By: Gabe Brown
My perception of The Public Enemy is that it is, first and foremost, a fascinating piece of propaganda. It’s release date, in 1931, put it shortly after the start of the Great Depression and the rise of organized crime powers throughout the nation. In both its opening and conclusion, the film specifically allies itself with the cause of raising public activism against organized crime. Irishmen are very obviously associated with gang activity in the film, despite several characters who sport the stereotypical brogue who are on the far opposite end of the spectrum. The devotion of lead James Cagney’s character (Tom Powers) to his mother (Ma Powers, played by Beryl Mercer) and closest friends is also an extension of the stereotypical Irish character. That is to say, he is fiercely loyal to her, even to the point of hiding his own questionable deeds from her. On her part, Ma Powers refuses to see him as anything but her “baby boy” and is happy to accept money from him without questioning its origins.
However, there is no happy dancing and singing in this firm. The Irish are used as convenient scapegoats to represent organized crime circles. Cagney’s character represents the violent, intolerant aspect of the stereotypical Irishman, perhaps best shown in a famous scene in which Cagney smashes half a grapefruit in the face of his first love interest (Kitty, played by Mae Clarke). The film depicts the various schemes that go on to stay ahead of rival gangs, the instability of the gangs themselves, the abject violence that becomes second nature, and the constant danger to self and family. These are, of course, exaggerated in the film; it is propaganda. While the film is based loosely on actual events, the opening frame states that the authors wanted to “honestly depict an environment that exists today in a certain state strata of American life, rather than glorify the hoodlum or criminal.” They wanted to highlight the negative aspects and repercussions of the gangster lifestyle as much as possible in order to raise the American public against them. As with any exaggeration, though, there are elements based in truth, and Cagney plays the part of the “bad boy” with ease. However, all of the gangsters in the film either have a distinct Irish brogue, or readily identifiable Irish names. The Irish in America at the time, already subjected to this viewpoint on a daily basis, were probably not very surprised at this depiction, and likely added it to an already long list of social grievances perpetrated against them. Cagney’s future roles were often very similar to the character of gangster Tom Power’s (Smart Money, Taxi!, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties, Each Dawn I Die, Lady Killer, White Heat, and many others). He returned occasionally to his vaudeville roots, even incorporating his dance experience into various gangster films, but the majority of his career after The Public Enemy are gangster-related.
The film shows one ray of hope when, after being hospitalized following a shootout, Cagney’s character reconciles with his brother and agrees to reform. However, he is kidnapped by a rival gang and murdered, and his body returned to his family’s doorstep. The film concludes as his brother, horrified and broken, walks off screen to tell his mother. The final frame drives the point home, that the public as a whole must muster together and stand against organized crime. The time of its release makes the film poignant, and despite playing up negative stereotypes it helped launch Cagney’s career as an Irish American actor. Unfortunately, it also resulted in his being generally typecast as the “bad boy” gangster in several subsequent films (see above), and so he became trapped in representing the Irish as a source of crime and debauchery.