I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles
Steven Hellerstedt | 03/31/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"THE PUBLIC ENEMY was James Cagney's first starring vehicle. Not only was it the first movie to push a grapefruit in Mae Clarke's startled kisser, it was the movie that propelled Cagney to stardom. It's a gangster film that tells the story of the meteoric rise and early fall of young street punk Tom Powers.
THE PUBLIC ENEMY opens with a quasi-documentary montage of shots of Chicago circa 1909, taking the viewer from the els to the stockyards to the opening sequence of the movie proper - a Salvation Army band marching in front of a saloon, a brewery, past the movie's two heroes as young boys - young boys sneaking a drink from the pail of beer they're bringing to someone, somewhere.
Director William Wellman built this one, and built it good. Interesting camera placement and movement and some very well edited scenes - the heisting of the fur warehouse scene is a case in point, one of a number of scenes that averts its eyes when the bullets splat flesh and, somehow, makes the violence all that more real. Wellman went to some length showing us the conditions in which gangsterism takes seed and flourishes. Starting with the obligatory opening "We must stamp out the scourge of gangsterism" title card, Wellman blames economic hardship, a lack of an authority figure at home (Pa Powers is around for one strapping the unruly brat scene before the movie knocks him off), and a doting mother seem the main culprits, in roughly that order.
Of course, it helps if you don't glamorize those you condemn. Keeps the censors off your back. Even though the charismatic Cagney doesn't paint a particularly sympathetic portrait of young thug Tom Powers, he IS the charismatic James Cagney. His anti-hero grows rich defying the unpopular prohibition act. Grows rich, wears tuxedos to swank nightclubs, and dates a swell dish like Mae Clarke before dumping her for a sweller dish in Jean Harlow. If PE made a star out of Cagney, it also did more than its share in opening the door for a production code with a full set of sharp puritanical teeth.
Part of THE PUBLIC ENEMY'S purpose was to provide a showcase for two up-and-coming stars, Cagney and Harlow. Cagney I can understand. He leapt out of the gate at a gallop, an immense talent even then. Harlow is tougher to understand. A harsh featured sex symbol with a remarkably limited range, Harlow's appeal is as foreign and baffling to me as flag-pole sitting. All I know is it, and she, was all the rage back then.
There's something a little undercooked about her fascinatingly flawed performance. It starts with her accent. Her character claims to be from Texas and seems to be aiming for an upper-crust, socialite effect. Whatever she's speaking it sure ain't Texican, and it's about as cultured as sour milk. Every so often a word tumbles out of her mouth that seems accented in some exotic and exclusive dialect - You can let me orf heah, she says at one point, managing to corral all errant dialects into a short sentence. By law you're not allowed to write more than twenty-five words about Harlow without mentioning that she slept in the nude and never wore underwear, two factoids which I suppose go far in explaining many things.
To her credit, Harlow fares much better than poor second male lead Edward Woods, he of the handsome wooden face who seems to have two expressions - one a smile, the other not. For my money Donald Cook, as Cagney's good older brother Mike, and Beryl Mercer, as the saintly and long suffering Ma Powers, fared best in the supporting acting pool. It's hard to relate to Ma Powers, too sweet, but Mercer is as expressive as Cagney and holds her own with him. It's not her fault her character doesn't have many dimensions or any rough edges.
THE PUBLIC ENEMY is a great, great movie that I highly recommend. The print is in very good condition, with only a couple of slightly bleached sequences to disturb things.
Best of all Warner Brothers, as they are wont to do, has packed a bunch of goodies on this gangster classic. They call it Warner Night at the Movies, and I'm not scoffing. They present the movie with a newsreel (Girl Stars Train for the Olympics), a Comedy Short (The Eyes Have It - a 9 minute short featuring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. They call it a comedy, and I don't have enough room left to argue the point), a Cartoon (Merrie Melodies "Smile, Darn Ya, Smile" with some foot-tapping fox who looks and sounds a lot like Mickey Mouse), and Theatrical Trailers. There's also a 20 minute feature, "Beer and Blood," that focuses most of its attention on Jimmy Cagney and how he got the part in THE PUBLIC ENEMY. The film comes with an informative and entertaining commentary by film historian Robert Sklar.
