Alongside Little Caesar, The Public Enemy was part of a major gangster series inaugurated by Warner Bros. in 1931 as part of their mandate to compete against the dramatic fodder from rival studios, using their own stories steeped in the realism of daily social issues.
WB didn’t create the gangster film, but it certainly pioneered the genre’s development by setting up a formula that worked in multiple incarnations for nearly two decades, whether focused from the angle of the hoods, the cops, beat reporters, or FBI men.
The proof lies in late-era classics such as White Heat (1949), where James Cagney returned to the genre after a 9-year hiatus with gusto, and reprised the criminal archetype he spent years avoiding after being typecast as the cocky, loveable bad boy who grows up into a sneering monster.
Public Enemy made Cagney a star, and just as Edward G. Robinson dominated Little Caesar, it’s impossible to ignore Cagney’s charismatic portrayal of mean-spirited hood who becomes a major crime figure after surviving the dangerous stepping stones to mobhood.
There’s an epic scope to this compact production, where the life of Tom Powers begins as a street brat who shoplifts and pawns the goods to a local hood named Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell). The moral code in Tom’s life is meted out by his abusive father, and every lash from dad’s belt just reinforces the boy’s determination to become the baddest mother of them all.
Perhaps the most intriguing element within Public Enemy is the friction between Tom and his older brother Mike - the moral son who heads off to WWI and returns with a serious case of shell-shock. While Mike was in Europe fighting the Great War and defending all manner of heady honor, Tom was refining a smooth bootlegging operation, selling moonshine and sub-par booze to local speakeasies.
By mining news headlines for details, the film’s screenwriters inadvertently created a vivid time capsule of the conflicts within cities, and the cat and mouse games between gangs determined to protect their businesses and territories, and the law, which even in this 1931 is clearly losing the battle with organized crime. The only factor that seems to stop a monster from completing overrunning a city is another cocky mobster.
Public Enemy doesn’t glorify violence and criminal activities, but it dramatizes the pathways wherein criminals established powerful syndicates that continuously frustrated local and federal law enforcement, and even though Tom’s life of crime comes to a crashing, grotesque end, it’s clear he’s already been replaced by another figure, and his territory has been usurped by a more malevolent group.
By focusing on Tom’s life as an entrepreneur of risqué ventures, there isn’t much time for the screenwriters to really cover how the illicit alcohol trade was affecting societies on a broader scale – and that’s probably why the film was slapped with a prologue in 1954 to ensure the film wouldn’t be affected by the Production Code (made compulsory in 1934).
Both the original 1931 prologue (which reads like an ersatz newspaper editorial) and the revised version (morally snooty, and archived separately on the DVD) are classic anti-crime publicity rhetoric – vintage pap designed to assuage sensitive bodies not to brand the film, its makers, and the studio as irresponsible for glorifying organized crime.
It is interesting to note the radical changes since 1954 whereby crime sagas that once required don’t-be-angry disclaimers are virtually non-existent in quasi-humanist / darkly comedic serial dramas such as The Sopranos, except in the fine print in the End Credits and disclaimers on DVDs, where the concerns are purely copyright and coincidence statements against nuisance lawsuits.
Public Enemy is filled with several pungent clichés – Tom’s good Irish ma is gratingly annoying – but as historian Robert Sklar points out on the DVD’s superb commentary track, many characters, events, and sequences were appropriated from news items and true crime figures. Perhaps that’s why the film feels like a docu-drama of any one thug who made a fiery living before getting wiped out by the competition.
Moreover, it vividly conveys the changeover when Prohibition became law: pre-1920, drinking was popular and (according to the filmmakers) widespread in private and on the street; in the post-1920 era, after the fire sales of inventory in bars and liquor stores, there was a vacuum that was easily filled by gangs making their own booze - importing it, or stealing it from others (as was later dramatized in The Roaring Twenties, eight years later).
