The Public Enemy: The Classic Gangster Picture

One of the great American pre-production code gangster films, The Public Enemy helped establish the crime drama as popular entertainment. The Great Depression of the 1930s and the Prohibition of all alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933 meant that crime was on the rise which enabled the rise of the gangster movie.

Audiences were hungry to watch cinematic film versions of the thugs that were headlining the news. With the success of Little Caesar in 1931, it was inevitable that Warner Bros. would soon release another gangster movie.

The Public Enemy was released on April 23, 1931. The film tells the story of two young Irish American thugs, Tom Powers and Matt Doyle who begin their lives of crime as boys in the slums to become bootleggers for the ruthless but respectful Paddy Ryan.

It does not take long before Tom and Matt become killers. They connect with notorious gangster Samuel “Nails” Nathan and begin to enjoy the trappings of their newfound wealth, such as donning tailor-made tuxedos, driving expensive cars, and dating beautiful women.

Tom’s simple-minded mother is oblivious to Tom’s criminal activities and believes he is a good boy. Tom’s brother Mike learns that his brother’s money did not come from politics as claimed, but from bootlegging.

Following an angry confrontation, Tom reacts angrily regarding his brother’s war experience: “Your hands ain’t so clean. You killed and liked it. You didn’t get them medals for holding hands with the Germans”.

Tom and Matt continue their life of crime, but their ambitions would soon have bloody consequences.

The Public Enemy still packs a powerful punch as entertainment but is also an effective study of how poverty can turn young people into a life of crime. The film also featured a written prologue and epilogue with a demand for action against the hoodlums of the underworld.  

It was the breakthrough movie for Hollywood great James Cagney as Tom Powers. Edward Woods plays his partner Matt Doyle, supported by a sterling cast including Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke (uncredited), and Donald Cook.

The casting could have been somewhat different. Edward Woods was initially cast in the lead role of Tom Powers and James Cagney was Matt Doyle, but their roles were soon switched. Supporting actor Joan Blondell once recalled the time she overheard director William Wellman telling Cagney that “Now, you’re the lead, kid!”. She said that Cagney’s charisma was so outstanding that he had to be the lead.

Despite the switch, Wellman never reshot the sequences of Tom and Matt as children, which is why Cagney’s young character looks more like Woods and the other looks more like Cagney.

Unlike those many Italian-themed gangster pictures throughout the years, The Public Enemy is more Irish. Some of the characters are Irish American, such as Powers, Doyle, Paddy Ryan. etc. A few of the lead actors were Irish Americans, such as James Cagney, Robert Emmett O’ Connor (who plays Paddy Ryan), and Joan Blondell. James Cagney was even a member of an exclusive Irish American group affectionately called “The Irish Mafia”.

It could be argued that the Irish are used as convenient scapegoats to represent organized crime groups for the bootlegging of alcohol, but similar arguments could be used against other gangster movies about their depictions of Italians and Italian culture.

Nevertheless, The Public Enemy is splendidly directed (William Wellman), with a great script from Harvey F. Thew, Kubec Glasmon, and John Bright (based on Beer and Blood by Glasmon and Bright). The performances are top drawer, especially from the brilliant James Cagney, whose powerful performance as Tom Powers dominates every scene in the film.

Edward Wood is excellent in support, although the talented Joan Blondell, who played Mamie, should probably be given a bigger role.

The uncredited Mae Clarke plays Tom Powers’ girlfriend in the famous scene when Powers smashes grapefruit into her face. This scene was rehearsed, despite reports to the contrary. According to Clarke, the filmed scene was meant to be a joke and was not expected to appear in the film.

Louise Brooks was meant to play Gwen Allen (which was eventually played by Jean Harlow). Brooks declined because she “hated Hollywood”. It has been noted by some biographers that her refusal led to the end of Brooks’ film career.

James Cagney’s powerhouse performance in The Public Enemy enabled him to shine in a critically acclaimed film career. Cagney became unforgettable in other gangster classics, most notably Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), The Roaring Twenties (1939), and White Heat (1949). As a talented and experienced song and dance man, Cagney starred (alongside Joan Blondell) in the brilliant Busby Berkeley musical Footlight Parade (1932) and won an Oscar for his part as Irish American George K. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942. However, it was Cagney’s star turn in The Public Enemy that made the biggest impact and elevated this talented Irish American talent into a film legend.

Selected in 1998 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, The Public Enemy ranks alongside Little Caesar (1931), Scarface (1932), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), and The Roaring Twenties (1939) as one of the best gangster movies of the decade and one of the finest ever made.

The Sopranos

In the second episode of the third season of acclaimed crime drama The Sopranos, Tony Soprano (Tony Gandolfini) watches sequences from The Public Enemy which fills him with emotion.

James Cagney and Samuel L. Jackson worked together!

Cagney’s last film was a comeback after 20 years called Ragtime (1981) which was also Samuel L. Jackson’s first film. Jackson starred in some of the most notable crime films in recent years, especially Quentin Tarantino’s classic neo-noir crime drama Pulp Fiction. Jackson recently said that he hung out with James Cagney a lot during the filming of Ragtime.

Grease is the Word

Fans of Grease would recognize Hollywood great Joan Blondell in one of her last roles as Vi, the waitress at the Frosty Palace. Blondell had a successful film career, especially during the 1930s, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Annie Rawlins in The Blue Veil (1951).

Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) and Mamie (Joan Blondell) dance as Tom (James Cagney) looks on.
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