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James Cagney



Warner Bros. & Vitaphone, 1931. Directed by William Wellman.  Camera:  Devereaux Jennings.  With James Cagney, Edward Woods, Jean Harlow, Joan Blondell, Donald Cook, Leslie Fenton, Beryl Mercer, Robert O'Connor, Murray Kinnell, Frankie Darro, Purnell Pratt, Robert E. Homans, Eddie Kane, Sam McDaniel, Mae Clarke, Rita Flynn, Ben Hendricks, Jr.


The deadly chatter of machine guns and the piercing screech of automobile tires on vehicles wildly careening around the corners of city streets were among the most iterative noises that blared from the screen in the years immediately following the introduction of sound. These were the characteristic noises that accompanied the wave of gangster films that came, like a swarm of hornets, with this new element.

Historically, there is a question whether the big rush of films about crime and the folkways of racketeers and gangsters, which was a major manifestation in the culture of American films, would have come―at least, in the volume and with the overwhelming impact that it did in the early 1930's―without the dimension of  sound.  It is obvious that the physical propulsion and shock effect of these films, good or bad, were due in large measure to the newness and amazement of having one's ears filled with noises of crime and the unaccustomed lingo of the tough guys, their lurid jargon and their punctuating snarls.

But of equal historical reason for this outbreak of gangster films was the simultaneous conjunction of two major social trends. The surge of organized crime that came in this country in the 1920's as a consequence of the Prohibition law and the inducement it gave to the expansion of illegal traffic in beer and liquor reached an explosive climax in 1929 with the St. Valentine's Day massacre in Chicago. This horrifying incident, in which a whole platoon of gangsters was lined up against a wall and shot by a firing squad of rivals, finally brought home to a torpid nation the immensity and ferocity of organized crime.

In that same year, the flimsy figment of financial prosperity and the illusions of endless luxury that went with it came tumbling down in the great Wall Street crash which prefaced the terrible Depression of the next few years. This shocking and soon too-painful notice that our vaunted security had been based on faulty economics and deceptive salesmanship disillusioned the public and left large segments of it prone to the cynicism and rebellion that whined and snarled in the gangster films.

Significantly, the movie-makers―and the novelists and playwrights, too―had been slow in discovering and deciphering the surge of organized crime. The first novels on this subject did not come until the mid-1920's. The first stage play to treat it realistically was Broadway in 1926. The first film to identify the Prohibition gangster was Josef von Sternberg's Underworld, turned out in 1927 from a scenario by a Chicago newspaperman, Ben Hecht.  It was followed the next year by such items as The Drag-Net, The Racket and Dressed to Kill, all silent and un-sensational as statements of a sweeping social plague.

But with the coming of sound and the prompting of mounting crime waves and massacres, the gangster film suddenly broke the barrier and became a dominant genre. Ten or twelve of them were turned out in 1929.  Scores came along in 1930 and 1931. The coupling of them with the headlines and with the awareness of such new kings of crime as Al Capone, John Dillinger and Owney Madden caused them to seem real exposés, vivid and true-to-life reflections of what was happening in the blazing underworld. The fact that they were mostly overstatements, blatant compendia of clichés picked from the journalists of gangland, was not sensed by the public at first.  They satisfied a morbid curiosity.  Also, they moved excitingly; the action scenes were usually shot with mobile silent cameras, and sound effects, were added later on.

The most important thing they did, however―the three or four great ones, that is―was give a fearful intimation of the nature of the gangster mind.  This notorious criminal individual, what sort of creature was he, with his brazen proclivity to private warfare, his willing exposure to mortal peril and his readiness to betray his partners, all in his passionate quest for power?  He was an awesome enigma, the modem-day badman of the West, but with a difference. He was a consequence of societal conditions. The public wanted to know about him.

The first classic revelation is that given by Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar, made by Mervin LeRoy for First National (Warner Brothers) in 1930.  It is a brilliant and chilling picture of a sardonic and sentimental Italian-American, modeled more or less on Capone, who goes after power with a vengeance and is betrayed and destroyed in the end.  Robinson's Ricco (Little Caesar) may be a fictional character, skillfully realized by the actor from a script by W.R. Burnett, but he is consistently concentrated and he is believable.

