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The Films of Jean Harlow: The Public Enemy (1931)

It’s March 1st and that means Journey’s in Classic Film is kicking off The Films of Jean Harlow, two weeks and fifteen films starring the blonde bombshell that inspired Marilyn Monroe (so I guess in a way this is a prequel to the My Month with Marilyn!).  We start with one of Harlow’s early films and with all early films we know two things 1) Her part is small and overall pointless and 2) It doesn’t really establish her character.  The Public Enemy is an important film in the overall world of cinema, being practically a PSA against crime and alcohol and while Harlow’s character really doesn’t add or take away, it’s still a must-see for cinema followers.

Tom Powers (James Cagney) is a gangster rising through the ranks bootlegger Paddy Ryan’s (Robert Emmett O’Connor) crew.  Along with his childhood friend Matt (Edward Woods), the two start to become big shots in the racket.  This puts Tom up against the law, as well as his shell-shocked older brother Mike (Donald Cook).

I’ve seen snippets of The Public Enemy before in film classes and a scene is actually recreated at Disney World’s Great Movie Ride!  The film opens with an announcement that names have been changed and also that the film hopes to provide a cautionary tale against the world of crime.  Considering this was 1931, there were numerous celebrities who had grown up with the criminal underworld, George Raft being one of the names that immediately comes to mind.  We see the standard rise and fall story presented here as we see Tom and Matt as children, starting with robbing watches from departments stores, through botched robberies as teenagers, and ultimately settling down into the bootlegging racket.

James Cagney became a star off this persona and he’s terrifying in this movie.  There’s a certain way he smiles and looks so unassuming, and then he lets you have it.  Many film lovers know the infamous grapefruit scene where Tom slams a grapefruit into poor girlfriend Kitty’s (Mae Clarke) face.  What works so well about that scene is how Tom smiles, says how he “wishes you were a wishing well” and then picks up the grapefruit and hits her.  Depending on which story you read, Clarke was either aware or not, but either way it shows the cruel menace of Powers and his persona.

The Public Enemy is incredibly racy and the Hays Code hadn’t gone into production yet so because of that, movies were pretty much allowed to do whatever.  There’s a scene with a drunk Tom being seduced, unknowingly, by his cohort Nails’ girl (Dorothy Gee).  She comes on pretty strong and turns off Tom’s light before it’s highly implied that she climbs into bed with him.  The next morning poor Tom’s hungover and she says “You’re not sorry about last night are you?”  Geez, woman I don’t want to have to call SVU but I’m thinking the poor guy was taken advantage of!  It’s little things like this that make you see why the Hays Code was implemented, and also how silly it was.

Harlow doesn’t show up until about 40 minutes into the movie.  She plays a girlfriend of Tom’s named Gwen Allen.  She’s meant to be his equal, she’s brassy, and kind of promiscuous but we never learn anything about her.  She shows up for about two scenes, Tom mentions going to call her, and we never see her again!  Harlow had done several short and uncredited appearances up to this point but her star making performance was in Howard Hughes’ Hells Angels (a film I don’t particularly enjoy and I didn’t want to watch it again…thus its absence) but even then she was credited as Jean Harlowe.  This was only her second film credited under her correct stage name.  Sadly, it’s a wasted appearance as she’s just not necessary.

I can’t say that The Public Enemy is my favorite movie, but I can understand why it’s important in the world of cinema.  It’s got the established “crime doesn’t pay message” but also emphasizes the new American dream that was forming at the time.  One built on the ability to rise from the lower classes and get rich quick, of course it comes at a terrible cost and the movie pretty much establishes that if you do rise up, you better do it legally.  Although, I did not a bit of a mixed message because the film also shows the flip side in Tom’s brother Mike, a war vet who hates Tom because he’s done right by his country and has nothing to show for it.  I’m not quite sure what director William Wellman meant by showing two contrasting opinions but it’s creates a unique debate.

Grade: B-

Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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