Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Public Enemy (1931)

The Public Enemy (1931) ★★★★★ 4/5

In 1934, The Hays Code went into effect in Hollywood. This code limited violence and profanity in films which made for a much lighter, romantic and music Hollywood. It was movies like The Public Enemy which helped bring the Hays code into effect. The Public Enemy was a gangster movie which followed the life of Tom Powers (James Cagney).

The movie starts with Powers getting into trouble as a boy with his friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods). The two get involved with stealing and petty theft. As time carries on, the crimes become more and more involved and they end up working for Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O'Connor). Powers works his way up and earns the respect of the men on the street. At the same time, he looses the respect of his brother Mike (Donald Cook). While Powers slips further into the underworld, his Mother (Beryl Mercer) fails to accept what his son has become. Eventually, Powers messes with the wrong guys, or in this case, the wrong guy's girl, and gets what's coming.

As far as plots, it's nothing we haven't seen before. Although, this was the movie, along with a few others from the pre-Hays era that inspired everything we have seen. For this alone it is worth seeing the film, and it is important to see it if you are a movie lover. Acting wise, it is well ahead of it's time. Topic wise, I was shocked by many scenes in the movie. While the content is mild by today's standard, in 1934 this movie was way ahead of it's time. There was murder, there was adultery, there was spousal abuse. One of the most famous scenes in the history of film is in The Public Enemy. That is the scene in which James Cagney physically assaults his on-screen girlfriend Mae Clarke by pushing a grapefruit into her face. It's a brilliant scene. It is both funny and saddening at the same time. While the act is funny, the abuse it reflects is not. Upon it's original release, this scene was banned in several cities. Many cities however chose to ban the entire movie. The scene involving the scandalous affair between Powers and the girlfriend of his rival came as a complete shocker. There is often flirting and what not in older movies, but in this film, she turns off the light, makes some innuendos and heads toward the bed. That's a rariety to see in any 30's film, let alone in a scene where the main characters involved are married. Murder and gun play are very predominant in this film. The final scene made my jaw drop and I couldn't believe how incredibly harsh the ending was.

It should also be noted that Jean Harlow appears in this film. He role is small, but she is a Goddess on the screen and makes for a perfect addition to this gritty classic about gang life in the 30's. The movie is one you do need to see. It is well done and enjoyable. It also paves the way for future gangster films.

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