Monday February 15, 2021
Movie Review: The Public Enemy (1931)
After six months in Hollywood, Warner Bros. contract player James Cagney had been assigned the following roles, usually fourth- or fifth-billed:
- A cowardly bootlegger
- An incompetent gangster sidekick
- A pal to a railroad man
- Insurance salesman
Then he was cast as another sidekick in another gangster drama ostensibly called “Beer and Blood”—up-and-comer Edward Woods was tapped to play the lead—and it probably seemed his lot in life. Cagney was short, red-haired, not conventionally handsome, with something feral about him. You could imagine a career of cameos, cowards, sidekicks.
Since success has a thousand fathers, there’s no end of people taking credit for switching the roles and making Cagney the lead gangster in “The Public Enemy,” and thus one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history.
In his autobiography, Warner Bros. chief Jack Warner wrote that he not only bought the unpublished “Beer and Blood” novel by Chicagoans John Bright and Kubec Glasmon but “gambled that Jimmy Cagney, who was a sort of bonus rookie, could deliver when the pressure was on.” Except, if true, there would’ve been no need to switch roles. Cagney would’ve been cast at the outset. He wasn’t. Scratch Warner.
Producer Darryl Zanuck has also claimed credit but in most accounts he actually fought the change. Edwards Woods, you see, was engaged to the daughter of Louella O. Parsons, the powerful Hearst gossip columnist, and Zanuck didn’t want to get on her bad side. It took director William Wellman to prick his ego: “Are you going to let some newspaperwoman run your business?” He wasn’t. But scratch Zanuck.
Most credit Wellman, who was himself a second choice. Archie Mayo, who had directed the gangster drama “The Doorway to Hell,” the year before, was originally tapped. But Mayo didn’t want to be pigeonholed into what most assumed would be a shortlived genre, so he turned it down. That’s why it went to Wellman, known as “Wild Bill” since his days in the Lafayette Escadrille—the air wing of the French Foreign Legion—during the Great War. He was a man’s man who knew tough guys when he saw them. Film historian David Thomson lays out the scene in “Warner Bros.: The Making of an American Movie Studio”:
After a few days, Wellman was looking at the early footage with his cutter and he felt uneasy without knowing why. Then he got it. He realized they had the casting wrong. Edward Woods was too restrained in the lead role, Tom Powers, while Cagney was seething with unused energy as Matt Doyle. Wellman called Zanuck, who was in New York, and explained the dilemma. Zanuck did not believe in doubt: he was devout about immediate decisions. “Make the switch,” he ordered.
You know who else credits Wellman? James Cagney. In a 1954 episode of “This is Your Life,” honoring Wellman, Cagney shows up and says the following:
I was not supposed to be play the first hoodlum in the picture; another fellow was supposed to play it. And after we’d been going a couple of days, Bill said “There’s something cockeyed about this casting.” He said, “Cagney should play that first hoodlum.” Why? I don’t know. Seriously. Well, anyway, the parts were switched. … Bill made quite an issue of it, and he got together with the writers and Darryl Zanuck, the producer, and between them they cooked it up. And that was the first break. And Bill, I’ll always be grateful.
Did you catch it? The mistake? Cagney said Wellman “got together with the writers” to make the switch. Now why would a director need to get together with writers on a casting decision? That’s not how Hollywood works. But if the writers had instigated everything? This, I think, is closer to what happened.
In his memoir, John Bright says that when Ed Woods, “a young Broadway actor of sensitivity,” had been cast as their swaggering gangster, he and Glasmon were distraught. “In desperation,” he writes, “we took the vital problem to Bill Wellman. ‘Why not Jimmy Cagney, a breezy bouncy Irishman Zanuck had chosen to play a minor part?’”
Cagney scholar Henry Cohen, in his 1981 intro to the original screenplay of “The Public Enemy,” adds a few pertinent details. Apparently Wellman wasn’t even on the set when shooting began; he was finishing another project. “By then Bright and Glasmon were after him to reverse the Cagney and Woods assignments. Wellman saw [the rushes] and agreed…” Author Patrick McGilligan disputes the rushes business, writing in his book “Cagney, Actor as Auteur” that the early shooting was mostly establishing shots, and Bright and Glasmon simply had Cagney read the Tom Powers part to Wellman in person. Bright’s memoir says the same.
