Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

THE PUBLIC ENEMY

James Cagney and Jean Harlow
THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931). Director: William A. Wellman.

Tom Powers (James Cagney) and his pal, Matt (Edward Woods), grow up in a tough part of the city, and get in with a bad crowd. Tom becomes a gangster and killer during prohibition, earning the enmity of his brother, Mike (Donald Cook), who has little but contempt for him. Tom is such a creep that at one point he even shoots a horse! Tom and Matt work for Nails Nathan (Leslie Fenton) and Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O'Connor), and get involved with such "broads" as Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow), Mamie (Joan Blondell), Kitty (Mae Clarke), who gets a grapefruit in the face, and Nail's unnamed girlfriend (Dorothy Gee), who earns Tom's scorn by getting him drunk and going to bed with him. The Public Enemy is refreshingly frank and well-acted, with Cagney getting high marks, along with Fenton [The House of Secrets], O'Connor, and Beryl Mercer [Jane Eyre] as Ma Powers. Harlow was still considered a lousy actress this early in her career, but she's actually competent, if unexceptional, and her performance is satisfactory. Frankie Darro and "Junior" Coghlan (Frank Coghlan, Jr.) play Matt and Tom as boys and are both good. One of the best scenes is a dinner at the Powers house where ex-soldier Mike can no longer control his anger at his brother and bootleg beer goes flying, and the death of Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell of Charlie Chan in Paris) is also well-handled. That said, The Public Enemy has not really worn well with time -- especially when you take into account the many superior gangster films that came later --   but it still remains an interesting picture. The great final scene of the movie almost makes the whole movie! Handsome Edward Woods was supposed to play Tom Powers, the lead role, but it was given to Cagney instead,; he became a star and Wood's career eventually faded out after only 13 credits.

Verdict: Cagney holds the attention. *** out of 4.

3 comments:

angelman66 said...

Great cast! Have not seen this one since I was a kid and they used to play thirties gangster movies on Sunday afternoons. Seems like it's a little racy, too, since it is before the Production Code went into effect. Love Harlow, Cagney and Joan Blondell.

Thanks for the tip, as always Bill!
-Chris

William said...

My pleasure. This definitely a pre-code movie. And the ending is great!

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