by that time, even within the strictures of the Production Code.
And then there's Gwen, played by Jean Harlow. Gwen is Tom's next girlfriend, a blond floozy he picks up literally on a street corner. But she's no dumb floozy. As interpreted by Harlow, Gwen is every bit as smart, tough, and clever as Tom. Maybe more so, as she twists him around her finger. Harlow's first big break in a featured motion-picture role had come only a year earlier in Howard Hughes's "Hell's Angels," and she made the best of it, along with "The Public Enemy" and films with Clark Gable, creating a lasting screen impression that was cut short by her untimely death in 1937.
As we have also seen in "Little Caesar," we have in "The Public Enemy" an unforgettable and still shocking ending, as Tom succumbs to the vicissitudes of gangland wars. Maybe a few of his final words best sum up his character, after all: "I ain't so tough." But the movie itself, thanks to Cagney's portrayal and Wellman's grittily realistic direction, has proven tough and resilient enough. "The Public Enemy" may not have the brooding intensity or epic sweep of Coppola's "Godfather" trilogy, but it has just as lasting an effect on the viewer.
There is not a lot of grain in the picture but enough in some scenes to remind us that this print has been around for a while. Still, it is a very good, well-preserved print with hardly a scratch, fleck, or serious age spot to be found on it. The black-and-white contrasts are also well preserved, and, in fact, some of the scenes are so grain-free, they are almost crystal clear. The scenes that do contain some minor grain are mostly outdoor footage, perhaps not shot on as high-grade film stock as the rest of the movie, and perhaps looking the way they do now even in 1931.
The sound is rendered via Dolby Digital 1.0 mono, which goes a long way toward clarifying the dialogue. Along with some cleaning up of the background noise, the Dolby processing renders the film very easy to listen to. However, there is still a degree of hiss to be found, and, as might be expected from the period, there is little in the way of frequency range or dynamics compared to today's multichannel stereo spectaculars. Remember, sound had only been around in film for three or four years when "The Public Enemy" was made, so film audio was in its infancy. I'd say the DD 1.0 soundtrack acquits itself quite well under the circumstances.
All six of the movies in WB's "Gangsters Collection" have a similar batch of extras, and as always they are a joy. Like the others, this one has film critic Leonard Maltin hosting a "Warner Night at the Movies," 1931, with a vintage newsreel; a ten-minute comedy short, "The Eyes Have It," with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wooden partner Charlie McCarthy; a seven-minute, black-and-white Merry Melodies cartoon, "Smile, Darn Ya, Smile," featuring the song of the same name plus a Mickey Mouse look-alike; and a trailer for the movie "Blonde Crazy" with Cagney and Joan Blondell. This "Warner Night" is followed by a newly made, nineteen-minute featurette, "Beer and Blood: Enemies of the Public," that takes us behind the scenes of the movie with commentary by people like director Martin Scorsese and film critic Andrew Sarris. During the film there is a fine, informative, no-nonsense audio commentary by film historian Robert Sklar, who knows when to tell us something important and when to keep silent and let the film speak for itself. The extras conclude with a 1954 rerelease foreword; twenty-three scene selections; and a theatrical trailer for "The Public Enemy." English is the only spoken language offered, but there are subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
Like the other movies in the set, "The Public Enemy" is available separately or in the six-disc box mentioned at the beginning, the "Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection." The other five discs, listed chronologically, are "Little Caesar" (1930), with Edward G. Robinson and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; "The Petrified Forest" (1936) with Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Humphrey Bogart; "Angels With Dirty Faces" (1938) with Cagney, Bogart, Pat O'Brien, and the "Dead End" Kids; "The Roaring Twenties" (1939) with Cagney, Bogart, and Priscilla Lane; and "White Heat" (1949) with Cagney and Virginia Mayo.
While a good case could be made for every gangster film in this collection being a classic of its kind, it's "The Public Enemy" that stands out for me as the very best of the lot. Because of Wellman's taut direction and Cagney's unforgettable performance, the movie is a turning point not only for gangster films but all films, and it holds up today as well as anything newly made. If I couldn't afford WB's whole "Gangsters Collection" box set but still wanted to sample it, this is the film I'd consider first.