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The Public Enemy

This article is about the 1931 film. For other uses, see Public enemy (disambiguation).
The Public Enemy
File:The Public Enemy 1931 Poster.jpg
theatrical poster
Directed by William A. Wellman
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck
Written by Kubec Glasmon
John Bright[1]
Screenplay by Harvey F. Thew[1]
Based on Beer and Blood
by John Bright and
Kubec Glasmon
Starring James Cagney
Jean Harlow
Edward Woods
Joan Blondell
Cinematography Devereaux Jennings
Edited by Ed McCormick[2]
Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Release dates
  • April 23, 1931 (1931-04-23)
Running time
83 minutes[2][3]
Country United States
Language English
Budget $151,000[4]

The Public Enemy (released as Enemies of the Public in the United Kingdom[5]) is a 1931 American all-talking pre-code crime film produced and distributed by Warner Brothers. The film was directed by William A. Wellman and stars James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods and Joan Blondell. The film relates the story of a young man's rise in the criminal underworld in prohibition-era urban America. The supporting players include Beryl Mercer, Donald Cook, and Mae Clarke. The screenplay is based on a never-published novel by two former street thugs — Beer and Blood by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon — who had witnessed some of Al Capone’s murderous gang rivalries in Chicago.


As youngsters, Tom Powers (James Cagney) and his lifelong friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) engage in petty theft, selling their loot to "Putty Nose" (Murray Kinnell). When the pair are young men, Putty Nose persuades them to join his gang on a fur warehouse robbery, assuring them he will take care of them if anything goes wrong. When Tom is startled by a stuffed bear, he shoots it, alerting the police, who kill gang member Larry Dalton. Chased by a cop, Tom and Matt have to gun him down. However, when they go to Putty Nose for help, they find he has left town.

Tom's straitlaced older brother Mike (Donald Cook) tries, but fails, to talk Tom into giving up crime. Tom keeps his activities secret from his doting mother (Beryl Mercer). When America enters World War I in 1917, Mike enlists in the Marines.

In 1920, with Prohibition about to go into effect, Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O'Connor) recruits Tom and Matt as beer "salesmen" (enforcers) in his bootlegging business. He allies himself with noted gangster Samuel "Nails" Nathan (Leslie Fenton). As the bootlegging business becomes ever more lucrative, Tom and Matt flaunt their wealth.

Mike finds out that his brother's money comes not from politics, as Tom claims, but from bootlegging, and declares that Tom's success is based on nothing more than "beer and blood" (the title of the book upon which the film is based). Tom retorts in disgust: "Your hands ain't so clean. You killed and liked it. You didn't get them medals for holding hands with them Germans."

Tom and Matt acquire girlfriends, Kitty (an uncredited Mae Clarke) and Mamie (Joan Blondell) respectively. Tom eventually tires of Kitty; in a famous scene, when she complains once too often, he pushes half a grapefruit into her face. He then drops her for Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow), a woman with a self-confessed weakness for bad men.

At a restaurant on the night of Matt's wedding reception to Mamie, Tom and Matt recognize Putty Nose and follow him home. Begging for his life, Putty plays a song on the piano that he had entertained Tom and Matt with when they were kids. Tom shoots him in the back.

Tom gives his mother a large wad of money, but Mike rejects the gift. Tom tears up the banknotes and throws them in his brother's face.

"Nails" Nathan dies in a horse riding accident, prompting Tom to find the horse and shoot it. A rival gang headed by "Schemer" Burns takes advantage of the disarray resulting from Nathan's death, precipitating a gang war.

Later, Matt is gunned down in public, with Tom narrowly escaping the same fate. Furious, Tom takes it upon himself to single-handedly settle scores with Burns and some of his men. Tom is seriously wounded in the shootout, and ends up in the hospital.

When his mother, brother and Matt's sister Molly come to see him, he reconciles with Mike and agrees to reform. However, Paddy warns Mike that Tom has been kidnapped by the Burns mob from the hospital. Later, his dead body is returned to the Powers home.




