Vintage Movies: “The Public Enemy”

MAGNET contributing editor Jud Cost is sharing some of the wealth of classic films he’s been lucky enough to see over the past 40 years. Trolling the backwaters of cinema, he has worked up a list of more than 100 titles—from the ’20s through the ’80s—that you may have missed. A new selection, all currently available on DVD, appears every week.

The Public Enemy (1931, 84 minutes)

James Cagney smashes a grapefruit into the unsuspecting face of his girlfriend Kitty (Mae Clarke), and it becomes one of the riveting images of the early talking-pictures era. But The Pubic Enemy has a lot more going for it than a brief episode of breakfast rage. Anyone searching for the headwaters confluence of organized crime and the American family, as portrayed in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy and, more recently, on HBO series The Sopranos, shouldn’t overlook this explosive 1931 film.

To the ironically innocent strains of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” Tommy Powers and Matt Doyle, both about 13, are drinking from a bucket full of beer in a Chicago alley. It’s 1909, and the boys have caught an earful from a girl who’s just discovered that her roller skates are stolen goods. “Your old man’s in jail for swiping pigeons,” Tommy tells her, defensively. “That’s where you’ll be one day, Tom Powers,” she answers. “I ain’t there yet, but if I do go, it won’t be for swiping pigeons,” he vows.

Six years later, Tom (a leering Cagney) and Matt (Edward Woods) are offering stolen pocket watches to Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell), the local fence. “I thought you might bring your brother Mike,” says the fence. “That sucker? He’s too busy going to school,” answers Tom. Putty Nose has a surprise for his two light-fingered proteges, about to graduate into the world of armed robbery. “It’s a Christmas present from Santa Claus with best wishes for a prosperous new year,” he says, handing each young man a loaded revolver. The two novices kill a cop in self-defense on their first job, a bungled fur heist.

It’s now 1920, and the constitutional prohibition of liquor is about to unwittingly kick off a golden age of criminal prosperity. Tom and Matt are working for racketeer Paddy Ryan (Robert O’Connor) as enforcers, hired to rough up uncooperative bar owners. Catching on fast, Tom slaps the face of a reluctant customer while telling him, “If you don’t take our beer, somebody will kick your teeth in, one at a time.”

Tom’s brother Mike (Donald Cook) has returned from the trenches of World War I with a bad case of shell-shock. He finds Tom flush with a new car, sharp clothes, loose women and money to burn. And he makes it clear he knows just where it’s coming from. “Your hands ain’t so clean,” Tom fires back at Mike during a welcome-home family dinner. “You killed and liked it! You didn’t get those medals by holding hands with the Germans.” Tom angrily orders his mother to send all his clothes to the Washington Arms Hotel and stomps out of the house. His next trip back home to his mother and his brother will turn out to be even more momentous.