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The Public Enemy

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Initial DVD release
January 25, 2005


United States


Crime, Drama

151,000 USD


The Public Enemy movie poster

Release date
April 23, 1931 (1931-04-23)

Based on
Beer and Bloodby John Bright andKubec Glasmon

(Tom Powers), (Gwen Allen), (Matt Doyle), (Mamie), (Mike Powers), (Nails Nathan)

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The public enemy 1931 movie review

The Public Enemy, released as Enemies of the Public in the United Kingdom, is a 1931 American all-talking pre-Code gangster film produced and distributed by Warner Bros. The film was directed by William A. Wellman and stars James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Donald Cook, and Joan Blondell. The film relates the story of a young man's rise in the criminal underworld in prohibition-era urban America. The supporting players include Beryl Mercer, Murray Kinnell, and Mae Clarke. The screenplay is based on a never-published novel by two former street thugs — Beer and Blood by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon — who had witnessed some of Al Capone's murderous gang rivalries in Chicago.


The Public Enemy movie scenes

James cagney takes a real punch from donald cook in the public enemy 1931


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As youngsters in 1900's Chicago, Tom Powers (James Cagney) and his lifelong friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) engage in petty theft, selling their loot to "Putty Nose" (Murray Kinnell). Putty Nose persuades them to join his gang on a fur warehouse robbery, assuring them he will take care of them if anything goes wrong. When Tom is startled by a stuffed bear, he shoots it, alerting the police, who kill gang member Larry Dalton. Chased by a cop, Tom and Matt have to gun him down. However, when they go to Putty Nose for help, they find he has left town.

The Public Enemy The Public Enemy Wikipedia

Tom's straightlaced older brother Mike (Donald Cook) tries, but fails, to talk Tom into giving up crime. Tom keeps his activities secret from his doting mother (Beryl Mercer). When America enters World War I in 1917, Mike enlists in the Marines.

The Public Enemy PreCode Essentials The Public Enemy 1931 The Hollywood Revue

In 1920, with Prohibition about to go into effect, Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O'Connor) recruits Tom and Matt as beer "salesmen" (enforcers) in his bootlegging business. He allies himself with noted gangster Samuel "Nails" Nathan (Leslie Fenton). As the bootlegging business becomes ever more lucrative, Tom and Matt flaunt their wealth.

The Public Enemy 1931 The Public Enemy Film 1930s The Red List

Mike finds out that his brother's money comes not from politics, as Tom claims, but from bootlegging, and declares that Tom's success is based on nothing more than "beer and blood" (the title of the book upon which the film is based). Tom retorts in disgust: "Your hands ain't so clean. You killed and liked it. You didn't get them medals for holding hands with them Germans."

The Public Enemy Public Enemy The

Tom and Matt acquire girlfriends, Kitty (an uncredited Mae Clarke) and Mamie (Joan Blondell) respectively. Tom eventually tires of Kitty; in a famous scene, when she complains once too often, he angrily pushes half a grapefruit into her face. He then drops her for Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow), a woman with a self-confessed weakness for bad men. At a restaurant on the night of Matt's wedding reception to Mamie, Tom and Matt recognize Putty Nose and follow him home. Begging for his life, Putty plays a song on the piano that he had entertained Tom and Matt with when they were kids. Tom shoots him in the back.

The Public Enemy The Public Enemy 1931 Review with James Cagney PreCodeCom

Tom gives his mother a large wad of money, but Mike rejects the gift. Tom tears up the banknotes and throws them in his brother's face. "Nails" Nathan dies in a horse riding accident, prompting Tom to find the horse and shoot it. A rival gang headed by "Schemer" Burns takes advantage of the disarray resulting from Nathan's death, precipitating a gang war.

