The Public Enemy (1931) dir. William A. Wellman
Starring: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke, Leslie Fenton, Donald Cook, Robert O'Connor and Murray Kinnell
By Greg Klymkiw
"I'm forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air.
They fly so high,
Nearly reach the sky,
Then like my dreams,
They fade and die.
Fortune's always hiding,
I've looked everywhere,
I'm forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air."
Not once in William A. Wellman's seminal Warner Bros. gangster picture The Public Enemy do we hear a single lyric sung from I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles, the famous Tin Pan Alley waltz, but we do hear the melody played as a main theme over the haunting opening titles and at other key points. And even without the lyrics, the euphonic melancholia of John Kellette's 1918 show tune takes us back, just as it would have for audiences upon the film's original release in 1931, to a time when men were men; romantically living and dying by a gun, when blondes were platinum, when Mother was sacred, when a halved breakfast grapefruit was ground into the face of a lover merely expressing her wishes and dreams - when the bootlegged booze that flowed so freely during the Prohibition period was tainted by the streams of blood from those who were brutally killed in the wars to control the illegal circulation of the devil's brew.
With a flourish that typified the best work of "The Vitaphone Orchestra", Warner Brothers' in-house music unit, staccato blasts of horns and percussion blare, clarion-call-like within the first few bars of the aforementioned song, playing over the titles on top of a bare, grey wall of bricks. Announcing a headlong plunge into a world of violence right from the opening frames of the film, the title sequence gradually switches gears when the music morphs from malevolence to a nostalgic sadness of days gone by and we're treated to a series of singles on every principal character in the film (accompanied by the name of the actor and the role they play). Each character/actor appears standing, often performing a distinctive gesture that occurs in the film and/or that best represents who the character is.
Action is everything in movies and for characters (and the actors who play them and the audiences who view them), actions indeed speak louder than words.
First to appear is principal character Tom Powers, the star-making role played by James Cagney. We get the sense that what we're seeing is Cagney as Cagney as Tom, without even a hint at the seething, psychotic we eventually come to know. Standing on a 45-degree angle, Cagney/Powers is all charm and smiles - adorned casually in a cap, black undershirt and unbuttoned grey and white smock-like garment with black stripes, he winks, wiggles his eyebrows and delivers what becomes a trademark play punch that he bestows upon those he loves as the film progresses.
Platinum blonde bombshell Jean Harlow appears as Tom's favoured moll Gwen Allen, garbed in virginal white with sexy 30s raccoon-eye makeup as she smiles pleasantly and also delivers a wink, but not as brashly as Cagney - it's subtle and ever-so come-hither.
Edward Woods as Tom's slightly dim-witted, but loyal best friend and chief partner in crime Matt, is poker-faced, with only the hint of a smile before he takes his big hand and wipes his mouth broadly.
The stunning Joan Blondell as Matt's girl Mamie, is all smiles and glitter - exuding the same warmth she displays throughout the picture.
Donald Cook as Tom's upright, honest war-hero brother Mike is completely in character - rigid and serious, adorned tightly and uncomfortably in his streetcar conductor's uniform. It's like a straight jacket.
The rest of the characters; Nails Nathan (Leslie Fenton) the dapper mobster smiles and chews his gum, Ma Powers (Beryl Mercer) smiles radiantly as only a Mom can, Paddy Ryan (Robert O'Connor), bartender-turned-hood puffs his cigar pleasurably, while the Fagin-like Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell) chalks his pool cue with confidence.
These haunting introductions introduce us - not only to the characters, but the stars who play them - like odd still-life portraits that come to life. They give us a hint of the personality playing the character as well as the personality of the character. It's simple and, after all these decades since the film was unleashed, still unique. Sure, there were similar introductions to characters in silent pictures before The Public Enemy and many afterwards, but this was the first of very few instances where an introduction placed equal emphasis on character and player in a knowing and borderline cerebral fashion.
And, of course, all of these introductions are presented with the melancholy of Kellete's music. And those who would have been (or are) familiar with the lyrics - especially the chorus quoted above would have known they were about to witness a tale of those who reach for the heavens, only to have them snuffed out when the pretty bubbles of dreamland burst and all that's left is grim reality.
Like Warner Brothers' other 1931 gangster hit Little Caesar, The Public Enemy delivers a fast-paced rise and fall tale of a gangster. The difference, is that the former centres on a character who is right off his nut from the beginning and only gets meaner and crazier, while the former charts a character who is mildly irascible and becomes nastier and crazier as the thirst for power eventually leads to a taste of it and both gluttony and evil become comfy bedfellows.
While both pictures are great, the critical reputation of Little Caesar seemed to be overshadowed by that of The Public Enemy. Though both films were regarded highly as the true launching pads for stars Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney respectively, it was the latter film that garnered much of the hoopla, whilst the former was regarded almost solely for Robinson's performance.
This, of course, was nonsense.
Stylistically, the films are night and day. Though they both deliver similar rise and fall trajectories, Mervyn LeRoy's approach to Little Caesar is brilliantly, insanely relentless while Wellman takes the slow-burn approach with The Public Enemy. If one is to make any sort of contemporary comparison, Brian DePalma's crazed version of Scarface is to Little Caesar that Scorsese's brilliant, meticulous razzle dazzle of Goodfellas is to The Public Enemy. Ultimately, it's apples and oranges, save for one thing - all four pictures are iconic, separated respectively by 30 and 40 years.
