Sunday, November 15, 2015


(April 1931, U.S.)

I'm clearly in the midst of a Prohibition viewing kick here. Besides this film and Michael Mann's PUBLIC ENEMIES which preceded this post, I've also found myself engrossed in re-watching Ken Burns' PBS documentary of PROHIBITION, something I recommend highly to those interested in the subject. To discuss THE PUBLIC ENEMY or even it's similar accompanying feature LITTLE CAESAR (also 1931) is to go back to a time when Warner Brothers was highly eager to cash in on the controversial subject of gangsters and the violence associated with Prohibition period of American history, much like the Hollywood of today, which is never shy or reserved about cashing in on the public's fear of real life violence or terrorism. The difference all those decades ago was that while clearly attempting to release an entertaining motion picture that would generate high ticket sales, Warner Brothers was also careful so as not to seemingly glorify the gangster, in general. Following the opening credits to THE PUBLIC ENEMY, the picture offers the following Foreword to the audience in which they attempt to justify their position on the subject:

It is the ambition of the authors of "The Public Enemy" to honestly depict an environment that exists today in certain strata of American life, rather than glorify the hoodlum or the criminal. While the story of "The Public Enemy" is essentially a true story, all names and characters appearing herein, are purely fictional. - Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.

If nothing else, such a Foreword shows that those responsible for the film cared enough to try and make it clear that they were not attempting to make the gangster a hero. Still, all good intentions aside, colorful movie stars of the time like James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and a young Humphrey Bogart may have done just that, whether intentional or not. Despite the validity or the importance of certain subjects, even gangsters and violence, we still go to the movies for entertainment value and it's our favorite movie stars that will ultimately glorify any subject or character they're portraying. Even so, I give credit to the Warner Brothers of the past for trying.

THE PUBLIC ENEMY comes at a time that was not only the earliest years of the "talkie" but also during the time of the Pre-Code, when certain forms of violence and sexual reference were still deemed acceptable on screen. From the moment we meet young Tom Powers (played by James Cagney) and his lifelong friend Matt Doyle (played by Edward Woods), we know almost immediately that these two young thugs are destined for a life of crime. From the moment Prohibition goes into effect in 1920, they and every other criminal on the block seizes the opportunity to cash in on bootlegging and the violence that often accompanies it. Men's fortunes are now made with "beer and blood", as Tom's self-righteous brother puts it. Whether it's intentional or not by the film maker, the life of the gangster is glorified with money, cars, fancy clothes, fancy restaurants and the women at their side! Although the women of this film are meant to portray characters no stronger than a "here today, gone tomorrow" girlfriend and sex object, the film makes its points when it comes to the disrespect and abuse that these women often suffer at the hands of their gangster boyfriends. In what has become a rather famous moment in the film, Tom shows his girlfriend Kitty just how tired and fed up he's become with her by smashing a grapefruit in her face when she complains once too often...

Why is this scene so famous? For its time, one could interpret this moment in several ways. As a vile gangster, Tom may be looked upon as an inhuman monster, which at times, he is. The less politically correct person may view Kitty as just a worthless "dame" or "dish" who ought to keep her mouth shut and perhaps got what she deserved. The even less politically correct person with a slight fantasy of their own life on their mind may rejoice in such a moment, thinking they'd like to do something like that to their own better half but would never have the balls to actually do it! The answer only lies within one's conscience, not only of those who watched it on screen in 1931, but with those who may still enjoy it today.

If there is one constant is almost all gangster films, it's that in the end, the criminal will get his just dues and pay the price for his life of crime and violence, very often with their own death. This film is no exception and at the moment when we come to witness Tom Powers' dead body returned to his home by his enemies, the intended message is clear. The bad guys pay the price in the end and we're supposed to understand such a conclusion as not only the proper way for a criminal character to meet his fate, but also the way real life criminals of the time should be ultimately dealt with. For its time, actually, the image of Tom's body may be considered quite graphic and shocking...

It would seem that even in defeat, the gangster is, nonetheless, shown with a certain sense of grandeur and the ongoing paradox of just how much a motion picture should or should not attempt to glorify the criminal remains an issue. A motion picture studio can, perhaps, only do so much to make its position on crime and violence clear to the public. Even when THE PUBLIC ENEMY ends, Warner Brothers takes one final moment to make its position clear by displaying this visual epilogue to its audience...

The end of Tom Powers is the end of every hoodlum. "The Public Enemy" is not a man, nor is it a character--it is a problem that sooner or later, we, the public, must solve."

What remains following this final moment is artistic and visual content on the screen that is still entertaining and that will very likely work against our own feelings towards criminals and ultimately glorify them in the end, whether it's our intention or not. This is not only true of gangster films of an era long gone, but has continued throughout the decades with other great gangster films like THE GODFATHER (1972), the remake of SCARFACE (1983), GOODFELLAS (1990) and even television shows as HBO's THE SOPRANOS. Let's face it, people, we do love our gangsters and the world they create for themselves and for us as their viewers.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Tom Powers: "So beer ain't good enough for you, huh?"
Mike Powers: "Do you think I care if there was just beer in that keg? I know what's in it! I know what you've been doing all this time, how you got those clothes and those new cars! You've been telling Ma that you've gone into politics, that you're on the city payroll! Pat Burke told me everything! You murderers! There's not only beer in that jug! There's beer and blood - blood of men!"
Tom "You ain't changed a bit! Besides, your hands ain't so clean! You killed and liked it! You didn't get them medals for holding hands with them Germans!"

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