Many of the characters in the film were based on actual people.[6] Edward Woods was originally cast in the lead role until director Wellman decided Cagney would be more effective in the part and switched the two actors[4][7] but never reshot the sequences with the characters as children, which is why the child playing Cagney's role looks like Woods while the one playing Woods' role looks like Cagney. Another reason for the switch is that the sound technology used in The Public Enemy was superior to that used in earlier films, making it no longer imperative to have an actor in the lead role who had impeccable enunciation.[citation needed] Although it was still a risk giving Cagney the starring role, his distinctive interpretation of the character, especially his machine-gun speaking style, was now technically feasible. Cagney was also short and seemed uncouth, compared to the typical finesse of a more conventionally cinegenic actor like Woods, helping to establish Warner Brothers' reputation for films that explicitly targeted working class audiences during the Great Depression. At the time of the role switch, Woods was promised by the studio that it would be made up to him with later assignments, but this was never followed through and Woods subsequently fell into obscurity.

Principal filming took place in January and February 1931.[8]

In the scene where Mike Powers punches his brother Tom, director Wellman privately took Donald Cook aside and, explaining his desire for authenticity in "Tom's" reaction, asked the actor to really hit Cagney. Cook played his part a bit too well, and he struck Cagney in the mouth with such force, he actually broke one of Cagney's teeth.[citation needed] Yet in spite of his genuine shock and pain, Cagney stayed in character and played out the rest of the scene. In another incident, live ammunition was used in a scene where Tom Powers ducks around the corner of a building to take cover from machine gun fire; the use of live ammunition was common practice at the time.[citation needed] The bullets struck the wall of the building at the position where Cagney's head had been just a moment prior.[9]

Grapefruit scene

File:Grapefruit-james cagney-mae clark21a.jpg
A controversial scene in which Tom (James Cagney) angrily smashes a half grapefruit into his girlfriend's face (Mae Clarke).

In a 1973 interview featured in the Turner Classic Movies documentary The Men Who Made The Movies: William Wellman, Wellman said he added the grapefruit "hitting" to the scene, because when he and his wife at the time would get into fights, she would never talk or give any expression. Since she always had a grapefruit for breakfast, he always wanted to put the grapefruit into her face just to get a reaction out of her, so she would show some emotion; he felt that this scene gave him the opportunity to rid himself of that temptation.[10][11]

Some, such as film critic Ben Mankiewicz, have asserted that Mae Clarke's surprised and seemingly somewhat angry reaction to the grapefruit was genuine, as she hadn't been told to expect the unscripted action.[12] However, in her autobiography, Clarke stated that Cagney had told her prior to that take what he planned to do. She said that her only genuine surprise came later, when she saw the grapefruit take of the scene appear in the final film, as it had been her understanding that they were shooting it only as a joke to amuse the crew.[13]

According to Cagney, Clarke's ex-husband had the grapefruit scene timed, and would buy a ticket just before that scene went onscreen, go enjoy the scene, leave, then come back during the next show just in time to see only that scene again.[14]

Prologue and epilogue

The film featured a prologue[5] "apprising the audience that the hoodlums and terrorists of the underworld must be exposed and the glamour ripped from them" and an epilogue "pointing the moral that civilization is on her knees and inquiring loudly as to what is to be done."[2] At the film's premiere in New York City, the film's prologue was preceded by a "brief stage tableau, with sinuous green lighting, which shows a puppet gangster shooting another puppet gangster in the back."[2]


The soundtrack included the following songs:[15]

The music was performed by the Vitaphone Orchestra, led by conductor David Mendoza.[1]


While exact box figures are not available, The Public Enemy earned nearly seven times its production costs ($151,000),[16] making it the 9th highest grossing film of 1931.