Interestingly enough, we owe the gangster genre, not so much to the dabblings of Griffith and Von Sterberg within the silent era, but to the efforts of Darryl F. Zanuck, head of production at Warner Brothers during the late 20s to early 30s. Zanuck, like all GREAT producers was no paper-pusher. He was a filmmaker. His skill and knowledge in all areas of making movies was equalled only by that of David O. Selznick and Val Lewton. They were all visionaries of the highest order. Zanuck, in particular, almost single-handedly established Warners as a true force to be reckoned with and, as a studio, one that bears a style and legacy that continues to this day. (All of Scorsese's great crime pictures - Mean Streets, Goodfellas and The Departed - are Warner Brothers pictures.)
This was especially remarkable since Zanuck's tenure at Warner Brothers was less than ten years and for most of his career that followed, he carved out a special niche at 20th Century Fox. At Warners, however, he was the man responsible for bringing sound to motion pictures - insisting that The Jazz Singer be the first true "talkie".
As a producer, Zanuck was not just a great filmmaker, but a storyteller par excellence. Not surprisingly, Zanuck began as a literal storyteller - a screenwriter. Even during the silent period, while most others were crafting tales of a historical nature, Zanuck was interested in the world around him and fashioned screenplays about contemporary American life. This is, in general, a marked contrast from his interest in historical drama once he took over 20th Century Fox - though even at Fox, he, like the young man he was when he ran Warners, was always interested in social issues and figuring on how to work them into drama.
This interest in contemporary social issues led to the production of Little Caesar and The Public Enemy. With these two films, not only was a genre born, but the style and approach to story - one that Warners maintained, even after his departure - had his imprint all over it.
The Public Enemy is extraordinary in a number of ways, but if anything, its success lies in creating a story that is, at first, rooted in history and nostalgia and gradually shifts focus to a contemporary social issue gangster picture. The early part of the film establishes Tom's rivalry with his do-gooder goody-two-shoes brother Mike, his brutal abusive father (a cop, no less, and enough reason for his hatred of law and authority), his love for his kind, gentle mother and his need to protect and shower her with riches and his friendship with the simple, loyal tag-along Matt and finally, his need for father figures whom he finds in criminals like the Fagin-like Putty Nose and Paddy Ryan, the patriarchal Irish barman-turned-hood.
After charting these early years, the story becomes as contemporary as the world in which the film itself was released into. Tasting money and power, Tom becomes more brutal with each passing story beat. His attraction to women is also interesting. Unlike pal Matt or brother Mike, both of whom seek and find steady women, Tom is drawn to the company of whores, or rather, ex-whores who eventually drop their attachment to easy money in exchange for sex.
Still, when his whores want more, Tom turns into a nasty, rage-ridden magma head. The iconic grapefruit he shoves into Mae Clarke's face during the famous breakfast scene is the direct result of her having dreams and wishes of normalcy. Tom doesn't want normal. He wants more money, more power and more instant gratification. Tom is only truly happy when he gets in with Gwen, a tough, sexy streetwalker who makes it clear that although she loves him, she too has a desire for money and power (the only kind she can wield, the power of her pussy). Somehow, though not surprisingly, this makes Tom love Gwen even more.
Finally, loyalty means more to Tom than anything. When loyalty is betrayed, he becomes a vengeance-ridden psychopath and it's loyalty and the need for revenge that leads to his downfall (and one of the most grotesquely, grimly powerful endings in movie history).
There's no two ways about it. The Public Enemy is a corker! One brilliant set-piece after another delivers a tale hell-bent on destruction and it's either going to be everyone and everything in Tom Powers' path or Powers himself. Redemption is never in the cards. It's all about the here and now and getting more - taking whatever one can from the trough until one explodes.
There's something brilliantly and uniquely American about all this. One of the great set-pieces has Tom hosting an opulent dinner in his mother's home with a huge keg of beer in the middle of the table (like Little Caesar, we're smack in the middle of Prohibition). The food is plentiful, of the highest quality and prepared by Ma's own hands. Tom and his pal Matt fill themselves with food and beer voraciously while brother Mike picks at his food and glares at his gluttonous criminal sibling. This silent juxtaposition slow burns into an explosion of emotion. When Mike points to the beer and suggests it's tainted with the blood of those Tom has murdered, Tom responds with disgust that Mike is surely no matter than him - that he must have enjoyed killing just as much - that all those medals won in battle came from the blood of German soldiers.
This, of course, is one of the more brilliant aspects of the story - brothers who are rivals, who detest what each other represents - Tom is freedom attained through crime, Mike is the chains of incarceration afforded through being one of the working poor - and yet, they are "both part of the same hypocrisy" (to quote the line Michael Corleone utters to Senator Geary in Godfather II). Tom kills for his family in gang wars. Mike killed for his family in war. Both are products of America. Both are America.
Thematically, The Public Enemy (in addition to many of the Warners gangster pictures) is so ahead of its time. Stylistically, it's an original and most importantly, the model for every subsequent examination of crime in America to follow.
And like our fictional counterparts, we're all part of the same hypocrisy.
Or like the song says, we're all "forever blowing bubbles..." and ultimately, all of our dreams, "they fade and die".
"The Public Enemy" is available in a extras-packed and very reasonably priced new box set of four prohibition era gangster pictures from Warner Home Entertainment under the TCM Archives banner. The package is slender and the discs are flippers, but for movie lovers, it's one of the best deals around.