The Public Enemy
The Public Enemy 1931 Poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byWilliam A. Wellman
Written by
Screenplay byHarvey F. Thew[1]
Based on
Beer and Blood
Produced byDarryl F. Zanuck
CinematographyDevereaux Jennings
Edited byEdward Michael McDermott
Distributed byWarner Bros. Pictures
Release date
  • April 23, 1931 (1931-04-23)
Running time
83 minutes[2][3]
CountryUnited States
Budget$151,000[4] or $230,000[5]
Box office$557,000[5]

The Public Enemy (Enemies of the Public in the UK)[6] is a 1931 American all-talking pre-Code gangster film produced and distributed by Warner Bros. The film was directed by William A. Wellman and stars James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Donald Cook and Joan Blondell. The film relates the story of a young man's rise in the criminal underworld in prohibition-era urban America. The supporting players include Beryl Mercer, Murray Kinnell, and Mae Clarke. The screenplay is based on an unpublished novel—Beer and Blood by two former newspapermen, John Bright and Kubec Glasmon—who had witnessed some of Al Capone's murderous gang rivalries in Chicago.[7][8] In 1998, The Public Enemy was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Leslie Fenton in a publicity still for the film.

As youngsters in 1900s Chicago, Irish-Americans Tom Powers and his lifelong friend Matt Doyle engage in petty theft, selling stolen items to "Putty Nose". Putty Nose persuades them to join his gang on a fur warehouse robbery, assuring them he will take care of them if anything goes wrong. When Tom is startled by a stuffed bear, he shoots it, alerting the police, who kill gang member Larry Dalton. Chased by a cop, Tom and Matt gun him down. However, when they go to Putty Nose for help, they find he has left town.

Tom's straitlaced older brother Mike Powers tries and fails to talk Tom into giving up crime. Tom keeps his activities secret from his doting mother. When America enters World War I in 1917, Mike enlists in the Marines.

In 1920, with Prohibition about to go into effect, Paddy Ryan recruits Tom and Matt as beer "salesmen" (enforcers) in his bootlegging business. He allies himself with noted gangster Samuel "Nails" Nathan. As the bootlegging business becomes ever more lucrative, Tom and Matt flaunt their wealth.

Mike finds out that his brother's money comes not from politics, as Tom claims, but from bootlegging, and declares that Tom's success is based on nothing more than "beer and blood". Tom retorts in disgust: "Your hands ain't so clean. You killed and liked it. You didn't get them medals for holding hands with them Germans."

Tom and Matt acquire girlfriends, Kitty and Mamie, respectively. Tom eventually tires of Kitty; when she complains once too often, he angrily pushes half a grapefruit into her face. He then drops her for Gwen Allen. At a restaurant on the night of Matt's wedding reception to Mamie, Tom and Matt recognize Putty Nose and follow him home. Begging for his life, Putty plays a song on the piano that he had entertained Tom and Matt with when they were children. Tom shoots him in the back.

Tom gives his mother a large wad of money, but Mike rejects the gift. Tom tears up the banknotes and throws them in his brother's face. "Nails" Nathan dies in a horse-riding accident, prompting Tom to find the horse and shoot it. A rival gang headed by "Schemer" Burns takes advantage of the disarray resulting from Nathan's death, precipitating a gang war.

Later, Matt is gunned down in public, with Tom narrowly escaping the same fate. Furious, Tom takes it upon himself to single-handedly settle scores with Burns and some of his men. Tom is seriously wounded in the shootout and ends up in the hospital. When his mother, brother, and Matt's sister Molly come to see him, he reconciles with Mike and agrees to reform. However, Paddy warns Mike that Tom has been kidnapped by the Burns mob from the hospital. Later, his dead body is returned to the Powers home.




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The screenplay which was written by Harvey F. Thew was based on a novel which was never published called Beer and Blood, by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon. Bright and Glasmon based their novel on actual people, having witnessed some of Al Capone's murderous gang rivalries in Chicago. Warner Bros. studio head Darryl F. Zanuck bought the rights to the novel and assigned director William A. Wellman to direct the film. Wellman, who had served in World War I like the brother of the main character, told Zanuck: "I'll bring you the toughest, most violent picture you ever did see".