I assume this is closer to how it went down: Bright and Glasmon convinced Wellman, who convinced Zanuck. And a star was born.
The birth of modern acting
When I was growing up in the 1970s, you’d see Cagney impressions regularly on TV. He hadn’t acted in movies for 10, 15 years, but there he was again, sandwiched in-between Richard Nixons and John Waynes. Frank Gorshin did him on variety shows, Radar O’Reilly in an episode of “M*A*S*H,” Richard Dawson on “Family Feud.”
“The Public Enemy” is the first time we see anyone doing a Cagney—since it’s the first time a child actor plays a younger version of him—and they nailed it. They cast 13-year-old former circus performer Frankie Darro, who would later star in Wellman’s “Wild Boys of the Road,” as well as the Cagney flick “The Mayor of Hell,” and he’s perfect: the right size, the right sneer. You can see his face becoming Cagney’s.
And then they neglected to switch the kids roles when they switched the adult ones.
Throws me every time. Darro, the short, pugnacious one, grows up to be Ed Woods, while the tall, dark-haired kid (Frank Coughlan Jr., who would play Billy Batson in the 1941 serial “The Adventures of Captain Marvel”) becomes Cagney. It's a crime. Bugs me to this day. We would have to wait seven years, for Frankie Burke’s great imitation in “Angels with Dirty Faces,” before seeing a young Cagney that made sense.
Though cameras in early sound films were often static, Wellman begins with a glorious, extended shot. It's 1909, we're told, and after some archival footage of workers at factories and kids playing in a back-of-the-yards neighborhood, we follow a horse-drawn wagon full of kegs leaving a brewing company and clomping down the street. It goes past a pipe-smoking man with a lunch bucket, who crosses the street and walks by a boy hawking newspapers near a saloon, from which a worker emerges carrying a pole lined with six full tins of beer. He crosses the street in front of yet another saloon, past which a Salvation Army band marches, until the camera settles on the “Family Entrance” of the saloon. From there, carrying their own bucket of beer, Tom and Matt, as kids, emerge. Beautiful.
The boys are tough but different. Tom wants to drink beer, Matt wants to kiss girls. We see them at a department store, running from cops and floorwalkers, and knocking top hats off stuffed shirts. Then it’s girl trouble again. Matt objects to Tom pranking Matt’s sister but Tom does it anyway. For that, and his thievery, he gets in trouble with his father, a formidable figure in suspenders and police helmet, who grabs a belt and gives Tom a licking. This is the only time we see the father in the movie. We don’t even hear what happens to him—he’s just gone, like Tom wished him away. Cagney, generally a cinematic orphan or momma’s boy, wouldn’t have another cinematic father for eight years.
But in the very next scene, he gets a father figure. At the Red Oaks Club, Tom and Matt meet Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell), a fence and low-level crook, who teaches them the ways of the world—in part by ripping them off. They steal watches, he shortchanges them. Six years later, he gives the boys guns and set them on a fur-robbing caper, but it goes awry: a cop is killed, and Putty Nose flees and leaves them unprotected. Tom never forgives him.
By this point, it’s Cagney and Woods, and it’s worth talking about the moment when Cagney shows up. No less an authority than Martin Scorsese calls it “the birth of modern acting.”
“There’s something special when he walks on the screen,” Scorsese says in the documentary “Beer and Blood: Enemies of the Public.” “The command he has. He takes over the picture, in a way. And he has such confidence. It also has a lot to do with the way he moves his body.”
All of that is apparent in his first scenes. We’re outside the Red Oaks Social Club, Matt wipes his hand across his nose—his signature gesture—and Tom spits and pushes his Cockney cap forward on his head. Inside, there’s a bored tough behind a cigar counter, acting as a kind of bouncer. In the original script, Tom is supposed to question this guy “silently with raised eyebrows.” Cagney doesn’t even do that. He just stares at him from under that pushed-forward Cockney cap until the guy gestures toward the backroom. You get everything from that stare.
