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THE PUBLIC ENEMY (Warner Brothers, 1931), directed by William A.
Wellman, is a prime example of how a motion picture produced in the
early sound era can still hold up today. A worthy follow-up to the
studio's most recent gangster outing, LITTLE CAESAR (1930), that
elevated Edward G. Robinson to stardom, THE PUBLIC ENEMY brought forth
another new screen personality, James Cagney, displaying a different
kind of movie thug: rough, with guys who betray him; tough, with women
who get on his nerves or play him for a sucker; and ready, to succeed
by socking, punching, slapping or killing anybody who gets in his way.
His only soft spot for his mother, but far from being a "Momma's Boy."
Through its passage in time element starting in 1909 Chicago, THE PUBLIC ENEMY plays in the biographical mode, displaying the origins of its main characters, Tom Powers and Matt Doyle, as boys (Junior Coughlan and Frankie Darro), leading to their adult lives (James Cagney and Edward Woods) as tough thugs. Tom Powers character, regardless of his fine upbringing, indicates he was born ... to be bad. He has a brother, Mike (Donald Cook) who knows of his activities, while their mother (Beryl Mercer) may suspect but overlooks his actions. As things start going well for Tom and Matt in the bootlegging racket under Paddy Ryan's (Robert Emmett O'Connor) leadership, Scheiner Burns, a rival gang leader, attempts on taking over Ryan's establishment, leading to more gun-play, especially for Tom, quick on the trigger, only to have things backfire on him.
If not the most famous of the early gangster films, THE PUBLIC ENEMY is one of the most revived. Quite frank in its actions, and adult for its intentions, much of the then so- called violence occurs out of camera range. Yet, whatever is displayed on film is something not to forget. These days, there isn't a year that goes where THE PUBLIC ENEMY isn't televised. Whenever a topic pertaining to THE PUBLIC ENEMY arises, it's not the story that immediately comes to mind, but Cagney's individual scenes consisting of squirting beer from his mouth into the bartender's face; Tom's cold-blooded killing of Putty Nose (the man who let him take the rap for a crime) while playing his last song on the piano; and Tom's off-screen shootout with a rival gang in a fancy nightclub, stumbling out in the pouring rain saying to himself, "I ain't so tough." All these scenes pale in comparison until reaching its most chilling climax ever recorded on film. Yet, the one where Tom, at the breakfast table, pushes a grapefruit into his mistress Kitty's (Mae Clarke) face, never has such a brief scene have such an long impact. Other than Clarke's famous few minutes of grapefruit glory, Mia Marvin (whose face resembling Maureen "Marcia Brady" McCormick from TV's 1970s sit-com, "The Brady Bunch") playing a slut named Jane, is one who gets her face slapped after getting Tom drunk enough to seduce him. The second billed Jean Harlow doesn't get any abuse from her leading man as did the other two actresses receiving no screen credit for their trouble. While Harlow's performance has been criticized as one of her worst, chances are her portrayal might have been intended to be enacted in that manner. Harlow's Gwen Allen is an uneducated blonde floozy with her gift for attracting men. What possibly hurts the film is not Harlow herself, but the inane dialog she recites, ("Oh Tommy, I can love you to death!". Joan Blondell's limitations on screen is mostly one involving her relation with Tom's pal, Matt. Edward Woods, whose has almost equal screen time with Cagney, is a Hollywood name very few recollect today. Several documentaries profiling gangster films have indicated Woods as the initial star of THE PUBLIC ENEMY with Cagney assuming the subordinate role, with director Wellman seeing an error with the casting and wisely having these actors switch roles. While a smart move on Wellman's part, he failed to switch roles on the boy actors who portrayed them, especially a keen observer noticing Frankie Darro playing Matt, not Junior Coughlan playing Tom, performing in the Cagney manner. Donald Cook, Beryl Mercer and Robert O'Connor appearing in subordinate roles, are essential with their parts, but never outshine Hollywood's finest movie thug, a/k/a Public Enemy, James Cagney, whose tougher roles, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938) and WHITE HEAT (1949) were years into his future. With limited underscoring, the theme song, "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," like Cagney and his grapefruit, has long become associated with THE PUBLIC ENEMY.
THE PUBLIC ENEMY, which has become one of the first major movies from the Warner Brothers library to be distributed on video cassette (consisting mostly of prints from slightly edited reissues), and later on DVD (with either edited or restored prints), can be seen quite frequently on Turner Classic Movies. It might not have the realistic violence as any crime film of today, but THE PUBLIC ENEMY presents itself as a gangster drama that doesn't have to be all blood and guts to become successful. Good acting, fine story, interesting characters supplied with tight action is all what is needed to make a good movie. Being a natural talent, Cagney makes THE PUBLIC ENEMY all it's worth. (***)
"Public Enemy" brought two things to the screen: the little tough guy,
fast-talking, unscrupulous gangster characterization by James Cagney
which was to follow him throughout his entire screen career, and the
Though "Public Enemy" created the Cagney image, he had already appeared in two other gangsters films for Warners, as a murderer prepared to let someone else pay for his crime in "Sinner's Holiday," and as a double-crossing hoodlum in "Doorway to Hell."
"Public Enemy," however, was a bigger-budget production, directed by William Wellman, and it contained all the elements of success It is the story of two brothers who become Chicago booze barons in the Twenties... One was Cagney, the other Edward Woods
It is sometimes claimed that the story of "Public Enemy" is based on that of "Little Hymie" Weiss, leader of the North Side Chicago gang after the murder of Dion O'Banion by the Capones in 1924 What is more likely is that the Cagney characterization is based on "Little Hymie"; the plot itself is pure fiction
When Cagney, in his striped pajama, sat opposite Mae Clarke at breakfast and decided he had had enough of this boring broad, he wasted no time He picked up half a grapefruit and planted it full into Clarke's face It was a piece of screen action which has lasted down the years as the ultimate in violence from the gangster to his moll
Of course, it isn't it just seems that way Since then gir1s have been slapped, kicked, beaten up, run over, shot, stabbed and raped, all in the tradition of mobster violence
But at the time this scene was daring, and the more daring because it was totally unexpected We remember Mae Clarke in "Public Enemy," yet forget that Jean Harlow was in it, too There may have been good reason The New York Times, reviewing the film in 1934, commented: "The acting throughout is interesting, with the exception of Jean Harlow, who essays the role of a gangster's mistress."
Cagney made violence and a life of crime magically seductive, and "Public Enemy" made him Warners' number 2 gangster, second only to Edward G. Robinson
"The Public Enemy" is one of the starting points of the great season of
gangster movies, a very interesting work. It is not the story of the
rise and fall of some big boss of crime. Tom Powers (James Cagney) and
Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) are just small time crooks, and so they
remain throughout the movie. Only, they make the big money that the
circumstances of prohibition offer to any criminal. Tom is just a
semi-illiterate, naturally violent thug. He is not even professional.
He kills just out of stupidity or desire of a pointless revenge, that
ultimately will severely damage himself. Further evidence of his cheap
personality is shown when he instantly falls for the vulgar, tasteless
girl Gwen (Jean Harlow). By the way, Harlow looks remarkably
unattractive (to our modern eyes, at least). Was it a choice of
director Wellmann? Matt is slightly better than Tom, but clearly he has
not the guts to cross his mate.
In my opinion a major credit of the film is that it systematically avoids cliché. Neither Tom nor Matt are outcomes of poverty and social injustice. They come from simple but honest, decent and loving families. But they are both bad (that's the word) and they use the freedom and opportunities of their democratic country to make evil.
In "The Public Enemy" we find probably the first instances of the beautiful stylish cinematography and clever camera-work that will become the trade-mark of later gangster and noir movies. Some scenes are unforgettable, like the final one, or that under the rain, or that of Cagney abusing the girl. The brief scene of the killing of the horse is pure cinematic genius.
In the film there are also some naiveness and clumsiness, though. The way Tom undergoes the personality of his good brother is far-fetched. It is not clear why a gangster in a hospital, wounded in a gun-fight, is not under strict police control. The behavior of Tom's boss in the ending is illogical. Moreover, the part where Tom and Matt are kids is too long (we audience are all eager to see Cagney!), and action is a bit scarce for a gangster movie.
