Public Enemy Reviews

Public Enemy (1931)

The Public Enemy (1993)

TV Guide's Online Motion Picture Guide (2000)



Public Enemy
Copyright Reel Journal 1931.

This picture requires lively short subjects to brighten up the program a bit, for there is no comedy relief, and it will cast a depressing mood over the audience unless entertaining shorts are run in conjunction with the picture.

The story is absolutely serious from start to finish and was meant to be taken seriously by the audience. Unlike other gangster pictures, it shows nothing deliberate or smart on the part of the gangsters to provoke the audience to laughter. Neither does it bring politics or bribes into the picture at all. This is not for children for, although it is a good moral picture, they will not understand it. The gangsters are not paraded as fantastic figures, neither do they represent certain persons or characters but show conditions as they actually exist today; and portrays the basis for the life of crime which the gangsters lead. The story opens with the early childhood of two boys, who, through bad associates, are taught the game early in life, starting as petty thieves. After the World War and after the Volstead Act goes into effect, the two men now grown become beer racketeers, and consequently immensely rich. They are powerful figures in the racket business and force speakeasies to buy their beer or take the consequences. Rival gangs appear and one by one lose their lives at the hands of their competitive racketeers.

It is not a picture for small towns, but should be a success in large towns and cities. There is a lesson and daring truth in the picture, and we believe it was meant to awaken honest citizens to the gangster tyranny prevalent in large cities today.

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Public Enemy
a review by Martin Hunt
Copyright 1995-1999, Edinburgh University Film Society

The Public Enemy William Wellman, USA, 1931, 84 minutes With prohibition still in force in 1931 the illicit beer rackets were still big news, and Warner Bros almost had a monopoly on the gangster pictures; with this picture and Little Caesar both coming out this year, the society-versus-the-gangster films had reached its zenith.

Public Enemy is regarded as the toughest of the gangster films, with the possible exception of UA's Scarface in 1932. It shows two youngsters in Chicago being drawn into the criminal underworld, their activities spiralling to the murder of a cop, then as they grow older they work their way towards the top of the bootlegging gang. This film made a major league star out of James Cagney, forever identified with the ambitious, ruthless, strutting antihero of the title. Jean Harlow and Joan Blondell, as the two girls the racketeers pick up in a night club, were both destined for stardom in a year or so; Harlow oozes the sexuality that was as much her trademark as her platinum blonde hair was later.

The violence is suggested rather than seen, most of the killings take place out of view, but the atmosphere is that of the threat of brutality. The scene which provoked the most raised eyebrows was the infamous 'grapefruit' scene, wherein Cagney pushes his breakfast into his molls face. Mae Clarke's surprise was genuine; Cagney had promised not to actually hit her with the grapefruit, but got carried away during shooting.

Director William Wellman forces this rather short film along at a tommy-gun pace; the ending is a bit sudden, but still able to shock.

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Public Enemy
TV Guide's Online Motion Picture Database
Copyright TV Guide 2000

Fascinating, brutally realistic, THE PUBLIC ENEMY, along with LITTLE CAESAR, set the gangster genre for the 1930s, making a star of its pugnacious, volatile leading man, James Cagney, and establishing director William A. Wellman as a major helmsman of talkies. Where LITTLE CAESAR had its share of violence, this film portrays the underworld in even seedier terms, taking on the most gruesome situations and portraying sex and violence liberally for its time (THE PUBLIC ENEMY was made before Production Code censorship really took hold.) The film opens with two young Irish boys, Frank Coghlan and Frankie Darro, growing up in the shantytown South Side of Chicago, circa 1909, hanging around pool halls and saloons and visiting a so-called boys' club run by the sinister Murray Kinnell, fencer of the stolen goods the boys bring to him. Coghlan (playing Cagney as a youngster), the ill-used son of Chicago cop Purnell Pratt, spends his time playing brutal pranks on the girls of his run-down neighborhood and leading Darro (playing Woods as a boy) into crime.

