For over a decade in cinematic history, Americans watched gangsters on screen. In some films, gangsters were portrayed as vicious criminals, foreign to the everyday American and threatening traditional ways of life. However, in other productions, Americans could identify with the criminals projected on-screen. This is particularly true of The Public Enemy, a film that audiences connected with, as they shared the trials and tribulations plaguing the characters. Viewers related to the events that shaped this era of film, including the Great Depression and Prohibition. The audience understood the pressure of such environments, and attributed criminal behavior of gangsters to their surroundings, empathizing with the characters.
In The Public Enemy, a variety of factors facilitates this identification and empathy. The casting of James Cagney as Tom Powers, and his powerful and honest portrayal of the young gangster gave true legitimacy to the film and emotionally impacted viewers. Wellman’s decision to introduce the audience to Powers’ childhood also forged a stronger bond between actor and observer, and allowed the audience to understand the psychological factors behind Powers’ gravitation towards crime. Other factors, including continuity editing and outdoor light added to the natural feel of the film. Overall, these features, in collusion with one another, allowed the story of The Public Enemy to transcend the screen and truly connect with its audiences.
This 1931 film review heaps praise on The Public Enemy, specifically commending James Cagner and Edward Woods for strong performances in their respective roles. The review also discusses director William Wellman’s contribution to character development.
The review places a significant emphasis on Cagner’s performance, claiming that it is “magnificently acted” and “uncompromisingly realistic in his portrayal of the youthful killer.” The review also offers a character analysis of Cagner’s Powers, writing that although Powers is an unlikeable character, he “stands out in bold relief.” Essentially, the review declares the character of Tom Powers to be a success, and attributes it to a collusion of Cagner and Wellman’s talents. Wellman shaped a sharp, multi-dimensional gangster with his directing, allowing Cagner to bring Powers to life with his “magnetic” acting and interpretation.
The review also notes that Edward Woods was “admirably cast” in the secondary role of Matt Doyle, and praises the performances of the film’s other stars, including Leslie Fenton and Jean Harlow.
I feel that this review is particularly important because it offers an evaluation of how the film’s actors served their respective roles. In my annotation of Wellman’s biography, I note that Wellman encouraged James Cagner to take the lead role of Powers, instead of playing the more muted part of Matt Doyle. This review praises how well-suited Cagner’s acting style was for his part, in addition to how aptly Edward Woods portrayed Powers’ second hand man. As a result, this review essentially confirms that Wellman’s instinctual decision to re-cast the main roles was in the right.
And, because the review claims that the strong acting was so central to the film, it allows me to make the argument that Wellman’s interference with production decisions positively contributed to the overall success of the film. Wellman’s decision to change the roles created believable characters with more depth and substance, uniquely allowing American viewers to connect and empathize with the gangsters.
This book contains an article from a 1932 edition of the New York Times, entitled “Jails are Better than Subways.” The article discusses the arrest of fifty-four men in New York City. The men were charged with vagrancy, specifically for sleeping in a subway terminal near 45 West Forty-second street. However, the article adopts an interesting perspective, noting that the men’s run-in with the police was not unfortunate, but rather, a “stroke of luck.” Their time in jail guaranteed them shelter from the city’s biting cold, in addition to several free meals each day. However, according to the article, the men were determined by the police to be simply “down on their luck,” rather than professional vagrants. Consequently, all of the new arrests were released shortly thereafter, despite the protests of the new inmates.
This primary source will be very useful in proving the detrimental effects of the Depression environment. A central tenet of my arguments rests on the idea that Americans were pushed into a life of crime and gang-related activity because of economic and social ills. This article from the New York Times explains that in the midst of the Great Depression, crime becomes a reasonable means of surviving. The title itself, “Jails are Better than Subways,” unequivocally states that the underground world can, temporarily, replace normal civic life.
I will argue that The Public Enemy makes a similar case. By exposing the audience to the harsh childhood of Tom Powers and Matt Doyle, the film claims that society also bears responsibility for the lifestyles that the boys pursued. If it were not for vacuum of opportunity created by the Depression, Powers and Doyle may have chosen a different, more legitimate path. Americans who suffered from similar economic circumstances – and, by extension, a loss of hope and faith in the system – can understand how Powers and Doyle became embroiled in the world of gangs.
Call#: Van Pelt Library--4 East--Temporary Location Annenberg PN1998.A3 W467 1983
Thompson points out that Wellman did not shy away from making drastic changes to the screen play, which was inspired by the gangster novel Beer and Blood. For instance, Wellman “loved using children to introduce his characters” (111), and insisted that the opening scene portray moments from the gangsters’ childhood. In shooting those scenes, Wellman used a combination of early 20th century stock shots of Chicago and new footage, in order to create a credible visual scene.