Later, Matt is gunned down in public, with Tom narrowly escaping the same fate. Furious, Tom takes it upon himself to single-handedly settle scores with Burns and some of his men. Tom is seriously wounded in the shootout, and ends up in the hospital. When his mother, brother, and Matt's sister Molly come to see him, he reconciles with Mike and agrees to reform. However, Paddy warns Mike that Tom has been kidnapped by the Burns mob from the hospital. Later, his dead body is returned to the Powers home.


The screenplay which was written by Harvey F. Thew was based on a novel which was never published called Beer and Blood, by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon. Bright and Glasmon based their novel on actual people, having witnessed some of Al Capone's murderous gang rivalries in Chicago. Warner Bros. studio head Darryl F. Zanuck bought the rights to the novel and assigned director William A. Wellman to direct the film. Wellman, who had served in World War I like the brother of the main character, told Zanuck: "I'll bring you the toughest, most violent picture you ever did see".


Edward Woods was originally cast in the lead role of Tom Powers and James Cagney was cast as Tom's best friend Matt Doyle, until director Wellman decided Cagney would be more effective in the part and switched the two actors but never reshot the sequences with the characters as children, which is why the child playing Cagney's role looks like Woods while the one playing Woods' role looks like Cagney. Another reason for the switch is that the sound technology used in The Public Enemy was superior to that used in earlier films, making it no longer imperative to have an actor in the lead role who had impeccable enunciation.

Louise Brooks was the original choice for Gwen Allen, a woman with self-confessed weakness for bad men. She refused the role, which went to a much younger actress, Jean Harlow. Brooks' name was in studio records/casting call lists playing "Bess" in this movie, but she and her character did not appear. Brooks later explained herself to Wellman (who had directed her in Beggars of Life (1928)) by saying that she hated making pictures because she simply "hated Hollywood". In the opinion of Brooks's biographer Barry Paris, "turning down Public Enemy marked the real end of Louise Brooks's film career".

Tom's first girlfriend Kitty was played by Mae Clarke, who was uncredited. Kitty is eventually dropped off by Tom for Gwen after he pushes half a grapefruit into her face, the most famous scene in the movie. Joan Blondell played Mamie, Matt's girlfriend. She had already worked with Cagney in Sinners' Holiday (1930) and would work with him on two films which also came out this year: God's Gift in Women and Blonde Crazy. Other films that they worked together on were The Crowd Roars (1932), Footlight Parade (1933) and He Was Her Man (1934). Cagney once said that Blondell was the only woman he loved besides his wife. Donald Cook played Tom's brother, Mike.


Filming took place in January and February 1931, with a small budget of $151,000. During filming, Cagney also made Smart Money, co-starring Edward G. Robinson, who had finished his breakthrough film Little Caesar.

In the scene where Mike Powers punches his brother Tom, Wellman privately took Donald Cook aside and, explaining his desire for authenticity in Tom's reaction, asked the actor to really hit Cagney. Cook played his part a bit too well, and he struck Cagney in the mouth with such force, he actually broke one of Cagney's teeth. Yet in spite of his genuine shock and pain, Cagney stayed in character and played out the rest of the scene. In another incident, live ammunition was used in a scene where Tom Powers ducks around the corner of a building to take cover from machine gun fire; the use of live ammunition was common practice at the time. The bullets struck the wall of the building at the position where Cagney's head had been just a moment prior.

Grapefruit scene

In a 1973 interview featured in the Turner Classic Movies documentary The Men Who Made The Movies: William Wellman, Wellman said he added the grapefruit "hitting" to the scene, because when he and his wife at the time would get into fights, she would never talk or give any expression. Since she always had a grapefruit for breakfast, he always wanted to put the grapefruit into her face just to get a reaction out of her, so she would show some emotion; he felt that this scene gave him the opportunity to rid himself of that temptation.

Some, such as film critic Ben Mankiewicz, have asserted that Mae Clarke's surprised and seemingly somewhat angry reaction to the grapefruit was genuine, as she hadn't been told to expect the unscripted action. However, in her autobiography, Clarke stated that Cagney had told her prior to that take what he planned to do. She said that her only genuine surprise came later, when she saw the grapefruit take of the scene appear in the final film, as it had been her understanding that they were shooting it only as a joke to amuse the crew.

