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.
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 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 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.