Just Because It’s St. Patrick’s Day, Don’t Be a Public Enemy

James Cagney Channeled Irish Gangster Dean O’Banion for his breakthrough performance in The Public Enemy

It’s St. Patrick’s Day and Irish kids everywhere are scamming smooches and sporting something green. In city schools across America, Italian kids are wearing something orange, regardless of how stupid it looks, just to fuck with them.

As we saw in the fourth season of Boardwalk Empire, Frankie Yale ordered an arrangement from Dean O’Banion at his own flower shop just to fuck with the Irish. Dean got it, he was always in on the joke. O’Banion had a street rep as a funny guy. Irish mobsters were some of the most fun gangsters of the Roaring Twenties. Owney Madden set the pattern. James Cagney carved it forever in celluloid.  In The Public Enemy, Cagney based his Tommy Powers character on Chicago’s Dean O’Banion and Hymie Weiss. It was one of the most powerful on-screen breakthroughs in movie history and helped build the foundation of all gangster films.

The Dean O’Banion killing ignited a turf war between Chicago’s Irish and Italian mobs that ended on Valentine’s Day 1929. This was the stuff of legends and motion pictures. Warner Brothers became the gritty crime studio. They made the gangster pictures and usually couched them in social terms. Warner Brothers didn’t want people to go out and be gangsters, especially when they knew that those gangsters could come knocking on their doors. They didn’t know about horse heads and casting calls yet, but they had other tastes. The picture business survives on unions and gangsters and unions can get mighty cozy.

When The Public Enemy first came out, there was a theater showing it non-stop, 24/7 in Times Square. The Public Enemy was the 9th highest grossing film of 1931. The Public Enemy was nominated for a Best Story Oscar at the 4th Academy Awards. The Public Enemy was listed as the eighth best gangster picture. Tommy Powers is in AFI’s top 10 onscreen villains of all time.

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The Public Enemy was directed by William A. Wellman. The screenplay was written by Harvey F. Thew. It was based on a novel that never got published called Beer and Blood by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon, who were in Chicago during Dean O’Banion’s problems with Al Capone. It was shot in January and February 1931. Live ammunition was still being used in movie shoots. The scene where Tom Powers ducks around the corner, that wall gets hit by real machine gun fire. Cagney’s machine gun delivery was only possible because of new sound technology. Conductor David Mendoza led the Vitaphone Orchestra through “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” “Hesitation Blues,” “Toot Toot Tootsie (Goodbye),” “Maple Leaf Rag,” “Brighten the Corner Where You Are,” “Smiles” and “I Surrender Dear.”

The Public Enemy, Scarface, and Little Caesar set the code before The Code for mob movies. Paul Muni was a more fun gangster in Angel on My Shoulder than in Scarface. He was too mannered, he was acting too much. George Raft comes off like a Stanislavski grad actor compared to Muni. Edward G. Robinson’s Rico was the only actor who looked remotely natural in Little Caesar. Sure he was hamming it up, but compared to the other actors on that screen, Robinson’s sneer comes from real concrete, not Yiddish Theater. James Cagney, who also spoke Yiddish from when he was a kid growing up in the east 80s, threw his whole dancer trained body into it. Cagney shot from bit-part player to major Hollywood star with this one film.

When I say Cagney explodes in this movie, I mean he burns up the screen. Just look at him next to the other actors. They could be made of wood and they’re actually not wooden actors at all. These guys have heart and humor. Even in black and white Cagney’s tousled red hair torches everything around him like the sulfur on a match.  This is also true of Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar, but it’s not same energy. In Robinson, it’s a cruelty that he would hone to perfection in Sea Wolf. But Cagney, who gave a show stopping second banana role with Robinson in Smart Money, is on fire. He’ll take that to its ultimate conclusion in the other mama’s boy gangster pic White Heat, where he’s a true sociopath on top of the world.

