The Public Enemy

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The Public Enemy is a 1931 American Pre-Code crime film starring James Cagney and directed by William A. Wellman. The film relates the story of a young man's rise in the criminal underworld in prohibition-era urban America. The supporting players include Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, Beryl Mercer, Donald Cook, and Mae Clarke. The film, which was based on the novel Beer and Blood by John Bright, launched Cagney to stardom.

Many of the characters in the film were based on actual people, although some currently available copies are from the censored and cut 1949 reissue (from the Hays Code era) in which the character of real-life gangster Bugs Moran was removed.[2] However, some controversial items, like a scene in which Tom Powers (Cagney) hits his girlfriend in the face with a grapefruit, were left in that release.

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 1998.



After Tom Powers (James Cagney) and his childhood friend, Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), grow into young adults, the film follows them as they gradually progress from small crimes (such as stealing watches from a department store as children) to worse crimes (such as killing a policeman during a botched robbery attempt as teenagers), after being hired by local bootlegger Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O'Connor). Tom quickly rises from apprentice to leading gangster by being more vicious and ruthless than his rivals. The bootlegging business becomes an ever more lucrative operation, and Tom and Matt are not shy about flaunting the trappings of gangsterism. Tom does not forget about his more humble origins, and offers support to his pathetically doting, and now widowed, mother. This brings him into conflict with his older brother, Mike (Donald Cook), a shell-shocked war veteran who strongly disapproves of his wayward little brother. Underlying the fraternal conflict is that Tom’s immorality has brought generous material rewards, while the straight-and-narrow path chosen by his brother has only produced a bitter casualty of war. Tom considers Mike’s self-righteousness hypocritical. When Mike quips that Tom's success is based on nothing more than “beer and blood” (the title of the book the film is based upon), Tom retorts that “Your hands ain't so clean. You killed and liked it. You didn't get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.”[3]

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