Edward Woods was originally cast in the lead role of Tom Powers and James Cagney was cast as Tom's best friend Matt Doyle, until director Wellman decided Cagney would be more effective in the part and switched the two actors[4] but never reshot the sequences with the characters as children, which is why the child playing Cagney's role looks like Woods while the one playing Woods' role looks like Cagney. Another reason for the switch is that the sound technology used in The Public Enemy was superior to that used in earlier films, making it no longer imperative to have an actor in the lead role who had impeccable enunciation.[citation needed]

Louise Brooks was the original choice for Gwen Allen, a woman with self-confessed weakness for bad men. She refused the role, which went to a younger actress, Jean Harlow. Brooks' name was in studio records/casting call lists playing "Bess" in this movie, but she and her character did not appear. Brooks later explained herself to Wellman (who had directed her in Beggars of Life (1928)) by saying that she hated making pictures because she simply "hated Hollywood".[9] In the opinion of Brooks's biographer Barry Paris, "turning down Public Enemy marked the real end of Louise Brooks's film career".[9]

Tom's first girlfriend Kitty was played by Mae Clarke, who was uncredited. Kitty is eventually dropped off by Tom for Gwen after he pushes half a grapefruit into her face, the most famous scene in the movie. Joan Blondell played Mamie, Matt's girlfriend. She had already worked with Cagney in Sinners' Holiday (1930) and would work with him on two films which also came out this year: Other Men's Women and Blonde Crazy. Other films that they worked together on were The Crowd Roars (1932), Footlight Parade (1933) and He Was Her Man (1934). Cagney once said that Blondell was the only woman he loved besides his wife. Donald Cook played Tom's brother, Mike.


Filming took place in January and February 1931, with a small budget of $151,000.[10] During filming, Cagney also made Smart Money, co-starring Edward G. Robinson, who had finished his breakthrough film Little Caesar.

In the scene where Mike Powers punches his brother Tom, Wellman privately took Donald Cook aside and, explaining his desire for authenticity in Tom's reaction, asked the actor to really hit Cagney. Cook played his part a bit too well, and he struck Cagney in the mouth with such force, he actually broke one of Cagney's teeth.[citation needed] Yet in spite of his genuine shock and pain, Cagney stayed in character and played out the rest of the scene. In another incident, live ammunition was used in a scene where Tom Powers ducks around the corner of a building to take cover from machine gun fire; the use of live ammunition was common practice at the time.[citation needed] The bullets struck the wall of the building at the position where Cagney's head had been just a moment before.[11]

Mae Clarke's Grapefruit scene

A controversial scene in which Tom (James Cagney) angrily smashes a half grapefruit into his girlfriend's face (Mae Clarke)
A controversial scene in which Tom (James Cagney) angrily smashes a half grapefruit into his girlfriend's face (Mae Clarke)

In a 1973 interview featured in the Turner Classic Movies documentary The Men Who Made The Movies: William Wellman, Wellman said he added the grapefruit "hitting" to the scene, because when he and his wife at the time would get into fights, she would never talk or give any expression. Since she always had a grapefruit for breakfast, he always wanted to put the grapefruit into her face just to get a reaction out of her, so she would show some emotion; he felt that this scene gave him the opportunity to rid himself of that temptation.[12][13]

Some, such as film critic Ben Mankiewicz, have asserted that Mae Clarke's surprised and seemingly somewhat angry reaction to the grapefruit was genuine, as she had not been told to expect the unscripted action.[14] However, in her autobiography, Clarke stated that Cagney had told her prior to that take what he planned to do. She said that her only genuine surprise came later, when she saw the grapefruit take of the scene appear in the final film, as it had been her understanding that they were shooting it only as a joke to amuse the crew.[15]

According to Cagney, Clarke's ex-husband had the grapefruit scene timed, and would buy a ticket just before that scene went onscreen, go enjoy the scene, leave, then come back during the next show just in time to see only that scene again.[16] The grapefruit-to-the-face incident from The Public Enemy is parodied years later in the 1961 Cagney movie One, Two, Three when Cagney threatens Otto (Horst Buchholz) with a half grapefruit but then decides against doing so.

Prologue and epilogue

The film featured a prologue[6] "apprising the audience that the hoodlums and terrorists of the underworld must be exposed and the glamour ripped from them" and an epilogue "pointing the moral that civilization is on her knees and inquiring loudly as to what is to be done." At the film's premiere in New York City, the film's prologue was preceded by a "brief stage tableau, with sinuous green lighting, which shows a puppet gangster shooting another puppet gangster in the back."[2]


The soundtrack included the following songs:[17]

The music was performed by the Vitaphone Orchestra, led by conductor David Mendoza.[1]


Box office

According to Warner Bros records the film earned $464,000 domestically and $93,000 foreign.[5]


On Rotten Tomatoes, the film received a 100% "Fresh" rating based on 29 reviews, with a weighted average of 8.41/10.[18]

Andre Sennwald, who reviewed the film for The New York Times upon its April 1931 release, called it "just another gangster film at the Strand, weaker than most in its story, stronger than most in its acting, and, like most, maintaining a certain level of interest through the last burst of machine-gun fire"; Woods and Cagney give "remarkably lifelike portraits of young hoodlums" and "Beryl Mercer as Tom's mother, Robert Emmett O'Connor as a gang chief, and Donald Cook as Tom's brother, do splendidly."[2]