Cagney keeps doing this—giving us little details that feel true. One of Putty’s men, Miller (Snitz Edwards, in his final role), greets the boys with a grand gesture, and Tom smirks, brings his hand up as if in greeting, then turns it, as if he’s thumbing his nose at him. Later in the movie, when he shakes hands with a nervous brewer, he gives Matt a look, wipes his right hand off with his left and then flicks the left once as if getting rid of excess sweat. None of this stuff is in the script.
Look in the other actor’s camera eye and tell the truth. That’s what acting was to Cagney, and you can see it in the first Paddy Ryan scene. By now it’s 1917. While newsboys shout that the U.S. has entered the war in Europe, Matt and Tom are looking to hock crates of cigars they lifted, which is why they go to Paddy (Robert Emmett O’Connor), a tavern owner and another low-level crook. Paddy’s not a fence but he whispers a name to them; then he gives the “Paddy Ryan’s your friend” speech. After the Putty Nose debacle, Tom is nothing but suspicious: “Why you wanna front for us, we ain’t done nothing for you.” It’s fun watching Cagney watching Paddy, as if trying to divine the truth in his face. To see if he’s a right guy.
Another comparison with the original script is instructive. After Paddy’s speech, this is the line:
Gee, Paddy … that’s swell.
Cornball. But Cagney doesn’t do that. Instead, he smiles, spits, winks, gives that short-armed fist jab—his signature gesture—and says, “That’s swell.” Just that. It’s not really admiring, either. To be honest, you could read it as sarcastic. Tom still isn't showing his cards.
But Paddy isn’t Putty, and once Prohibition kicks in they all make a mint. That’s when the boys hit the big time. They get new clothes, a new car (“That ain’t no Ford, stoop!”), show up at the Black & Tan cafe and get new girls: Mamie and Kitty (Joan Blondell and Mae Clark). Then they reopen Leehman’s brewery and sell bootleg beer with a real gangster, “Nails” Nathan (Leslie Fenton). They’re the muscle. Well, Tom is. Matt is just Matt. “I’m always alone when I’m with Matt,” Tom says several times.
Up to now, Tom’s propensity for violence has been felt but not demonstrated. He punches out the speakeasy window when Putty betrays them, sure, but he also panics during the fur caper and loses a fight to his older brother Mike (Donald Cook). But we feel it, coiled, within him. Now it springs loose.
Three acts of violence stand out for me.
The first is with the speakeasy owner who says he doesn’t want any more kegs because “business is on the bum.” So Tom orders a beer, tastes it’s not theirs, and spits it in the guy’s face. He goes behind the bar and turns on all the taps; when the owner cravenly objects, saying Nails’ rival, Schemer Burns, has threatened him, too, Tom calls him yellow and slaps him once, twice, and upside for the third. He pokes his finger in his face while yelling at him in that rat-a-tat Cagney manner: “If you don't play ball, someone’s gonna drop by and kick your teeth out one at a time. Get me?” It’s startling—the viciousness and energy, but also the workmanlike way he goes about it. Plus there’s that knowing smile before it all goes down. As the owner is making his excuses, Tom leans against the bar, takes in the place, and smiles. Much of Tom’s violence is preceded by that smile.
The second incident is one of the most famous moments in movie history: the grapefruit scene. And like the casting switch, everyone wants credit. Wellman respected Zanuck but was disappointed when Zanuck said it was his idea. Bright respected Wellman but likewise. It’s in the script so Bright has a point.
