The Public Enemy (1931)

James Cagney, Edward Woods and Beryl Mercer

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.

James Cagney and Edward Woods

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!

Jean Harlow, James Cagney and Edward Woods

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.

Joan Blondell and Mae Clarke

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.

James Cagney and Beryl Mercer

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.

Donald Cook as war veteran Mike

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.

Rita Flynn as Molly Doyle, not Mae Clarke as I originally thought

21 thoughts on “The Public Enemy (1931)

  1. What an outstanding review, Judy. One of the best you’ve written, IMO, and that’s high praise b/c your reviews are of a very high quality to begin with.

    My first Cagney movie was G-MEN. Cagney’s performance was impressively riveting, so I began to seek out his other movies, and then I saw THE PUBLIC ENEMY, and, as you said above, his performance was so electrifying, you can’t take your eyes off him. Like you, I’ve watched TPE multiple times b/c it’s just that good.

    Wellman’s camera direction is also amazing, especially considering how old this film is.

    [Beryl Mercer’s role—sadly, I know mamas like her. They simply cannot accept the fact that the sweet baby they held in their arms umpteen years ago turned out to be a very bad apple, indeed.]

    Excellent piece, Judy.


    • Thank you very much, CagneyFan, your kind comments are much appreciated! I do agree that Wellman’s camera direction in this is excellent – I don’t think I’ve come across any other films shot by the cinematographer, Devereaux Jennings, but, looking up his entry at the imdb, I see he worked on more than 80 films in this role, most of them silents – so he was very experienced. I also love G-Men and have seen it several times.

      I agree I’ve also met mothers like Beryl Mercer who are fiercely loyal to their children no matter what they have done, but she does seem a bit too sweet to be true to me – I prefer Cagney’s Ma in ‘White Heat’!


  2. Well done Judy. You’ve touched on all the important elements in this great movie, and mentioned a few that I hadn’t thought about before.

    I know exactly what you mean when you say it seems harder to examine the big classics that have had so much written about them already – I tend to shy away from them myself. However, you’ve done this one justice in spades.

    I’m also with you on Harlow’s part. I still find it pretty toe-curling in its stiffness. I’m afraid I’d have to say it’s a far better movie when she’s not on screen.


    • Very kind of you, Colin – I think there is probably loads more that I could have said, but I’d already spent hours on it! It’s a shame about Harlow, as she could be so good in the right part, but I do find her very stiff in this. I’ve been feeling I’d like to write about a few more of my favourite films, but I do find it hard to think of much to say about the big classics. Thanks very much.


  3. Judy, Wellman really deserves credit for discovering Cagney given the way he used the actor her and in Other Men’s Women, where he has perhaps the most awesome entrance ever accorded a supporting player, as well as a spectacular bit in a dance hall. Public Enemy is one of my favorite films, and you do a great job teasing out contexts for it, especially in your discussion of Donald Cook’s role in what is clearly a dysfunctional family and his relation to other Wellman heroes. You make me want to watch it yet again!


    • Thank you for commenting, Samuel. I suppose I’ve always tended to think of Al Jolson discovering Cagney, because he saw him on stage in ‘Penny Arcade’ and bought the film rights, then sold them to Warner with the stipulation that they had to feature two unknowns, Cagney and Joan Blondell, in the film!

      But I must agree with you that Wellman really discovered what he could do as an actor on film and gave him the scope to do it – his little scenes in ‘Other Men’s Women’ are similar to the brief spot for Gary Cooper in ‘Wings’, in getting the essence of the actor’s screen personality into such a short space. And must also agree that Cagney’s entrance in OMW is an amazing moment. I find Cook an interesting actor – another good part for him is in Wellman’s ‘Safe In Hell’, though sadly that one isn’t available on DVD.


  4. Judy, this is a tremendous review of one of the classic gangster films of the early 1930’s. Cagney’s persona is set in this film. Of the three gangster films of this period generally to be considered ground breaking I would probably rank Scarface #1 with The Public Enemy #2 and Little Cesar #3. The LeRoy film has probably dated the most but all three are essential films. The Public Enemy is loaded with great scenes as you mention. Just a wonderful movie and a great review.


    • Thank you for the kind words, John. I know this movie much better than either of the other two. It’s difficult for me to make any comparisons since I’m such a Cagney nut that I’m completely biased, but I must admit I find Muni rather over the top in ‘Scarface’, which I reviewed here a while back, though I think he is brilliant in ‘I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang’. I should really watch ‘Little Caesar’ again soon and write about that one too so I’ve got my thoughts down about all the big three!


  5. “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.”

    “The tight construction of The Public Enemy, with a series of short episodic scenes where every word counts, is also characteristic of early Wellman.”

    “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.”

    Judy, you humbly question whether you can do this film justice, and then you write one of your greatets pieces with extraordinary insight, appreciation and grasp of Wellman’s work in general, a result of this intensive months-long treatment of his career. It’s one of the most exceedingly entertaining reviews you’ve penned, and again you probe beneath the surface to look at some of the vital Wellman trademarks: the use of rain, the tight construction and the gritty quality of the film.

