THE PUBLIC ENEMY, 1931
Cast: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, Donald Cook, Leslie Fenton, Beryl Mercer
Tom's bad way of life is constantly set up against his brother Mike's, who has a job during the day and goes to night school. Mike will enroll in the Marines to fight in WWI. He will come back and will constantly try to put Tom back on the right path.
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Hollywood sure found a goldmine with the popularity of gangster/mob films. They've been cashing in on the well-received genre for decades now. Martin Scorsese has had his fare share of success in the genre with hits such as Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). Of course Brian De Palma excels in this genre, directing such films as The Untouchables (1987), Carlito’s Way (1993), and Scarface (1983). But what about the early ones? What about the gangster flicks that inspired these later blockbusters? Oh, there are a number of them. Before the Production Code took effect in 1934, Hollywood took full advantage of the gangster film demand and gave people just what wanted they wanted to see (or not see, is more like it).
One of the most famous gangster films to slide in, pre-code, is William Wellman’s 1931 classic The Public Enemy. Though there were a few before it, this film really defined gangster films, providing a blue print for future mob films, and set the bar quite high, at that. It shot (no pun intended) James Cagney to ‘tough guy’ fame and proved through its box office success that there was a market for crime dramas.
Though life at ‘work’ is good for Tom, he still struggles to keep his family happy, including his mother and brother, who disapproves of Tom’s line of work. Frustrated with work and his family, he often takes out his anger on his girlfriend Gwen (Jean Harlow). His anger manifests into the famous grapefruit in the face scene. A mob war between Tom’s gang and a rival gang soon ensues. SPOLIER ALERT. In one of the most famous endings of a movie ever, Tom is shot down, crawling his way, in vain, to safety. Once dead, the rival gang wraps him up like a mummy and drops him off at his alarmed mother’s house.
Though the code was not yet in order, and the film did get away with much, the ending is still a reverberation of the fears of studio heads and executives. Many producers were still frightened at the back lash that would occur if this film was released with a happy ending. After all, what would that say about crime? That it was a good thing? As with other gangster films during this era, such as Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1933), directors were still forced to provide a morally decent film. Though these censorships were being pushed, William Wellman put a creative, to say the least, spin on the issue, providing one of the most memorable and disturbing images in cinematic history.
This film laid the groundwork for every gangster/mob film/television after it. As well as all of the films already mentioned, The Soprano’s borrowed many story ideas from it, including the gang war at the end of the series. However, it’s more in the vain of an homage rather than flat out stealing. Tony even watches The Public Enemy in one Soprano's episode. Showtime’s Brotherhood used the idea of brothers torn apart by crime. Like in The Public Enemy, there is a younger hoodlum brother that the older, more mature brother despises. This film was the godfather (pun intended) of all future mob genre film and television works.