Monday, April 18, 2011

Grapefruit is in Season

Film: The Public Enemy
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

There’s always been a fascination with the prurient. I was working in the video game industry when the advent of CD-ROM happened, and I remember the first trade show I went to at which DVDs were a part of the mix in computer software. There was a handful of games on CD at that show, and an entire hotel devoted to the porn industry, which had hundreds of titles available for viewing on a computer. The porn folks are always early adopters with new technology.

The same is also true of the shock merchants, and the early days of film are certainly rife with films intended not simply to entertain, but also to shock and scare the public. This is the era of the birth of the gangster film, and most of the conventions that are still with us today started in films like Littrle Caesar and especially today’s offering, The Public Enemy.

This film tells the story of Tom Powers (James Cagney), a small-time hood who becomes a captain of crime by virtue of his ruthlessness and complete lack of regard for safety and his life and the lives of others. Tom wants all of the trappings that go with the criminal lifestyle despite the intense disapproval from his brother, Mike (Donald Cook). He and his childhood friend Matt (Edward Woods) start off as petty thieves and slowly work their way up the ladder to some real serious crimes and the attendant serious money.

Things change during a botched robbery that results in both a dead thief and a dead cop, courtesy of Tom. Desperate for help, Tom and Matt head to their fence, Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell), who has skipped town. The two next fall in with Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O’Connor), a bootlegger and speakeasy owner who convinces the boys that they should work for him.

Life is good for Tom, but in the world of 1931, no one wanted to see crime pay, which means we’re going to have the same, long, precipitous drop from the heights that Tom reaches to as far down as he can possibly go. Without this moral lesson, it’s a good bet that the film wouldn’t have been made.

What’s noteworthy about this film is a one scene in particular as well as the career of its star. The Public Enemy made Cagney who he was, and in many ways created the legacy of roles that required him to act as a tough, Napoleonic thug. It’s hard to say if this film is the source for at least part of the classic Cagney impersonation, but I suspect it is.

The most famous moment in the film is the picture above—Cagney squashing half a grapefruit into the face of his moll. It’s a much quicker scene than you might expect, or at least that moment is. It comes and goes in a couple of seconds.

I honestly don’t have a lot to say about this film. It’s a classic for several reasons, but it’s also pretty standard. Young boys see crime as an answer to the lives that they want and pursue it, and learn very painfully and harshly that crime doesn’t pay. It is not a film that has aged very well, and that’s simply the truth of it.

Why to watch The Public Enemy: Cagney being Cagney.
Why not to watch: It moves fast and ends quickly.


  1. I'm still surprised at the film's brutal ending - crime sure doesn't pay!

  2. It's surprisingly lurid for 1931, isn't it?

  3. That's pre-code Hollywood for ya.

  4. Not too surprising to learn that films like this one were part of the reason for the Hays Code, no?

  5. Stupid / awesome Hays code :(... :)

    People go off about how the hays Code was censorship, but without it Hollywood would have been hobbled by states now allowing theitr work into any of their theaters... it was a necessary evil that saved the industry.

    1. Well, it was censorship, necessary or not. It was more draconian than it needed to be--plenty of the movies that were made would have likely been made in the same way.

      I'm not convinced it was a necessary step. Too many people are/were too aware of the necessity of getting into theaters that many directors would have self-edited and kept it in check.