In The Public Enemy it looks like there’s nothing Cagney can’t do. Just like the real Earl “Hymie” Weiss, Cagney dodges Tommy Gun fire. He rises to the top of Chicago’s streets. Cagney’s Tommy Powers, who maintains that women are a waste of time, goes through three of the dishiest dolls of the period. He’s so sexy and virile the tailors have a stone blast with his inseam, where he needs more room. Cagney gets to manhandle, mangle, machine-gun, maim and murder. James Cagney is not just an actor, he’s a force. He even gets to play a zombie in this picture.

Cagney wasn’t even supposed to play Tommy Powers. He was originally cast as Matt Doyle, the nice guy, but he burned through the screen all over Edward Woods. The producers switched the parts mid production, but they didn’t re-shoot the flashback scenes. That’s a major flaw in the picture, there’s not many, but when you’re going for full immersion, it’s a big one. It can be confusing to see, it kind of looks like they swapped bodies between 1909 and 1915. It’s a shame too because Frankie Darro, who plays the young Matt, made a career out of playing baby face Cagney.

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Darro’s parents were the Flying Johnsons, no it wasn’t a porn act, they were circus performers. Darro started acting when he was eight and played with Cagney in The Mayor of Hell, which would be later remade as Crime School starring Humphrey Bogart and the Dead End Kids. Darro would one day be part of the East Side Kids and the Bowery Boys, the Leo Gorcey-led spinoffs of the Dead End Kids. Frankie Darro was also the voice of Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet. There’s nothing wrong with Frank “Junior” Coghlan’s performance. He’s great. His “you want it up or down” taunt when his old man, played by Purnell Pratt,  is whacking his ass is a full on frontal assault. You can see that he’s adding up all those whacks in his head so he can unload them on someone else later. The shame is that we don’t get to see Darro play it. The way nature meant it to be.

Of course Tom’s father is a cop. Where else would he learn that swagger, that’s something you only get from sassing your old man, a policeman no less. Tom’s mother (Beryl Mercer) is the coddling type. She’s also the best enabler this side of Marge Simpson. Sure, her little boy is knocking off half the South Side, but look at the head on this beer. Ma Powers is long-suffering personified, but she used to dance as a young girl. Mike can only glower darkly and petulantly. Matt wipes him off the side of his mouth. Matt and Tommy are friendly sparring partners, but they are tight as thieves. Oh wait, they are thieves.

Tommy panics on his first big job, shooting at a bear in a fur shop. It gets the Larry the Limp killed and Tommy swears to get Putty Nose the first chance he gets for lamming on him. Check how Tommy and Matt sneak a peak into Larry’s casket, their first taste of someone their own age getting it. Their not too distant future laid out pretty.

Robert Emmett O’Connor is a blast of shamrock in a frosted glass. Paddy is the kind of gangster who would grow into an Owney Madden, you could just tell. “You gotta have friends,” he says. Better friends than that two timing Puddy Nose, those guys are dangerous. Tommy and Matt get to play Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, siphoning an intoxicating mix into a diesel drum. Paddy’s willing to give up the rackets for his boy Tommy, that’s a pal. Leslie Fenton as Nails Nathan is brilliant blarney personified. He’s got the greatest gangster grin. “Cash or his heart,” he says and Cagney promises both. Nails Nathan is loosely based on Samuel J. “Nails” Morton of the O’Banion mob, he was whacked by his horse in 1923. Louis “Two-Gun” Alterie and some of the other North Side gang offed a horse in Chicago after it kicked Nails in the head, killing him. Let that be a lesson to you. Glue doesn’t grow on trees, you know. Screwy horse.

