Since finally reaching my long-anticipated goal of 1,000 silents on New Year’s Eve (and now at 1,113), I decided to focus more on early sound films. A lot of the classic era sound films I’d seen were comedies, not so many dramas and normal films. I knew that was a gap in most dire need of filling. I also had the idea to spend the year getting acquainted with James Cagney’s films. (He’s the one in the middle, with the kind of feline features, if you don’t know.) As it turned out, this is his 30th Jahrzeit (death anniversary) year, so it was really hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) at work yet again.
The Public Enemy, released 23 April 1931, was Cagney’s breakthrough role, and first starring role. Originally, he was cast as secondary lead Matt Doyle instead of anti-hero Tom Powers, but director William Wellman thought Cagney would be better in the lead, and thus switched the two actors. However, the scenes of the characters’ childhoods weren’t reshot, so the child actors still resemble the opposite characters.
The film is based upon the unpublished novel Beer and Blood, by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon, and based upon Al Capone’s real-life gang rivalries in Chicago. The film too is set in Chicago, and spans the years 1909 to the Prohibition era.
The legendary Louise Brooks was offered the role of Gwen Allen, but turned it down. This was a period when she was turning down a lot of choice projects, for reasons no one could understand. Her film career was pretty much over after this. The role instead went to Jean Harlow, who wasn’t yet 20 years old when the film was being shot.
This is an episodic story, without much of a real plot I could discern. Tom Powers and his best friend Matt Doyle are scalawags and petty thieves from childhood, while Tom’s older brother Mike is a bit of a goody-two-shoes who wants no part of their delinquent lifestyle. All the while, Tom manages to keep his overindulgent mother in the dark about their seedy goings-on.
During WWI, Mike enlists in the Marines, and Tom and Matt become even deeper enmeshed in a life of crime. When Prohibition hits, they become very successful bootleggers. Mike is really upset to discover their wealth doesn’t come from politics after all, but utterly fails in his attempts to force them to give up their bootlegging.
While all this is going on, Tom and Matt run afoul of a rival gang, and also acquire girlfriends. Matt’s girlfriend is Mamie, whom he eventually marries. One of Tom’s girlfriends is the abovementioned Gwen Allen. He also dates Kitty, the victim of the famous grapefruit in the face scene.
I’d rate this film a 3 out of 5. It’s not great or awful, but I just didn’t see anything special about it. It was paced very slowly, and didn’t have a very structured plot. As much as I love episodic stories, I have to know when the real meat of the story has begun, instead of seeing a lot of stops and starts. There also needs to be some kind of arc and structure for the storyline to be hung on, and it must be paced well. To boot, the characters never really came alive for me.
It’s also not a particularly memorable film. Other than the famous grapefruit scene and the shocking finale (which I won’t spoil), nothing really stands out. I far prefer Edward G. Robinson’s Little Caesar as an early gangster film. That film has a more compelling storyline, better-developed characters, and better pacing. In The Public Enemy, a lot of scenes seemed to just end in media res, and didn’t add anything to either the overall storyline or character development.
I’d recommend this film only for its reputation value, and an example of one of Warner Brothers’ classic gangster films. It’s one of those films which you’re kind of expected to see if you care about film history, but not necessarily one you’re going to love. And even in a mediocre, overrated film like this, Cagney still has incredible charisma. The viewer is compelled to pay attention to him no matter what. (He was also a fellow shorty!)
I get the feeling a lot of folks gush all over films, books, and albums which have historically received a lot of praise because they feel like they’re expected to love it too. Anyone who doesn’t give an automatic 5 stars and recite the same mindless laudatory phrases is shouted down as a hater, and accused of having immature and pedestrian tastes. Sometimes the crowd is wrong.