Friday, February 12, 2010
Movie Time: Rewind: The Public Enemy
As promised this month it's time to spotlight a new actor in the column, the great James Cagney. Cagney worked for The Warner Brothers studio starting in the early 1930's usually playing a tough street kid who works his way up the criminal empire. Each studio had it's go to formula in the early days of Hollywood, Warners with gangster pictures, MGM with the musical, RKO and comedies, each studio tried to make a diverse range of pictures, but they also excelled in their specific category. The Warners Studio sold it's film to the working class American. While many studio's made films to take peoples minds off the Great Depression, Warner Bros. embraced the common man, flooding the market with pictures of gangsters and highlighting the criminal element, offering an escapism that people could relate to.
James Cagney himself grew up in Vaudeville and started out as a song and dance man, an image downplayed during his early years with the Warners studio. He had been working the theater circuit since 1919 and had acted in silent pictures in the mid 1920's. It was his run in the theater that had brought himself to the attention of the Warner Studio and ultimately got him his first contract, a three week deal that eventually ended up a 7 year commitment. Signed to a deal in 1930, Cagney worked in several pictures, often at breakneck speeds and often in films that played up to the tough guy image that studio head Jack Warner pushed on him. It was Cagney's seventh film with the studio that launched his career though, 1931's The Public Enemy directed by William Wellman, and co-starring the great Jean Harlow and Joan Blondell.
The Public Enemy starts out at the onset of the Prohibition, liquor and beer are outlawed and therein lies a huge opportunity for money to be made. Cagney plays Tom Powers, a young boy from humble beginnings who starts to work his way up the criminal ladder with his best friend, Matt Doyle (Edward Woods). they start out small, working for a local fence, stealing and shoplifting, but eventually work their way to more heinous crimes, including killing a police officer during a botched robbery attempt. Eventually they start working for a bootlegger named Paddy O'Brien (Robert Emmett O'Connor) and go from being apprentices to leading gangsters in the organization. Cagney sets himself apart from the rest of the pack by being tougher and more ruthless than his counterparts.
The duo enjoy the trappings of their lucrative lifestyles, wearing fancy suits, driving expensive cars, and dating beautiful women. This lifestyle doesn't sit well with Cagney's brother, played by Donald Cook, who is a shell shocked war veteran and wants their mother and family to have nothing to do with Cagney's blood money. Eventually though Cagney's greed and arrogance catch up to him, inciting a gang war that would cost him everything, and proving that crime doesn't pay.
There is so much about this movie that is iconic. At the time this film was made, it was using more state of the art recording equipment for sound and allowed for actors to really inflect tone and diction, giving the audience Cagney's machine gun-like speech patterns a whole new level of authenticity that movie goers hadn't yet seen on the silver screen. There is also the climatic ending, where Cagney "gets his". The scene sets the tone for not only Cagney's career, but for the genre itself for nearly the next two decades. It's brutal and honest and unflinching, just like Cagney. Perhaps the most important scene though is a sequence between Cagney and actress Mae Clark, in which during a fight Cagney loses his temper and shoves a grapefruit in her face. It really changed the way audiences looked at leading men in pictures from that point. No longer was the hero necessarily the guy in the white hat, it added shades of gray. The hero could be as flawed and hateful as the men he was fighting, bringing a new dimension to acting and creating the early anti-hero, an ache type that Cagney would never be quite able to shake in his career.
Cagney made several gangster movies during his first decade with the Warners, with the Public Enemy being his first starring vehicle. Films like Angels With Dirty Faces, Taxi!, The Roaring Twenties, and White Heat, leaving an indelible mark on cinema as our first tough guy. Cagney tried very hard to break out of those tough guy roles, making films such as Footlight Parade and Yankee Doodle Dandy, which highlighted his skills as a dancer. Sadly audiences craved the tough guy Cagney, never really allowing him to break free of the stereotype for too long.
Still, James Cagney remains to this day the poster child for the tough guy, playing the hard nosed criminal that is merciless and unforgiving, yet still finding that edge of pathos in even the most remorseless of killers that binds him to the audience in such a way as to root for him. The Public Enemy is Cagney's first really great film, the first in a career that would last nearly 50 years in show business. Take the time to check out Cagney's work, I know I was impressed. James Cagney in the Public Enemy, you won't be sorry you watched.
End of Line,