Hollywood was in flux at the start of the 1930s. Even as the Great Depression put a quarter of the country out of work, more Americans than ever saved their nickels for a weekly all-day trip to the theater.
That audience was changing as the population became increasingly urban. Westerns were geared at rural audiences. The new filmgoers, sons and daughters of immigrants who had settled in America’s growing cities, were more excited about the nascent breed of gangster films showing characters more familiar to them than, say, Hopalong Cassidy.
Warner Brothers, which owned hundreds of theaters in the big cities, was smart enough to make movies aimed at that working class audience. They created stories about less-than-admirable antiheros who stirred viewers’ sympathies by trying to make it in a strange and hostile land.
Into that era walked young James Cagney. He was an unlikely Hollywood star—short, uncouth, distinctively New York. And he was the right man for the right time.
Cagney, along with Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni and, later, Humphrey Bogart, invented the film gangster. Each brought a sense of the street and gritty realism. For Cagney, that came naturally. He grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and had to drop out of college after one semester when his father died. He knew how to be tough, in an argument or in a rumble.
The Public Enemy is Cagney’s breakout film. As bootlegger Tom Powers, he is the punk pup who grows up to be a wolf-like predator.
“The audience loves Cagney because he’s a character who will fight,” said Mike Newell, director of Donnie Brasco. “He 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 the system.”
It’s easy to recognize that now. But it almost didn’t happen. The Public Enemy, based on the factual novel Beer and Blood by Chicagoan John Bright, began filming in 1931. Edward Woods, a better-known and more genteel actor, was cast in the lead, with Cagney in the second banana role as best friend Matt Doyle.
After three days of shooting, director William Wellman realized, as he later said in an interview in Film Comment, “We’d made a frightful mistake. We had the wrong man playing the wrong part. This Cagney is the guy.”
Wellman called producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who approved of Wellman’s idea to have the two actors swap roles. And Cagney’s career as a leading man was launched.
A technical circumstance also greatly aided Cagney’s rise to film stardom. The sound equipment in The Public Enemy was better than anything used in the first few years of talking pictures. Prior to this, film actors had to speak slowly and over-enunciate to be understood. Cagney brought a machine-gun vocal delivery to his role. Before this movie, his staccato speaking style would have sounded like a jumble to film audiences.
The Public Enemy was filmed in four weeks for just $151,000 and released three months after Warner Brothers’ first gangster hit, Little Caesar. It was among the first bargain-basement productions to gross more than $1 million. For weeks, a theatre in New York City’s Times Square ran it 24 hours a day to packed houses.
The simple plotline tracks the lives of two young men as they progress from petty theft to bootlegging and murder. The Public Enemy was among the first movies to show how environment contributes to crime. Cagney’s Tom Powers grows up with an emotionally absent father whose solution to parenting problems is to beat the boy with a leather strap. Tom is lured by the corruption of the streets, even as his older brother Mike stays straight by joining the Army and serving in World War I.
Tom rises from apprentice to gang leader by being more ruthless than his friends and rivals. He’s also quite the babe magnet, working his way through a series of trollops.
Cagney’s character is modeled after Chicago mobster Dion O’Banion, a rival to Al Capone. Many of the film’s plot elements were inspired by true incidents, including the part where Tom and Matt shoot a horse that tosses and kills their associate, Sam “Nails” Nathan. According to the Encyclopedia of American Crime, two Chicago gangsters did exactly that in 1923 after bootlegger Sam “Nails” Morton died in a riding accident.
Mostly, The Public Enemy is remembered for two scenes. Foremost is the controversial breakfast table moment when Tom’s irritation with girlfriend Kitty (Mae Clark) prompts him to smash a grapefruit in her face. More than anything, the action shows Tom’s lack of human regard. The scene was a shocker at the time, perceived as one of crudest acts ever committed against a woman in film. Women’s groups demanded it be edited out.
There are many versions of how the scene came to be, with everyone from Zanuck to Wellman to screenwriter Bright taking credit for it. Both actors in the scene, however, insist it was Cagney’s spur-of-the-moment idea. In her autobiography, Mae Clarke wrote that Cagney whispered his plan to her right before filming, mostly as a joke to get a reaction from the crew. Neither actor expected the shot to stay in the finished film. But Wellman liked it so much he kept it in. Mae Clarke’s ex-husband, Lew Brice, reportedly enjoyed the scene so much that he went to the theater each day for weeks just to watch that moment. As soon it ended he would leave.
The film’s other iconic scene is its finale. After he is badly injured in a shootout, Tom’s enemies kidnap him from the hospital. Back at their apartment, Tom’s brother and mother get a phone call saying he is returning home. His mom cheerfully goes upstairs to make up his room, while his brother puts a record (“I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”) on the Victrola.
