Monday, April 4, 2011

DVD Review: The Public Enemy (1931)

The Public Enemy (1931)

(Released: 2005 by Warner Home Video)
Another looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

It is the ambition of the authors of ‘The Public Enemy’ to honestly depict an environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life, rather than glorify the hoodlum or criminal.

While the story of ‘The Public Enemy’ is essentially a true story, all names and characters appearing herein are purely fictional -- Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.”

...Um, they left off “Very Truly Yours”!

With this foreword, opens the James Cagney gangster classic “The Public Enemy”, based on the book by New York and syndicated newspaper columnist Mark Hellinger (1903-1947). Along with Edward G. Robinson’s Little Caesar, it was – and is – one of the two greatest films of the early Hollywood gangster genre. It was directed by William A. Wellman.

The story follows the life of “Tom Powers” (Cagney) from his 1909 boyhood to coming of age in the Prohibition era of 1920. Alas, with his best friend “Matt Doyle” in tow, Tom’s “coming of age” takes him into organized crime – where he becomes a merciless gangster. Mother Powers may turn a blind eye (or a naive one) to her baby’s activities, but older brother “Mike” becomes more and more uneasy with Tom’s increasing life of crime.

Mere juvenile delinquents, under the sway of petty crook “Putty Nose”, they grow into full-fledged thugs under Prohibition criminal and gang boss “Paddy Ryan”. Ryan’s mob pushes bootleg beer on speakeasy proprietors, at Ryan’s prices – and takes either cash – or wounded flesh – in return for the goods.

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.

Unlike Rico of “Little Caesar”, Tom Powers and Matt Doyle never rise to the top – but remain street-level hoods, comfortable with collecting dough and busting the occasional head. The death of Nathan, and the events that follow, change all this.

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!

From that point on, until the very end, it’s an entirely different animal – and so is Cagney’s Tom Powers! For the remainder of the film, there is one shock after another. Cagney’s expression, standing in the pouring rain, is truly frightening!

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.”

Additional oddities: While “Little Caesar” did not display the familiar Warner Bros Shield, the beginning of “The Public Enemy” (one year later) differed as follows: “Warner Bros. Pictures and the Vitaphone Corp. Present: [ with the WB Shield superimposed over the Vitaphone Pennant].

Every featured character in the film is introduced by a pose, in front of a black background, with both the name of the actor and the character he or she plays prominently displayed. In older films, I often have difficulty in determining “who-is-who” beyond the obvious star performers. This is a nice way to remedy that – and I wish it would have been employed more often.

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”!

The Cast:

• 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.

Extra Features:

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:



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.

• The foreword that began the film (quoted above) grew out of Warner Bros.’ need to make an argument as to why the studio made gangster films. When movie gangsters were shown entering classy nightclubs – nicely dressed, and with fine women – it was feared that gangsters were something to be emulated. Especially to a Depression era audience.

• 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.

• Sklar describes Cagney’s trademark gesture for the film, his “Short Hand Jab” (a sort of very mild, affectionate punch), as “…an endearing aspect of the physical performance of Cagney.”

• He speculates that Tom Powers went down the “wrong path” due to a doting, permissive mother – becoming the primary influence, once his father (a stern police officer) was out of the picture… presumably killed in the line of duty. In addition, Tom’s failed intimacy with members of the opposite sex may have led him to violence. A bit too much psychology, perhaps? You decide.

• 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”.

• “The Grapefruit Scene”, in which Tom smashes a grapefruit in Kitty’s face is discussed in detail. In keeping with the times, it was hardly regarded in 1931 – but became much more of an issue in the seventies and onward, as an act of violence against women.

• As a result of his success in “The Public Enemy”, James Cagney was hurriedly written into the upcoming film “Smart Money” – to co-star with Edward G. Robinson. This way, Warner Bros. could have both their big gangster stars headlining in the same picture. Apparently, “Mrs. Warner” didn’t raise any dull boys!

Though Robert Sklar’s commentary is both informative and very interesting, it seems to me that he left a bit more “empty space”, over which the film plays – complete with its sound track, than some of the other such commentary tracks I’ve heard. Some may like to have the film “speak for itself” in spots. I prefer wall-to-wall comments from someone who knows the film and the era far better than I do. Tastes will vary.

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!

Warner expertly recreates the movie-going experience of the day as a viewing option for “The Public Enemy”. The film may be viewed as part of the entire program, on its own, or the viewer may pick and choose among the included items.