Most notably, Thompson points out that in directing the film, Wellman drew inspiration from his personal life. This is particularly true for the film’s infamous “grapefruit scene,” in which Tom Powers smashes a grapefruit in the face of his girlfriend. According to Thompson, Wellman was in the midst of his unstable marriage to Marjorie Crawford. Thompson recounts how each morning, the couple ate a grapefruit breakfast together, and Wellman would imagine throwing the food at her. Wellman added the grapefruit scene to the film in order to vicariously live through Powers’ actions.
Furthermore, Thompson points out that initially, Cagney was not cast for the role of Tom Powers. He was originally granted the secondary role of Matt Doyle. However, Wellman, acting on instinct and at the urging of a number of writers, including production chief Darryl F. Zanuck, became a major advocate for making Cagney into the story’s protagonist.
This excerpt is particularly fundamental to my argument. Significantly, Wellman was responsible for putting Cagney into the role of Tom Powers. As noted in other annotations, Cagney is credited with adding an intensity to The Public Enemy that transcends the screen. Without this last minute switch, the role of the main gangster would be far less memorable.
Additionally, as Thompson notes, Wellman played a heavy hand in shaping the film, taking great care to add a sense of legitimacy and believability to the gangster drama. The ability of Americans to identify with Tom Powers can be largely attributed to Wellman’s efforts. His nuanced editing engendered the empathy that viewers felt for the film’s characters.
Call#: Van Pelt Library E806 .M43 1984
The chapter explains that Americans are generally fairly practical. That is, they will follow the rules of the marketplace so long as the marketplace is intact. However, once the framework of the economic system begins to disintegrate, Americans will operate outside of that system. This is particularly true for those who perceive that they will not be successful if stay within legal parameters.
McElvaine points out that there is a correlation between the Depression and the emergence of the gangster film. In many regards, the gangster was perceived to be a tragic hero, who recognized that success by legal means was no longer an option. He embraced a life of crime, because it afforded him the opportunity of success and to secure his own American dream. Americans who did stray into a life of crime envied the gangster; they were left to languish in poverty, while criminals were bold enough to challenge the economic collapse.
This chapter offers my thesis a necessary sociological and philosophical perspective on American morals. In many regards, films about gang life in America were often shrouded in controversy, as many Americans felt that they were eroding the country’s moral fiber. However, many Americans also felt a connection with the gangsters that they saw on the silver screen, as they too, in the midst of the Great Depression, placed a greater importance on wealth rather than values.
Additionally, as the article notes, Americans who did not feel as though they would succeed in the American marketplace were quick to abandon it. This very accurately explains the behavior of Tom Powers; Powers felt, contrary to his older, educated brother, that he could not make a decent living by operating within standard moral guidelines. As a result, his actions reflected a more unconventional path. Powers’ life of crime was a product of a failed economy, not of a failed person.
My thesis claims that deteriorating social and economic conditions led to Powers and Doyle’s decision to enter a life of crime. In applying this chapter to my paper, I will argue that the failure of the economic system – and accompanying change in morals – lessens the burden of responsibility for the boys. Their fate was in the hands of their environment. Consequently, audiences are able to identify with these characters, viewing them as victims to a certain extent. Viewers empathize with their troubles, and imagine that if circumstances had differed, the boys would have traveled a different path as well.
Call#: Van Pelt Library PN1995.9.G3 M34 2004
McCarthy attributes a large amount of the success of The Public Enemy to Cagney’s performance. He writes that Cagney played the protagonist Tom Powers in a real, utterly honest way, adding a ring of legitimacy to the gangster film. McCarthy notes that Cagney’s presentation of Powers was so powerful that it evoked a reaction from the pro-censorship contingency. Influential civic and religious groups rallied around Hollywood with renewed vigor, objecting to how actors such as Cagney glorified crime with their roles. Specifically, Will H. Hays, the “morals czar” (156) heading the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), took preventative steps to ensure that Hollywood crime films would not be based on the lives of real, existing criminals. Hays and others worried that Cagney’s life-like portrayal of gangsters would immortalize existing criminals and inspire young Americans to travel down a similar illicit path.
According to McCarthy, while Cagney may have unintentionally or indirectly inspired a censorship rampage, he also left an indelible impression on contemporary cinema. Cagney’s “distinctive tough-guy gangster” (165) truly shaped the role of the mobster criminal. McCarthy points out several examples of actors who followed in Cagney’s footsteps, including actor Richard Widmark’s performance in Kiss of Death, which was largely modeled on Cagney’s interpretation of Tom Powers.