It’s based on a story about Chicago mobster Hymie Weiss, who threw an omelet at his moll, and the writers switched it to grapefruit to make it less messy. Where Wellman deserves credit is in its ferocity. The script merely says Tom throws half a grapefruit at Kitty’s face, which could mean anything. Does he hit her? Does he miss? Mae Clark probably deserves a kind of credit, too. Filming that day, she told Cagney her nose was sore and could he be gentle? He agreed. Overhearing, Wellman took Cagney aside, told him the scene was important, and he really needed to shove it in her face. And man did he ever. It’s almost like he’s punching her with that grapefruit. It’s both vicious and calculated—his tongue even sticks out a bit, like he’s aiming. And over nothing. She doesn’t want him to drink before breakfast, and when he gets angry, she wonders if maybe he found someone else. That’s it. Ironically, at this point, he hadn’t found anyone else, but in the next scene he does: He picks up Gwen (Jean Harlow), the true female lead, who gets second billing. Mae Clark not only gets the grapefruit, she doesn’t get billed. She just gets movie immortality.
For all of that, it’s Tom’s third act of violence that is his most terrifying.
The first act of violence.
During the 1930s, Warners was famous for its social-message movies: men aren’t bad, society makes them so. That’s everything from “I Was a Fugitive on a Chain Gang” to “Angels with Dirty Faces.” There are elements of it in “The Public Enemy,” too, but it’s undercut by the fact that Tom was always a rotten kid. And Tom himself kind of undercuts it just before he gets his revenge on Putty Nose.
It’s the night of Matt’s marriage to Mamie, everyone’s celebrating at a ritzy club, when, off at a small table, Tom spies Putty talking with Miller. He hasn’t seen him since Putty fled after the fur heist went bad. After he and Matt follow him home, we get this exchange:
Putty Nose: You ain’t sore are you, Tom? I’ve always been your friend.
Tom: Sure, you taught us how to cheat, steal and kill. And then you lambed out on us.
Matt: Yeah, if it hadn’t been for you, we might have been on the level.
Tom: Sure. We might’ve been ding-dings on a streetcar.
That's great dialogue. Even though Tom and Matt are working together, they’re not really together. I think Matt actually buys the social-message argument, because for him it’s true. If it wasn’t for Putty—and, more, Tom—he would’ve been on the level. Meanwhile, Tom uses the social-message argument like a cudgel. It’s a means at manufacturing an edge against Putty, and when Matt takes it too seriously, Tom undercuts it with his dismissive term for legit work: ding-dings.
The scene still has a Frankenstein vibe: the creation rearing up to kill its creator. Inside, once Putty realizes the seriousness of the situation, he turns to Matt and begs; he knows he’s got no chance with Tom. And he doesn’t. It’s Tom who kicks his legs out from under him, and it’s Tom who follows him over to the piano, where Putty, in desperation, plays and sings the song he used to play and sing at the Red Oaks Club: “Hesitation Blues.” And it’s Tom who pulls out his gun while Putty, with an undercurrent of terror pinching his voice, sings: “Tell me how long do I have to wait?”
It’s worth juxtaposing the two scenes where he sings that song. Both times, this ribald lyric is interrupted:
Lizzy Jones, big and fat
Slipped on the ice and broke her –
In 1909, it’s covered over by a whistle and raucous laughter. In the 1920s, it’s cut short by the gunshot that ends Putty’s life.
Most of the murders in the movie happen off-screen: Tom, Nails, Schemer Burns’ gang, even Rajah the horse. Here, too. As Putty sings, the camera pans over to Matt by the door, who flinches at the gunshot, then stares in horror as we hear a body collapsing over piano keys and dropping to the floor. He’s still horrified when Tom walks into camera frame. We don’t see Tom's face, but he sounds blasé. “Guess I’ll call up Gwen, she oughta be home by now,” he says, as he gives a no-look double-fist jab to Matt. He’s like a working stiff punching the clock at the end of the day.
Critics have often wondered how Cagney could play criminals and sociopaths and still retain our sympathy. That question comes up as early as 1931, in newspapers articles about audience reaction to “The Public Enemy,” and it’s been bandied about by everyone from Orson Welles to Norman Mailer. A part of the answer is simple wish fulfillment. All of us wouldn’t mind slapping around those who lie to us or betray us. Cagney is the “You messed with the wrong guy” guy, and most of us are the other guy—the right ones to mess with. There’s also an honesty in Cagney’s acting that’s appealing. And then there’s this: most of Cagney’s gangsters have a code. Tom spends the entire movie ribbing Matt, but when Matt is killed in a hail of bullets, Tom risks his life—throws it away, really—to get revenge. That’s the code. He’s horrified when he figures out Paddy’s moll seduced him. That’s against the code. And what Putty did after the fur caper? That’s against the code, too, and why Putty had to be punished. What feels like a personal act of revenge becomes, in the aftermath, something blasé and workmanlike. Tom was just doing his job. And now it’s time to call Gwen.