After the childhood shoplifting scenes at the film’s beginning, Cagney steps into the film playing Tom as a youth (!) and adult, as does Edward Woods as best buddy Matt Doyle. Joan Blondell plays Matt’s moll, whereas Mae Clarke is Tom’s swell girlfriend Kitty who gets a grapefruit smooshed into her face for letting her yap-trap complain one time too much.
Jean Harlow’s role comes up as a novelty, and she seems to have been cast to add extra kick to a role of a woman whose has both a motherly touch and raw sex appeal – two qualities Tom could only get separately from his Ma and grape-fruited Kitty, respectively.
More interesting minor characters are ‘ol Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell) who teaches Tom and Matt everything to survive on the streets, but later double-crosses them; the boys’ more pragmatic mentor Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O’Connor); and suave crime lord Nails Nathan (Leslie Fenton), whose horse pays dearly for bucking its master.
William Wellman’s direction is tight & no-nonsense, and milks the beauty of Dev Jennings’ black & white cinematography while evoking a docu-drama feel with dusty streets, dark corners, and scenes layered with a persistent undercurrent of combustible anger.
For an early sound film lacking a formal score, the soundtrack is nicely peppered with period songs and occasionally ironic lyrics, and the sound mixers invested obvious care in crafting sometimes densely layered sound design.
Warner Home Video’s DVD sports a decent transfer of a somewhat longer print (about 2 mins.), and while there’s active compression and noise reduction in spots, the grey levels are still solid. Sklar’s commentary often points out scenes snipped away from the reissue prints, and he provides excellent background details on the film’s production, cast, and elements which became de rigueur for the genre.
Like other entries in the Warner’s classic gangster series, the DVD has Leonard Maltin introducing another Warner Night at the Movies. The set contains the original Public Enemy teaser trailer (“A STRANGE, MAD STORY FROM THE PAGES OF LIFE”), a trailer for Blonde Crazy (1931) with plenty of pre-Code ass-ogling, Joan Blondell frontal cleavage, and some boob-grabbing by a sugar daddy; a Hearst newsreel showing female Olympians running and throwing things round and pointy; and a Mickey Mouse- er, Foxy cartoon where the mouse- er, fox sings the eponymous “Smile Darn Ya Smile” song with lots of boopee-doop-boop-booping during a train ride with a fat hippo and a hot foxette.
There’s also The Eyes Have It, a 1931 short starring Edgar Bergen and Christina Graver as ophthalmologists who examine ventriloquist dummy Charles McCarthy for poor sight issues. When the dummy is being tested for retinal issues, he asks Edgar “Can you see my popo?” and when outfitted with glasses, Charles is able to enjoy Graver’s long legs as she adjusts a painting in pre-Code candor.
The last goody is the making-of featurette “Beer and Blood” (named after the novel upon which the film is based), where director Martin Scorsese and various historians (Sklar, Alain Silver), address the film’s most significant factors. Best segment has Scorsese recalling a screening he gave of the film to cast & crew prior to the filming of The Aviator (2004), and their reaction to Cagney’s first scene (“modern screen acting BEGINS!”) and the post-screening applause that would’ve made director Wellman proud of his still-riveting picture.
Director Wellman had previously directed Cagney in the pre-Code Other Men’s Women (1931), and would move on to several multi-genre classics, including Viva Villa! (1934), A Star is Born (1937), Nothing Sacred (1937), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Island in the Sky (1953), and The High and the Mighty (1954).
Cagney also co-starred with Mae Clarke (minus citrus fruit) in Lady Killer (1933) and Great Guy (1936). Blondell also appeared with Cagney in a slew of films, including Sinner’s Holiday (1930), Blonde Crazy and Other Men’s Women (both 1931), The Crowd Roars (1932), Footlight Parade (1933), and He Was Her Man (1934).
This title is available separately or as part of the 4-film set TCM Greatest Gangster Films, which includes Little Caesar (1931), Smart Money (1931), The Public Enemy (1930), and The Roaring Twenties (1939).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan