Pre-Code Crazy: The Public Enemy (1931)
I love gangster movies from the 1930s, but for reasons that are not quite clear to me, I usually don’t watch them over and over like I do with so many of my other favorites. (Hmm.) As a result, when I recently watched The Public Enemy (1931), my Pre-Code Crazy pick for this month, I felt almost as if I were seeing it for the first time.
The film starts out in 1909 with a focus on two young hoodlums-in-the-making – Tom Powers (Frank Coghlan, Jr.) and Matt Doyle (Frankie Darro), who spend the bulk of their time playing pranks and engaging in petty crimes and misdemeanors. We’re also introduced to Tom’s older brother, Mike, who’s Tom’s polar opposite; Matt’s sister, Molly, who calls Tom “the meanest boy in town” and predicts that he’ll wind up in prison some day; and “Putty Nose,” a character of decidedly questionable morals, who buys stolen goods from the boys.
Six years later, the boys are on the verge of becoming full-fledged hoods, now played by James Cagney and Edward Woods. Tom and Matt’s first foray into real crime – armed robbery – ends badly, with the duo running for their lives from the cops after one of their pals is gunned down in the street. Skip ahead a few more years and the two young men, still inseparable, have finally gotten their collective lawless acts together – with the onset of Prohibition, they team up with local racketeers Paddy Ryan (Robert O’Connor) and “Nails” Nathan (Leslie Fenton), and before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” they’re buying tailored suits, driving fancy, block-long cars, and attracting the notice of swell dames like Mamie (Joan Blondell) and Kitty (Mae Clarke). (Although Kitty isn’t around for long – Tom dumps her after shoving half a grapefruit in her face, and replaces her with the high-class Gwen Allen [Jean Harlow]).
Tom’s ascent in the underworld doesn’t sit well with his self-righteous brother, Mike (Donald Cook), recently home from serving in WWI. The brothers had always nurtured a mutual aversion to each other; earlier in the film, Tom referred to Mike as “that sucker. He’s too busy going to school. He’s learning how to be poor.” And Mike is disdainful of the manner in which Tom earns a living – when Tom tries to give money to his mother, Mike steps in and orders him from their home, telling him he has “no heart and no brains.”
But Mike doesn’t have to look down on Tom’s lifestyle for long – the accidental death of “Nails” Nathan (he’s kicked in the head by his horse) proves to be the catalyst for the reversal of Tom and Matt’s fortunes. Like a house of cards tumbling after a strong wind, they experience one blow after another (am I mixing my metaphors?), and we are told after the film’s shocking end that the public enemy “is a problem that sooner or later WE, the public, must solve.”
So, what makes this film so great? First off, there’s the relationship between Tom and Matt. It’s not one of those childhood buddy depictions where one friend grows up to be “good” and the other one “bad,” a la Angels With Dirty Faces (1938). Or where the friends turn out to be rivals, like in Boom Town (1940). Tom and Matt were inseparable to the end, both equally entrenched in all their exploits, whether they were playing a practical joke on Matt’s sister, picking up women, putting the squeeze on local merchants, or committing murder. Their mutual regard and loyalty was at the core of this otherwise grim and violent film.
Secondly, the film offers a fascinating look at the life of a criminal in Tom Powers, who was on a kind of trajectory toward a life of crime from an early age. Just as Matt’s sister projected, Tom’s future seemed to be inevitable, despite the fact that he had a responsible older brother, a loving mother and a – literally – hands-on father. (In a scene early in the film, his father takes a strap to Tom after learning that he has stolen a pair of skates. Before the beating begins, Tom defiantly queries in reference to his trousers, “How d’ya want ‘em – up or down?”) Even when, as a young man, Tom had a legitimate job as a truck driver, it didn’t take much persuasion for him to abandon it in favor of his criminal pursuits.
The film was directed by William Wellman, who also helmed Night Nurse and Safe in Hell that year. In an early scene, where Mike Powers punches Tom, the director instructed actor Donald Cook to really punch Cagney. Cook did, and ended up breaking one of Cagney’s teeth. Cagney stayed in character, though, and played the scene to the end. Incidentally, Edward Woods was originally cast as Tom and Cagney as Matt, but Wellman later switched the two actors.
The screenplay, by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon, was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost to The Dawn Patrol.
The character of Tom Powers was reportedly based on Chicago gangster Earl “Hymie” Weiss and bootlegger Charles Dion “Deanie” O’Banion. It’s said that Weiss once smashed an omelette into the face of his girlfriend. Another real-life inspiration was Samuel “Nails” Morton, a member of O’Banion’s mob. Like “Nails” Nathan, “Nails” Morton was killed by a horse and, as depicted in the film, Morton’s friends later shot the horse to death. (“Nails” in The Public Enemy was played by Leslie Fenton, who married actress Ann Dvorak the year after the film was released. The two stayed together until 1945.)
Keep your eyes peeled for a couple of goofs during the movie. In the first, a car full of rival gangsters drive by Paddy Ryan’s bar, and the two passengers in the back seat toss bombs at the building. You can see that both bombs completely miss the target and roll on the ground, but seconds later, the bar blows up. The second goof is in a scene where Tom is outside in a rainstorm, hiding next to a set of stairs. At first, his hat is sitting straight on his head, but in another scene, it’s cocked to the left. Seconds later, it’s back on straight again.
The Public Enemy airs on TCM on Monday, February 2nd – do yourself a favor and check it out. And don’t forget to pop over to Speakeasy to read about Kristina’s Pre-Code Crazy pick of the month!
You only owe it to yourself.