According to Cagney, Clarke's ex-husband had the grapefruit scene timed, and would buy a ticket just before that scene went onscreen, go enjoy the scene, leave, then come back during the next show just in time to see only that scene again. The grapefruit-to-the-face incident from The Public Enemy is parodied years later in the 1961 Cagney movie One, Two, Three when Cagney threatens Otto (Horst Buchholz) with a half grapefruit but then decides against doing so.

Prologue and epilogue

The film featured a prologue "apprising the audience that the hoodlums and terrorists of the underworld must be exposed and the glamour ripped from them" and an epilogue "pointing the moral that civilization is on her knees and inquiring loudly as to what is to be done." At the film's premiere in New York City, the film's prologue was preceded by a "brief stage tableau, with sinuous green lighting, which shows a puppet gangster shooting another puppet gangster in the back."


The soundtrack included the following songs:

  • "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles"
  • "Hesitation Blues"
  • "Toot Toot Tootsie (Goodbye)"
  • "Maple Leaf Rag"
  • "Brighten the Corner Where You Are"
  • "Smiles"
  • "I Surrender Dear"
  • The music was performed by the Vitaphone Orchestra, led by conductor David Mendoza.


    While exact box figures are not available, The Public Enemy earned nearly seven times its production costs ($151,000), making it the 9th highest-grossing film of 1931.

    On Rotten Tomatoes, the film received a 100% "Fresh" rating from 26 critics. Andre Sennwald, who reviewed the film for The New York Times upon its April 1931 release, called it "just another gangster film at the Strand, weaker than most in its story, stronger than most in its acting, and, like most, maintaining a certain level of interest through the last burst of machine-gun fire"; Woods and Cagney give "remarkably lifelike portraits of young hoodlums" and "Beryl Mercer as Tom's mother, Robert Emmett O'Connor as a gang chief, and Donald Cook as Tom's brother, do splendidly." Time magazine called The Public Enemy "well-told" and noted "Unlike City Streets, this is not a Hugoesque fable of gangsters fighting among themselves, but a documentary drama of the bandit standing against society. It carries to its ultimate absurdity the fashion for romanticizing gangsters, for even in defeat the public enemy is endowed with grandeur." Variety called it "low-brow material given such workmanship as to make it high-brow" which attempts to "square everything [with] a foreword and postscript moralizing on the gangster as a menace to the public welfare."

    A theatre in Times Square ran The Public Enemy 24 hours a day during its initial release. At the 4th Academy Awards, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story, losing to The Dawn Patrol.

    Subsequent recognition

    In 1989, an animatronics version of a scene from The Public Enemy was incorporated into The Great Movie Ride at the Disney-MGM Studios theme park in Orlando, Florida. In 1998, The Public Enemy was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In 2001, the Sopranos episode "Proshai, Livushka" references scenes from the film which cause title character Tony Soprano to become overwhelmed by feelings of grief following his mother's death. In 2003 the character of Tom Powers was among the AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains, placing 42nd in the villain list. In 2008, the film appeared on one of the AFI's 10 Top 10 lists—the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres. The Public Enemy was listed as the eighth best in the gangster film genre.


    The film was re-released in 1941 after the Production Code was put into effect. Three scenes from the film were cut because of the Code. One is of a markedly effeminate tailor measuring Tom for a suit, another with Matt and Mamie "rolling around" in bed, and the third showing Tom being seduced when hiding out in a woman's apartment. These three scenes were later restored for all DVD and Blu-ray releases, and on Turner Classic Movies.

    The film was also re-released in 1954, with a written prologue added before the opening credits, advising that gangsters such as Tom Powers and Caesar "Rico" Bandello, the title character in Little Caesar (played by Edward G. Robinson), are a menace that the public must confront.


    The Public Enemy Wikipedia
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