The Public Enemy

The Public Enemy

Infobox Film
name =The Public Enemy

caption ="The Public Enemy" movie poster
director = William A. Wellman
producer = Darryl F. Zanuck
writer = Kubec Glasmon
John Bright
Harvey F. Thew
starring =James Cagney
Jean Harlow
Edward Woods
Joan Blondell
Mae Clarke
music =
cinematography = Devereaux Jennings
editing = Ed McCormick
Edward McDermott
distributor = Warner Bros.
released = 23 April 1931
runtime = "1931 Release:" 96 min
"1941 Rerelease:" 83 min
language = English
budget = $151,000cite web |url= |title=The Public Enemy (1931) |accessdate=2006-12-10 |author=Dirks, Tim |year=2006 |work=The Greatest Films]
country = USA
amg_id = 1:39616
imdb_id = 0022286

"The Public Enemy" is a 1931 Pre-Code American crime drama film starring James Cagney and directed by William A. Wellman. The movie relates the story of a young man's rise in the criminal underworld in prohibition-era urban America. The supporting players include Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, Beryl Mercer, Donald Cook, and Mae Clarke. The film was based on the novel "Beer and Blood" by John Bright and launched Cagney to stardom.

Many of the characters in the movie were based on actual people, although some currently available copies are from the censored and cut 1949 reissue (from the Hays Code era) in which the character of real-life gangster Bugs Moran was removed. [cite web|url=|title=Movies: The Public Enemy, aka Enemies of the Public|work=The New York Times, 10 December 2006|accessdate=2006-12-10] Some controversial items, like a scene where Tom Powers (Cagney) hits his girlfriend with a grapefruit, were left in the 1949 re-release.


The opening sequence of "The Public Enemy" is a montage depicting prohibition - beer parlors closing shop and police raids – before directing the viewer’s attention to two boys growing up with the resultant lure of corruption in 1920s urban America. We get a glimpse into the family life of one of the boys, Tom Powers, including a doting mother and an emotionally absent father, who also happens to be a policeman. The consequence of the father’s distance is revealed in one scene where he attempts to discipline his increasingly delinquent son. This sparks a change in young Tom, which is indicated by his souring expression while being beaten by his father with a leather strap.

After Tom Powers (James Cagney) and the other boy, Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), grow into young adults, they are hired by local bootlegger, Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O'Connor). Tom quickly rises from apprentice to leading gangster by being more vicious and ruthless than his rivals. Needless to say, the bootlegging business becomes an ever more lucrative operation, and Tom and Matt are not shy about flaunting the trappings of gangsterism. Tom does not forget about his more humble origins, and offers support to his pathetically doting, and now widowed, mother. Needless to say, this brings him into conflict with his older brother, Mike (Donald Cook), a shell-shocked war veteran who strongly disapproves of his wayward little brother. Underlying the fraternal conflict is that Tom’s immorality has brought generous material rewards, while the straight-and-narrow path chosen by his brother has only produced a bitter casualty of war. Tom considers Mike’s self-righteousness hypocritical. When Mike quips that Tom's success is based on nothing more than “beer and blood” (the title of the original book), Tom rejoins that “your hands ain't so clean. You kill and like it. You didn't get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.” [cite web|url=|title=Memorable Quotes from The Public Enemy (1931)|work=IMDb|accessdate=2006-12-10]

Needless to say, Tom continues his rise in gangland, but eventually his greed catches up with him when he challenges another gang, precipitating a gang war. Arguably, the most famous scene is Tom “getting it” in the end, graphically setting the tone for the “crime doesn’t pay” theme that dominated crime movies for the rest of the decade and beyond.


Principal filming took place between January and February 1931. [cite web|url=|title=Business Data for The Public Enemy (1931)|accessdate=2006-12-09|format=|work=IMDb]

Edward Woods was originally cast in the lead role until director Wellman decided Cagney was more effective in the role and switched the two actors.cite web|url=|title=Trivia for The Public Enemy (1931)|accessdate=2006-12-09|format=|work=IMDb] This is why the children's appearances are reversed in the flashback sequences, since those scenes were shot before the switch. Another reason for the switch is that the sound technology used in "The Public Enemy" was far superior to that used in earlier films, making it no longer imperative to have an actor in the lead role with impeccable enunciation. Although it was still a risk giving Cagney the starring role, his distinctive interpretation of the character, especially his machine-gun speaking style, was now technically feasible. Cagney was also short and uncouth, compared to the finesse of an actor like Woods, helping to establish Warner Brothers' reputation for films that explicitly targeted working class audiences during the Great Depression.