The boys soon grow to be young men, earning their living during the day as delivery men, while at night planning robberies with Kinnell, who gives them guns and outlines their first big heist, the robbery of a fur warehouse. As the thieves enter the warehouse, Cagney is startled by a huge stuffed bear's head and impulsively fires several shots into it. The thieves panic, open a window, and slide down a drain pipe to the street. Police descend upon the site at the sound of the shots, killing one of the thieves, while Cagney and Woods kill a cop in return before escaping. Running breathlessly back to Kinnell's seedy club, the boys find that Kinnell has left town. Deserted by their underworld guide, Cagney and Woods go to saloon owner Robert Emmett O'Connor, a wheeling-dealing criminal operator, who tells them that the coming Prohibition will mean a million-dollar racket for anyone selling illegal booze and beer. He intends to organize a mob to control such an enterprise in his district, and promises the boys that he will distribute what they steal. Their first job, the robbery of a federal warehouse for impounded liquor, nets the boys more money than they've ever seen before. With newly purchased tailor-made clothes and a flashy car, Cagney and Woods go to a nightclub, roaring up to the place in their new roadster. They enter and pick up two floozies; Cagney takes Mae Clarke, while Woods pairs off with Joan Blondell.

The four move into an apartment, while Cagney goes home to lavish his bootleg dollars on his good-hearted mother, Beryl Mercer, a widow still taking in washing to make ends meet. She tells him that his older brother, Donald Cook, has ordered her not to take any money. Later, at a family party, Woods and Cagney place a huge keg of beer in the middle of the table; when Woods asks Cook why he isn't drinking any beer, the older brother explodes, smashing the keg against a wall and shouting: "You think I don't know what you two have been up to? That's not just beer in that keg, but blood and beer!" Back at his apartment next morning, Cagney walks sleepily to the breakfast table, where moll Clarke greets him without a smile. When she provokes him with the suggestion that he has found someone he likes better, Cagney smashes a grapefruit into Clarke's face to end their relationship. Later, when Cagney and Woods are driving down Michigan Avenue, Cagney spots a voluptuous blonde, Jean Harlow, and orders Woods to stop the car. Cagney picks her up, and before getting out, she asks for his phone number. Afterwards, Cagney, Harlow, Woods, Blondell, and their new crime boss, Leslie Fenton, all enter a nightclub, where they spot the long-missing Kinnell. Fenton goads the boys with a reminder of how Kinnell once set them up and then disappeared. Cagney and Woods excuse themselves, follow Kinnell from the club, and trail him to his apartment. There the old crook, realizing that Cagney and Woods are out for revenge, begs for his life, asking the boys to remember their youth and how he used to play dirty songs for them. He sits down at the piano and begins to play an old ditty. Off-camera, Cagney shoots his mentor, whose body is heard collapsing on discordant piano keys; on-camera, Woods stares mutely at the scene. Cagney visits his mother once more, trying to shove thousands of dollars into her hand, but she again refuses, saying Cook will get angry. Cook appears, telling Cagney to leave and never again to offer "blood money" to them. Cagney tries to take a punch at his brother, but Cook slugs him first. Shoving his mother out of the way, the gangster leaves.

Later, Cagney learns from Woods that their boss, Fenton, has been kicked to death on a bridle path by a spirited horse. Cagney and Woods visit the stable and shoot the horse. With Fenton dead, gang war breaks out, and O'Connor's saloon is bombed. Now the nominal leader of the gang, O'Connor orders Cagney, Woods, and other gang members to go into hiding. He takes their guns and money so they will stay in the apartment he has selected for their hideout. When Cagney wakes up in the apartment to discover that he was seduced by a whore during the night while in a drunken stupor, he angrily shoves her aside and leaves the building, followed closely by Woods. Across the street, a rival gang has set up a machine gun in a second-story window, and the gun traces the steps of Cagney and Woods as they leave the building. As the two reach the edge of the building, the machine gun opens up and cuts Woods down. Cagney slips behind the corner of the building, looking back to see Woods reach out for his lifelong friend before flopping over dead. That night Cagney procures two pistols in a pawnshop robbery, then goes to the Western Chemical Company, headquarters of a rival gangster. He stands in the rain until his rival and a dozen of the rival's goons arrive and enter the building. Cagney pulls out the two stolen guns, follows the gang inside, and a fusillade of shots rings out, mixed with screams. Cagney emerges coughing; he has been hit. Cook and Mercer visit Cagney in the hospital, where they find him bandaged almost from head to toe. He promises to quit the rackets, and the family resolves to be happy once more. Preparations are being made for his homecoming when O'Connor shows up to tell Cook that the rival mob has kidnaped Cagney from the hospital, but that his own mob is out looking for Cagney. O'Connor has promised the rival mob that he will quit the rackets if they return Cagney. Later, Cook, answering the doorbell, finds Cagney, packaged in bandages and a rope-encircled blanket, with a bullet through his head. Cagney falls forward as Cook, in shock, examines the body of his brother, then staggers away out of the frame while the Victrola plays "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles."

