Friday, 28 January 2011

Film Friday: The Public Enemy (1931)

OK, I'm cheating a bit here - it may say Friday 28th at the top of this post, because that's when I started, but I just finished it today (Saturday). I never thought I'd be grateful for Blogger's slightly bizarre dating method(!).

The second post in this [gangster] film series looks at The Public Enemy, the film that gave James Cagney his breakthrough role (Cagney was originally cast as a supporting character but the producer saw his obvious talent and switched him over to the main star) and of the type for which he is arguably the most well-known, despite his many attempts to play other styles in later years.

The film begins in 1909 as we see a young Tom Powers and his friend Matt Doyle getting into all sorts of scrapes and troubles, obviously meant to show us how they fell off the straight and narrow and eventually became gangsters, but particular focus is on Tom and his destructive relationships with the local toughs, his strict policeman father and his straitlaced brother Michael.

1909 (which I suspect is really 1931, or at best a few years earlier).

Who else remembers going into pubs as a child through the "Family Entrance"
whilst wondering what strange unknowns lay beyond the door marked "to the Bar"?
Interesting to see the custom practised in early 20th Century America too.
(Tom looks on as Matt talks to his sister and her friend)Escalators were still in their infancy in 1909, so this is obviously 1931 (really).
Don't try this in your local Debenhams, kids!

Tom and Matt are already stealing things and passing them on to a local yegg,
Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell). The black roll neck sweater is quite a modern
look, even for 1931.

Still cutting a dash in a waistcoat and bowler hat. Another roll neck to his right,
but a nice contrasting waistcoat/jacket combo on his left (not to mention the
most jauntily-angled cap you're ever likely to see!).

By now the action has moved on to 1915 and Tom & Matt appear as we will know them throughout the rest of the film (James Cagney and Edward Woods).

Despite being street-tough youths, both Tom and Matt still sport proper hats
and neckwear.

Putty Nose sends the boys out on their first big job but it all goes wrong and before the night is over their lookout and a policeman are both killed. Tom and Matt escape only to find that Putty has disappeared and left them in the lurch. Luckily for them they are not linked to the crime.

In 1917 America enters the Great War and Tom's brother Mike (Donald Cook) enlists in the Marines, much to the consternation of their mother and Mike's girlfriend.

Mike Powers works on the streetcars and goes to night school. His uniform
makes me long for properly-dressed public service vehicle operators(!).
Mike's girlfriend (uncredited). A nice layered effect on the second dress,
I fancy.

We then skip another 3 years to 1920. The War is over and Mike has returned, albeit badly shell-shocked. Prohibition begins, and I imagine because it was so fresh in the minds of everyone in 1931 these scenes are probably pretty accurate:Having been abandoned by Putty Nose, Tom and Matt join Paddy Ryan's (Robert Emmett O'Connor) gang as bootleggers.

Nice sheepskin-collared coats sported by Matt and Tom.
Soon the boys are making big bucks from the liquor business. Tom's all-black
look is very clean and crisp, with the light-coloured cap contrasting well.

The boys can now afford some fancy clothes and head out for a night on the town. In a nightclub they meet Mamie (Joan Blondell) and Kitty (Mae Clarke).I know a pocket square is ideally meant to be a kind of stylish afterthought,
but Matt's is frankly ridiculous. As ever, Cagney leads the way in fashion.I like the whole contrasting effect of Mamie's outfit, particularly the bows on
the hat.
Kitty's outfit is the first of many in the film to feature giant furry sleeves.
Judging from their ubiquity I imagine it must have been a popular look
in the Thirties.

Tom and Matt continue to act as muscle for Paddy's bootlegging business...
A classic tough guy pose. Here we see Cagney wearing a very high-crowned
trilby (almost homburg-esque in its style), which really suits him and helps
disguise his height. If you look at a lot of Cagney gangster films you'll often
see him in this type of hat.

...while living it up with Mamie and Kitty in their hotel suite:
Big furry cuffs again!

By now Tom has grown very bored of Kitty (whereas Matt and Mamie become ever closer). Things reach a head at the breakfast table:
The infamous grapefruit scene.

