Tonight, I hosted the first installment of a Colligan History Project film series, “Hollywood Hoods”. Here are my notes for the introduction to “The Public Enemy,” the 1931 gangster classic starring James Cagney.
Depending on how you define the thing, gangster pictures have been around since the dawn of film. A 1904 one-reeler called “The Moonshiner” is considered one of the first but there are no known extant prints. D.W. Griffith made “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” in 1912 about organized crime, considered to be the first significant gangster film.
Two things happened to make gangster movies a popular genre: The advent of the talkies and the rise of the romantic gangster characters of Prohibition. Al Capone himself is said to have been offered a seven-figure deal, but he declined to become a Hollywood legend.
The talkies made it possible to have effective gun battles and squealing tires in the chase scenes and all those conventions that make a good gangster film exciting and appealing.
And during Prohibition, a lot of people looked up to the gangsters even as they feared them. It was the gangsters, after all, who provided the booze that the government tried to deprive from the people.
The first modern gangster pictures starting coming out in 1927 and 1928, already well into the Prohibition era, but the first “classic” gangster films were released within months of each other: “Little Ceasar,” which made a star of Edward G. Robinson, came out in January, 1931, and “The Public Enemy” in April of that year. The following year, Howard Hughes’s “Scarface” came out, and those three films more or less laid the foundation for the conventions of the gangster genre and started Hollywood on the road to the more sophisticated and artistic movies of the film noir of the 1940s and 1950s.
I chose “The Public Enemy” to kick off this film series partly because it is the better of the two 1931 films and partly because it has roots in real-world gangsterdom.
The screenwriters John Bright and Kubec Glasmon (who incidentally received the film’s only Academy Award nominations) worked in a Chicago drug store in the early days of prohibition where a lot of the Chicago mobsters hung out, including Al Capone’s gang. The two would listen in on the stories the men told and wrote an unpublished novel called “Beer and Blood,” which became the basis of the screenplay for “The Public Enemy.” Some sources refer to them as “underworld thugs,” but that might be stretching it.
There’s been a lot of speculation about the inspiration for the characters, particularly James Cagney’s. Names like “Nails” Morton, “Hymie” Weiss and “Two-Gun” Alterie often come up in that context, but it’s probably fair to say that Tommy is a “composite character.”
It was the crime fighters who inadvertently titled the movie. In April, 1930, Frank J. Loesch, chairman of the Chicago crime commission, coined the term “public enemy” as a synonym for “gangster” or “fugitive” to describe his list of 28 men, Al Capone being listed as Number One, that he distributed to increase public and police awareness of the gangster problem and perhaps to take some of the shine off of the romantic image of the bootlegging mobster by reminding the public that these were dangerous characters. J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI picked up on the term and used it to describe the post-Prohibition mobsters John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelley, Bonnie and Clyde, and so on. I haven’t found anyone saying that the movie also helped popularize the term, but it seems likely that it did, as it was a smash hit, bigger than “Little Caesar”.
Cagney came up in show business as a vaudeville song and dance man, and earned a Hollywood contract from a lead role in a Broadway parlor comedy. Prior to “The Public Enemy,” his seventh film, he played second and third-tier character parts in romances and comedies.
Cagney’s co-star Edward Woods was original cast in the lead role and Cagney as the brother, but the screenwriters told Wellman that he had the casting backward and remarkably, he listened. That’s why Woods gets higher billing than Cagney. The studio promised Woods they would make it up to him, but that never really happened, and so Cagney became a star, together with Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson the most notable “Hollywood Hoods,” and nobody now recognizes the name Edward Woods.
Perhaps more than the gritty realism of the film, it is likely the famous grapefruit scene that catapulted Cagney to stardom. By all accounts, the smashing of the grapefruit into Mae Clark’s face was not in the script, but who came up with the idea and who knew about it beforehand has been the subject of so much talk and speculation that it’s now impossible to say. Director William Wellman once took credit for it, saying it was a personal thing because his wife ate grapefruits for breakfast and he’d always wanted to smash it in her face. Other stories say that it was in the unpublished novel, suggesting that Bright (who apparently had some control over the production), told Cagney about it and he took the initiative. Whatever the case, it still remains one of Hollywood’s most famous scenes, and it’s said that for the rest of his life, every time Cagney went out to a restaurant, someone would send a grapefruit to his table.
By 1931, many critics thought that gangster pictures were on their way out. Syndicated gossip columnist Dan Thomas wrote, “This picture is very well done and should do good business if the rage for gangster pictures holds out long enough. But we are afraid the public is apt to turn thumbs down on gang films almost any moment now.”
He went on to say, “The action is very snappy and there is some high class shooting that would be hard on bad nerves.”
So if you have bad nerves, consider yourself warned.
A writer named Hubbard Keavy wrote in a syndicated column called “Screen Life” that “The Public Enemy” “differs from all the others only in its daring and impropriety” and called it “a most depressing picture.” He said that is isn’t proper to give away the ending of a movie in a review, but since “The Public Enemy” isn’t proper, he told how it ended in the fourth and fifth paragraphs of an 11-paragraph review.
He admitted he liked the performances of Cagney, Woods and Joan Blondell, but then wrote, “The cycle of gangster pictures appears destined to end soon because the public will tire of the same old store, each told more audaciously than the previous.
Keavy lobbied for more wholesome fare and said that Hollywood producers should make movies about how to solve the gangster problem instead of glorifying them.
But in his column “Slow Motion,” Martin Dickstein gave some insight why gangster movies were becoming so popular.
He concluded his review by saying, “If you’re not yet too tired of this sort of thing you’ll find it worth a visit.”
Despite the critical warnings, the gangster film was not about to go away anytime soon. According to one source, there were nine gangster movies in 1930, 26 in 1931, 28 in 1932 and 15 in 1933, the year that Prohibition ended and the Hays code, which restricted violence and sexual content in Hollywood films, began. In fact, “Little Caeser,” “The Public Enemy” and “Scarface” were all taken out of circulation after the Hays code and weren’t available again until 1953.