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 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.