For some reason my mental impression of James Cagney before this was almost entirely from his turn in the film Yankee Doodle Dandy, where he bizarrely takes on the life of Broadway songster George M. Cohen. He gave it a good, energetic go, but his singing is….kind of….not. In The Public Enemy, he brings that same energy to what is to my mind a much better fit – that of Tom Powers, a young Chicago gangster.
He’s actually one of a pair, two childhood friends who went bad early. Tom and his buddy Ed live next door to each other, getting into the usual mischievous kid scrapes and dodging Tom’s father and goody-two-shoes older brother; but also earning pocket money by petty theft, selling their prizes to a Fagin-esque criminal named “Putty Nose” who runs a sort of Boys-Club-gone-bad; when he’s not making backroom deals with the kids, Putty Nose entertains them on the piano. Putty Nose enlists the pair into a breakin at a nearby furriers’ when they’re a bit older, but when the deal goes bad, Putty Nose flees, abandoning Tom and Ed to their fate, and for a few years they go legit, getting low-level jobs for extra cash. Good thing too – since Tom’s brother Mike has enlisted in the First World War, and he insists someone should take care of their mother.
But their jobs – truck drivers for a local brewer and distiller – catch the eye of bootlegger Paddy Ryan, who enlists them back into the mob. In a few short years, Tom and Ed are living large, spending most of their money on suits and cars and girls.
Tom does occasionally try to give dear old Mom some money now and then, but brother Mike – now home from war – won’t let Mom accept Tom’s “blood money”.
Eventually the pair are caught up in a mob war, when their boss “Nails” is killed in a horse riding accident, and other mob bosses rush in to take over. During a shootout, Tom is seriously wounded and taken to a hospital, where his brother, sister-in-law and mother rush to his side. Tom and Mike patch things up, with Tom proclaiming he’s seen the error of his ways and wants to reform. The family promises to help him get on his feet when he’s discharged. But after Tom’s family goes home, he has some further guests, with some less-helpful aims in mind….
In typing all that out, it does feel a little melodramatic and cheesy. But Cagney’s energy carries it along nicely, making the whole story crackle and zing. The story is a bit more realistic than Little Caesar – Tom and Ed do rise up high in the mob ranks, but at least it looks like they’ve earned their way up with actual bloodshed as opposed to simple bluster.
….I would be remiss in not at least acknowledging the film’s most famous scene, where Tom gets into a spat with one of his girlfriends as they eat breakfast; to silence her, Tom makes use of a grapefruit.
The scene was thrown in by director William Wellman, who was undergoing a little bit of a rough patch with his wife. At the time often fantasized about doing exactly the same thing during their own arguments, but always stopped himself; only to have the urge come up again. He was hoping that by putting it into the film, it would get the urge out of his system. Not only does it seem to have done so, in later years it proved a salve to the ex-husband of the actress involved, Mae Clarke; he and Clarke had divorced either just prior to or during filming, and when he saw the scene, he very carefully noted exactly what time the scene took place in the film. Then, whenever he needed cheering up, he would show up at a theater box office about five minutes before the scene happened, buy a ticket, enter the theater, watch only that scene, and then cheerfully leave.