The Public Enemy (1931)

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“I ain’t so tough.” –James Cagney as Tom Powers

When reflecting upon the many gangster-focused films in classic cinema, The Public Enemy (1931) comes to mine as a quintessential film depicting a city’s criminal underworld in prohibition-era America. An all-talking Pre-Code gangster film by Warner Brothers, the film combines the talents of Director William A. Wellman, Producer Darryl F. Zanuck, Writers Kubec Glasmon and John Bright, and Cinematographer Devereaux Jennings.

The Public Enemy is based upon an unpublished novel called Beer and Blood, written by Bright and Glasmon. The two writers who founded their tale on actual individuals and events, as they had witnessed Al Capone’s cruel gang rivalries in Chicago. In fact, James Cagney based his performance on Chicago gangster Charles Dion O’Bannion and two New York City criminals he had known as a youth. As a further connection to the O’Bannion reference, the rival gang in the film is led by “Schemer Burns”, an obvious reference to the real-life “Schemer Drucci”, who was part of the North Side Gang led by O’Bannion.

The story captured the interest of Zanuck, who bought the rights to the novel and assigned Wellman to the project. Once the story was adapted to the screen by Harvey F. Thew, Wellman vowed to Zanuck that he would craft “the toughest, most violent picture” imaginable.

The film follows the characters of Irish-Americans Tom Powers and Matt Doyle, who engage in petty theft in 1900s Chicago. Putty Nose persuades them to join his gang in a fur warehouse robbery, promising that he will take care of them if anything goes awry. When a nervous Powers shoots a stuffed bear, his gunshot alerts the police, who kill another gang member. Powers and Doyle soon find themselves committing murders and other crimes and become fully enmeshed in the gang’s culture. Despite the pleas of Tom’s brother and perfect foil, Mike Powers, Tom Powers leads a life of crime and rises in the ranks of the gang, meeting a broad cast of characters who either work to support him or conspire against him.

Initially, Edward Woods was cast in the role of Powers and Cagney was cast in the role of Doyle. However, Wellman decided that the story would be more compelling if the two actors switched roles. Moreover, with the advances in the sound technology used in this film, the lead actor did not have to have perfect enunciation. Wellman never re-shot the sequences of the characters as small children, which explains why the child playing Cagney’s role looks like Woods and vice versa.

As for Powers’s love interest, Louise Brooks was originally slated to play Gwen Allen. When she refused the role, it went to younger actress, Jean Harlow. Brooks contended that she “hated Hollywood” by the time she was offered the role. Turning down the role essentially marked the end of her film career.

The finalized cast list for this film was as follows:

  • James Cagney as Tom Powers
  • Jean Harlow as Gwen Allen
  • Edward Woods as Matt Doyle
  • Joan Blondell as Mamie
  • Donald Cook as Mike Powers
  • Leslie Fenton as Nails Nathan
  • Beryl Mercer as Ma Powers
  • Robert Emmett O’Connor as Paddy Ryan
  • Murray Kinnell as Putty Nose
  • Mae Clarke as Kitty (uncredited)
  • Frank Coghlan Jr. as Tom as a Boy (uncredited)
  • Frankie Darro as Matt as a Boy (uncredited)
  • Robert Homans as Officer Pat Burke (uncredited)
  • Sam McDaniel as Headwaiter (uncredited)

Aside from the casting of the film, there are several notable moments and scenes in the film. Interestingly, the film features a prologue and an epilogue to comment upon the story.

When filming began in January 1931 with a small budget of $151,000, Wellman sought authentic reactions from his cast members. The script, for example, called for a scene in which Mike Powers punches his brother, Tom. Prior to filming, Wellman took Donald Cook aside and asked him to really hit Cagney. Unfortunately, when Cook hit Cagney, he struck him in the mouth so hard that he broke one of Cagney’s teeth. Despite his surprise and pain, Cagney remained in character and executed the remained of the scene. In another scene, live ammunition was used, with bullets striking the wall of a building in the place where Cagney’s head had just been.

Of course, one of the most notorious moments in this film is “the grapefruit scene,” in which Cagney’s character shoves a grapefruit in Kitty’s (Mae Clarke’s) face.

Several versions exist of the origin of the notorious grapefruit scene, but the most plausible is the one on which both Cagney and Mae Clarke agreed: The scene, they explained, was actually staged as a practical joke at the expense of the film crew, just to see their stunned reactions. There was never any intention of ever using the shot in the completed film. Wellman, however, eventually decided to keep the shot, and use it in the film’s final release print. Another version of the scene’s origin is that that Wellman and his wife at the time would get into fights but she would never talk or give any expression. Since she always had a grapefruit for breakfast, he always wanted to put the grapefruit into her face just to get a reaction out of her, so she would show some emotion. As a result, he felt that this scene gave him the opportunity to rid himself of that temptation.

Reactions to this scene were mixed. For one, the infamous grapefruit scene caused women’s groups around America to protest the on-screen abuse of Clarke. According to Cagney’s autobiography,  Clarke’s ex-husband, Lew Brice, enjoyed the “grapefruit scene” so much that he went to the movie theater every day just to watch that scene only and leave. As for Cagney, for years afterward when dining in restaurants, fellow patrons would send over grapefruit to Cagney, which Cagney would happily eat.

The Public Enemy was considered a success thanks to the performances of its talented cast. While the New York Times cited it as “weaker than most in story” and “stronger than most in acting”, Time magazine found the story to be very “well-told.” The film was so popular that a theater in Times Square ran it 24 hours a day upon its initial release. Moreover, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story but lost to The Dawn Patrol (1930).

Once the Production Code was put into effect, the film was re-released with three scenes cut from it due to violating the Code’s regulations. One scene included Powers being measured for a suit by an effeminate tailor. The second portrayed Doyle and his girlfriend rolling around in bed. Finally, the third depicted Powers being seduced when hiding in a woman’s apartment. All three of these scenes are restored on the current DVD and Blu-ray releases of the film.

Today, The Public Enemy has been preserved by the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress and was ranked 8th best in the gangster film genre by the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 10 Gangster Films in 2008. In 1989, an animatronic version of a scene from The Public Enemy was incorporated into The Great Movie Ride at the Disney-MGM Studios theme park in Orlando, Florida. When the ride made its debut, Cagney’s family was unhappy with his apparel in the gangster scene in the ride’s tribute to Public Enemy (1931). In response, they gave the Imagineers one of Cagney’s actual tuxedos to improve his appearance, even though he did not wear a tuxedo in the movie scene. The Great Movie Ride closed on August 13, 2017.

While Cagney went on to act in many more films within this genre and beyond, his performance in The Public Enemy offered an iconic moment in his career.


This post is part of Hometowns to Hollywood’s blogathon, entitled “Hollywood Gangsters Blogathon.”

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