On Rotten Tomatoes, all 26 of the critics reviewing the film gave it a "Fresh" rating.[17] Andre Sennwald, who reviewed the film for The New York Times upon its April 1931 release, called it "just another gangster film at the Strand, weaker than most in its story, stronger than most in its acting, and, like most, maintaining a certain level of interest through the last burst of machine-gun fire"; Woods and Cagney give "remarkably lifelike portraits of young hoodlums" and "Beryl Mercer as Tom's mother, Robert Emmett O'Connor as a gang chief, and Donald Cook as Tom's brother, do splendidly."[2] Time magazine called The Public Enemy "well-told" and noted "Unlike City Streets, this is not a Hugoesque fable of gangsters fighting among themselves, but a documentary drama of the bandit standing against society. It carries to its ultimate absurdity the fashion for romanticizing gangsters, for even in defeat the public enemy is endowed with grandeur."[18] Variety called it "low-brow material given such workmanship as to make it high-brow" which attempts to "square everything [with] a foreword and postscript moralizing on the gangster as a menace to the public welfare."[5]

A theatre in Times Square ran The Public Enemy 24 hours a day during its initial release.[14]

At the 4th Academy Awards, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story, losing to The Dawn Patrol.

Subsequent recognition

In 1989, an animatronics version of a scene from The Public Enemy was incorporated into The Great Movie Ride at the Disney-MGM Studios theme park in Orlando, Florida.

In 1998, The Public Enemy was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In 2003 the character of Tom Powers was among the AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains, placing 42nd in the villain list. In 2008, the film appeared on one of the AFI's 10 Top 10 lists—the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres. The Public Enemy was listed as the eighth best in the gangster film genre.[19]


The film was re-released in 1941 after the Production Code was put into effect. Three scenes from the film were cut because of the Code. One is of a markedly effeminate tailor measuring Tom for a suit, another with Matt and Mamie "rolling around" in bed, and the third showing Tom being seduced when hiding out in a woman's apartment.[20] These three scenes were later restored for all DVD and Blu-ray releases, and on Turner Classic Movies.

The film was also re-released in 1954, with a written prologue added before the opening credits, advising that gangsters such as Tom Powers and Caesar "Rico" Bandello, the title character in Little Caesar (played by Edward G. Robinson), are a menace that the public must confront.[20]

See also


  1. ^ a b c "Credits: The Public Enemy". BFI Film & TV Database. Retrieved 2011-07-12. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Sennwald, Andre (April 24, 1931). "The Public Enemy". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-07-12. 
  3. ^ "Release: The Public Enemy". BFI Film & TV Database. Retrieved 2011-07-12. 
  4. ^ a b Dirks, Tim (2006). "The Public Enemy (1931)". The Greatest Films. Retrieved 2006-12-10. 
  5. ^ a b c "The Public Enemy (UK: Enemies of the Public)". Variety. 1931. Retrieved 2011-07-12. 
  6. ^ Erickson, Hal. "The Public Enemy (1931)", All Movie Guide
  7. ^ "Trivia for The Public Enemy (1931)". IMDb. Retrieved 2006-12-09. 
  8. ^ "Business Data for The Public Enemy (1931)". IMDb. Retrieved 2006-12-09. 
  9. ^ Watson, Teresa. (2008, September). "James Cagney - Star of the Month", The Midnight Palace website
  10. ^ "1978 interview with Wellman". Film Comment. Retrieved 2008-06-05. 
  11. ^ "The Men Who Made the Movies: William Wellman". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2008-06-05. 
  12. ^ Turner Classic Movies(October 17, 2010). The Public Enemy'"
  13. ^ Clarke, Mae. Featured Player: An Oral Autobiography of Mae Clake, Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1996
  14. ^ a b Cagney, James (2005). Cagney by Cagney. Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-52026-3. 
  15. ^ "IMDb: The Public Enemy (1931)". Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  16. ^ What's Cagney's Best Movie Ever? Classic Movie Chat. Retrieved April 15, 2013.
  17. ^ "The Public Enemy". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2006-12-10. 
  18. ^ "Cinema: The New Pictures". Time. May 4, 1931. Retrieved 2011-07-12. 
  19. ^ "AFI's 10 Top 10". American Film Institute. 2008-06-17. Retrieved 2008-06-18. 
  20. ^ a b Gallagher, John (February 2005). "The Warner Brothers Gangster Collection". Between Action and Cut. National Board of Review. Retrieved 2011-07-12. 

External links