Murray Kinnell

Pre-Code Essentials: The Public Enemy (1931)

The Public Enemy 1931

Plot

Even from a young age, it was abundantly clear that Tom Powers (James Cageny) wasn’t on the path to being a law-abiding citizen. Along with his best friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), they grow from being young punks to real gangsters under the guidance of “Putty Nose” (Murray Kinnell). But when Putty Nose betrays Tom and Matt, they get in close with “Nails” Nathan (Leslie Fenton) and move into the bootlegging syndicate. Meanwhile, Tom’s brother Mike (Donald Cook) has taken a completely different path in life. While his brother is getting rich by breaking the law, Mike enlists in the military to serve in WWI and works hard to earn an honest living when he returns. Mike deeply resents how his brother is getting rich by breaking the law while he tries so hard to lead an honest life and gets nothing in return.

Tom and Matt become quite well known in the criminal underworld and Tom is particularly ruthless. Given the opportunity, he kills his old mentor Putty Nose. Tom is also awful to the women in his life. When he gets tired of seeing Kitty (Mae Clarke), he ends it by shoving a grapefruit in her face and starts taking up with Gwen (Jean Harlow) instead. After Nails Nathan dies in an accident, Tom gets even more aggressive and gets involved in a nasty mob war that ends up being his downfall.


My Thoughts

Not only is The Public Enemy one of my favorite pre-codes, it’s one of my favorite movies in general. When I saw it for the first time, I wasn’t terribly interested in gangster movies, but I picked up a copy of it because I’d heard it was good and because I like Jean Harlow. The Public Enemy isn’t Jean Harlow’s finest moment, but this is the movie that made me a fan of the gangster genre. With Cagney’s tour de force performance, its well-written script, and fast pace, how could I not be pulled in by it? The Public Enemy is a prime example of why I adore the early 1930s style of film making so much. It clocks in at just 83 minutes, but has a very complex, layered story that is fast paced, but never feels rushed. There’s a very fine line between “fast paced” and “rushed,” but The Public Enemy walks that line flawlessly. And then there’s Cagney. I just can’t say enough about how much I adore his performance as Tom Powers.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

Tom’s gay tailor.

Tom’s derogatory behavior towards women, most infamously when Mae Clarke gets the grapefruit in the face.

All of Tom’s criminal activities.

Tom being raped by Paddy Ryan’s girlfriend:


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

You know a movie is tough when they have to add an introduction explaining that the movie you’re about to see isn’t meant to glorify this behavior. Gangster movies had their first real golden age during the pre-code era. Not only was there The Public Enemy, there was also Little Caesar and Scarface. There were certainly gangster movies that came after the production codes were being enforced, but the pre-code era allowed them to be more violent and be a bit more ruthless and sinister. A lot of the more violent scenes were edited out when The Public Enemy was re-released under the influence of the production codes.

In one noteworthy scene, Tom goes to a tailor to be measured for a suit and the tailor is meant to be a flamboyantly gay man. When the movie was re-released, the bit where the tailor comments on Tom’s arm muscles ended up on the cutting room floor along with some of the movie’s more violent moments.

The Public Enemy (1931)

Even from a young age, it was pretty clear that Tom Powers (James Cagney) and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) weren’t on the road to becoming fine, upstanding citizens.  They got their start working for gangster Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell) as children, and when they grew up a bit, he put them to work on bigger jobs.  However, when their first real job goes horribly wrong, Putty Nose leaves them to fend for themselves.  With Putty Nose out of the picture, Tom and Matt get friendly with Nails Nathan (Leslie Fenton) and Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O’Connor) and move into the bootlegging racket.

Tom quickly becomes a key player in the local bootlegging ring and starts living the life of a big time gangster.  He’s making lots of money, he gets custom made suits, and rides around town in a nice car.  On the other hand, Tom’s brother Mike (Donald Cook) has taken the more legitimate route in life.  He goes to school, works on a streetcar,  and serves in World War I.  Even though Mike isn’t ashamed of earning an honest living, he has a hard time coping with the fact that he works so hard and barely gets by while his brother is getting rich by breaking the law.  Ma Powers (Beryl Mercer) remains oblivious to how Tom really earns a living and only wants to think the best of her son.

The bootlegging racket continues to be extremely lucrative for Tom and he only becomes more cutthroat and aggressive with time.  When Putty Nose comes back to town, Tom and Matt shoot him.  The women Tom dates aren’t safe, either.  When his girlfriend Kitty (Mae Clarke) gets on his last nerve, he shoves a grapefruit in her face and immediately ditches her for Gwen (Jean Harlow).  Tom’s enemies don’t even have to be human.  After Nails dies from being thrown off his horse, Tom heads on over to the stable and guns down the horse.  So when his best friend Matt is killed by a rival gang, you better believe Tom is out for blood.  But even a big shot like Tom Powers isn’t big enough to take out an entire gang by himself.

Oh, how I love The Public Enemy.  It’s very easily one of my absolute favorite movies.  There’s so much I’d love to say about it that I don’t think I can possibly fit it all in one post.  I could watch it a hundred times and not get tired of it.  Not only do I love the gangster storyline, but I’m also fascinated by the conflict between Tom and his brother.  With two such strong stories going on, The Public Enemy fits more into 83 minutes than a lot of movies do in two hours.

And, of course, I adore James Cagney.  I believe The Public Enemy was the first Cagney movie I ever saw and he instantly became one of my favorite actors.  Originally, Cagney was set to play the part of Matt Doyle and Edward Woods was supposed to be Tom Powers.  But thank goodness director William Wellman realized that Cagney would have hit it out of the park as Tom and had them switch parts.  Cagney’s tour de force performance made him a full-fledged star after only one year of being in movies.

If you ever have the opportunity to see The Public Enemy on the big screen, I very highly recommend going.  When you think of movies that are best seen on the big screen, you probably think of movies like Star Wars or 2001: A Space Odyssey, but believe me, James Cagney was meant to be seen on the big screen.  His screen presence is incredible if you watch him on just a normal-sized television. But when you’re seeing him on a twenty foot tall screen? Every little movement, smirk, and expression is magnified a hundred times and it’s a much more intense experience than it is to watch at home.  This scene in particular is absolutely incredible when you see it in a theater.  I was very pleasantly surprised by how much seeing it on the big screen really added to the whole experience.