*James Cagney as Tom Powers

*Jean Harlow as Gwen Allen
*Edward Woods as Matt Doyle
*Joan Blondell as Mamie
*Donald Cook as Mike Powers
*Leslie Fenton as Samuel "Nails" Nathan
*Beryl Mercer as Ma Powers
*Robert Emmett O'Connor as Patrick "Paddy" J. Ryan
*Murray Kinnell as Putty Nose
*Mae Clarke as Kitty


A theatre in Times Square ran "The Public Enemy" 24 hours a day during its initial release. It was the first worldwide box office hit for Cagney and forever cast him in the public eye as a "tough guy," an image he was unable to shed despite numerous roles chosen especially to counter that image, including his Oscar-winning role in "Yankee Doodle Dandy". The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing of an Original Screenplay.

In 1998, "The Public Enemy" was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

On Rotten Tomatoes, it has been certified "fresh" with a 100% rating on the Tomatometer. [cite web|url=|title=The Public Enemy|accessdate=2006-12-10|format=|work=Rotten Tomatoes]

The film was re-released in 1941 after the Production Code was put into effect. Three scenes of the film were cut because of the Code, but have been restored for the DVD release. One is of a markedly effeminate tailor measuring Tom for a suit, another with Matt and Mamie "rolling around" in bed (a scene which for decades had been believed lost forever when Warners apparently discarded the original footage in the 1950s), and the third showing Tom being seduced when hiding out in a woman's apartment.cite web| | last =Gallagher| first =John |url=|title=The Warner Brothers Gangster Collection|accessdate=2007-02-02|format=|work=Between Action and Cut]

Moreover, for the 1954 re-release of "The Public Enemy" a written prologue was added before the opening credits, advising that gangsters such as Tom Powers and Caesar "Rico" Bandello, the title character in "Little Caesar" (played by Edward G. Robinson), are a menace that the public must confront.Fact|date=April 2008

In June 2008, the American Film Institute revealed its "Ten top Ten"—the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. "The Public Enemy" was acknowledged as the eighth best in the gangster film genre. [cite news | publisher = American Film Institute | title = AFI's 10 Top 10 | date = 2008-06-17 | url = | accessdate=2008-06-18]


*Several versions exist of the origin of the notorious grapefruit scene, but the most plausible is the one on which Cagney and Clarke agree: The scene, they explained, was actually staged as a practical joke at the expense of the film crew, just to see their stunned reactions. There was never any intention of ever using the shot in the completed film. Director Wellman, however, eventually decided to keep the shot.Fact|date=April 2008
*In an interview given in 1978, also featured in the Turner Classic Movies documentary "The Men Who Made The Movies: William Wellman", Wellman stated that he added the grapefruit "hitting" to the scene, because when he and his wife at the time would get into fights, she would never talk or give any expression. Since she always had a grapefruit for breakfast, he always wanted to put the grapefruit into her face just to get a reaction out of her, so she would show some emotion; he felt that this scene gave him the opportunity to rid himself of that temptation. [cite web|url=|title=1978 interview with Wellman|accessdate=2008-06-05|format=|work=Film Comment] [cite web|url=|title=The Men Who Made the Movies: William Wellman|accessdate=2008-06-05|format=|work=Turner Classic Movies]
* A rather lax regard for safety during the production of this film led to several serious mishaps. In the scene where Mike Powers punches his brother Tom, director Wellman privately took Donald Cook aside and, explaining his desire for authenticity in "Tom's" reaction, asked the actor to really hit Cagney. Cook played his part a bit too well, and he struck Cagney in the mouth with such force, he actually broke one of his teeth. Yet in spite of his genuine shock and pain, Cagney stayed in character and played out the rest of the scene. In another incident, Cagney very nearly died. Again seeking authenticity in a scene where machine gun fire strafes a brick wall, real bullets were used. As Wellman called "action" and Cagney stepped into the scene, a stunt man off-camera fired the Tommy gun, but misjudged where he should have aimed. But at that exact moment, Cagney accidentally tripped over a curb and fell to the floor...just as the spray of bullets passed over where he "should" have been standing. The actor laughed off his near-brush with death, but this incident was one of the reasons why he was so active in promoting the Screen Actors as to better establish guidelines to protect the health and safety of actors on the set.Fact|date=April 2008
*According to Cagney, Clarke's ex-husband had the grapefruit scene timed, and would buy a ticket just before that scene went onscreen, go enjoy the scene, leave, then come back during the next show just in time to see only that scene again. [cite book |last=Cagney |first=James |authorlink=James Cagney |coauthors= |title=Cagney by Cagney |year=2005 |publisher=Doubleday |id=ISBN 0385520263]


External links

*imdb title|id=0022286
*amg title|id=1:39616
*tcmdb title|id=2154
*" [ The Public Enemy] " at The New York Times
*filmsite|id=publ|title=The Public Enemy
*" [|title= grapefruit scene] " on YouTube

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