Saturday, April 23, 2011


“I ain’t so tough…”

By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
There have been many variations of the tale but most of them are in agreement that the starring role in Warner Bros.’ production of The Public Enemy (1931) had originally been assigned to actor Edward Woods, a stage veteran recently signed to the studio. The picture, based on a novel entitled Beer and Blood by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon (and adapted for the screen by Harvey F. Thew), would chronicle the based-on-true-events story of a pair of Chicago pals who graduate from petty crime to the upper levels of the rackets only to both meet particularly grisly and violent ends by the movie’s conclusion. Woods would play Tom Powers, and a studio contract player who had also been quietly making a name for himself in a few Warner productions would play Powers’ sidekick, Matt Doyle.

This player — born James Francis Cagney, Jr. — had for many years been a stage comedian and hoofer when Warners hired him (and co-star Joan Blondell) to appear in the film adaptation of a Broadway play they had appeared in, Penny Arcade (which was re-titled Sinners’ Holiday for the screen). Director William “Wild Bill” Wellman, at the helm of Enemy, couldn’t help but notice the effectiveness of the charismatic Cagney and decided to switch the two actors in their parts. And that is the reason why Edward Woods remains a mere footnote in cinematic history, and the fortunate James Cagney became a silver screen icon for his breakthrough performance in The Public Enemy…released to theaters on this date 80 years ago today.

As the film begins, we get a glimpse at the early life of rambunctious scamps Tom Powers and Matt Doyle, two chums who engage in the usual sort of childhood mischief growing up on the back streets of the Windy City in 1909. The movie seems to argue the “nurture” not “nature” argument because Tom’s parents don’t take much of a hand in raising him right; his father (a policeman) is an uncommunicative authoritarian who regularly administers beatings to his progeny and his mother (Beryl Mercer) is a sainted Irish mother stereotype who forgives him for any and all transgressions. As such, Tom and Matt fall under the spell of the neighborhood Fagin, a two-bit hood nicknamed “Putty Nose” (Murray Kinnell) who encourages them to commit petty larceny (in one scene, he agrees to fence some watches the boys have rooked) and promises to let them in on the “next big thing” he’s got going. That turns out to be an ill-fated attempt to rob a furrier’s but when things turn sour (a friend of Tom and Matt’s is killed, and the duo shoot and kill the cop responsible) Putty Nose takes it on the lam, reneging on his promise to stand by his “boys.”

Older but no wiser, Tom and Matt gravitate to the employ of a jovial bootlegger named Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O’Connor), who's raking in money hand over fist thanks to Prohibition…and because Tom displays a ruthlessness that outshines Ryan’s rivals he and Matt rise quickly through the ranks, enjoying the benefits that come from living the gangster life: sharp clothes, flashy cars and loose women (played by Blondell and Mae Clarke). Tom hasn’t forgotten his humble origins, however, and goes out of his way to financially assist his ma (now a widow) but runs into friction with his older, straight-laced brother Mike (Donald Cook), a World War I veteran (and a shell-shocked one at that) whose attempts to better himself by studying and going to night school haven’t quite reaped the same level of financial rewards his younger sibling now enjoys.

Another hood who works for Paddy, “Nails” Nathan (Leslie Fenton), is a pal of Tom and Matt’s but is killed in a freak accident while horseback riding (he fell off his steed and was trampled to death) — and that forebodes a bleak future for the Ryan mob, who find themselves embroiled in a gang war with Paddy’s rival, “Schemer” Burns. Burns’ men kill Matt and when Tom retaliates he ends up wounded and hospitalized, his family concerned as to whether he’ll pull through. Burns’ mob kidnaps Tom and when Paddy promises to quit the rackets if they return Tom to his family’s home the rival gang is only too happy to comply in one of the most unforgettable endings in movie history.

In the opening scenes of Public Enemy the young Tom and Matt are played by child actors Frank Coughlin, Jr. and Frankie Darro…and if it seems odd that Darro, who literally looks like Jimmy Cagney’s “kid bruddah,” essays the role that Edward Woods eventually plays as an adult that’s because the childhood scenes were filmed before director Wellman decided to make the famous switcheroo. Wellman not only took credit for bestowing Cagney with the showier part but also for coming up with the movie’s notorious and now iconic scene in which Jimmy’s character rewards girlfriend Mae Clarke with a grapefruit shoved in her mush. Wellman claims it was inspired by something he’d always wanted to do to his wife whenever the two of them got in a scrap; the film’s producer, a young Darryl F. Zanuck maintained the inspiration for the bit came in a script conference and a third variation from writers Glasmon and Bright argues that it was motivated by a real-life mobster who once shoved an omelet into his moll’s kisser. Whichever version you choose to go with, it laid the groundwork for Cagney’s reputation as a guy who could sometimes demonstrate a little cruelty towards his women — though when you put it in the big picture it’s rather tame compared to what he does to Clarke in 1933’s Lady Killer (he grabs her by her hair and drags her across a hotel room floor before booting her out into the corridor).

Public Enemy is arguably quite brutal (perhaps even more brutal than Little Caesar and Scarface, the other members of the 1930s gangster movie Holy Trinity) but Wellman cleverly allows much of the film’s violence to occur off-camera, particularly in the case of the revenge murders of Putty Face and Burns — and a bizarre sequence in which Tom and Matt avenge Nails’ demise by purchasing the horse responsible and shooting it in its stall. Oddly enough, most of the onscreen violence was sort of accidental — in a scene where Cook’s Mike Powers punches out his brother “Wild Bill” instructed the actor to really let Cagney have it…and Jimmy got one of his teeth broken in the process. Cagney’s dental mishap pales in comparison to what could have happened in the scene where the rival Burns gang unleashes machine gun fire on Tom and Matt; as was the custom of the time live ammunition had to be used and Jimmy narrowly missed being hit by the resulting barrage (which takes out a bit of the building where Cagney had been poking his head out earlier).

After the opening credits, there is a “foreword” that reads: “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 hoodlum or the criminal.” Well, that may have been the objective of the authors but I’ve always believed that Warners had other ideas. (It’s what kept Cecil B. DeMille going in the film business all those years — he could show the “sin” as long as he wrapped things up with the “salvation.”) Gangsters are bad, bad, bad but when a charming, energetic guy such as Cagney is essaying the part you can’t tell me people in the audience (both then and today) didn’t feel a sense of admiration for a hood who’s driving around in a nice ride, has money to burn and is courting the likes of the Platinum Blonde herownself, Jean Harlow (in one of her early and very effective showcases), to swanky nightclubs. Cagney is catnip to females in Enemy — the wife of his mentor even seduces him at one point in the film. If you doubt what I’m saying here, compare and contrast Jimmy’s character with that of his older brother — a dour sourpuss who’s been busting his hump trying to academically better himself and is still trapped in a nickel-and-dime job as a trolley car conductor. OK, Cagney does come to a particularly violent end as the movie calls it a wrap but he accomplishes what John Derek’s Nick Romano sets out to do in 1949’s Knock on Any Door: “Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse.” (Well, two out of three isn’t bad.)

James Cagney’s flirtation with gangster roles didn’t necessarily start with Public Enemy — he had played a hood in two earlier films, the aforementioned Holiday and Doorway to Hell — but the studio quickly realized that tough guy parts became him (even to the point of shooting Smart Money, a film he co-starred in with WB’s other resident mobster, Edward G. Robinson, at the same time) and Enemy proved to be the actor’s passport to silver screen immortality. Cagney never dismissed the importance that Enemy played in his career though he was disappointed that Warners begin to typecast him in those kinds of parts (not to mention the pittance they were paying him every week. He was later able to establish himself as one of moviedom’s most versatile thesps, winning an Academy Award for best actor in a film that let him show audiences what he was doing before the onslaught of gangster melodramas: singing and dancing as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

The success of Public Enemy led to subsequent re-releases throughout the years, notably in 1941 and 1954…the latter year is when a young man named Martin Scorsese saw it on the big screen (paired with Little Caesar) and the future director has never been shy in admitting its influence on his directing career. When Enemy was re-released in 1941, though, the studio had to excise three scenes in order to comply with the Production Code; one of them was the aforementioned seduction scene between Cagney’s character and his boss’s moll and the other was a shot of Cook and Blondell having a roll in the hay (a sequence that was previously believed to be lost because the studio dumped the original footage in the 1950s). The third is a bit in which an effeminate tailor measures Cagney for a suit; he keeps rattling off Jimmy’s measurements ending with the phrase “and a half,” prompting his assistant to echo him (except he pronounces “half” as “hawf”). This scene will give you an idea that in addition to the action and drama in the film there are some fairly comedic moments (even the sequence where they croak the horse is amusing in a black humor sort of way).

Nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay, The Public Enemy did very well at the box office and earned raves from the critics, and has since become one of the seminal films in the gangster genre…a classic that was acknowledged as such when it was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1998. The cast is marvelous, the direction tight and stylish and the script has a rat-a-tat-ness that is punctuated by Cagney’s signature fast-talking style. It was the film that made the actor a force to be reckoned with…and 80 years later since its debut it remains a staple in any serious filmgoer’s education.

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So happy you are celebrating this anniversary. It's one of my favorite films. I will never forget the shock of the ending. I was a teen when I first saw it, and I didn't think that "really old movies" could shock like that.

One piece of the film's texture that I love is the use of "I'm forever blowing bubbles" as the theme. It's playing on the victrola in the living room in early scenes, where it sets up the sweet, good-hearted world of the mother, and it's playing over the ending, underscoring the distance between where Tom came from and where he ended. The lyrics, which you don't hear, are perfect for the story.

I'm forever blowing bubbles
Pretty bubbles in the air
They go so high, nearly touch the sky
Then like my dreams they fade and die.
Fortune's always hiding,
I've looked everywhere
I'm forever blowing bubbles
Pretty bubbles in the air
Excellent review of Public Enemy, Ivan. Your description of the movie's story and the history behind it are very well-written and show your in-depth research as well as knowledge of the history of this genre. I particularly liked your comparison of Putty Nose to Fagin! Humorous and so true!

We don't really agree about Jean Harlow's performance in the movie, but there is no doubt that her future in movies began with the sensuality she brought to this movie. Nurture vs. nature is an interesting aspect of this movie, as it is in "Angels With Dirty Faces", also with Cagney portraying a character who doesn't start out bad, but becomes that way because of bad luck.

I really enjoyed this, Ivan. Kudos!
It is a great one and that influence goes on and on. I remember on The Sopranos episode where Tony's harridan of a mom Livia died, it ended with Tony sitting alone watching The Public Enemy and getting all choked up at the ending because Tom's mom is upstairs happily humming and getting ready for his "homecoming" and you know he's not crying at the shock of the ending but at how he wished he had a mother who loved him the way Tom's did.
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