Thursday, October 13, 2011

#433. The Public Enemy (1931)

Directed By: William A. Wellman

Starring: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods

Trivia:  The infamous grapefruit scene caused women's groups around America to protest the on-screen abuse of Mae Clarke

Tom Powers (James Cagney) is a bad seed, and has been one his entire life. From his early days hanging around pool halls with petty crook Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell) to running booze for Paddy Ryan (Robert O’Connor) during prohibition, Tom has always been a loose cannon. 

Over time, and with the help of his best pal Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), Tom moves up the ranks of organized crime, rising all the way to the top. His mother (Beryl Mercer) believes her son is a good boy, while older brother Mike (Donald Cook) knows the truth about Tom’s ‘business’, and does bis best to convince Tom to go straight.

But a rival gang has also set its sights on Tom, and are determined to bring his reign as the city's top dog to a bloody end. 

James Cagney brings a truckload of style to the role of Tom Powers. With a squint of his eye, a tip of his cap, and a soft punch from his right hand that’s nothing more than his way of saying “hello”, Tom Powers is the very definition of charisma.  Even something as heinous as smashing a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face (arguably the most memorable scene in the film) he does with plenty of panache.

An unsavory, sometimes violent gangster, Tom Powers is a character we're supposed to abhor, but because of Cagney’s cool, effortless portrayal, we don’t; in fact, from where we're sitting, Tom's life looks pretty darn good! At one point, while treating his newest girl, Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow), to a night on the town, the two walk into a restaurant, where the Maitre D acts as if Tom was a member of the royal family, immediately sitting he and Gwen at the best table in the house. 

As if this attractive portrayal of the criminal element wasn’t enough to get the censors crying “foul”, the gangsters that inhabit the world of The Public Enemy take it a step further, daring to revel in their decadence. Tom is bad, and doesn’t give a damn who knows it. When his brother, Mike, a returning soldier, confronts Tom about the life he’s chosen, Tom simply smirks and walks away. Nobody can prevent Tom Powers from doing exactly what he wants, and the way James Cagney plays him, we pity whoever tries. 

Challenging Hollywood’s production code, which favored good triumphing over evil at every turn, The Public Enemy dared to depict a gangster as a sympathetic character, even a hero of sorts. But the movie would have never pulled it off without James Cagney. The Public Enemy has been called the film that made Cagney a star, yet I'm not sure this is totally accurate. James Cagney was a natural performer, a man destined for greatness at some point with or without this movie. It was The Public Enemy that benefited most from the pairing.

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