However, Ricco comes at us fully fledged and professionally skilled.  He is a postgraduate criminal when the picture begins.  Therefore, I find a better drama and, indeed, the most compelling gangster film to be The Public Enemy, made by William Wellman with James Cagney in the leading role and released by Warner Brothers six months later, in April 1931. This is the first one to offer speculation on how the gangster evolved, his social origination and his seduction into a life of crime and then into gangland complications by the opportunities that society itself held out, all with incisive graphic detail and illustration of corrosive character.

It follows the standard format of all the early gangster filmsthe initial insignificance of the hero, his strategic thrust for power, his brief enjoyment of underworld preeminence and then his sudden, ignominious rubbing out.  The devices for these steps may have varied, but the consequence was always the same.  In The Public Enemy, however, the inspection of the hero's life begins much earlier than usual.  It begins with his boyhood in a Chicago slum, child of a widowed Irish mother and pal of a swayable scamp with whom he fetches pails of beer for neighbors and shoplifts in big department stores.  In a 1909 urban environment, which Wellman pictorially describes as a welter of crowded streets, stockyards, beer wagons, corner saloons and Salvation Army Bible-thumpers, the youngster is already launched as a vandalistic mischief-maker and a committer of petty crime.

Now it is six years later, in the chronological phasing of the film, and our hero, Tom, and his pal are pool hall roughnecks, ready to move along under the tutelage of a small-time Fagin, a sleazy character named Putty Nose (whose pastime is playing "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" on the tinny piano in the back room), to the intermediate step of a fur robbery and an initial ugly tangle with the police.  Now the role is taken by Cagney, a small, wiry, impudent youth (or apparent youth, at this stage), and the character begins to take form. Tom is a hard, brazen, cheeky little ruffian, schooled for a criminal career and contemptuous of the patriotism of his older brother, who is prepared to go off to the First World War.

Wellman indicates clearly that his delinquent gets caught in the pull of big-time crime because he and his pal are available to do jobs for the barons of booze who are bootlegging illegal liquor to the good citizens crying for it.  A shot of crowds of bottle-smuggling home goers on 1920 New Year's Eve makes the point that Prohibition made lawbreakers of the citizens and stimulated the traffic the professional criminals battled to control.  Tom's introduction to it is through a caper whereby he and his pal, Matt, are assigned to steal booze from a warehouse by siphoning it out of vats into a gasoline truck and making off with their haul in a hail of gunfire.  After this, Tom is on the move. He abandons the cheap cap of his boyhood. He gets outfitted in tailor-made clothes, with snap-brim hat and camel's hair coat. He is a slick, sporty, on-the-way-up punk.

Thus our underprivileged slum boy, who might have gone on to a bleak career of common crime if it hadn't been for Prohibition, is now involved in this new nefarious trade, which is practiced openly and boldly, with the paid-off connivance of the police, and is given such social encouragement that Tom can boast of his connections to his family.  The fact that his brother scorns him when he returns wounded from the war is only further indication that his brother is a sap.

The requirement of this new brand of criminal is that he conform to the mores of the mob, that he take orders―kill, if he is told to, or put himself in the way of being killed.  The enemy is the rival outfit, which is more assertive and formidable than the police.  The maintenance of equilibrium is according to tacit rituals and codes.  But such is the nature of the "business" and such are its possible rewards that it aggravates ambition, stimulates a hunger for power.  The meanest qualities of the individual are brought out by the competitive atmosphere.  Moves to upset the equilibrium result from changing attitudes. It is change in the individual that is the foremost fascination in the gangster film. And it is this manifestation of evolution that Cagney does so well.

His tough little guy, who stands so boldly with his feet spread, his head drawn back, his arms by his sides and extended outward with the fingers half clenched in fists, is an image of fierce determination and tightly controlled energy, and his quick, gravelly way of speaking conveys impertinence, impatience and brusque command.  You see in him from the beginning a piece of human machinery that seems geared for no other action than that of propelling itself, rapidly, smoothly, quietly and satisfactorily to itself alone.  He has the grace of a prizefighter or a dancer. This isn't surprising; Cagney was both before he came into motion pictures in 1929.


