Ryan’s front man, “Nails Nathan” is killed (…not by a rival gang, but in a horse riding accident), and Ryan’s competition in the bootleg beer business seizes the opportunity to begin a gang war.
Honestly, despite all I’ve heard over the years, I felt “The Public Enemy” “moved slower” than “Little Caesar” and, though quite interesting, didn’t deliver quite the pure excitement of its “Robinsonian” predecessor. …THAT IS UNTIL WE REACH THE 01:11:50 MARK OF THE 01:23:55 FILM!
And then, there is the film’s FINAL SCENE! No spoilers. I don’t care how many of you may have seen it. All I’ll say is: I would love to have been in the original theatre audience for THAT!
Just send me back to 1931 for those TWELVE MINUTES… PLEASE!
Now, this is an early Hollywood gangster film, so it’s not much of a spoiler to say that Tom Powers meets his maker at film’s end. To that (pardon the expression) “end”, Warner Bros. offers this closing text, as the film fades out:
“The END of Tom Powers is the end of every hoodlum. ‘The Public Enemy’ is not a man, nor is it a character – it is a problem that sooner or later WE, the public must solve.”
As a bizarre counterpoint to the savagery herein, the tune “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” plays in various ways – and over various scenes – throughout the picture.
As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS.
As with so many of these early gangster film packages, there aren’t really any “CONs” to list. (Other than the gangsters, themselves!) When Warner Home Video was great (as they were during this release period), they were GREAT! So, let’s move on to…
The Film: A film seminal to the rise of the gangster genre, and one with a shocking ending to boot! Cagney assumes frightening proportions as the film moves toward its climax. Sure, it would be considered tame for those raised on today’s brutally violent films but, 80 years ago, this one set the pace! …Yes, I said “80 years ago”!
• James Cagney as “Tom Powers”.
• Edward Woods as “Matt Doyle”.
• Jean Harlow as “Gwen Allen”.
• Joan Blondell as “Mamie”.
• Robert Emmett O’ Connor as “Paddy Ryan”.
• Mae Clark as “Kitty”.
• Leslie Fenton as “Nails Nathan”.
• Donald Cook as “Mike Powers”.
• Beryl Mercer as “Ma Powers”.
• Murray Kinnell as “Putty Nose”.
Menus: Menus are easy to navigate, and are nicely illustrated with images of Cagney’s “Tom Powers” and other characters from the film.
Theatrical Trailer for “The Public Enemy”
A really unusual trailer! We see a realistically animated HAND holding a GUN, coming directly at the viewer. The huge displays of screen text explode out of the gun’s firing:
“NOTHING LIKE IT BEFORE!”
“NEVER ANYTHING LIKE IT EVER AGAIN!”
Oddly, not a single scene from the picture itself appears in this trailer!
Commentary Track by Robert Sklar: (NYU Professor and author of “City Boys”, a book about James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and John Garfield) Sklar’s observations include:
• The rise of gangsters during the Prohibition era.
• Warner Bros. theatres tended to be located in urban areas, thus Warner films were more “urban” in nature. The gangster film was a perfect example of this.
• Two weeks before filming began, the role of “Tom” was to be played by Edward Woods, and the role of “Matt” was to be played by Cagney. They were abruptly switched in order to give Cagney the starring role. (GOOD MOVE, I’d say!).
• However, owing to this, the childhood roles of Tom and Matt were NOT switched, because they were already filmed. The young actor playing Tom resembled Woods, and the young actor playing Matt resembled Cagney. For what it’s worth, I did not notice this until Sklar brought it to my attention. But, yes… it’s TRUE!
• “The Public Enemy” was to be Edward Woods’ SECOND film. Alas, for him, there was not much thereafter – as James Cagney became a star.
• Deleted from the re-release were certain lines spoken by a clearly gay tailor, a scene indicating that Matt and his girl Mamie were in cohabitation, and Paddy Ryan’s girl explicitly coming on to Tom. Thankfully, all such scenes are included here.
• The character of dapper “Nails Nathan” was based on real-life Chicago gangster “Nails Morton”.
Warner Night at the Movies. Not so long ago, when Warner was the BEST DVD PRODUCER of them all, it offered the outstanding “Warner Night at the Movies” with select DVD packages. I couldn’t be more pleased, when I uncover one of these gems!
An optional introduction to the program by film historian Leonard Maltin is quite valuable in putting the presentation in its historical perspective – helping modern viewers to best appreciate the experience.
• “Smile Darn Ya Smile”: (Runs 06:56) A Merrie Melodies cartoon starring “Foxy”. A Hugh Harman – Rudolf Ising cartoon production. With Abe Lyman’s Brunswick Recording Orchestra. Leon Schlesinger – Producer.
There was marginally more of a plot than Foxy’s prior outing, “Lady Play Your Mandolin” (packaged with “Little Caesar”) – said plot concerning Foxy’s ability (or lack thereof) to safely guide the trolley through some absurdly rough, hilly, and curvy terrain – and successfully negotiate the “wildlife” along the way.
This aside, the cartoon is entertaining and succeeds in providing a suitable level of enjoyment – at least up to the standards of the time. Aw, what the heck… the drawings moved – and they spoke and sang. What more could you really ask?
“Perhaps the toughest of the gangster films, ‘Public Enemy’ and ‘Little Caesar’ had a great effect on public opinion. They brought home violently the evils associated with prohibition and suggested the necessity of a nation-wide house cleaning. Tom Powers in ‘Public Enemy’ and Rico in ‘Little Caesar’ are not two men, nor are they merely characters – they are a problem that sooner or later we, the public, must solve.”
Warner supplies us with an interesting curio of the times that has it modern-day equivalent on the warnings it rightly adds to its classic animation DVD collections, concerning the attitudes and prejudices that were prevalent when the animated shorts were produced. This exact same feature was also included with “Little Caesar”.
“Beer and Blood: Enemies of the Public”: (Runs 19:34).
This mini-documentary looks at the stars, directorial efforts, film techniques, memorable scenes, and the times of the film “The Public Enemy”.
Martin Scorsese (director of “Goodfellas”) claims to have seen the legendary double-bill of “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy”. He recalls that the impact was very strong, and stayed with him for many years. He also declares “The Public Enemy” as the tougher of the two. And, I’m just guessin’ here… but I’d say Martin Scorsese knows “tough”!
The piece also notes that James Cagney was originally cast as sidekick “Matt Doyle” with the starring role of “Tom Powers” going to Edward Woods. But, with the success of Cagney in another 1931 film, “The Millionaire”, the casting of the roles was reversed.
Director William A. Wellman fought to get the ending as we saw it. I can only say… THANK YOU, MISTER WELLMAN!
Perhaps in order to achieve this, much of the other violence occurs off camera. The viewer is “present”, can hear the sounds (gunshots, screams, etc.), and see the RESULT, but most of it remained unseen. Scorsese notes: “Public Enemy is probably the most brutal of them all, in a way. And yet, you never see the violence. The violence is all off screen – it makes it WORSE! (Laughs)”
“Warner Night at the Movies” allows you to experience the film in (at least something resembling) its proper context.