The Jazz Singer (1927) marked the end of the silent era. Two film genres were quick to benefit from the advent of sound. The first was the musical, of course. The second genre, however, must have come as a bigger surprise to Hollywood producers.
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Gangster pictures soon became highly popular. Little Caesar (1930) was the first, starring Edward G. Robinson. Then came James Cagney as The Public Enemy, and George Raft in Scarface (1932). These three actors would repeatedly play mobsters in subsequent films.
No studio would more success with gangster pictures than Warner Brothers. With talent like Robinson, Cagney and later Humphrey Bogart under contract, they couldn't miss. (Bogart played mobsters in Dead End (1937) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), before Casablanca made him a romantic leading man.)
Little Caesar was certainly a good movie, but the supporting characters were mostly stereotypes. This weakness is also present in The Public Enemy, with the clueless, loving mother, and her honest, heroic son the most obvious. But many of the supporting roles had some depth, such as Fagin-like fence Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell), and cocky mob leader 'Nails' Nathan (Leslie Fenton). The cast is deeper as well, with future stars Joan Blondell and vampish Jean Harlow in early roles.
The Public Enemy is interesting in that the organized crime figures are ethnic Irish and not Italian. Tom Powers (Cagney) is bad from the start, with his only positive characteristic being his loyalty to his dear mother (Beryl Mercer) and sidekick pal (Edward Woods). Powers' older brother Mike (Donald Cook) rejects Tom and his criminal ways. Tom is an enforcer for bootlegger Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O'Connor), who has more to fear from a rival gang than he does from the police.
Other than his "Top of the World, Ma" stage exit from White Heat (1949), The Public Enemy has Cagney's most famous movie scene. During a spat with his moll Kitty (Mae Clarke), Cagney vehemently and impulsively shoves a grapefruit half into her face. Hollywood legend has it that this incident was not in the script, and Clarke's look of surprise was not acting!
Another legend is that Cagney broke a tooth during a staged fight scene with 'perfect son' Donald Cook. Instead of faking the punch, Cook had instead landed a roundhouse on Cagney's jaw.
Cagney began the film in the secondary role of Doyle, playing the sidekick to Tom Powers. Woods was to play the lead role as Powers. Director William Wellman soon recognized that Cagney made the better gangster, and fortuitously switched their roles.
The Public Enemy is the film that made James Cagney a star. Gifted at swaggering, tough guy roles, he was at the same time very appealing. This had the unwanted side effect of glamorizing crime lords, but it is doubtful that studio executives lost much sleep over this. As well they shouldn't have, as these films all have the moral that crime doesn't pay. (70/100)