James Cagney at his ultimate
Thug's Ma | Indiana | 11/23/1999
(5 out of 5 stars)
"James Cagney reached the pinnacle of acting success in this 1931 pre-Code gangster thriller.As Tom Powers, Cagney comes off as pugnacious, cocky, sexy and must be billed as one of the most misogynistic characters ever. (I'm female, and I still find his squashing of the grapefruit in Mae Clarke's surprised maw a riot.) With a certain comedic flair, as a bad guy who thinks he is good, Cagney is endearing as one one of the first and best of Hollywood's bad boys.Reviewers, however, focus too much on what is now classically referred to as "the grapefruit episode." Instead, "Public Enemy" has to be watched for what I call "The Death of Putty Nose" episode where Tom murders Putty, a bad guy who had done him wrong. Putty begs for reprieve, then tries to endear Tom to him by serenading him at the piano with a song from Tom's childhood. Putty Nose nervously looks back at Cagney standing behind him, who smiles beatifically upon him in response. When Putty turns back to his playing, Cag shoots him in the back, in mid verse. The Cagney character then strides out, never looking back, and reminds his gangster pal that "I guess I'll call Gwen," his gal. He has no sense of remorse or conscience. It is hilarious because Cag is so baaad, and it is chilling because of his ferocity. Importantly, you never see the shooting take place. It happens off camera, which is even for evocative. I am one who believes that far too much gratuitous violence, swearing and nudity takes place on screen. Cagney didn't need it; he was more than effective without it -- even if it had been allowed in 1931.The filming is curious and innovative, with Cagney being in the background in several chilling scenes, allowing the secondary characters to develop, which is a sure sign of a great flick.Public Enemy is one of the first pre-Code gangster films, where crime did pay, but Warner Brothers shows 3 disclaimers trying to dissuade anyone from thinking this film is anything but a public service contribution against the evils of crime. Pshaw -- you can't help but watch this film and root for Cagney as the beloved villain. I saw this movie when I was 12 and developed an immediate fixation on this actor and his character. I laughed and cheered and thought Cagney was totally cool, and I cried at the end. Warner Brothers knew exactly what it was doing, and it had nothing to do with public service. In fact Public Enemy was among the first films to usher in the gangster movie craze. See this film over and over. It'll become an immediate favorite."
Still tough at 70
Edward | San Francisco | 08/24/2001
(4 out of 5 stars)
""The Public Enemy", the gangster drama that brought James Cagney to stardom, is just as tough and effective today as it was when first released in 1931. Despite some stilted acting (Donald Cook is a little too stiff as the anti-hero's straight-arrow brother), the story of Tom Powers, a hoodlum who becomes a leading mobster, is a harrowing study of Prohibition Chicago and the racketeers who made it their oyster. Tom himself is a conscienceless but strangely compelling (due to Cagney's charm) character who lives for rapine -- and occasional revenge (poor Putty Nose!). As a kid (well-played by Frank Coghlan, Jr.), he is heavily disciplined by his cop father and pampered by his weak mother. One senses that Tom has witnessed a lot of spousal abuse and it has affected his attitude towards women. That playful little "slugging" gesture of his looks vaguely ominous. The movie's most famous scene is the one where Tom smashes a breakfast grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face. (Oddly enough, Mae Clarke doesn't get screen credit.) Later in the story, while Tom is lying low at a gangland boss's apartment, the boss's mistress makes a heavy pass at Tom, who's had one too many. The next morning, as Tom is having his coffee, the woman implies that they slept together, which is evidently untrue. Furious at the manipulation, Tom belts her one. The moral: don't bug Tom at breakfast. The only female who remotely affects Tom is Gwen, played by the rising Jean Harlow. In this role, Harlow is suppose to be a high society girl with a veddy-veddy accent, quite at variance with the doxies she later played at Metro. ("The Public Enemy" was released by Warners, one of the first of its underworld "exposés".)Joan Blondell was also at the beginning of her long career, and here she plays the warm supportive type she would specialize in. Their co-star Edward Woods as Tom's buddy Matt is engaging, but he didn't forge ahead like the others. Director William A Wellman maintains the dark, dangerous atmosphere throughout with scenes of implied rather than direct violence. This is true of the revenge on Putty Nose as well as the killing of the horse responsible for "Nails" Nathan's death and the rubbing out of Tom's rival gang. Like the ending itself, one of the most unsettling ever filmed, these chilling events leave you convinced that this is still a strong, tough movie, seven decades after it was released."
Quintessential Irish gangster film.
Edward | 03/07/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
""Public Enemy" details the rise and fall of an Irish-American gangster. Although, the word "Irish" is never mentioned, there is no doubt of the ethnicity of the main characters: the stern cop father; the doting, sentimental mother; the surnames:Powers, Doyle, Ryan; even some of the first names: Paddy and Mike; and I believe the song "Mother Macree" is played on the soundtrack. In the early 30's this film reinforced the American public's image of big city crime as the territory of certain ethnic groups: the Jews, the Italians, and the Irish. I find the above interesting because "Public Enemy" is as fascinating viewed as a product of its era as it is as entertainment. In 1930's Hollywood certain ethnic stereotypes were used ad naseum, and the Irish were always portrayed as either cops, priests, or gangsters.And no one ever embodied the image of the Irish-American gangster better than Jimmy Cagney. His pugnacious looks combined with his ability to portray men who could be all charm one second and a hair-trigger tempered killer the next, captivated audiences. Watch "Public Enemy" and you will be in awe of Cagney's ability to dominate the screen from the famous grapefruit scene to his look of maniacal glee before he confronts a rival gang. Cagney's Tommy Powers is a gangster for the ages.It's fun to note that the Sean Penn film "State of Grace," which is also about Irish-American gangsters, paid tribute to "Public Enemy." Watch "State of Grace," and you will see some parts either taken directly from or influenced by that older film."