"The Public Enemy" was Cagney's breakout film, and really he makes a powerful and accurate job. Actually, a strong acting is provided by the whole cast. The director William A. Wellmann handles the movie with sound talent.
"The Public Enemy" is a beautiful and historically important movie. I recommend it to any cinema-lover
Once again, Jimmy Cagney struts his stuff.....and makes a big name for
himself in the very early part of his acting career. He clearly
demonstrates that he is a man who take over any scene and dominate it,
and the film.
Hollywood found this out in making this film. It is said that Cagney's role was originally much smaller in here but he was so good the script was changed to give him the starring spot....and his career took off from there.
Speaking of billing and stardom, Jean Harlow gets second billing in this film but really has only a bit part; Blondell gets fourth billing has only a few lines.
The story is a fast-mover and the movie is over in less than an hour-and-a-half. The cinematography in here is excellent and DVD really brings that out.
The famous "grapefruit scene" with Cagney shoving the fruit in Mae Clark's face wasn't that big a deal back then and the scene happens so fast you almost miss it.
For me, a highlight of the show was simply the facial expressions on Cagney. At the end of the movie, as he stands in the pouring rain getting ready to go in and kill people, his expression is downright scary - a very powerful scene.
The ending of this movie is memorable, too. In all the film may be dated but it still very, very watchable and one of the great crime movies of all time.
The Public Enemy, along with Little Caesar and Scarface, set the
standard for the gangster film. Though films about crime had been done
in the silent era, sound was what really ushered in this particular
genre. I've always maintained that musicals and gangster films are the
only two movie genres that date from the sound era.
Of course this film about a young man's rise to prominence in the bootleg liquor business during Prohibition made James Cagney a star. Interestingly enough Edward Woods was originally supposed to be Tom Powers and Cagney was cast as best friend Matt Doyle. After some footage had been shot, Director William Wellman scrapped it and had Cagney and Woods exchange roles. Stars get born in many and strange ways.
Some critics have complained about Beryl Mercer's part as Cagney's mother, saying she's overacts the ditziness. I disagree with that completely. In the prologue section with Cagney and Woods as juveniles, there is a two parent household. The boys have a stern Irish father and a mom who'd spoil them if she could. The older kid who is later played by Donald Cook has more the benefit of the two family home and both influences. That and the fact that World War I leaves him partially disabled prevents him from thinking about the gangster trade. Cagney misses the war and is spoiled by mom.
I knew a woman like Beryl, in her own world with a stream of nonsensical chatter to keep out the reality of things. Her portrayal for me rings true.
Oddly enough in The Roaring Twenties Cagney is a veteran who enters the rackets because he can't get a legitimate job and its easy money.
Both The Public Enemy and Little Caesar are short films, edited down to the essentials so the viewer ain't bored for a minute. Warner Brothers sure knew how to do those gangster flicks.
Larger than life classic that chronicles the life of a street hustler turned
crime lord in prohibition Chicago, based loosely on the various antics of
the Irish mega-hoodlums, O'Bannon and Moran.
While we may never literally create a time machine, these old movies give you the miracle of observation at least of what life was once like. Sadly many of the old films have been destroyed through neglect, so the pickings are very slim. Public Enemy is one of the best old movies available. For only the sheer pleasure of seeing what all the fuss was about in Cagney and Harlow, it's worth a viewing. Director Wellman creates some extremely lasting images you won't want to miss, and it almost makes me think of the original Frankenstein for that reason. The final sequence especially is a dramatic example of lasting imagery in film, quite an unforgettable experience. If you like Godfather, Scarface, Goodfellas, and who doesn't, you owe it yourself to watch what may be the patriarch of the entire genre. Interestingly, while the film has a campy disclaimer demonizing the subject matter and mandating public action in order to address the evils of organized crime, it's rather obvious that the producers new exactly what they were really doing by making a film like this. Brutal as some of the action is, Cagney's charisma glorifies the gangster as much as Coppola, Scorsese and all the rest glorify modern organized crime. See it for yourself!!!
"The Godfather" trilogy and "Goodfellas" owe a lot to this gangster film
that preceded them both by at least fifty years. "The Public Enemy" was
perhaps one of the first mob films that followed the rise and fall of a
gangster and showed not only the implication of his actions on himself but
on his family as well.