Whilst out on a job the boys meet Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow) literally on a street corner(!). For Tom it's love at first sight.
Later, Matt and Mamie announce their engagement, so everyone goes out to celebrate.
That's one helluva fur! Gwen's iridescent coat/wrap is pretty snazzy too.
Mamie's black dress with gold(?) detailing is almost plain by comparison.While in the nightclub Tom and Matt spot Putty Nose, who has returned now that he thinks the heat is off. Not forgetting how he dropped them at the first sign of trouble, and blaming him for their descent into crime, the boys follow him home and exact their revenge.
Excellent use of atmospheric shadows in this scene.
I forgot to mention in the Little Caesar post, where they are also very much in
evidence, that the bowler hat (or derby) seems to be the gangster hat of choice
when they're going for a formal, public-facing look.

Tom continues to romance Gwen. A chance here for my readers to drool over
Jean Harlow and/or her gown and apartment ;-)
Meanwhile, rival mob boss Schemer Burns (great name!) is on the warpath, looking to take over Paddy Ryan's territory.Paddy orders the boys to lay low in a safe house until he can figure out a way to deal with Burns. Tom and Matt aren't happy about it, but reluctantly agree.
Paddy's hat is interesting, being almost Stetson-like in its style. Suits him well,

Paddy's girlfriend (uncredited) looks after the boys while Paddy is away
More furry cuffs! And flowing sleeves again as well.
Some tricky camera shots for 1931 include:

Tom and Matt grow restless at being cooped up inside and go out against Paddy's orders. They are attacked by Schemer Burns' men, with bitter consequences. Tom acquires some firepower, intent on dealing with the new menace himself. He waits outside the gang's headquarters.Wonderfully evocative scenes with Cagney waiting with the rain hammering
down. He still manages to look stylish, even when he's soaking wet!

Tom is able to get his men, but is badly wounded in the attempt.
"I ain't so tough!"

The final scenes take place in the hospital, where Tom is taken, bandaged and watched over by his family. Later, it seems that he will soon be well enough to come home but then he is suddenly kidnapped by the remaining members of the Burns mob! Will Paddy Ryan be able to convince them to release Tom unharmed?! You'll have to watch to find out!

The original trailer and the film's foreword are a sobering reminder that, as much as we may look back on these kind of films (and continue to try and emulate them today) with the gulf of 80-odd years and all the romanticism that has grown up around gangsterism, this kind of thing was a very real and very dangerous problem that was once a great contemporary threat to a society.

Next time on the [increasingly infrequent!] Film Fridays Gangster series - the original Scarface, Howard Hughes' gangdom masterpiece, from 1932.


  1. I haven't seen this, but I loved the remake. The outfits are just lovely.

  2. Lady Cherry,

    If you mean the 2009 film Public Enemies with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, that wasn't really a remake as such, but a different film (although still a true story). If there was a remake of The Public Enemy I haven't seen it!

    I will be doing Public Enemies at some point, so stay tuned! It is indeed a great film too, if easily confused with The Public Enemy! ;-)

  3. Thank you so much for posting these stills. Although I have always smiled at the anachronisms (esp. of the women's outfits, which are perpetually 1931 fashion!), I can't stop rewatching it (admittedly mostly out of obsession with Jean Harlow). Anyway, I'm so glad to be able to pore over the fashions via your stills!!

  4. I remember the family entrances/rooms in pubs and clubs (as in, social clubs)!

    The furry sleeves and over-the-top pocket handkerchiefs - rather OTT but do you think even at the time they were designed to show the characters were flashy gangsters (in a similar way to they 70s 'pimp' role in blackspoitation movies was almost a parody of 70s luxe)?

  5. I love this film. Like the last gansgter film you posted about it's one I studied for my American Studies dissertation. One of the books I used in my diss was David E. Ruth's Inventing the Public Enemy. Worth a read for any gangster film fan

  6. It's such a great film. It was great to see the stills.

  7. Loved looking over these stills from the film. Thank you for putting this together.

  8. I have always been a big fan of James Cagney and this film is one of his best, thank you for posting all the amzing film stills.
    Jean Harlow looks so lovely and the fashion is just so, ah they knew how to dress then.


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