    This is the first of two instances where Cagney was cast in a film where he possessed an Oedipal complex, the other of course is WHITE HEAT.

    I also agree with you on the corpse-at-the-doorstep ending. It’s simply one of the most arresting scenes in all of American cinema.


    • Thank you very much, Sam – very kind of you and I do appreciate all your encouragement.

      I think the Oedipus complex runs through the characters he plays in some of his other roles too, but is strongest in these two great gangster dramas. (‘White Heat’ is another one I want to write about some time.) This is also the first of many great death scenes for Cagney – I find it quite amazing that the same film has that scene in the gutter and the corpse-at-the-doorstep ending, to use your phrase.

      Again, many thanks.


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  7. Unfortunately I don’t have a copy of “Public Enemy” to refresh my memory on who that is, but it really doesn’t look like Mae in the least in that photo. Perhaps someone who knows more about the film knows who it is, but I honestly don’t think it’s Mae.


    • Thanks very much for pointing this out, Stacia – I’ve just found the scene with the flowers and you are absolutely spot on. It isn’t Mae but Rita Flynn, who played Matt’s sister Molly. I had found the picture labelled with a caption saying it was Mae and I do think the two actresses look a bit similar – but, anyway, thank you for spotting it, I am correcting my caption accordingly and will also try to find another picture of the real Mae!


  8. I love the ending of Public Enemy! It was quite a surprise because I thought it ended when he was shot in the street. It really packs a punch because up to that point his mother is preparing for his homecoming from the hospital with great hopes for his moral and physical rehabilitation. He’d be a better man, she’d take good care of him and everything was going to be all right..the viewer, cringing for mom, knows something else is afoot…and then CRASH.


    • Totally agree, I love the ending too and agree it comes as a surprise – his mother singing to herself as she makes up the bed and, all the while, the knowledge that something very nasty is about to happen. I’m always slightly intrigued by the shot of Donald Cook walking like a robot at the end, and wonder what the future would hold for his character – whether we are supposed to think he would try to avenge his brother.


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  11. You did a fantastic job analyzing this fine film, arguably Cagney’s greatest. I’ve seen this one many times myself, starting in childhood when I just couldn’t believe its pace, watching it the first time as a child was like being shot out of a cannon, reminding me in some ways today of “Run Lola Run.” My name is Michael Powers, the same as Cagney’s Tom Powers’ tortured older brother, and I have to come to my namesake’s defense that there were places in WW1 that went so far beyond anything happening on the streets of New York in the ’20s that, if you were in the wrong place, it would be enough to give anybody post-traumatic stress (or “shell shock”), as of course you know. I always get a kick out of the huge wreath in the film labeled, “Welcome Home, Michael Powers.” Sometimes I’ll tell whomever I went to the theatre with beforehand that there’ll be a point in the movie when the cast presents me with a wreath. (The movie often runs in theatres here, next time being this coming week, and I love to take friends to see it.)

    And of course you probably know about how the film was so popular when first released that it ran around the clock at a theatre in Times Square here in Manhattan, and that Mae Clarke’s ex-husband had the grapefruit scene timed, would purchase a ticket at the last moment, saunter in and watch the sequence, then depart until the next showing of that specific scene. Mae Clarke, of course, also played Dr. Frankenstein’s bride in the original 1931 version of “Frankenstein” and was chased around by Boris Karloff in his seminal appearance as the monster, so she was unforgettably immortalized with two equally influential screen icons in the same year. I often wondered why her substantial career fell off the cliff so quickly; often the reason is alcohol but not in this case. Apparently Clarke’s face was scarred in a car wreck in the early ’30s, whereupon she was demoted to tiny roles.


  12. Cagney was originally supposed to take the role of Nick the chauffeur, played to perfection by Clark Gable in the stunner “Night Nurse” (1932), with Stanwyck and Joan Blondell, but “The Public Enemy” had already been released and “Smart Money” with Edward G. Robinson would be his last supporting role until “Mister Roberts” decades later. It’s astonishing Warner Brothers turned Gable loose, he was so powerful in “Night Nurse” as the villain who’s gradually starving two adorable little girls to death after running over their sister and killing her with his car.

    “Smart Money” contains a great Cagney turn in the kind of role later reserved for Bogart, as Robinson’s henchman. There’s a pre-Code sequence of Cagney miming cunnilingus with his hands and tongue that momentarily makes viewers think they’re losing their minds, and when he comes into the room with the poker game with a couple of gang members to back up Robinson at a tense moment, the audience at the Museum of Modern Art gasped audibly.


  13. And my third and presumably final post this evening for this one. The studio promised Edward Woods (obviously more photogenic than Cagney, with those chiseled Gary Cooper-like features) that they’d make the role switch up to him. They reneged, though, dropping him when his contract expired and leaving him to sink lower and lower into the quicksand mire of Z-grade Poverty Row pictures until he was no longer acting in movies by 1939.


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