The Public Enemy opens with the tacked-on Warner Bros warning not to be a gangster because hoodlums and terrorists of the underworld shouldn’t be glamorized. The film then cuts through the playbill and onto the streets of 1909, stock footage of horse-drawn carriages and Model As. Push carts and factories. It is broken up into 1917 and 1920 segments as Tommy and Matt rise through the ranks and get their buttons, six of them for Matt.  There was a lot of homoeroticism in gangster and horror movies in the early thirties. Rico throws around some loving looks in Little Caesar. The gay tailor marveling over Tommy’s inseam provides the delicate touch in Public Enemy, what a muscle. Him and his number crunching partner.

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When Mike Powers punches his brother before going off to war, he really connects. The director William Wellman told Donald Cook to do it without warning Cagney first. He wanted to get that look of surprise when knuckle hits chin. Donald Cook got into it, who knows, maybe he knew where his career was going next to Cagney’s and harbored more than sibling rivalry. Cook broke one of Cagney’s teeth, but Cagney finished out the scene.

Don’t be too hard on Tommy’s brother Mike, “He’s learning how to be poor.” He was always a sucker, going off to fight for strangers somewhere. There’s a little SNL-era Lorraine Newman in his performance and it irks the naturalistic Cagney. Look at the way Cagney gets all street on his brother when he mentions somebody opening their big yaps around town. The closeups on Cagney as he calls his brother a nickel snatcher. Every single word individually wrapped with its own special hatred. Every one getting a raised eyebrow or a sneer, but just for an instant and not a second of it looking forced, all natural. I don’t know why Tommy doesn’t knock Mike on his ass. You know he could do it. Cagney always had to fight people who towered over him. It was the only way you could believe he could be beat. Not that it wasn’t easy to find Goliaths to his rusty Davy, Cagney wasn’t a tall guy. You still didn’t want to fuck with him.

Who did want to fuck with him were Jean Harlow, Joan Blondell and Mae Clarke. These three women actors represent the twenties female on the town, the best cross-section of glamour in Tommy’s time. Blonde, brunette, slim or curvy, these are the dolls of the roaring twenties. Well, white roaring twenties anyway. Scarface was set in an Italian neighborhood where Ann Dvorak’s sultry dark looks held sway. And she could shake it too. The Public Enemy was made before the decency codes, so Tommy can get blasted and wake up gun-shy after sex and we can see Matt and Mamie about to get down in bed, I guess all that rolling around was thirties foreplay. Hey it works for me.

In Public Enemy, Tommy has more fun with blondes. There’s a reason Cagney busted an effervescent dance move after meeting Gwen Allen. Jean Harlow was Hollywood’s “Original Blond Bombshell.” The writers give her a lot to say and it looks like she’s having a hard time getting through it all until she gets to the line “The men I’ve known” and pauses, with this perfect upwards glance and says “and I’ve known dozens of them.” You can hear her clicking off how many in her head. And they’re all too nice, these dozens of polished men. It’s a great payoff and you just know Tommy held out long enough. He’s going to snatch the gold ring on that merry go round. Well, if it wasn’t for that fucking horse. You can feel Gwen’s exasperation at coitus interruptus.

Mr. and Mrs. Doyle, indeed. Joan Blondell and Cagney make up some of Warner Brothers earliest chemical X pairings. They had “It” together. Cagney should have danced with her at the speakeasy, the way nature intended. Instead he gets to whisper not-so-sweet nothings into Kitty’s (Mae Clarke) ear. Mae Clarke would later star with Cagney in Great Guy.

Most people know The Public Enemy for the famous grapefruit scene, Cagney wishing for that wishing well and squeezing Mae Clarke’s juice with relish. There are a lot of stories surrounding that scene. Rumors that James Cagney didn’t warn Mae Clark that he was going to do it, that the writer wrote it out as a kind of wish-fulfilling fantasy to curb his own, very real, citrusy urges, that it was just a joke for the cameramen. All half-true and none of them lies. William Wellman told TCM that he added the grapefruit to the scene because always wanted to do that to his wife just to get a reaction out of her. Cagney said that Clarke’s ex-husband used to show up to see the movie just for the grapefruit scene. He had it timed, he’d go in to the theater, watch her get it on the cheek and leave. Sometimes a few times a day. Cagney’s character was an amalgamation of Dean O’Banion and Earl “Hymie” Weiss. According to the papers of the day, Hymie smashed an omelet into his moll’s mush.

