Thursday December 24, 2020
'The Public Enemy,' Starring Everyone
OK, so who didn’t have the lead role in “The Public Enemy”?
Cagney fans know Ed Woods was originally chosen to play Tom Powers, but some combination of events led to the switch—most likely: screenwriters John Bright and Kubec Glasmon pitching Cagney’s case to director William Wellman, who agreed with them after seeing the dailies.
Just took a while to get the message out. If you look over the news stories leading up to the premiere, almost everyone in the cast, at some point, was touted as the lead.
In early December you have Louella O. Parsons writing about her then-future son-in-law Ed Woods in her nationally syndicated column:
A few days later, in a short piece in The Record (an LA paper) about the sale of the screen rights, only Cagney and Donald Cook are mentioned. Nothing on Woods. Exact quote: “It probably will be released as 'The Public Enemy,' with James Cagney and Donald Cook in important roles.” Did Bright and Glasmon plant this? They’d written for The Record quite a bit that year, including a four-part series over the summer on the recent history of the Chicago gangland wars that inspired “Beer and Blood”/“Public Enemy.” Maybe they left off Woods on purpose?
Yet a few days later, again in The Record, it’s only Woods who gets mentioned: “EDWARD WOODS is getting to be the screen's boy menace,” it begins. A reaction to the earlier snub? A make-up call? A Parsons plant?
I always assumed that was the battle: Cagney or Woods? But at the end of December, Joan Blondell gets into the act. (In the final movie, she has about a dozen lines.)
In mid-January, in the San Francisco Examiner, it's 1920s icon Louise Brooks. (She’s not in the final movie at all.)
Two months later, Jean Harlow, who at least is the female lead, if not quite “the lead”:
By the time the Brooklyn Citizen writes that a print of “Enemy” arrived on March 28 (!), everyone is so confused that they, in their write-up, give Cagney third-billing—after Woods and Blondell. And even when the New York Times reviews the thing in May, they list Woods first.
Maybe this happened all the time with movies back then? Everyone’s agent is pushing their client into as many column inches as possible. It’s still amusing. I went looking for info on Cagney/Woods and everyone else got into the act.