For some reason, most early publicity shots have the gangsters looking frightened rather than frightful.
That was Tom’s rise. His fall is swift, and doesn’t come from excessive greed or violence but happenstance. One day a horse throws Nails Nathan and kills him. That’s it. That's the start. As the boys get revenge on the horse—based on another infamous Chicago gangland incident—Schemer Burns seizes his chance, bombs Paddy’s place, and Nails’ men scatter. Paddy orders the loyal ones to hole up in his safe house while he searches for reinforcements. He even takes away their guns—the mirror image of Putty handing guns to the boys back in ’15. Then two things happen: Putty’s old friend Miller spies Paddy leaving and drops a dime on their hangout (probably as revenge for Putty); and Paddy’s moll seduces Tom. He can’t abide that, or all the waiting, so he leaves. Matt follows and is immediately killed, balletically, by Schemer’s machine guns across the street. Then Tom enacts his revenge in the rain.
His line as he collapses, “I ain’t so tough,” isn’t in the original script and was probably added to placate the Hays Office or local censor boards. Or maybe Warners felt they needed a big finish? Another line like “Is this the end of Rico”? I've heard a lot of praise for it, but it feels false to me. I can’t imagine Tom thinking it, let alone saying it.
But if you’re going to have him say it, it should end the movie. Instead, the movie keeps going along. Or limping along. It loses Cagney’s energy and sharpness—he lies in a hospital bed, mumbling to Mike that he’s sorry, agreeing with Ma that he’s her baby—and the movie is reduced to mea culpas and handwringing.
Critics have pointed out the documentary feel to “Public Enemy”—a straightforward tale of a low-level gangster’s rise and fall, with fade-ins and fade-outs—but there’s a kind of macabre slowness to scenes, too. The scene with the father at the beginning has a dead-man-walking slowness to it, while Harlow’s Gwen talks in a slow, sing-songy voice that almost acts as a narcotic. Then there are the movie’s final moments. The Burns’ gang kidnaps Tom from the hospital and delivers the corpse to the Powers’ doorstep. When Mike opens the door, Tom’s beat-up, mummified body wobbles for a moment before falling forward into the foyer. It’s like a scene from a horror movie. Mike is certainly horrified. Upstairs his mother hums to herself, getting the bed ready for Tom, and Mike knows he needs to tell her. He rises, and walks slowly, like a zombie, toward the camera, while the record playing in the living room, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” finishes, and the movie ends.
Interesting note: In the original screenplay, Mike doesn’t head for the stairs; he goes directly to his “war closet,” stuffs hand grenades into each pocket, and strides into the night to get revenge. “His brother’s fate has turned him into a killer,” the script reads. For whatever reason, they changed it, but there’s a moment, right before Mike rises, when his face hardens into something fierce, angry and determined, that you can see a flicker of it. Maybe they filmed it both ways? And decided in the editing room? Either way, they made the right choice. I mean, hand grenades? For shell-shocked Mike? Right below Ma’s bedroom? C’mon.
And as powerful as the scene is, I don’t get why Schemer’s gang delivers Tom’s corpse to the Powers family. Aren’t they civilians? Wouldn’t Paddy’s place make more sense?
I do like all the loose ends. The original screenplay tied up some of them. After Matt’s death, for example, Tom returns to Gwen’s place to find a “Dear John” letter. Here, there's no end. He’s with her when Nails dies, then she's out of the picture. That’s the documentary feel again. As is the fact that, despite the title, Tom is never close to being Public Enemy No. 1. He's not a Capone or Dillinger. He’s just a lieutenant in an internecine bootleg war. It’s as if “The Sopranos” was all about Christopher Moltisanti.