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The piano scene always creeped me out. Before I knew what a child molester was, that scene just struck me as something much darker than just some back pay for a bad deal. Maybe it was the way Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell) stuck his ass in Cagney’s face while he was shooting pool. And the way Cagney just accepts it, like he’s seen that ass before, maybe he’s a little too acquainted with that ass. There’s something not right about that, especially as it comes just two scenes after they show Tommy, getting his ass whooped by his old man. This goes past even Charles Dickens’s Fagin. You get the idea that it ain’t just the nose that’s made of putty and even Nails coulda told you there was no Jane in his apartment. He knew that Putty had an unnatural hold on Tommy. Cagney relishes that kill, grinning in encouragement, shooting in rhythm.

Watch out for midgets in phone booths. And watch out for Paddy Ryan’s girl. She’s on the make and it’s enough to send Tommy and Matt out to a firing squad. After a good slap that is. After Tommy sees Matt get gunned down, Cagney gives him this sad grin. He’s counting the bodies he needs to plug holes into. Stuck without a gun on account of he’s been holed up on Paddy’s orders, Cagney performs high comedy. Playing patsy to a gun store owner until he’s all locked and loaded and then robbing the place. No good drama works without comedy.

Cagney knows how to end a movie. Whether he goes out kicking and screaming in the electric chair, rolling down the steps of a church or dancing down the White House stairs, there are no endings like Cagney endings. When Cagney goes blazing straight on down the throat of the enemy he could be the young Cody Jarrett at the end of White Heat screaming “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” while his mother is forever blowing bubbles. First, it’s Tommy’s fault Matt gets killed. Then Cagney goes off on the gang that killed his best friend, he only grabs one gun and comes out riddled with so many bullets, from the sound of it, he’s Swiss cheese by the time he hits the gutter with  “I ain’t so tough.” Just when you think it can’t get worse for Tommy Powers, it rains.

You think it’s curtains for Cagney, but he’s in the hospital, bandaged up from head to toe. Although it never made sense to me why his head was bandaged, he didn’t have a head wound when he came out of the gang’s hangout. Whenever I see Malcom McDowell in the hospital scene in A Clockwork Orange, I think of Tommy, good-naturedly socking his mom on the jaw and telling her he’s gonna be all right. It’s sad but almost fun, like Alex eating his eggiweggs, smacking his lips and puckering up for the next bite. Unlike Alex’s tauntingly plaintive “very lonely place it is, sir, when I wake up in the middle of the night with my pain” routine, Tommy isn’t piling on the guilt. When Tommy tells Ma “you always liked Mike more than me,” he’s not being a bratty younger brother, he’s genuinely trying to take some of the pain out of his death. To Tommy, it is better that he dies than Mike. Cagney looks like he’s on the mend in more ways than just physically. He’s made a decision and even his brother Mike sees it. Everything’s going to be just swell in the Powers house.

Tommy’s even going to get out of the hospital early. This is going to be great. Beryl Mercer as Tom’s mother shows a wretched-soul-with-its-heart-ripped-out on leave. Fluff the pillows, get the room ready, Tommy’s coming home. Put on the music. Apartment buildings and record players, it’s the age old story. No matter what’s going down on the street, it’s happening to a happy soundtrack. You could be roller skating on a broken sidewalk past a guy getting shot and some kids up the block are going to be skipping rope to a transistor radio. Or a boombox. Or drowned out by your Beats headphones. Some things will never change. Regardless of the technology, there will be music on the streets.

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So, for St. Patrick’s Day, let’s “solve the problem of Tommy Powers.” Namely, that we need one.


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5 out of 5