Time magazine called The Public Enemy "well-told" and noted "Unlike City Streets, this is not a Hugoesque fable of gangsters fighting among themselves, but a documentary drama of the bandit standing against society. It carries to its ultimate absurdity the fashion for romanticizing gangsters, for even in defeat the public enemy is endowed with grandeur."[19] Variety called it "low-brow material given such workmanship as to make it high-brow" which attempts to "square everything [with] a foreword and postscript moralizing on the gangster as a menace to the public welfare."[6]

A theatre in Times Square ran The Public Enemy 24 hours a day during its initial release.[16] At the 4th Academy Awards, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story, losing to The Dawn Patrol.

Teaser trailer of The Public Enemy.

Subsequent recognition

In 1989, an animatronics version of a scene from The Public Enemy was incorporated into The Great Movie Ride at the Disney-MGM Studios theme park in Orlando, Florida. In 1998, The Public Enemy was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In 2001, the Sopranos episode "Proshai, Livushka" featured title character Tony Soprano watching scenes from the film, becoming overwhelmed with emotion. In 2003 the character of Tom Powers was among the AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains, placing 42nd in the villain list. In 2008, the film appeared on one of the AFI's 10 Top 10 lists—the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres. The Public Enemy was listed as the eighth best in the gangster film genre.[20]


The film was re-released in 1941 after the Production Code was put into effect. Three scenes from the film were cut because of the Code. One is of a markedly effeminate tailor measuring Tom for a suit, another where Mamie serves Matt breakfast in bed, and the third showing Tom being taken advantage of by Paddy Ryan's girlfriend while hiding out in her apartment.[21] These three scenes were later restored for all DVD and Blu-ray releases, and on Turner Classic Movies.

The film was also re-released in 1954, with a written prologue added before the opening credits, advising that gangsters such as Tom Powers and Caesar "Rico" Bandello, the title character in Little Caesar (played by Edward G. Robinson), are a menace that the public must confront.[21]

Preservation status

See also


  1. ^ a b "Credits: The Public Enemy". BFI Film & TV Database. Archived from the original on May 27, 2009. Retrieved July 12, 2011.
  2. ^ a b c Sennwald, Andre (April 24, 1931). "Two Thugs". The New York Times. Retrieved July 12, 2011.
  3. ^ "Release: The Public Enemy". BFI Film & TV Database. Archived from the original on May 27, 2009. Retrieved July 12, 2011.
  4. ^ a b Dirks, Tim (2006). "The Public Enemy (1931)". The Greatest Films. Retrieved December 10, 2006.
  5. ^ a b c Warner Bros financial information in The William Shaefer Ledger. See Appendix 1, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, (1995) 15:sup1, 1-31 p. 11 DOI: 10.1080/01439689508604551
  6. ^ a b c "The Public Enemy (UK: Enemies of the Public)". Variety. 1931. Retrieved July 12, 2011.
  7. ^ Whiteley, Chris. "The Public Enemy (1931)". Hollywood's Golden Age 2010-18. Retrieved June 10, 2019.
  8. ^ "AFI|Catalog".
  9. ^ a b Paris (1989), p. 359
  10. ^ "Business Data for The Public Enemy (1931)". IMDb. Retrieved December 9, 2006.
  11. ^ Watson, Teresa. (September 2008). "James Cagney - Star of the Month",; accessed October 9, 2015.
  12. ^ "1978 interview with Wellman". Film Comment. Archived from the original on June 9, 2008. Retrieved June 5, 2008.
  13. ^ "The Men Who Made the Movies: William Wellman". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved September 17, 2022.
  14. ^ Turner Classic Movies (October 17, 2010). The Public Enemy
  15. ^ Clarke, Mae. Featured Player: An Oral Autobiography of Mae Clake, Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1996
  16. ^ a b Cagney, James (2005). Cagney by Cagney. Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-52026-3.
  17. ^ "IMDb: The Public Enemy (1931)". IMDb. Retrieved July 29, 2009.
  18. ^ "The Public Enemy". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved June 30, 2019.
  19. ^ "Cinema: The New Pictures". Time. May 4, 1931. Archived from the original on September 15, 2012. Retrieved July 12, 2011.
  20. ^ "AFI's 10 Top 10". American Film Institute. June 17, 2008. Retrieved June 18, 2008.
  21. ^ a b Gallagher, John (February 2005). "The Warner Brothers Gangster Collection". Between Action and Cut. National Board of Review. Archived from the original on December 6, 2012. Retrieved July 12, 2011.
  22. ^ Catalog of Holdings The American Film Institute Collection and The United Artists Collection at The Library of Congress, (<-book title) p.146 c.1978 by The American Film Institute
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