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.

I never cease to be fascinated at the “reconstruction” of what “Nights at the Movies” were. The films (or at least their iconography) have survived into our present-day consciousness – and to a large extent (due to decades of television airings) so have the cartoons. But the other elements are strictly out of a “lost era”. So much so that, when Leonard Maltin offers an introduction to the Warner Bros. package, I need him to INTERPRET as much as enhance.

The program consists of:
• A theatrical trailer for “Blonde Crazy”: Also starring James Cagney and Joan Blondell.

Newsreel: (Runs 01:32) From “Hearst Metrotone News”, we have coverage of female athletes training for the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles... “Fair Sex Athletes get busy under Mrs. Allen, coach, in first workouts at Pasadena, Cal”. We are there to witness drills for Track, Discus, and Javelin. Does anyone remember how they did?

“Vitaphone Presents: The Eyes Have It”: (Runs 09:54) A comedy short starring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his “pal” Charlie McCarthy. I always felt that Edgar Bergen had the easiest job in the world – being a ventriloquist on RADIO! Not only could he have moved his lips with impunity (…with no viewers to see), but Charlie didn’t even need to BE THERE! But here, we get the full act, as it was intended to be seen. Honestly, lip movement on the part Bergen is a bit easier to detect than it should be for someone of his legend – but this short, with Bergen as an eye doctor and Charlie as a wise-cracking patient, is entertaining nonetheless.

“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.

The WB Shield and Pennant introduce our interlude with Foxy, who looks just like Mickey Mouse but with a fox’s ears and tail, as a trolley driver. His lady-friend, and passenger, is also a duplicate of Minnie Mouse, with the same add-ons.

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.

Not so coincidently, this short bears a remarkable resemblance to 1927’s silent “Trolley Troubles”, starring Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks’ Oswald the Lucky Rabbit – made four years earlier. Many of the same gags appear, such as the wild, out-of-control ride and an encounter with an uppity, bespectacled COW blocking the trolley tracks. Both Oswald and Foxy solve that latter problem by driving their respective trolleys UNDERNEATH the cow – who then walks off in a huff.

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?

The film itself: Cagney starts out “Solid” and ends up “Amazing”! In its techniques, “The Public Enemy” is ALREADY a noticeable leap forward from the previous year’s “Little Caesar”. And, like its genre predecessor, it is one heck of a film – especially when one considers the “very recent” technical advances that it reflects.

Other Extra Features Include:

“Re-Release Foreword”: (Runs 0:43) Later on, both “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy” were re-released as a twin-bill. With Hollywood taking a more conservative stance on gangster films, and the glorification of crime in general, this video disclaimer was offered before the show:

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)”

In addition to Scorsese, other participants include: film historian Dr. Drew Casper, authors Robert Sklar (of the commentary track), Mark A. Vieira, and filmmaker Alain Silver.


The Public Enemy” might start out “slow”, but sit back and watch it build to something extraordinary. Watch this film define the gangster genre in cinema. And watch James Cagney become a star before your very eyes!

Warner Night at the Movies” allows you to experience the film in (at least something resembling) its proper context.

It is highly recommended for fans of James Cagney, gangster films and crime drama in general, and enthusiasts or scholars of the early sound-era of Hollywood.


Reel Popcorn Junkie said...

Agreed. The ending packs a real punch. What did audiences think of what happened to Tom Powers at the film's end? What would his brother have done before their mother came down the stairs?

Joe Torcivia said...

The ending was all the more a surprise to me, because I’d never seen “The Public Enemy” before viewing it in 2011, on DVD.

Actually, I’m glad it worked out that way. I wouldn’t have been around to have seen it in the movies. And I’m certain I wouldn’t have enjoyed it NEARLY as much, chopped up for TV, with commercial breaks.

With all the great stuff that came with it, I believe DVD is the best way I could have experienced it.

As for what happened to Tom, I’d say that was best left to the imagination. The result we DID see was unexpectedly shocking enough – at least to my mind. Being pre-code, Wellman probably could have shown us something of Tom’s fate -- but I’m glad he chose not to. I think it works better that way. Just like us not seeing Tom’s wild shooting spree – with only the gunshots and screams to inform us.

And, whatever Tom’s brother did (or had to do), I’m just glad it wasn’t ME in that spot!

BTW, thanks for this comment. It’s nice to occasionally find a comment left for an “older post”. Usually, there’s never a thing after a few days.