The gangster film of the 1930's belonged essentially to Warner Brothers studios. Other studios made occasional forays into Gangland but the genre was Warners baby. The decade began with the studio producing Little Caesar (1930), a powerful crime drama starring Edward G. Robinson. Then in early 1931 production was started on an even grittier picture which was to star Edward Woods as brutal hood Tom Powers and James Cagney as Tom's sidekick, Matt. Yet when early rushes were viewed by the film's director William Wellman, he felt Cagney would make a more effective Tom Powers and swapped the actors. The switch and the movie, The Public Enemy, put Cagney on the map and made him a superstar.
The film tells of the rise and fall of a Chicago hoodlum in the early 20th Century. Cagney's is a tour de force performance. He is a brutal, amoral, self-centered, cold blooded killer. Hot headed and cocky, Cagney's Tom has no respect for anyone, save his mother (Beryl Mercer) and even that is questionable. Much of the film's power comes from its proximity in time to real gangster activity in the United States. Like a "ripped from the headlines" story of present day, its grit and realism made a strong impact on Depression era audiences who were still in the midst of Prohibition. Yet with all the violence encompassed in The Public Enemy, any killing is done off screen, making the unseen even more heinous than the seen. Made well before the strict enforcement of Hollywood's self imposed Production Code, the film gets away with much in the way of violence and sexual overtones.
Another up and comer in the movie world to be featured was Jean Harlow. Although hers was a small role in terms of screen time, she smoldered and oozed sex, giving audiences a sneak peek of what she would offer in her MGM hits a few years later. The blonde bombshell was only 19 when The Public Enemy was filmed but she exuded the confidence and appeal of a woman many years older. Other females featured in the male dominated photoplay were the always delightful Joan Blondell and starlet Mae Clarke. Cute Blondell does fine with the handful of lines that she is given, but it is Miss Clarke, whose scene with Cagney shoving a grapefruit in her face at the breakfast table, who is best remembered. The grapefruit scene became an icon of Hollywood clips, shown in many retrospectives through the decades (Mae Clarke also starred in another classic 1931 film, the original Frankenstein, as Colin Clive's fiancee). Cagney recounts in his autobiography that Clarke's ex-husband, Lew Brice (brother to comedienne Fanny Brice) would often buy a ticket for the film, go into the theater, watch the grapefruit scene and leave.
As stated before, The Public Enemy shot James Cagney to stardom and made him a hot commodity at Warners, but it was at a price. The former hoofer and vaudevillian was typecast as a gangster for much of the 1930's despite colorful excursions in Footlight Parade (1933) and Warner's all-star A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935). It wasn't until his Oscar winning role in 1942's Yankee Doodle Dandy that his full range was appreciated. However, his performance in The Public Enemy shouldn't be minimized as typecasting. His is a riveting portrayal, one can't take their eyes off his brutality and callousness, a menacing coil ready to spring into action at a moments notice, whether to kill in cold blood or shove citrus in his girlfriend's face.