But what he slips into the role so slyly and with such chilling effectiveness is a sense of the change of the gangster into a species of fiend.  This is best illustrated in the film's most original scene, which is now one of the most famous and most often cited in gangster films.  It is that in which Tom and his first mistress, acquired as a status symbol of his rise, are having breakfast in their cluttered apartment.  He looks cheap and dime store tacky in his rumpled silk pajamas; she looks dull in her dressing gown.  The atmosphere reeks of Tom's boredom and restlessness.  In an attempt at refined conversation, the mistress, played by Mae Clarke, asks him what he would wish.  He looks at her coldly, and, with a mean smirk, he snarls, "I wish you was a wishing well; then I could tie a bucket to you and sink you!"  She whimpers foolishly, "Maybe you've found somebody you like better."  For a moment, he doesn't move.  Then he calmly picks up the half of grapefruit from his plate and, with a sudden, vicious forward thrust, as though throwing a punch, shoves it squarely and forcibly into her face.

This was and remains one of the cruelest, most startling acts ever committed in a film―not because it is especially painful (except to the woman's smidge of pride), but because it shows such a hideous debasement of regard for another human being.  This simple act swiftly changes the audience's feeling for Tom, erases the expectation that he may by some miracle be redeemed.  From here on, we know he is committed to power and violence, to his own private route of self-advancement and self-indulgence, which does not even have room for his pal, Matt.  He is a vicious little monster, still fascinating to watch, but as erratic, unreliable and dangerous as a fer-de-lance.

We watch him go out now and make contact with a dazzling, slippery blonde, played voluptuously by young Jean Harlow, and we are engrossed and amused by the fulfilled prospect of fireworks and treachery here.  We watch him move in on the layout of his fallible confederates in crime and ruthlessly, icily bump off his old boyhood preceptor, Putty Nose.  This is a fine scene, incidentally, with the camera cutting away from the victim and panning around the room as Tom shoots Putty Nose at the piano; there is a jangled termination of the old "Blowing Bubbles" song; we hear the thump of the body as it hits the floor, and then the camera comes full on Tom's face as he says casually to Matt, who is with him, "Guess I'll call up Gwen.  She may be home now."

We laugh at the utter bizarreness of Tom, in a riding costume, going to the stable in the suburbs where the horse that threw and killed his big shot friend, Nails Nathan, is kept, at the outraged swagger with which he breezes into the barn, and then at a shot from the inside, which tells us that this ruthless little brute has actually taken gangland vengeance on a horse!  There is grotesque humor in this action, but there is a sobering irony, too, for it tersely says that this hardened gangster knows no difference between people and animals.  Furthermore, he has no compunction about shooting whatever he doesn't like.

Such is the concept of this strange breed that Wellman and Cagney present.  The gangster, in his soaring egotism, becomes a frenzied anarchist.  This creature, whom the public has fostered, is inevitably the public's enemy.

His elimination is standard.  First his sidekick, Matt, is mowed down in a running gun battle with rivals.  Tom abandons Matt to his fate.  Then he himself is riddled in a fated fusillade.  As he staggers away from this encounter, bloody and soaked by rain, he mumbles his first acknowledgment of vincibility:  "I ain't so tough."

But Wellman and the authors have concocted a final retributive twist.  They have planned it so that Tom is only wounded in that penultimate clash.  He is taken to the hospital, where he and his brother are mawkishly reconciled, and arrangements are made for him to come home to mother to recuperate.  To welcome him home, the family gathers; and, when there comes the knock at the door, the brother throws it open.  There, standing in the hall, is the stiff form of Tom, swathed in bandages like a mummy out of a tomb.  For a moment, it appears the living person.  Then, as it starts to fall face forward into the camera, we sickeningly see it is a corpse and realize that Tom's gangland enemies have taken grisly vengeance on him.

This coldly conclusive image of the fate of the gangster was enough―or should have been enough―to carry the message that that sort of life did not pay.  But it was questionable whether all the people who saw this film in the bleak years after its release―the out-of-work men sitting forlornly in the theaters that were their havens in Depression times, the youngsters who were fearful of the future―were revolted by it.  Did they not feel with the gangster their own resentments against society? Did they not envy him his affluence and vicariously enjoy his burst of power?

Many people worried about this, and, in 1931, there came a wave of public outcry against the showing of gangster films.  Pressure reached such intensity that the motion picture industry was compelled to take steps to restrict the output. This contributed to the adoption of a Production Code.  At the same time, an excess of crime pictures created audience apathy.  The public soon shoved a grapefruit into the faces of the public enemies.

The Great Films by Bosley Crowther
G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1967


Additional detailed information about this film is available from
the AFI Catalog of Feature Films at
AFI.com, or by clicking here.


Additional photos courtesy of Gary, Frances, and Joe