The Public Enemy (1 of 4)

Well, I found it. I found a gangster “classic” I didn’t like. Allow me to introduce you to The Public Enemy a 1931 Warner Brother’s movie directed by William A. Wellman (who I will attempt to avoid from here on out). Staring James Cagney, Jean Harlow and Edward Woods it’s too bad none of these could help it.

The Public Enemy is a melodramatic, ham-handed and over-acted snore. Its plot is weak, its purpose completely void and there is no heart. The story is the typical “rough-childhood” experience turned a boy into a criminal (maybe that’s why they call this a classic? It may have started that terrible trend?). But without a moral (besides for the foreword from WB) and without any sympathetic characters the movie becomes laughable and boring.

Tom Powers is a bad boy, not the cool bad-boy attitude that we love our gangsters to have, but that twerpy kind that you just want to backhand constantly. The movie begins in 1909, pre-teen years of Tom, he steals some pocket watches and gets them to his “boss” Putty Nose (What the what kind of name is that anyway?), Putty Nose hires him as a full-time little crook. Cut to 1915 (Yes, exactly 1915. I know because of the big bold numbers flashed across the entire screen this is the most effective way of showing time has passed). Tom Powers is in his late teens (6 years later) but he looks twenty-five. Putty calls in a favor that will make Tom and buddy Matt “big timers!” Oo boy. How exciting. He gives them guns, they blow the job and are forced into hiding.


Years later they work for another guy, Paddy Ryan (who is naming these guys!?). Paddy is a bootlegger and gets them rich. Of course they don’t know what to do with the money and since they are uneducated muscles, and nothing more really, their quick rise to power proves once again that “those who live by the gun die by the gun”. Or something like that. (Matthew 26:52).

See those expression? That is great acting.

When another gangster dies an accidental death, a war breaks out and Paddy’s bootlegging days are over. The first to go must be his muscles. So Tom Powers must die, but don’t worry you’re not involved in him as a character anyway. You’ll just be glad it’s almost over.

Also mixed in is some terrible acting from the cast playing Tom Power’s entire family. His mother and brother are especially horrendous. Even Cagney is nothing spectacular, playing too far into the gangster attitude he turns it into a caricature. And Jean Harlow should have never appeared in movies. Yuck. Reminded me of that Eye of the Beholder Twilight Zone episode…

How is this woman supposed to be the “babe”!?

Avoid this “classic” at all costs. If you’re watching a gangster film from the ’30s spend your time on Scarface, not this diaper of half-brained performance slaughterings. In fact, watch the first five minutes of Tom’s early years and you’ll get a taste for the entire film. Wellman letting these children “act” the way they did, proves his inadequacy as a director, and the fact is only supported by the 78 minutes of excruciating evidence afterward.

The Public Enemy is only avoiding my half-point review score because of Cagney’s influence on gangster performances. Even if future actors had to tone it way down to be taken seriously.

Just one question for anyone reading: does this movie deserve any of the credit it receives? Comment in the sidebar!

<—— Over and Up



    • Stella aka “fennario”
    • July 23rd, 2016

    Did you even watch this movie, and if so, were you on a nine day drunk?

    You stated: “The story is the typical “rough-childhood” experience turned a boy into a criminal” – NO. Tom Powers was a bad kid, you see him tripping a little girl for laughs, and his naive, indulgent mother couldn’t control him. The point the early scenes were trying to make is that these tendencies weren’t nipped in the bud. Any “rough” aspects of Powers’ childhood were due to him running wild, going where he shouldn’t go, doing things he shouldn’t do. Not his home life.

    Jean Harlow – “Yuck”? Have you consulted a physician about your – um, condition? Her acting in this one is a bit stiff, I admit. This is pre-“Red Headed Woman”, she hadn’t learned to act yet when “The Public Enemy” was made. People were putting her in movies then simply because she was stunning. Exceptionally so.

    “…without any sympathetic characters” – the brother and mother are intended as “good guys”, so therefore, sympathetic characters but since you don’t like them, you’ve decided there aren’t any. You didn’t even mention Mae Clarke (she’s in the most famous scene in the movie, BTW) or Joan Blondell.

    I could say more, but the gist is that you missed the point entirely. All you’ve managed to prove is that you have no credibility whatsoever.

    • Foxy Loxy
    • May 1st, 2015

    I personally think your being way to harsh. And about Jean Harlow, i hope you know this was one of her first films. So of course she didn’t act that well. you should see her later films.

  1. Thanks for ones marvelous posting! I genuinely enjoyed reading it,
    you are a great author. I will always bookmark your blog and will come
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    • ian
    • March 12th, 2011

    You are a complete idiot. You realize this movie was made in 1931 and you are making stupid points about the looks on peoples faces? You obviously should stick to the newer garbage as you don’t have the merit to be trashing classics like this. Go watch the Lord of the Rings again and come back and tell us how great it was. Obviously you are right and everyone else is wrong. Id like to see you tell Martin Scorsese that the public enemy is overrated crap and see what he says to you. Hilarious. Go back to school little boy.

    • I think writing a good review involves a little bit of exaggeration. If you don’t like a film, you hate it. If you like it, you love it. And to be clear on my feelings of a film and simply because I find it more enjoyable to write on the extremes of my tastes, this is often the style of my reviews.

      I know the date of the film. Acting is something that can either drive a person away or involve them in a movie. In The Public Enemy, I consistently found myself “pushed away” by the films cast.
      The Lord of the Rings films are strong films, although that has little to do with my review.
      And fortunately Martin Scorsese improved upon nearly every aspect of the gangster genre, which is why I enjoy so many gangster films since the early 90’s.

      I am more than happy to discuss this or any film, and am even willing to concede my points and qualms with a particular film given a good argument, but your personal attacks are unnecessary and childish. This kind of trite posting should embarrass mature writers and thinkers. Please find another outlet for your unabashed juvenile comments, or I will be forced to moderate the comments, thanks.

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