STOP! Pull on the brakes. Halt there in your tracks my dear movie loving friend. This is a spoiler filled post for The Public Enemy. Well, it’s more of a WTF look back to what happened in the film I just watched. Please turnaround and return when you have seen it or if you really don’t care, then be warned the surprises will be mentioned and spoiled.
The Public Enemy is amazingly 90 years old! How amazing is that? What could possibly be WTF in a film that old you may ask? Well, it’s the pre-code era so lets go and have a little look shall we…
Tagline – A few scenes cannot do justice to the most powerful picture of the year…
- The Grapefruit
This is probably the most famous scene. Tom Powers (James Cagney) squishes a grapefruit straight into his girlfriend Kitty’s (Mae Clarke’s) kisser. Lots has been said about this infamous grapefruit scene but to me it’s his words before the citrus encounter that cut through with razor venom.
Sitting with Kitty in his pyjamas for breakfast he demands
“Ain’t you got a drink in the house?“
“Well, not before breakfast, dear!“. She replies getting Tom’s back up.
“I didn’t ask you for any lip. I asked you if you had a drink.“. Taken aback Kitty quietly says…
“I know Tom, but I, I wish that…” to which he cuts her with the harsh response of
“There you go with that wishin’ stuff again. I wish you was a wishing well. So that I could tie a bucket to ya and sink ya.!“
Reading into this scene there seems to be various theories to how it came about. One is that director William Wellman confessed in an interview that he and his wife would get into many fights around the breakfast table. Eyeing his wife’s daily grapefruit on the table he envisioned pushing it into her face to get a reaction. Probably, and rightfully so, realising that if he had, he would indeed be setting himself up for a quick divorce. So to avoid temptation he added it to the film.
I liked that explanation, however, there’s another. It is said that Mae Clarke stated in her autobiography that James Cagney had told her he was planning to do it prior to the scene. And that it was intended as an in joke to entertain the film crew. To her surprise it was kept in the film. Another fun thing I read was each time James Cagney was seen out dining at a restaurant he’d find grapefruits being sent to his table. Whether it be true or not it did make me laugh.
- The Bear
This scene made gasp with joy when it happened. It is also the moment that leads to the start of Tom Powers vicious killing streak. The two street punks and best friends Tom and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) get taken in by local thug and fence, Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell). At first doing small jobs of stealing for small change. Now they had become of age he gifts them both with hand guns. “A Christmas present from Santa Claus and best wishes for a prosperous new year” he says with sinister glee.
They are tasked with robbing the Northwestern Fur Trading Company. Nervous on their first big job they sneak around in the dark looking for the loot under torchlight. They find a selection of hanging furs. Pulling back the pelts, suddenly and unexpectedly reveals the silent death roar of a giant stuffed polar bear. Freaked out Matt, sensibly makes a run for it but Tom pulls his pistol and fires two rounds to the giant furry bear. You the audience get hit with the shock alongside the two boys as you have no idea it’s coming. The gun shots unfortunately bring unwanted attention and two deaths with soon follow.
- The Rape and The Slap
This could be a rare example of rape from female to male in early film. On the run and hiding for their lives, Tom and Matt find themselves holed up at their new gangster boss Paddy Ryan’s (Robert Emmett O’Connor) hideout. Tom doesn’t do hiding well and starts drinking heavily. Paddy’s wife, Jane Ryan (Mia Marvin) takes a shine to Tom helping fill his glass and flirting with him. Tom isn’t at all interested in causing unnecessarily drama between his boss and shrugs her off. Stumbling off to bed completely intoxicated. Jane follows and tops up his drink. “I thought you’d like a little nightcap, Tommy. You don’t need to feel ashamed in front of me, Tommy. Here, let me help you.“. “No! I don’t need any help.” As he starts to pass out she takes advantage of him in the dark as you hear him drunkenly say “Get away from me… You’re Paddy Ryan’s girl!“
The next morning Jane calls him down for breakfast…
Tom – “I ain’t hungry. Pour me some coffee, will you, and make it black.“
Jane – “You aren’t sorry are you?“
Tom – “Sorry? Sorry about what?“
Jane – “For last night.“
Tom – “What do you mean? For getting drunk?“
Jane – “Aren’t you the little play actor.”
