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Customer Review

33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles, March 30, 2005
This review is from: The Public Enemy (DVD)
THE PUBLIC ENEMY was James Cagney's first starring vehicle. Not only was it the first movie to push a grapefruit in Mae Clarke's startled kisser, it was the movie that propelled Cagney to stardom. It's a gangster film that tells the story of the meteoric rise and early fall of young street punk Tom Powers.
THE PUBLIC ENEMY opens with a quasi-documentary montage of shots of Chicago circa 1909, taking the viewer from the els to the stockyards to the opening sequence of the movie proper - a Salvation Army band marching in front of a saloon, a brewery, past the movie's two heroes as young boys - young boys sneaking a drink from the pail of beer they're bringing to someone, somewhere.
Director William Wellman built this one, and built it good. Interesting camera placement and movement and some very well edited scenes - the heisting of the fur warehouse scene is a case in point, one of a number of scenes that averts its eyes when the bullets splat flesh and, somehow, makes the violence all that more real. Wellman went to some length showing us the conditions in which gangsterism takes seed and flourishes. Starting with the obligatory opening "We must stamp out the scourge of gangsterism" title card, Wellman blames economic hardship, a lack of an authority figure at home (Pa Powers is around for one strapping the unruly brat scene before the movie knocks him off), and a doting mother seem the main culprits, in roughly that order.
Of course, it helps if you don't glamorize those you condemn. Keeps the censors off your back. Even though the charismatic Cagney doesn't paint a particularly sympathetic portrait of young thug Tom Powers, he IS the charismatic James Cagney. His anti-hero grows rich defying the unpopular prohibition act. Grows rich, wears tuxedos to swank nightclubs, and dates a swell dish like Mae Clarke before dumping her for a sweller dish in Jean Harlow. If PE made a star out of Cagney, it also did more than its share in opening the door for a production code with a full set of sharp puritanical teeth.
Part of THE PUBLIC ENEMY'S purpose was to provide a showcase for two up-and-coming stars, Cagney and Harlow. Cagney I can understand. He leapt out of the gate at a gallop, an immense talent even then. Harlow is tougher to understand. A harsh featured sex symbol with a remarkably limited range, Harlow's appeal is as foreign and baffling to me as flag-pole sitting. All I know is it, and she, was all the rage back then.
There's something a little undercooked about her fascinatingly flawed performance. It starts with her accent. Her character claims to be from Texas and seems to be aiming for an upper-crust, socialite effect. Whatever she's speaking it sure ain't Texican, and it's about as cultured as sour milk. Every so often a word tumbles out of her mouth that seems accented in some exotic and exclusive dialect - You can let me orf heah, she says at one point, managing to corral all errant dialects into a short sentence. By law you're not allowed to write more than twenty-five words about Harlow without mentioning that she slept in the nude and never wore underwear, two factoids which I suppose go far in explaining many things.

To her credit, Harlow fares much better than poor second male lead Edward Woods, he of the handsome wooden face who seems to have two expressions - one a smile, the other not. For my money Donald Cook, as Cagney's good older brother Mike, and Beryl Mercer, as the saintly and long suffering Ma Powers, fared best in the supporting acting pool. It's hard to relate to Ma Powers, too sweet, but Mercer is as expressive as Cagney and holds her own with him. It's not her fault her character doesn't have many dimensions or any rough edges.
THE PUBLIC ENEMY is a great, great movie that I highly recommend. The print is in very good condition, with only a couple of slightly bleached sequences to disturb things.
Best of all Warner Brothers, as they are wont to do, has packed a bunch of goodies on this gangster classic. They call it Warner Night at the Movies, and I'm not scoffing. They present the movie with a newsreel (Girl Stars Train for the Olympics), a Comedy Short (The Eyes Have It - a 9 minute short featuring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. They call it a comedy, and I don't have enough room left to argue the point), a Cartoon (Merrie Melodies "Smile, Darn Ya, Smile" with some foot-tapping fox who looks and sounds a lot like Mickey Mouse), and Theatrical Trailers. There's also a 20 minute feature, "Beer and Blood," that focuses most of its attention on Jimmy Cagney and how he got the part in THE PUBLIC ENEMY. The film comes with an informative and entertaining commentary by film historian Robert Sklar.
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