The doorbell rings. Mike opens the door and there’s Tom, trussed up in rope and wrapped in a blanket, looking like a zombie. For a moment, you think he’s alive—until his bloody, bullet-riddled body teeters and then crashes face first onto the floor. The needle reaches the end of the record and it skips, sounding like a heartbeat.
It’s a horrifying scene, especially by 1931 standards. According to Wellman, producer Zanuck had to fight—literally—to keep it in. “(Jack) Warner said, ‘Cut it out, it will make everyone sick. It made me sick,’ “ Wellman recalled in the documentary Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film. “Zanuck hauled off and slugged him. Knocked the cigar out of his mouth. Warner said, ‘Well, if you feel that strongly, keep it.’ “
The story may or may not be true. But the scene is a fittingly great ending to a great film.
HIT: The DVD release contains terrific commentary from gangster film heavyweights, including Martin Scorsese.
“My father took me to see it when I was 10,” Scorsese says. “The impact stayed with me for many years. Of all the films, it’s the toughest in its depiction of that world and how people behave in it and the nature of what a young killer really is. I must have watched it a dozen times as a kid. I was studying it, I guess.”
MISS: Several actors in key roles are poor at, well, acting. Tom’s war veteran brother Mike (Donald Cook) shows, to steal a line from Dorothy Parker, an emotional range from A to B. His mother (Beryl Mercer) alternates between fretting and crying. And as Gwen the floozie, platinum bombshell Jean Harlow, who went on to stardom, appears to be reading her lines—and not very well—from cue cards.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: The early classics are worth viewing to learn how they established the genre. But they don’t have the texture or complexity to inspire a contemporary film fan to keep going back.
REALITY CHECK: The movie is set in Chicago, but half its characters speak like they’re from the South Bronx.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “A grim and terrible document, with no attempt to soften or humanize the character. Of all racketeer films it is the most brutal and least like movie fiction. For this reason it is the most arresting. Cagney triumphs.”—Norbert Lusk, Picture Play magazine
PIVOTAL SCENES: Although young Tom shoots a cop to escape a botched robbery early in the movie, the extent of his viciousness is not revealed until later. Out at a nightclub, Tom and Matt stumble upon their old mentor, the aptly named Putty Nose. The two have never forgiven Putty Nose for leaving them exposed during that bungled holdup.
They follow Putty Nose back to his plush apartment and corner him. “I’ve always been your friend,” the older man protests.
“Sure, you taught us how to cheat, steal and kill,” Tom snaps. “Then you lammed out on us.”
Putty Nose begs for his life. He runs over to the piano and reminds the two how he sang for them when they were boys. His voice quavers as he plays a silly old song. Tom, standing behind the piano, raises his revolver.
The camera tracks across the room to Matt. You hear, but do not see, as the song ends with a gunshot and the sound of Putty Nose’s head hitting the piano keys. Matt, who merely wanted to scare the man, looks on with horror.
Tom crosses the room, shoots his cuffs as only Cagney could, and matter-of-factly says, “Well, I guess I’ll go call Gwen.” The coldblooded killer is unfazed by his cruelty.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The scene where Mike Powers slugs Tom in the mouth. Wellman, wanting an authentic reaction, whispered to Cook that he should really sock Cagney. Cook obliged, cracking one of Cagney’s teeth. To his credit, Cagney stayed in character and finished the scene, albeit in great pain.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Not high, other than that grapefruit. To keep censors from chopping the movie, Wellman placed most of the bloodshed offscreen. He created the illusion of more brutality through facial reactions and screams.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Because of lax safety standards, Cagney had a close call during filming. Wellman hired sharpshooters to fire real machine guns in a scene where Tom ducks around the corner to avoid gunfire. If you watch, you’ll see the bullets hit the wall just feet from Cagney’s head. One bad ricochet and the great actor’s career may have had an early ending.
BEST LINE: Mike Powers, just back from World War I, discovers that his brother and brother-in-law are mobsters. He confronts them at the dinner table, the characters separated by a keg of fresh beer:
Mike: “You murderers. There’s not only beer in that keg. There’s beer and blood. The blood of men.”
Tom: “Ahh, you ain’t changed a bit. Besides, your hands ain’t so clean. You killed and liked it. You didn’t get them medals by holding hands with them Germans.”
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: The Roaring Twenties, ‘G’ Men and Each Dawn I Die. All are Cagney movies that could merit inclusion in our Top 100.
BODY COUNT: Three on-screen, a few more (and one poor horse) offscreen.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”