“Why, that dirty, no-good, yellow-bellied stool!”
When a young hoodlum (Jimmy Cagney) and his friend (Edward Woods) are betrayed by their fence (Murray Kinnell), they join forces during Prohibition with a bootlegger (Robert Emmett O’Connor) and a wealthy gangster (Leslie Fenton). Cagney’s straight-laced brother (Donald Cook) disapproves of Cagney’s career choice, while his sweet mother (Beryl Mercer) remains clueless. Meanwhile, Cagney mistreats his current girlfriend (Mae Clarke) and woos another (Jean Harlow), while Woods marries his girlfriend (Joan Blondell) and Cagney is unwillingly seduced by O’Connor’s moll (Mia Marvin).
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Jean Harlow Films
- Jimmy Cagney Films
- Joan Blondell Films
- Juvenile Delinquents<
- William Wellman Films
Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “seminal Warners gangster film, directed by William Wellman, catapulted James Cagney to stardom”, and that despite being “somewhat dated” it remains worth watching for Cagney’s performance as Tom Powers (which he nominates as one of the best of the year in his Alternate Oscars). He writes that “Cagney is so engaging as Powers, so full of spirit, energy, and charm, that viewers couldn’t help but confuse liking the actor with liking his character”, who is “having a good time — shooting guns, killing other bad guys, hanging out with pretty women…, and making lots of money — while his honest brother (Donald Cook) is a bore, has a cruddy low-pay job as a trolley-car ticket puncher…, and lives with a scowl on his face.” Peary adds that “surely male viewers envied tough guy Powers because he wasn’t afraid to take on bullies and cops since he had no fear of death.”
Peary notes that this film has “several classic scenes: the classic grapefruit bit” (in which “Powers pushed a grapefruit in the kisser of his mistress”); “the badly wounded Cagney tap-stepping his way through a large puddle; Cagney’s off-screen execution of a horse; the delivery of Cagney’s body back home”. It’s likely that the version of this film Peary watched when writing GFTFF didn’t have several additional, memorably racy scenes that were added back in for its DVD release, including “a markedly effeminate tailor measuring Tom for a suit” and “Tom being seduced when hiding out in a woman’s apartment.” Overall, Public Enemy remains a more engaging and nuanced film than its equally well-known counterpart, Little Caesar (1931), both of which were re-released in 1954 with the same prologue cautioning that the lead characters “are a menace that the public must confront”. With that said, the narrative isn’t as tight as it should be (the female characters in particular aren’t fleshed out), making this more of an historic must-see than an all-out classic.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Jimmy Cagney as Tom Powers
- Good historical detail and sets
- Numerous memorable (pre-Code) moments
- Strong direction by Wellman
- Atmospheric cinematography
Yes, for its historical relevance and Oscar-nominated performance by Cagney.
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)