erik lundegaard


Saturday May 25, 2024

Movie Review: Public Enemy's Wife (1936)

Mouse over for the '31 original: same brick-patterned backdrop, same quote marks around titles, but a little blockier and duller, and with stars usurping writers and directors.


James Cagney was so popular in the 1930s that Warner Bros. glommed off his titles to sell lesser fare that had nothing to do with him. So we got “The Angels Wash Their Faces” (with the Dead End Kids and Ronald Reagan) a year after “Angels with Dirty Faces”; and so five years after “The Public Enemy,” and right around the time Cagney was leaving Warners for a stint with Grand National, we got “Public Enemy’s Wife,” starring Cagney pal Pat O’Brien and Cagney co-star Margaret Lindsay.

Lindsay’s the title character, while O’Brien is another mid-1930s G-Man—no-nonsense and hare-brained. And the public enemy in Cagney’s stead? None other than the original Joker, Cesar Romero, a mere stripling at 29. Not bad.

But it’s not good.

Palm Royal
It begins with a trial. Of the public enemy or his wife? That would make too much sense. It’s a guy named Correlli, who was involved in a crime that’s already put Gene Maroc (Romero) and his wife Judith (Lindsay) behind bars. Then we get a rush of newspapermen phoning in the verdict. I guess it’s a hung jury. (The “he” mentioned below is the DA):

  • Journo 1: Sure he’s going to ask for a new trial. But he knows he can’t hang a thing on Correlli unless Maroc or his missus talk.
  • Journo 2: So he’s going to the state prison to try to sweat it out of them.

At the state prison, in place of sweating, we’re introduced to a trio of female switchboard operators, all of whom are prisoners (was that a thing?), including our title character, the chipper, well-groomed Judith. Then she’s told to see the warden because she’s getting paroled. 

Initially I thought it was a scam to sweat her, but no, the warden believes she’s a good kid who got caught up with a bad actor. It’s the two G-Men hanging around his office, Lee Laird and Gene Ferguson (O’Brien and Robert Armstrong), who are suspicious—particularly Laird. He decides at this moment, just when Judith is about to walk, to grill her. She’s not having it. “I don’t care what you believe,” she snaps, “all I ask is to be let alone!” She pronounces it “ahsk.” Like any public enemy’s wife.

Laird might’ve believed her innocence if he’d eavesdropped on her farewell conversation with Maroc:

Maroc: Now get this, Judy: divorce or no divorce, you’re mine. That’s why they sent you here for something you didn’t do—I fixed that! So I’d know where you were every minute.

Judith: But you made one mistake: I’m out! And you’re still here.

A scene later, she’s socialite Judith Roberts, staying at the Palm Royal Hotel while being pursued by Tommy “Marrying” McKay (Dick Foran). True to his name, he wants to marry her, but she’s reluctant. Because of her past? Because she’s worried about Maroc? What kind of name is Maroc anyway? It’s how the French say Morocco, but I assume the writers got it by transposing the last two letters of “Marco.” Could none of them pick up a phone book? 

After their engagement winds up in the newspapers, replete with picture, Maroc hatches his escape plan. He says he’ll testify against Correlli, and as he’s being transported by train to the trial, a package delivered by a kindly old lady starts emitting a gas that puts everyone to sleep. Holy ’60s Batman plot device, Batman! Oddly, the one guy Maroc didn’t let in on the ploy was Correlli, who thinks he’s a rat and comes gunning for him. But car crash. 

Our G-Men show up at Judith’s suite with its black maid out of central casting. They still assume she’s in cahoots with Maroc; but in their presence she finally confesses to McKay her real name, background, and the danger he might be in. Laird, without acknowledging his error, pivots on a dime: The wedding will draw out Maroc! They have to go through with it! Which … Was putting civilians at risk in the FBI handbook back then?

At this point, we’re just 30 minutes. The movie is short but it takes for fucking ever.

At this point, too, we’re still wondering if Tommy is a right guy. He’s not. “You can’t expect me to marry an ex-convict!” he complains to the G-Men. Write the rest yourself:

  • Laird will take McKay’s place at the altar
  • They’ll fall in looooove


During the ceremony a car backfires, all the G-Men go for their guns, and Maroc realizes it’s a set-up. Now we get the honeymoon, with all of its sickly Code-era innuendo. Because yes, they’re actually married—they forgot to tell the minister it was a set-up—and still trying to draw out Maroc. Which they do. Suddenly he’s there, and, with Laird in the next room, he takes off with Judith.

Holed up at the Schwartzman Fishing Camp, waiting for a boat to Havana, Judith looks for a way to get word out. She’s smart about it: She cuts a telephone line, they send repairmen, they see her note. Those guys are smart, too: One guy shinnies up the pole and taps out what’s going on. Who’s not smart? The FBI, of course. Laird and Ferguson go into the joint pretending to be drunk fishermen but fool no one since their shoes are clean. They still get the drop on Maroc, but then his gang gets the drop on them, but then fights ensue, etc. Laird and Maroc fisticuff it out in the mud. Laird wins, Maroc dies. And in the end, no surprise, Laird and Judith realize they’ve fallen in love and kiss in the backseat of the car. The End.

The Joker before the Joker.

Never right
Apparently there was concern, at least in some quarters, that all these 1930s G-Men movies and radio shows were problematic.  “A vast mass of propaganda is being loosed to convince the American public that the agents of the Justice Department are invariably brave, never corruptible and always right,” wrote columnist Heywood Broun.

And yet, here anyway, the G-Men are almost never right. They suspect Judith is guilty when she’s innocent; they set up a wedding/honeymoon to trap the bad guy but don’t. In fact, he gets away with the girl right under their noses. And they only get their man because of the good work of telephone linemen. Maybe we needed a slew of movies about them?

I’m curious if this was intentional—if Warners, or its writers, didn’t like the Code, didn’t like having to switch from gangster protagonists, who were fun, to G-Men, who weren’t, and made them look bad. Two of its writers, Harold Buckley and P.J. Wolfson, wrote mostly slop; the third, Abem Finkel, the son of a famous actor of the Yiddish Theater, went on to help write “Jezebel” and “Sergeant York.” The director was the aptly named Nick Grinde, who mostly did B pictures.

Overall, Romero is good, Armstrong fun, O’Brien phones it in, and Margaret Lindsay is all wrong for the title role. The whole “ahsk” thing. She’s probably my least-favorite of the frequent Cagney co-stars. Under duress she’s not bad but if her character is doing OK her self-satisfaction is insufferable. Yet the studio kept trying to make her happen. She was the fetch of 1930s Warner Bros.

1930s “Fetch”

Posted at 10:14 PM on Saturday May 25, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s