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.
Richard Barthelmess might be best known as a star of silent films, but I think he was equally good in early talkies, when his boyish looks were starting to fade. He was great as a tormented wartime aviator in Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (1930) – and he gives another powerful performance as a drug-addicted veteran of the First World War in William Wellman’s Heroes For Sale (1933). For me this is one of the strongest offerings in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three, though it possibly goes off the boil for a bit in the middle.
This film, one of a number which Wellman made focusing on the Great Depression, follows Barthelmess’ character, Tom Holmes, from the trenches of France through to a peacetime battle in America, a march by the “forgotten men”, war veterans desperately seeking work. Both the opening in the trenches and the march of the unemployed men near the end are set amid torrential rain, which features in so many early Wellman films and seems to express the overwhelming forces bearing down on his heroes. The original working title of the film was Breadline, but it was changed to the more dramatic and bitter Heroes For Sale, underlining the theme of war veterans who can’t make a living in peacetime. However, the film isn’t just sympathetic to old soldiers, who are not particularly romanticised, but to everyone struggling in the Depression, and the hard years leading up to it.
For a director with a macho reputation, William Wellman made a lot of movies featuring strong female characters. Admittedly, it wasn’t always his choice to make these films – for instance, I have read that Wings was originally supposed to be an all, or mainly, male film before the studio told him to cast Clara Bow, who ended up getting top billing. According to the TCM account of the making of Frisco Jenny, Warner producer Darryl Zanuck ordered Wellman to make this movie and also cast Ruth Chatterton in the lead – originally Wellman was none too thrilled at this and the director and star weren’t even on speaking terms.
However, just as Wellman worked so well with Bow in Wings, the same thing happened with Chatterton, and in the end they got on very well and went on to work together again. Frisco Jenny is one of the six early Wellman films included in the great Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three box set, and I found it very enjoyable to watch – at times rather like a female version of the male gangster films of the era, as Jenny wears a succession of flamboyant outfits and rises to the top of the Barbary Coast underworld.