Most of the early William A Wellman movies I’ve written about here are little-known – and the same goes for a lot of the James Cagney movies I’ve written about up to now. I often find it’s easier to find things to say about films which haven’t already been discussed endlessly. By contrast, The Public Enemy is one of the most celebrated of 1930s films – Wellman’s gangster masterpiece, and the film which made Cagney a star. It’s also the film which got me interested in both its star and director. Since I first saw this movie, I’ve watched it repeatedly and also gone on to see almost all of Cagney’s other movies, plus as many of Wellman’s silent and pre-Code films as I can get my hands on.
I hoped that after doing all this I would have something new to say about this film, yet I am still daunted, and can really only come up with some rambling comments rather than a full review. Anyway, I agree with everybody else that it is a masterpiece, and a film where you can find something new every time you watch it. In case anybody reading this hasn’t seen the movie, I will be talking about the whole film, including the famous ending.
Cagney was famously originally cast as the best friend, Matt Doyle, but then Wellman and producer Darryl F Zanuck swapped the casting around to give him the lead role as Tom Powers, with Edward Woods as the sidekick. There seems to be endless argument about who made this decision and whether any footage of the two actors had actually been shot before the changeover. In some ways it must have been a quite surprising decision, as up to that point Cagney hadn’t played a movie lead role and the two gangsters he had played were both rather weak characters (though he gives them loads of charisma which wasn’t in the script) - mama’s boy Freddy in Sinners’ Holiday, and the sidekick who can’t run the gang and breaks down under police questioning in The Doorway to Hell.
In any case, Cagney grabbed this first starring role and made it his own. His performance is electric and beautiful, from the first moment that he swaggers in – and it is really hard to tear your eyes away from him even for a moment and look at the other actors. He has some short scenes in Wellman’s previous film, Other Men’s Women, where he makes a strong impression despite having very little screen time – but here he dominates throughout. Watching Cagney, I have to suspect that, if Edward Woods had been the main star of The Public Enemy, it would never have achieved its classic status – although, having said that, Woods is very good as Matt, with a sort of lazy charm that perfectly counterbalances Cagney’s nervous energy.
There are a series of brief, brilliant episodes following Tom and Matt on their progress up the gangster ladder – from an early job, where they are scared off while robbing a fur factory and Tom fires shots into a huge stuffed bear, through to the great scene, often imitated, where they make it impossible for bars to turn down supplies of their bootleg booze, turning on the taps and pouring out their rivals’ beer on to the floor. There are also volatile outbursts of violence from Tom, mixed with black humour, such as the shooting of Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell, one of the many Brits playing baddies in 1930s Hollywood), the fence who betrayed them when they were children, while he is playing the piano. Another violent outburst is the amazing scene where Tom and Matt shoot the horse which fell and killed their criminal boss, “Nails” Nathan (Leslie Fenton). It’s almost unbelievable to realise that this was based on a real incident!
Of course, the most famous and controversial incident of blackly comic violence is the grapefruit scene, where Tom turns on moll Kitty (Mae Clarke, amazingly not even listed in the credits) over breakfast and squishes half a grapefruit into her face. Unfortunately, the scene has often over-shadowed the rest of the film – and I don’t suppose there is much left for me to add to all that has been said about it. As with the late casting change, there has been endless claim and counter-claim over who thought up this scene, and suggestions that it was added in late on – Wellman said in interviews that he came up with it, while the commentary on the DVD says it was in the script from the start. For what it’s worth, I think this little scene of domestic violence is intended as a brilliant visual summary of Tom’s character, bringing out the rottenness beneath the charisma. It’s a way of memorably showing the violence of his character without actually including shoot-outs and beatings in the film. There should be nothing remotely glamorous about this spiteful breakfast-table attack, though its cult status suggests the opposite.
It’s a pity Mae Clarke didn’t get a bigger part in the film, since she was a fine actress – she did star with Cagney later in Great Guy, a poverty row film which I really like, and they have some much gentler domestic scenes in that one. The leading lady in The Public Enemy is Jean Harlow, of course, and I must say I find her performance in this very weak, not helped by the dodgy lines she has to speak like “Oh, my bashful boy”. I like her a lot in films like Platinum Blonde and Riff Raff, but find her almost unwatchable in this early role, the one weak link in a great film. It seems odd that Wellman couldn’t get a better performance out of her. Joan Blondell is also in the movie, as Matt’s girlfriend and later wife, Mamie, but has a very small part – a pity she didn’t get more of a show.