Beryl Mercer’s performance as Ma has been criticized but I thought she was fine; I just found the family scenes dull and Donald Cook overwrought and theatrical. O’Connor as Paddy is serviceable, Blondell underused, ditto Mae Clarke, who, for all the attention, only has two short scenes. Loved Kinnell as Putty. The two actors that approach Cagney’s energy and naturalism are Darro—more’s the pity they didn’t switch the kids’ roles—and Leslie Fenton as Nails Nathan. “He’s so dapper, so different from everybody else,” film scholar Robert Sklar says on the commentary track. “I don’t know why it was he went from being an actor to a director but he certainly had a flair and an energy as an actor.” Totally agree. He comes in, snapping his gum, and lights up the room.
As for the man who would be Tom Powers? Edward Woods is great at conveying the horror of Putty Nose’s death but feels thin and reedy as a tough guy. He tries too hard at it. Ironically, for all the behind-the-scenes turmoil about switching roles, The New York Times mistakenly gave Woods top billing in its review (which was negative), while many movie ads featured Woods: a silhouette of Matt’s balletic death. If it was a comfort, it didn’t last. Cagney became a top box-office star for decades and remains a legend nearly 100 years later, while Woods’ movie career was over by 1938. After that, he became a theater director and producer (for Les Schubert), and a PR rep (for 20th Century Fox), then retired to Salt Lake City in 1975. When he died in 1989, his obits weren’t the journalistic kind but the paid kind: one in the Salt Lake Tribune, the other in the LA Times. The Times obit is just two paragraphs long, mentions two of his movies, and gets both titles wrong: “Hot Saturday” is referred to as “Saturday’s Child,” while this one is called “Public Enemy Number 1.” It says he made it with “long-time friend, Jimmy Cagney.” Except Cagney barely mentions Woods in his autobiography and anyway friends didn’t call Cagney “Jimmy”; it was always “Jim.” Like Matt, Woods deserved a better end than this.
Bright and Glasmon? They became part of the Cagney factory, churning out screenplays for “Smart Money,” “Blonde Crazy,” “Taxi,” and “The Crowd Roars”; but eventually they had a falling out with Warners and then with each other. Bright was the hard-drinking rebel, Glasmon the proper company man. So of course it’s Glasmon who died of a heart attack in 1940, while Bright kept sloshing around for another 40 years.
Wellman kept making great movies: “Wild Boys of the Road,” “A Star is Born,” “Beau Geste,” “The Ox-Bow Incident,” “Battleground.” His last film, “Lafayette Escadrille,” released in 1958, was a personal film, based on his own Great War exploits, and had casting problems similar to “The Public Enemy.” Warners wanted heartthrob Tab Hunter as the lead but Wellman didn’t like his chemistry with the supporting player. Given the power, would he have switched the roles again, as he did with Woods and Cagney? Interesting if he had. The supporting player was Clint Eastwood. Instead, Eastwood got shunted to a smaller role, Warners demanded a happy ending to Wellman’s bittersweet tale, and the movie died artistically and commercially. Wellman said enough of that.
Three years later, Cagney said enough of that, too. Over 31 years, he’d made 63 movies, was nominated best actor three times, and won for “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” but there really is something about his first starring role. I never get tired of it. It’s watching the thing become the thing. It’s that backdrop of macabre slowness, against which Wellman places Cagney, who electrifies.
The thing becoming the thing.
- John Bright. Worms in the Winecup: A Memoir. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, 2002
- James Cagney. Cagney By Cagney. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1976
- Henry Cohen. The Public Enemy: Wisconsin/Warner Bros Screenplay Series. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1981
- Mel Gusso. Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking: A Biography of Darryl Zanuck. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971
- John McCabe. Cagney. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997
- Patrick McGilligan. Cagney, Actor As Auteur. San Diego: A.S. Barnes & Company, 1975
- David Thomson. Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017
- Jack Warner: My First Hundred Years in Hollywood. Los Angeles, New York: GrayMalkin Media, 1964
- William A. Wellman. A Short Time for Insanity: An Autobiography. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1974