Forbidden Hollywood: The Public Enemy 1931

Before the Hayes code was put in to effect as the early ratings system in 1934.  Movies around that time had rougher subject matter and showed a lot of things that were considered to be taboo. The ones from this era reminds me of the films of  the seventies.  Filmmakers were a bit more risky and took more chances. Yes we have a few of those filmmakers now, but not as many as before.

The Public Enemy

Cast: James Cagney, Jean Harlow,Joan Blondell

Writers: Kubec Glasmon John Bright (Based on their book Beer and Blood)

Director: William Wellman


Released in 1931, “The Public Enemy’s” story about the rise and fall of gangster Tom Powers(James Cagney) was I’m sure met with some scorn by political groups. After all bootlegging and gangs were actually around during that time,and many felt that young people would try to copy the characters in this. That is why Warner Bros added a coda to both the front and end of the film. Stating how these characters should not be looked up to and how they were the scourge of society. The movie also looked down at law officials and showed a world where gangsters had more succsess than people who obeyed the law. Another big no no during the Hayes code era. When the film was rereleased after the code was put into effect, certain scenes were removed including a homosexual tailor and one where Tom is being seduced into having sex with another woman.

Along with “Little Ceaser” (Also starring Cagney) “The Public Enemy” was among a few of the gangster titles that were released in the thirties. Before then no one ever dreamed of making a movie where its central character would be a criminal. This was quite the risk that director William Wellman and others took when they made this.  It ranks among one of the best pictures of this genre and it’s easy to see why. Every performance in this feels genuine. James Cagney evokes the kind of crazed performance we would see later from Al Pacino in the classic remake “Scarface” Jean Harlow who plays one of Tom’s girlfriend’s was both tough and damaged at the same time. Other great performances were from Donald Cook who played Tom’s brother Mike, and Murray Kinneal who played the gangster known as Putty Nose. This is also the third movie in a row I have seen  that has stared Joan Blondell(She played the wife to one of Tom’s friends) and I’m fast developing a cinematic crush on this classic cutie(I’ll think of a better title later). I’m not quite sure what it is about her like, but I do. Maybe it’s those eyes. That may sound a bit corny but she does have sexy eyes.

I know it’s a movie,and that everything is scripted but keep in mind they didn’t have a budget to make special effects back in those days. When people got punched, they actually got punched and when scenes involving guns were being blocked. You better hit your mark otherwise you may be shot. A scene with live ammunition was used when Tom was escaping criminals shooting at him. If Mr. Cagney was off by just a smidge. His acting career would have been over real fast.

The only thing that hurts this movie is that we have seen this story many times before. It’s your standard tale of a criminal who rises to the top, enjoys his time there, and then falls straight down. He has a friend or someone who wants him to help get him out of that lifestyle and just when it looks like something good may happen. The clouds darken and rain begins to fall for our protagonist. Still if you consider yourself a fan of  the gangster genre and have not yet seen this or the original “Scarface“. It is one you owe yourself to check out.



About The Vern

I love movies and I enjoy writing about them too. They both go pretty much hand in hand with each other and it's fun to discover new classics. I co host the podcasts The Film Pasture, ScreenTrax, and soon Cinema Recall. While also contributing reviews and articles to other great sites when I can.
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