The Public Enemy, by Albert W. Vogt III

When I came up with the idea for my doctoral dissertation, “‘The Costumed Catholic’: Catholics, Whiteness, and the Movies, 1928-1973,” my only thought was to combine my Faith with my love of film.  As is the case with many such endeavors, one does not always know the full extent of what they are getting into at the outset.  One aspect that I was clueless about was how the Catholic Church exercised a great deal of influence over film content in the middle of the twentieth century.  As cinema developed as an industry and grew in popularity, it soon became evident that the moving picture enjoyed a great deal of power in shaping culture and opinions.  The worry thus became how do we present stories that people want to see while also maintaining some semblance of morality.  Prominent Catholics in the nascent Hollywood had already been working on a solution to this potential quandary, and they turned to Jesuit priest Father Daniel Lord to compose a set of guidelines to regulate moviemaking.  These became the infamous Production Codes, and it took the release of 1931’s The Public Enemy to get the major production companies to agree to abide by them.

After fun opening credits for The Public Enemy featuring close-ups on all the main characters (I cannot think of another film that does this), the film gives you a disclaimer.  It tells you that what you are about to see is an honest depiction of crime intended not to glamorize such a life.  The film focuses on Tom Powers (James Cagney), and we see him grow up from a petty thief as a boy to a more hardened criminal as an adult.  This is much to the disappointment of his saintly mother (Beryl Mercer), and his hard-working older brother Mike (Donald Cook).  For the time being, Tom and his best friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) stay relatively small-time, working for the same local gang they had as boys run by Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell).  When they get a chance to steal some valuable furs from a warehouse, though, Putty Nose refuses to help them when the police unexpectedly disrupt their plans and one of their fellow thieves is shot and killed. They are then forced to take legitimate jobs for a while in order not to incur anymore suspicion.  Two events, though, bring drastic changes.  The first is the United States’ entrance into World War I, for which Mike volunteers and Tom stays behind to take care of their mother.  A few years later, Prohibition is instituted and alcohol sales are made illegal.  Sensing an opportunity, Tom and Matt decide to approach a local tavern owner Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O’Connor), who wants to get into the bootleg liquor trade.  He gives Tom and Matt their first assignment, which involves raiding a government warehouse full of barrels of spirits and filling an empty fuel tanker.  Their success brings them more money than they had ever seen, and Paddy the notice of a nearby brewer who perceives an avenue to continue his business.  Paddy also brings in a big-time gangster to partner with in Samuel “Nails” Nathan (Leslie Fenton), adding further muscle to the operation.  At first, the life of a bootlegger is easy for Tom and Matt.  They have fancy clothes, they drive expensive cars, and they can get any woman they want (and leave them just as easily as we see with Tom).  What begins to call into question this lifestyle is the return of Mike from the war.  Though wounded and in need of recuperation, he is still willing to stand up to what he thinks is Tom’s dirty money.  During a family dinner celebrating Mike’s return, with a giant beer barrel on the table between them all, Mike refuses to eat and angrily tosses the beer and Tom out of the house. Making matters worse is the death of Nails from a horse-riding accident, leaving Tom and Matt without the protection of a larger criminal organization.  Paddy instructs them to lay low in an apartment, but their enemies discover its location.  When Tom and Matt attempt to leave before Paddy tells them to do so, Matt is killed by a machine gun set up to ambush anyone leaving the place.  Seeking revenge, Tom steals a couple of pistols and travels to his rivals’ headquarters.  He calmly walks in and shoots many of them (though it takes place behind closed doors), but comes out of it severely wounded.  While lying in the hospital, Tom is visited by Ma and Mike, and Tom tells them that he is done with his life of crime.  His enemies, unfortunately, are not done with him.  As Ma is preparing for Tom to come home, they are visited by Paddy who tells them that Tom has been kidnapped.  He vows to do something about it, and gives up his racket for Tom’s return.  It would seem that he did not specify Tom’s condition for he is left dead at the Powers’ door, his corpse falling flat in the front hall when the door is opened.  The movie leaves us with solemn warning that something must be done to solve the “hoodlum” problem.

One aspect of the above description of The Public Enemy that I left out is how Tom treats women.  Early on in Tom and Matt’s success as bootleggers, they meet the all too eager Kitty (Mae Clarke) and Mamie (Joan Blondell) in a speakeasy.  Tom and Matt, as apparent regulars, are able to arrange for the dispatching of Kitty and Mamie’s passed out drunk dates, and easily take their place.  Soon after, they are all living together in adjoining apartments.  Tom, however, is clearly discontent with Kitty, though it is hard to tell why.  She seems plenty sweet to me, but I am a notoriously nice guy and not a hardened tough guy like Tom.  After Kitty prepares breakfast for Tom, he smashes a grapefruit in her face and storms out.  What looks to be hours later, he is already picking up another woman, and this time it is the oddly accented Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow).  Tom displays a little more patience with her as he sees her as less of a sycophant than Kitty, but remains unconcerned when she informs him towards the end of the movie that she is leaving.  Given his attitudes towards women and his criminal behavior, does this make Tom Powers the first anti-hero?  It almost makes the disclaimers at the beginning and end of the movie sensible, though strange to a modern audience.

If you have not been able to guess already, I used The Public Enemy in my dissertation.  It is not just because of the reaction it elicited that I described in the introduction, but also because of the people on which it focuses.  Tom Powers and Matt Doyle come from Irish Catholic backgrounds, and they are a people with a problematic history in this country.  In fact, three years before the release of this film, Al Smith ran, and lost, as the first avowed Catholic presidential candidate.  Part of the reason he did not win was because the country, at that time, was not ready for a Catholic president.  It was not too far removed from political cartoons in the nineteenth century suggesting that the millions of Catholic immigrants coming to this country every year were part of a Popish horde sent to take over the United States.  During the 1928 presidential campaign, the Ku Klux Klan, which was at the height of its reach and influence during the 1920s, put out propaganda showing Rome as a beast reaching its hairy arm across the Atlantic to snatch away the country.  With this in mind, people who watched The Public Enemy, reinforced by its “honesty,” must have felt that it was part and parcel with how Catholics behaved.  Sure, Mike and Ma are sympathetic characters, with Mike answering his country’s call.  For this reviewer, still, it is an echo of a Catholic stereotype that I find Hollywood still has yet to dispel.

Despite its problems, I would still recommend The Public Enemy.  It is a Hollywood classic, and there are important lessons.  Of course, I wish that the depictions of my fellow Catholics were not so stereotypical.  At the same time, Cagney gives a great performance, and it launched many other similar roles for him.  If you do decide to see it, just understand what you are watching.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s