The One about William A. Wellman’s “Public Enemy”

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In 1931, Warner Bros. produced and distributed the pre-code gangster film “The Public Enemy”.

Directed by William A. Wellman (“A Star is Born”, “The Ox-Bow Incident”, “Battleground”) and starring James Cagney (“Yankee Doodle”, “Angels with Dirty Faces”, “White Heat”), Jean Harlow (“Libeled Lady”, “Suzy”, “Red Dust”), Edward Woods (“Tarzan the Fearles”, “Dinner at Eight”), Joan Blondell (“Topper Returns”, “Grease”) and more, “The Public Enemy” was a box office success.

The film was nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Story” and in 1998, was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

And now the film will be released as part of “Warner Gangsters Collection, Volume 1” which will come with six films (“The Public Enemy”, “White Heat”, “Angels with Dirty Faces”, “Little Caesar”, “The Petrified Forest” and “Roaring Twenties”).

As gangster activity was still a big part in America, Warner Bros. and the writers of the film wanted to “honestly depict an environment that exist today in a certain strata of American life, rather than glorify the hoodlum or criminal.”

“The Public Enemy” is a perfect example of a classic American gangster film.

While the story was about how crime doesn’t pay, this pre-code film was quite significant as it focused on how a teen would grow up to become a criminal but a plot so fascinating that you can’t help but be drawn to the film.

From Tom and his brother Mike always at odds, showcasing the life of pub owners threatened to be beaten if they don’t purchase/order beer (typically pushed by a major criminal organization) for their pub but also including various degrees of violence with the most famous, featuring Tom shoving a grapefruit on the cheek of his wife who asks if he is messing around with another woman.

The film would feature a man having affair with another woman, probably one of the first scenes in a classic film featuring a gay tailor and a conclusion that is quite appropriate to the theme of life during the Depression and during the Prohibition era.

Watching “The Public Enemy” DVD, it was a surprise to find out that Edward Woods was originally cast as Tom Powers and James Cagney as Matt Doyle and fortunately the change was made because James Cagney absolutely fits perfectly in the role of Tom Powers.  A character with attitude and one you would not want to cross or else he will kill you.

Because the film was among one of the early talkies, a lot of interesting situations came to play in the film.   During a scene featuring Tom and Mike Powers arguing, Cagney really got clocked in the mouth by Donald Cook and breaking Cagney’s tooth.

Another interesting fact is the scene with James Cagney hiding around the corner after a rival gang is aiming at him with a machine gun, the use of a live machine gun with real rounds hitting the corner of a building was actually used.

And as for the infamous grapefruit scene, there are different opinions of whether that scene was real or fake, actress Mae Clark claiming the scene was shot as a joke.  While director William Wellman has said the scene is derived from his own experience with arguments with his wife and wanting to put a grapefruit on her face.

But these experiences just add to the fascinating details that surround the making of the film.  Sure, Warner Brothers was accused from romanticizing gangsters and thus the “important foreword” was added to the beginning of the film but decades later, America’s fascination with classic gangster films was no different from the audiences of that time, granted they lived through the Depression and were inundated with news about mob kills or mob wars but that was America during that time.  And this film benefits from being created not long when the actually story takes place.

Overall, “The Public Enemy” is a fantastic film with a wonderful performance by James Cagney, a fantastic story and is highly recommended!


 

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Dennis A. Amith