#PreCodeApril2022 Film #1: The Public Enemy (1931)

I started off this year’s #PreCodeApril event on Twitter with one of the all-time great pre-code films, The Public Enemy (1931). This film is also one of the premier gangster films, and is the film that made James Cagney a star. It was also one of Jean Harlow’s first big parts. With all the hype surrounding the film and its massive starpower, it is amazing that it has eluded me until now. Of course, I knew about the famous grapefruit scene between Cagney and Mae Clarke. I just hadn’t seen the scene within the context of the film.

The Public Enemy (1931)

The Public Enemy, 1931
Starring: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke
Director: William A. Wellman
Studio: Warner Brothers

SYNOPSIS: The Public Enemy takes place over about a twenty year (give or take) span of time. At the beginning of the film, it’s the early 1900s. We meet our main characters, Tom Powers (Cagney) and his best friend, Matt Doyle (Woods), as children living in Chicago. The two boys are troublemakers and are seen engaging in petty theft around town. They work for a gangster named “Putty Nose.” Putty Nose has the boys steal small items, then he pays them for the items. Putty presumably then sells them for a higher price to someone else. Putty Nose then invites the boys to participate in a robbery at a fur warehouse. The heist goes awry when Tom is startled by a stuffed bear and shoots at it. His gunshot alerts the police to their presence, who end up shooting one of the members of Putty’s gang. Tom and Matt gun the police officer down. When the boys go to Putty for help, they discover that he’s left town. This incident establishes a grudge that Tom carries with him to adulthood.

Time passes and the two boys grow up. By 1920, with Prohibition in full swing, Tom and Matt are enlisted by a bootlegger to help distribute his illicit liquor. Tom and Matt are living the high life as bootleggers. They eventually get girlfriends, Kitty (Clarke) and Mamie (Blondell). Tom and Kitty quickly tire of one another. Their relationship reaches its bitter end (literally) when Tom pushes a grapefruit half into Kitty’s face. Eventually Tom meets another woman, Gwen (Harlow), who admits that she’s been with a lot of men. As time passes, Tom’s illicit activity and relationships with other noted members of the underground makes him the target of a rival gang.

James Cagney and Jean Harlow in “The Public Enemy.”

MY THOUGHTS: This was such an amazing film. At first I wasn’t sure what to think of it, I was just anticipating the grapefruit scene. But Cagney was mesmerizing on screen. Apparently, he was supposed to have the supporting role as Matt Doyle, with Edward Woods in the leading role as Tom. However, when the first day’s rushes came back, director William A. Wellman realized what charisma and starpower Cagney had and switched his and Woods’ roles. And while Woods may have been the loser in the deal, the world is richer for Wellman’s insight. Cagney is fantastic in this film and with a less interesting lead (read: Woods), the film might have been average at best. Cagney elevates the material. The ending was truly gruesome. I was not expecting it. Joan Blondell was excellent, even in her small role. She and Cagney make a delightful team. Harlow had flashes of what made her a big star, but it is obvious that she is still very early in her career. Having watched a few of Harlow’s pre-codes, she really comes to her own a year later in 1932 with Red-Headed Woman and Red Dust.

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