THE PUBLIC ENEMY is one of the most realistic gangster films ever produced. Wellman's direction is a frontal attack on the subject; other than handling a number of violent deaths off-screen, he spares no brutality of emotion, no ruthlessness of action or thought in his grim portrayal of a lethal criminal. Cagney is the gangster of his day, cocky, seemingly invulnerable, and utterly without conscience, a character obviously predisposed toward evil from childhood. In this character Wellman shows us his philosophy that the environment creates the man. We see only the criminal world, with police barely in the background. The one cop shown in detail, Pratt, is a brute who walks around his house dressed in a half-uniform, communicating with his unruly youngster by means of a razor strop. Photographer Dev Jennings shot this film with sharp contrasts: glaring sunlit exteriors, grainy gray interiors that fade to black alleyways and gutters.

Cagney shot to fame with this international hit, typecasting himself for almost a decade as a ruthless hoodlum, an image that would carry him through the 1930s in such hell-raising films as G-MEN (1935), ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938), THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939), and EACH DAWN I DIE (1939). He was a human wolf with an insatiable appetite for violence in THE PUBLIC ENEMY, displaying original screen mannerisms that captivated the viewing public. His character is based upon the colorful Chicago gangster Charles Dion "Deanie" O'Bannion, archrival to Al Capone. Fenton acts the part of Samuel J. "Nails" Morton, a decorated lieutenant of WW I, formerly in command of a machine-gun company, who later used that deadly weapon with great and devastating effect in the gangland wars of Chicago in the early 1920s. The scenes involving Cagney and Woods killing the horse that killed Fenton are, surprisingly, based on actual fact. The most remembered scene of this film, of course, is the one in which Cagney smashes the grapefruit in Clarke's face. Everyone connected with the grapefruit scene remembered it differently. According to Cagney, the incident was concocted for the film after the writers, John Bright and Kubec Glasmon, learned that Chicago gangster Earl "Hymie" Weiss, incensed with his gun moll's endless talk, slammed an omelet into her face; Wellman thought the omelet too messy, so he opted for a grapefruit half. At one time, Cagney claimed that Wellman and he cooked up a conspiracy that involved the notorious grapefruit. He was to pick it up and then push it past Clarke's face, along the profile unseen by the camera, not touching the flesh. But he and Wellman decided to actually slam the grapefruit into Clarke's incredulous countenance without telling her in order to capture genuine shock. This it did, if the story be true; the blow hurt Clarke physically, and she showed all the pain and embarrassment in that memorable, if crude, scene. Clarke later stated that no grapefruit was to be used, that Cagney did the smashing impulsively instead of shouting at her. Still later, Clarke told interviewer Richard Lamparski that Wellman made one take where Cagney was merely to insult her verbally, then asked to do another "gag" take for a laugh. The gag involved Cagney shoving the grapefruit into Clarke's face. The actress forgot about the gag, and was shocked when she saw the film. Women's groups rose up in protest over such brutal abuse of a woman on-screen. Of course, Cagney and Clarke were ever after associated with that grapefruit scene. For years after the release of the film, when Cagney entered a restaurant, he was likely to receive a half grapefruit from some customer in the place.

Wellman finished THE PUBLIC ENEMY in a short 26 days and for only $151,000. Although the film would yield millions in reissues as a classic gangster picture, Wellman had to fight for Cagney as well as the picture itself. Cagney had appeared in only four films for Warner Bros. and was thought of only as an engaging young supporting player. Woods, ironically enough, had been cast in the lead. Wellman viewed early rushes of the film and concluded that he had the wrong man playing the tough Tom Powers. Proving his toughness many times over in THE PUBLIC ENEMY, Cagney actually stood only a foot away from the wall of a building while a WW I veteran machine gunner hired by the studio sprayed the wall with live ammunition. In one scene, Cook, called upon to hit Cagney in the face, did not pull the punch, but landed the blow squarely on Cagney's jaw, breaking a tooth in the process. Just as he would in other films, Cagney brought his indelible mannerisms to THE PUBLIC ENEMY. In several scenes he lightly taps Mercer's jaw affectionately, a gesture Cagney's own father used on him. Harlow, the sexy blonde bombshell of the decade, has really a small role in the film, playing the part of a call girl whose favors are available for money, but who practices her own strange perversions by indulging herself in men of violence. This was Harlow's only film with Cagney and her only lead role at Warner Bros. The film received one Academy Award nomination, for Best Original Story, losing to THE DAWN PATROL.

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