Here’s another film that defines the early crime/gangster genre as well as actor James Cagney– known for playing wise talking- slick suit-wearing- gangsters of the 1930s. The Public Enemy is about a troublesome boy who grows up to be a gangster during the Prohibition era.
James Cagney and Little Caesar‘s Edward G. Robinson are very similar in that they both play tough, hardened criminals who are working on the wrong side of the law and reach their downfall. One thing that I’ve noticed that makes them different is that with James Cagney’s character, you’re able to see humanity in him. You see him make connections to not just his partners but to his family and to women too so the character of Tom is not so one-sided.
Also, James Cagney has some charm in him too that Edward G. Robinson didn’t have.Tom sympathetically told his mother he wouldn’t go into the war after his brother enlisted. He even wanted to change his ways until it was too late. I also like how with this film, we understand the character more of Tom as he didn’t randomly become this criminal but he’s been trouble from the start. The background of his character helps us understand him a lot. It was very realistic how sometimes not everyone can get a second chance and leave the life they once led.
Director William A. Wellman said that he wanted to give Warner Brothers the most violent, toughest picture. That he did and he was lucky this movie was done during the time there was no Production Code. Then again… this movie is also what helped motivate The Production Code to come into fruition so thanks a lot The Public Enemy! It’s funny how out of all of the scenes of violence, this film was remembered for the grapefruit scene above where Tom chooses a grapefruit as a weapon of choice to resolve an argument. Women’s groups protested this film because of this scene! Actress Mae Clarke wasn’t even aware it would be in the final cut. Folks, please don’t try this at home unless you want out of the house and to stay out.
Watch this Pre-Code gangster film and let me know what you think. Unfortunately, this was the only copy I could find so sorry for the lack of sound but at least there’s subtitles:
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/56525176″>The Public Enemy 1931</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user15536534″>Doug Borntrager</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>