McCarthy’s analysis of Cagney in The Public Enemy in addition to other roles of his in the gangster genre demonstrates the level of influence an actor can maintain in a film. This point is central to my argument. McCarthy notes how Cagney’s lifelike portrayal of Tom Powers brought a true sense of sincerity to the movie. Consequently, the relatable nature of The Public Enemy can be somewhat attributed to Cagney’s performance.
Cagney, by giving what was determined to be an honest presentation of the life of a gangster, gives the audience the opportunity to identify with the character of Tom Powers. American viewers are able to see the gangster as a dynamic, real man, rather than as a flat character on the screen. Cagney’s humanization of Powers is significant in garnering viewer empathy for a criminal.
In this article, Ronald W. Wilson offers a critique of Jonathan Munby’s piece “Public Enemies, Public Heroes: Screening the Gangster from Little Caesar to Touch of Evil.” He discusses Munby’s portrayal of the gangster as an American icon, reviewing the idea that the gangster emerged as a symbol representing America at a time when the nation was experiencing rapid urbanization.
According to Wilson, Munby argues that city dwellers were unaccustomed to the hasty changes taking place in their neighborhoods. A majority of urban citizens were familiar with a largely homogenous, Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, and were unsure about how to react to an influx of immigrants that differed from them vastly. The gangster came to represent a fusion of the various cultures that were pooling into America’s cities. Essentially, the cinematic gangster was a manifestation of all types of ‘otherness’ that Americans were not able to psychologically penetrate.
Wilson agrees with this claim to a large extent, but adds that the perception of the gangster changed with the advent of sound technology. He writes that the institution of sound made the gangster seem even more foreign, as audiences were able to hear characters such as Powers or Scarface speak with a pronouncedly different accent.
This article makes an interesting point, and would add another dimension to my analysis. Wilson makes a valid claim when he states that Anglo-Saxon, Protestant audiences viewed Italian or Irish gangsters as fairly foreign, and were unable to connect with those characters. However, as the article mentions, these homogenous audiences filled theaters in the early 1920s, when urbanization was in its initial stages.
In my paper, I will emphasize the timeline of urbanization, noting that when The Public Enemy was released in 1931, the cultural composition of audiences had changed. A significant portion of movie-goers were the products of immigration and urbanization, and many of them were from either Italy or Ireland. As a result, the gangster – who spoke with an accent and ate ‘ethnic’ dishes – was an accurate representation the backgrounds of audience members. Consequently, the processes of immigration and urbanization changed cultural make-up of audiences, allowing viewers to see themselves reflected on screen and identify more fully with the characters.
In his article, Christopher Shannon focuses on the transformation of the Irish-American gangster in Hollywood cinema. He uses James Cagney as a model, comparing his performances in Irish-American roles to those of his contemporaries.
Shannon observes that Cagney’s role of Tommy Powers differs significantly from other Irish-American gangsters. He compares Powers to Rico Bandello in Little Caesar and Tony Camonte in Scarface, and recognizes that while Powers’ character shares a similar temperament with his cinematic peers, he is far less stereotypical in terms of substance. Instead of focusing on materialistic individualism, Powers traverses the hierarchy of the underworld due to “loyalties forged in childhood” (52).
In fact, Shannon notes the emphasis that Wellman places on Powers’ childhood, commenting that it is fairly unusual. Wellman dedicates several opening scenes to portraying Powers’ neighborhood, offering the audience a comprehensive glimpse into Powers’ background. Wellman’s “extended photo essay on a city neighborhood” (52) paints a largely negative picture of the childhood. Significantly, the shots center on beer, saloons, and Salvation Army trucks.
These initial scenes bear much significance for the argument of my paper. They are brief looks into an environment that seems to be anything but nurturing for a child. The audience is able to understand the social and psychological reasons for Powers’ gravitation towards crime. He is a product of an unwholesome environment. Essentially, to the audience, Powers is perceived as a victim of circumstance. And, because viewers are able to explain Powers, understanding him on a psychological level, they empathize with him, and feel sorrow for his ultimate downfall.
Call#: Van Pelt Library PN1995.9.G3 M37 2002
Mason’s piece explains the visual style of The Public Enemy, in addition to the film’s representation of the Hollywood gangster. She analyzes the editing, production, and acting components of the movie, contrasting The Public Enemy to other well known films, particularly Little Caesar.
Mason emphasizes the striking and shocking nature of a number of scenes in the film. She specifically mentions the grapefruit scene, in which Cagney shoves a grapefruit into his girlfriend’s face after they begin to argue over drinking in the morning. The scene incited social and public controversy at the time of its release, but also remains “one of the best remembered scenes in gangster cinema” (17). Mason remarks that the film brims with other memorable scenes, including the final one, in which Powers’ body – bandaged tightly to a stiff board – topples over in his family’s entrance way.