The film is far from perfect. The first ten minutes of the film in which we are shown a glimpse into the characters' childhood are jerky at best and feel as if much of it was left on the cutting room floor. The movie's incessant fast pace thereafter don't allow for much to sink in, but Cagney saves the day with an absolutely fiery performance. Not one person is spared from his bubbling anger and ferocious delivery.
Finally, the ending will leave you gasping - even by today's standards.
"The Public Enemy" is a must see for any true fan of the mob movie genre.
Most films made in the early 30s are entertaining only as period pieces
give us a glimpse into another era. Often they are so dated that they've
become unintentionally funny.
The Public Enemy is a totally different thing. It is such a well-crafted and honest film that it still has the power to shock us. The violence in this film is every bit as brutal as anything in a modern "gangsta" flick, even though some of it takes place off-camera.
Based on the stills I had seen of the grapefruit scene, I thought it would be a light-hearted moment. In fact, it's anything but. In that encounter, Cagney's character exhibits a total disregard for others that is downright chilling.
The final scene is extremely disturbing. You won't forget it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This was the film that made James Cagney a star. In a surprise move,
Warner Brothers made him switch roles with Edward Woods, and the end is
history. James Cagney, who made a career out of playing tough guys,
appeared as Tom Powers, a young man who loved the company of all the
Irish wise guys in his area. The film starts with a message from the
studio about one is going to witness as it wanted to point to a social
problem, and it ends with a sort of disclaimer about what was seen a
social issue at the core of the society of those years.
Tom Powers rises to the top of the crime scene when Prohibition went into effect. There was a lot of money to be made smuggling liquor and having pals like Paddy Ryan, who controlled the trade. Helped by his inseparable Matt Doyle, they make their mark as people that could get away with what the crimes they were committing. Tom Powers inspired violence because he was ruthless in the way he wanted to do things.
The film, made before the arrival of the infamous Hays Code, gets away with showing the morality of the gangster on the scene and the women they went after. Tom's relationship with Kitty, and the cruelty he shows toward her, is something that the creators got away with. Tom's involvement with Gwen Allen, the beautiful blonde, is full of sexual suggestions.
William Wellman, proved he was the right man for this movie. He brought the best in James Cagney and the rest of the cast. Unfortunately, the dialog sounds dated. The heavy make-up favored in those days looks funny of the men, especially. Mae Clarke, who is not even credited in the film, has one of the best moments of her film career in the movie. James Cagney and Edward Woods do some excellent work together. The sexy Jean Harlow is lovely to look at in this film as it brings her beauty to new heights. Donald Cook, Joan Blondell, and the rest of the supporting cast contribute to make one of the best films of the gangster genre.
I think this is a great James Cagney movie and a great gangster movie. Scarface and Little Caesar were based on Al Capone, but this one takes a new turn. This time the movie's about the North Siders. It is the Irish mob. This movie, I just realized is based loosely on Dion O'Banion. There is only one scene I could think of that was an event in O'Banion's life. The scene with the horse. You'll see what I mean when you see the movie. This movie doesn't go into as much detail with real events as Scarface, but it doesn't matter because everything is perfect. The movie also unintentionally glorifies gangsters again. These characters become guys you like. Especially Cagney's character Tom Powers. I guess that's why there is that introduction at the beginning and even in the end so you don't end up liking them. Nice try censors. I loved the different relationships. Tom's friendship with Matt, his brother, his mother, his first girlfriend that gets a grapefruit in the face (I can never forget that one) and his second girl Jean Harlowe. My favorite part is probably the part where he goes inside a building to take on the Burke mob with two guns. When he gets out you hear screams from inside and Cagney, who is wounded, utters the famous lines, "I ain't so tough." This movie is just perfect. Another scene I never forget is the final scene. I'll call it Tom's Coming Home. After I saw the final scene I was just speechless. I couldn't believe my eyes. It will shock you. A terrible thing happens, but like they say in the very end, The public Enemy is neither a man nor a character, but a problem that we the public must solve. It's almost like they try to convince you that what happened was good. Be sure to see this classic. You won't be disappointed. After renting this movie I like it so much I'm going out to buy it.
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