1931-1940CrimeFilm NoirUSAWilliam A. Wellman

William A. Wellman – The Public Enemy (1931)


A young hoodlum rises up through the ranks of the Chicago underworld, even as a gangster’s accidental death threatens to spark a bloody mob war.

Review from filmsite:
The Public Enemy (1931) is one of the earliest and best of the gangster films from Warner Bros. in the thirties. The film’s screenplay (by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon), which received the film’s only Academy Award nomination, was based upon their novel Beer and Blood. Unfortunately, the film wasn’t even given a Best Picture nomination, nor was Cagney rewarded with a nomination for his dynamic and kinetic performance. Jean Harlow’s small role as a sexy call-girl was her only screen appearance with Cagney and her only lead role with Warners.

Director William Wellman’s pre-code, box-office smash, shot in less than a month at a cost of approximately $151,000, was released at approximately the same time as another classical gangster film – Little Caesar (1930) that starred Edward G. Robinson as a petty thief whose criminal ambitions led to his inevitable downfall. The Public Enemy was even tougher, more violent and realistic (released before the censorship codes were strictly enforced), although most of the violence is again off-screen.

The lead character is portrayed as a sexually magnetic, cocky, completely amoral, emotionally brutal, ruthless, and terribly lethal individual. However, the protagonist (a cold-blooded, tough-as-nails racketeer and “public enemy”) begins his life, not as a hardened criminal, but as a young mischievous boy in pre-Prohibition city streets, whose early environment clearly contributes to the evolving development of his life of adult crime and his inevitable gruesome death. Unlike other films, this one examined the social forces and roots of crime in a serious way.

Cagney’s character was based on real-life Chicago gangster Earl “Hymie” Weiss (who also survived a machine-gun ambush) and bootlegging mobster Charles Dion “Deanie” O’Banion (an arch-rival to Al Capone). Reportedly, an exasperated Weiss slammed an omelette (not a grapefruit) into the face of his girlfriend. Similarities also exist between the demise of Nails Nathan and the 1923 death of real-life Samuel J. “Nails” Morton of the O’Banion mob. The retaliatory horse killing in the film was a replay of a similar incident when organized crime figure Louis “Two-Gun” Alterie (and other North Side gang members) executed the offending horse in Chicago after the death of their friend.

James Cagney’s dynamic, charismatic and magnetic characterization of the murderous thug was his fifth film performance. He had previously performed tough-guy roles in two other Warner Bros. features: Sinner’s Holiday (1930) (his film debut with co-star Joan Blondell) and director Archie Mayo’s The Doorway to Hell (1930). This volatile role made him famous and instantly launched his celebrated film star career, but it also typecast him for many years. [Originally, the roles were reversed, with Edward Woods playing the lead role, and Cagney in a secondary role, but a switch occurred when the contract screenwriters suggested that a mistake had been made. Therefore, the end credits bill Edward Woods above Cagney.] Cagney went on to play other criminal roles, including such films as Smart Money (1931) with Edward G. Robinson (their only teaming together), and Lady Killer (1933).

Unfortunately, the film also appeared to glamorize criminal activities such as bootlegging (although that was not its intent), and emphasized their high style of life with various floozies (portrayed by Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke, and Jean Harlow). Hence, the film hastened efforts of Hollywood’s self-imposed Production Code in the early thirties to strictly censor films (with criminal and sexual subject matter) that depicted undesirable social figures or sexual subjects in a sympathetic or realistic manner.


Subtitles:Englis, Spanish, French, German, Korean, Portuguese

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