Mason discusses the production of The Public Enemy, noting that its style is fairly “naturalistic” (16). This is largely due to the crisp editing that generates a strong connection between each scene. A significant portion of the film is also shot outdoors, allowing natural light to dominate each scene. The characters, bathed in this natural light, seem more approachable and normal than gangsters in other crime films, such as Little Caesar.
This piece is particularly central to my argument, because it enumerates the reasons why Americans related to the gangster protagonist in The Public Enemy more so than other films. As Mason notes, The Public Enemy is filled with striking, memorable scenes. The unforgettable nature of the scenes allows the moments to resonate with the audience. Viewers are emotionally and mentally impacted by the movie, and are consequently more able to connect and empathize with the characters. Additionally, Mason’s mention of the naturalistic production of the film – evident in the use of natural light and sense of continuity between scenes – further contributes to the audience’s ability to connect with characters and identify with those living in a world of crime.
This article, published in Prohibition in the United States, focuses on multiple failures of the Prohibition movement. It offers historical background that contextualizes the time period of The Public Enemy, explaining the rationale behind Prohibition, in addition to its connection to organized crime.
The article mentions that in the months immediately following Prohibition, alcohol consumption in the United States decreased. Yet, demand for beer and liquor soon skyrocketed, and people began clamoring for illegal sources of alcohol. The article explains that new criminal networks were quickly erected to satisfy this increasing demand. For instance, Chicago gangster Al Capone was one of many mob leaders who capitalized on this particular black market, ‘bootlegging’ alcohol to sell to the masses. The widespread activities of Capone’s gang would not have been financially viable without the group’s involvement in illicit alcohol sales. In general, Prohibition is credited with bringing previously marginalized gangs in touch with life in main stream America. As a result of Prohibition, various gangs in urban areas, particularly in cities such as Chicago or New York, rose to prominence, and their names entered the everyday vernacular.
This piece is an important reference for my paper. It offers an objective historical explanation as to why Prohibition allowed gang life in America to thrive. The Public Enemy acts as a microcosm of this change. When Tom Powers and Matt Doyle were children in the pre-Prohibition era, their crimes were petty and seemingly random. However, after Prohibition was passed, gangs took on a more central role in the film. Powers and Doyle were granted important roles in organized crime. Procuring illegal alcohol endowed gangs – and the boys – with a sense of purpose.
Essentially, Prohibition was a drastic social change that thrust Americans into a life of crime. This document, by exhibiting a direct correlation between Prohibition and an increase in crime, reveals changes in America’s social environment that bear responsibility for the boys’ decision to join a gang.
Call#: Van Pelt Library PN1995.9.G3 S65 2004
Jim Smith’s book offers analytical critiques of some of the most influential films that shaped the genre of gangster cinema. In his study of The Public Enemy, he points out the film’s unique focus on the social and economic ills surrounding American life in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Smith evaluates the psychological nature of Tom Powers, explaining that the audience is allowed to experience Powers’ childhood. He notes that viewers are able to meet Powers as a young boy, observe his familial relations and, in one scene, even catch a glimpse of an interaction with his largely absent father. Smith emphasizes the importance of this scene, claiming that the cruel beating of Powers by his policeman father is an indication of society’s fruitless attempts to force younger generations to conform.
He also comments that Powers’ introduction to the audience as a child is particularly important. The audience experiences the “formative” (33) incidents of Powers’ life. Those experiences are intended to have explanatory power, offering real rationale as to why Powers develops a somewhat hostile and rebellious temperament. Thus, The Public Enemy, according to Smith, is a film “genuinely attempting to examine the process whereby people are led into a life of crime” (33).
Notably, Smith reviews the importance of other childhood interactions, particularly the relationship between Powers and Putty Nose. According to Smith, Putty Nose guides a young Powers into a life of crime. This demonstrates that society bears some responsibility for Powers’ subsequent development into a gangster. As Smith notes, “for an individual to be responsible to his society, society must be responsible to the individual’ (34).
This piece would be particularly constructive to my paper, because it explains Tom Powers’ psychological and emotional background. The audience is able to identify with certain aspects of Powers’ childhood, and consequently, specific qualities of his character. A viewer can see him or herself reflected in Powers. Thus, significantly, Smith’s writing shows how the film’s depiction of Powers’ childhood humanizes him, depicting a gangster as an unfortunate product of his social and economic environment, rather than as a cold-hearted, removed, and unexplainable social phenomenon.