Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Public Enemy (1931)

The Public Enemy is Ground Zero for Hollywood gangster films.

This 1931 crime drama from Warner Brothers is a breakthrough for James Cagney, one of the big screen's all-time gangster greats. The Roaring Twenties and White Heat would follow over the next two decades. Here, in only his fourth role, Cagney owns the screen as Tom Powers.


Powers is in trouble with the law even when he's a kid. Even a steady job with a good income isn't enough for Powers to escape crime's lure. When it comes to settling a score, Powers is a killer. This guy is so tough he even shoots a horse when it throws his boss, gangster leader Nails Nathan (Leslie Fenton), and kills him. That's called following through on anyone who challenges mob rule.

Watch for a scene near the film's end when Cagney offers an early peek at the psychotic Cody Jarrett he'd play in White Heat nearly 20 years later.


The Public Enemy follows Powers, and long-time buddy Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), from their childhood through to the 1920s and Prohibition. There's lots of money to be paid in the booze business, but an awful price to be paid in gangland wars.

The Public Enemy was an early showcase for the all-too-brief career of Jean Harlow. Most of her previous work, in efforts such as Bacon Grabbers and New York Nights, were shorts or uncredited roles. She'd be dead six years later at 26.

Here, she's Gwen Allen, the gorgeous dame Powers eyes walking on a downtown street in Chicago.

What may surprise viewers is just how much reference is made to Powers' dealings with the ladies. He's living common-law with one woman he met in a bar, dumps her for Allen and, when drunk, is taken advantage of by another.


Beryl Mercer notched two of the most-famous screen mother roles in back-to-back years. She was Paul's mother in All Quiet on the Western Front in 1930 and appeared as Cagney's mom the next year. Ma Powers loves her son, but never takes him to task for his errant ways. That job falls to his stiff older brother, Mike (Donald Cook). He's a straight-laced First World War veteran who repeatedly urges his sibling to leave the criminal underworld. To this viewer, it looks like Public Enemy suggests Mike might have a touch of post-traumatic stress disorder following his efforts to defeat the German army. He's a killer too, but on behalf of defending the United States.

How interesting that Cagney and Harlow went on to screen stardom, but
Edward Woods only made 13 films and was out of Hollywood before the decade ended. He died in 1989. Robert Emmett O'Connor, who appears as Paddy Ryan, made more than 200 screen appearances before his death in 1962 at 77. Here, he's Paddy Ryan, a mob boss Powers and Doyle follow after getting stiffed by Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell). Kinnell's film career was breif too, spanning 1930-1937.

The Public Enemy offers a disturbing finale after Powers is kidnapped from a hospital by a rival gang. Even 80 years later, his fate is unsettling.

If you have time, give a listen to commentary by film historian Robert Sklar. Details about the film's climatic scene, and the importance of family, are fascinating to hear.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Director William Wellman directed the 1937 version of A Star is Born.

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