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.
Frankie Darro and Dorothy Coonan in 'Wild Boys of the Road'
All six of the William A Wellman pre-Codes included in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection volume three are great to watch, and am sure I’ll go back to them all in the future. But the last one in the package, Wild Boys of the Road, may just be the best of all – and it’s also the one which addresses the Great Depression most full-on.
One of Warner Brothers’ stories “ripped from the headlines”, this is a powerful, fast-moving melodrama, with a script by Earl Baldwin from a story by Daniel Ahern, turning the spotlight on the vast army of teenagers who really were living on the streets of America at that time. The second time I watched the film I was struck by how many shots there are suggesting that these children are being regarded as society’s rubbish – from a car scrapyard scene early on to the section with a large group living in a “sewer pipe city” and another scene where they are living on New York’s municipal garbage dump. There is also a brief sequence where Frankie Darro, playing young runaway Eddie, eludes a policeman by jumping into a rubbish bin, and peeps up over the edge after he has run past. I’ve seen plenty of chase scenes where people hide in bins in comedies and cartoons – but in this one the image of Darro peeping out of the bin is heartbreaking as well as funny.
After watching the 1932 movie Hell’s House, set in a reform school, I was keen to see this better-known Warner Brothers movie, directed by Archie Mayo and starring James Cagney, Frankie Darro and Madge Evans, which was made the following year. I was delighted to find that this one is included in the excellent Gangsters Collection 3 recently issued by Warner Brothers – a shame for film fans in the UK that it is only available as a region 1 import, though I believe the discs are actually region-free.
Anyway, the print is beautifully remastered, a great change from all the shaky grey pictures and out-of-sync soundtracks I’ve been suffering recently! The commentary by film historian Greg Mank also gives interesting background, though at times I think he gets too fixated on listing all the films a minor actor appeared in rather than focusing on what is happening in the powerful melodrama we’re watching. The most intriguing aspect of his commentary is his focus on how much censorship this film suffered even in the pre-Code area, with various states cutting different lines and scenes, offended by everything from juvenile vandalism to Cagney saying: “Ah, nuts!”
James Cagney and Madge Evans
The spectacular finale, where rioting inmates set fire to the reformatory, was almost completely cut in some states, so that cinema-goers must have had a job working out what was going on.
Cagney plays gangster Patsy Gargan who is given a role as deputy commissioner, nominally in charge of a reform school, as a political favour. However, when he meets the boys and sees how badly they are being treated by the sadistic Mr Thompson (a wildly over-the-top Dudley Digges), Gargan starts to become emotionally involved. As a boy from the slums himself, he identifies with the youngsters and is determined to help them. He joins forces with the saintly reformatory nurse Dorothy (Madge Evans), takes over the running of the reform school and gives the boys a chance to prove themselves through self-government. The experiment goes smoothly and gives hope for the future – but Thompson is determined to get back control.