The Public Enemy does fit into the mould of other Warner films of this period through its gritty quality and the way it shows social problems – with the down-at-heel Chicago streets, and remarkable scenes like the one where the liquor store has to sell off all its goods by nightfall before the start of prohibition. Huge crowds are seen staggering drunkenly through the streets, with the startling glimpse of a couple whose pram is full of bottles of booze in place of a baby. This whole scene reminded me of something like Hogarth’s Gin Lane or the scene in A Tale of Two Cities where the mob in Paris drinks spilt wine from the gutter. That detail of the pram is also something which very much has Wellman’s stamp on it – the commentary on the Wild Boys of the Road DVD points out that he often likes to show an object which visually sums up the scene, and the lingering shot of the pram does that here. I was also interested to see that the Salvation Army features in an early street scene – the Sally Army turns up in both Midnight Mary and Frisco Jenny, but can’t save either of the heroines.
The tight construction of The Public Enemy, with a series of short episodic scenes where every word counts, is also characteristic of early Wellman. The story, by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon, is packed into just 83 minutes – slightly longer than some of Wellman’s other films from the period, but still very short when you think of all that is included, meaning there is no time to waste and that every incident is important.
One result of the late changeround in casting is that, in the early scenes, the two characters are played as children by actors cast the wrong way round, with curly-haired, delicate-featured Frankie Darro – who went on to star in Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road - as the young Woods, and tall, dark Frank “Junior” Coghlan as the young Cagney. I do wonder why they didn’t re-film these scenes – I suppose it is probably down to the huge pressure of time under which the Warner film crews worked. In any case, the opening sequence is interesting as a little capsule of what is to come, with the two boys stealing booze from a lorry, foreshadowing the whole prohibition theme and their later career of crime – and with Tom being aggressive towards Matt’s sister, early hints of the streak of violence which will be seen in the grapefruit scene. This opening sequence culminates with Tom’s father, a policeman (Purnell Pratt), giving him a beating – he’s a looming, glowering figure who punishes in silence, and behaves as if his child is already a criminal.
There are also glimpses in this early sequence of Tom’s adoring mother (Beryl Mercer), who plays an important part in the rest of the film, constantly fussing around Tommy and telling him he is her boy – I’ve seen the film several times now and still can’t decide whether we are supposed to think that Tom’s love for his mother is his one redeeming feature (a contrast with the violence against women in the grapefruit scene), or whether being so bound up with his mother is supposedly part of what has made him a criminal. Probably both elements are there. I’d be interested to know how much of this relationship was in the script from the start, and how much it was played up once Cagney became the star, since being “Mama’s boy” is such an intrinsic part of his screen personality, from his very first film, Sinners’ Holiday, right through to White Heat. There are one or two sequences between Tom and his Ma which it is hard to imagine any other actor playing. I do find Mercer a bit cloying, and it is hard to believe a character living in that environment could be quite so naive about crime and life in general - but mother and son have some good scenes together despite all this.
So Tom is close to his mother (probably too close, since he seems to be haunted by a mother complex in his unsatisfactory relationships with other women). By contrast, his older brother, Mike, seems to take after their father – he is another silent, embittered figure, who at times almost seems to take pleasure in punishing his family. I found it interesting to go back and see Donald Cook’s performance in this role again after seeing him in other Wellman movies such as Frisco Jenny, where he also plays a fiercely just character who almost seems to be in another world from the rest of the cast. In the later part of the film, his character is also traumatised and haunted by his experiences in the First World War (shades of Heroes For Sale), which makes him even more isolated. It strikes me that in some ways Mike is actually tougher than Tom – in their one fight scene, he knocks Tom down with a single punch, leaving his younger brother to kick the door in frustration. And in Mike’s scene of anger at a meal table, rather than hitting out with half a grapefruit, he hurls a whole barrel of beer across the room.
Apart from the grapefruit scene, the most famous thing about this film is its ending – but I’d have to say it really has three endings. Cagney is a long time dying. First of all, after Tom inadvertently causes the death of his friend, Matt, he steals a gun, goes into his enemies’ lair to have his revenge, and staggers out, badly wounded, collapsing in the gutter in the pouring rain. This is probably the most characteristic Wellman scene in the whole film, as the rain comes down to add to the hero/villain’s woes at a key moment. As he sinks into the gutter, Cagney moans the film’s most famous line “I ain’t so tough.” In some ways this is the death scene – in any case, it’s the end of the character we have seen up to that point. Afterwards, when Tom is glimpsed in hospital, wrapped in bandages, he certainly isn’t tough at all, and really reverts back to the young boy at the beginning of the film – although now he lets himself be more vulnerable than the young Tom, who never cried out when he was being beaten. There’s an extraordinary moment when he says to his mother: “Oh, you must like Mike much more than me.” A line that brings you up short – it’s the sort of thing a five-year-old says, not a gangster. The whole scene between him and his mother is quite touching and very unexpected in a film like this one.
But then there is that final twist of his bandaged mummy-style corpse being delivered on the doorstep and falling forward – something which seems like a scene out of a horror film. It’s very striking and one of the most memorable moments in any of the early Wellman films I’ve watched. Wellman loves using an object at the end of a scene to make its emotion concrete, but here the character himself becomes that object, as he falls down dead in the hall. Cagney has a lot of great death scenes all through his career, but, surely, none greater than this one.