Tom – “Wait a minute… Do you mean that… Why you…!“
This is where the slap comes in. It’s quite the shocker I tell you.
- The Horse
Tom Powers looks up to and befriends gangster Samuel “Nails” Nathan (Leslie Fenton). This partnership starts to make their bootlegging business much more profitable as the cash comes rolling in. Nails has a passion for horses but one unexpected day comes with the news that he is killed by his horse kicking out and hitting his head. This leads to Tom angrily turning up at the stables demanding to know where the horse is kept. When he does, all we hear is the gun shots.
Strangely this is actually said to be based on real events. Samuel “Nails” Nathan character is based on real life gangster Sam “Nails” Morton. He was 29 years old riding through Lincoln Park when he was thrown from the saddle and trampled to death. His grief-stricken gang members vowed vengeance on the horse. Taking the horse from it’s stables to the exact spot where Nails had died before blasting the poor animal to death.
- The Machine Gun Holes
This scene was more me going WTF and probably gets missed. As Tom and Matt make a dash from the house down the road they soon come up against a barrage of machine gun fire peppering the streets. As Tom dashes around a corner he turns around and pokes his head out. Instantly as he pulls is head back in the corner of the wall explodes with gun shot bullets creating a circle where his head was. You sit and think, how did they do that without the ease of CGI. Yep you guessed it, as soon as he pulls his head a machine gun marksmen lets loose with real bullets.
- The Shoot-Out
This is a fantastic scene that relied on the viewers own imagination. It’s a perfect way to portray the rage that engulfed Tom Powers with the loss of his best friend. With two pistols in his grasp he stands in the rain filled with blistering fury rushing through him. He waits for all the gangsters of the rival gang to enter the building. When they do he makes his move. We wait outside. The hidden carnage is not shown as we hear a blaze of gunshots. Soon after Tom appears. He then staggers and falls on the rain soaked pavement. He’s been hit, we don’t know his death tally. He doesn’t die… Yet!
- The End Scene
Wrapped up like an Egyptian Mummy, Tom is hospitalised but we gather he’s on the mend. His family obviously is distraught and his brother Mike Powers (Donald Cook) begins to muster up some kind of forgiveness for his younger sibling. They patiently wait for him to recover. However, Tom boss Paddy arrives with the unfortunate news that Tom has been kidnapped from the hospital. Time passes by as they await news. It comes, he will be released. I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles plays on the gramophone in the hall. The doorbells rings. Mike hesitantly opens the door. Tom is standing there. The scene is not right, his face is fixed, his body strange. Standing upright for a few seconds before his deathly solid body falls face first through the door way. It’s a shocker of a scene made even more powerful by the way they film Mike’s reaction as the camera is fixed on the floor on the other side of the room. We see a shocked, daze and confused Mike stumble towards it before the end scene plays out.
End Tagline – 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!
The Public Enemy is an exceptional film filled with shocks and violence. Cagney of course gives yet another standout performance but it’s all those little scenes and many more that set it apart. Like when he talks intimately to Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow) about their relationship and trying to get some action. “How long can a guy hold out, he’ll go screwy!“. There’s another scene featuring an older Putty Nose, who’d wrong done these two friends. He knows his time is up. Singing happy on the piano as Tom blasts him in the back to Matt’s shock. Other great moments include the rival gangster riding through town in their cars. With bombs in their hands they blast the store fronts off Tom’s gangs businesses. Also for comic relief there’s a stereotype gay tailor who camps his way through measuring up a suit for our anti-hero. However, the last one I will mention is the family dinner. Tom all geared up in fancy clothes and filled with money, his brother back from the war, shell shocked and disapproving. Stuck in the middle is their loving mother just wishing to be a happy family. Of course that will not come with built in rage and the flying of fists…
Tom Powers – “Hiding behind Ma’s skirts, like always.“
Mike Powers – “Better than hiding behind a machine gun.“