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Bullets, Beer and the Hays Office: Public Enemy (1931)

GARTH JOWETT

Against an ominously dramatic rendition of "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," and just after the credits have ended, appears the state­ment that this film is an attempt "to honestly depict an environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life, rather than to glorify the hoodlum or the criminal" We will never know the real reason for this hypocrisy, but there is little doubt that by the end of the film, the principal character, Tom Powers, played with an instinctual brilliance by the very young James Cagney, has left behind one of the key archetypal images in the history of the American cinema. While Public Enemy does end with the death of its gangster heroes, thereby conforming to the official dictates of the motion picture industry creed, so powerful is Cagney as Tom Powers, and so deft is the fast-paced direction of William Well­man, that the audience cannot help feeling some envy of the swag­gering character, whose brief life is filled with excitement, fast cars, expensive clothes, and beautiful, seductive women. Together with Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar (1930), and Howard Hawks's Scar­face (1932), Public Enemy is part of a trio that serves as the para­digm of what may be called the "classic" gangster film.1 But Public Enemy can also be used by the historian willing to go beyond its surface plot to provide many clues to the condition of American society and culture during the 1920S and early 193Os.
It is unlikely that any studio other than Warner Brothers could have made Public Enemy. After the success of the early talkies, The Jazz Singer (1927) and The Lights of New York (1928), the studio purchased the Stanley Chain of movie theaters, and had begun to acquire a stable of personable, if not major, film stars. The financial success was short-lived however, and the early years of the Depression were as, difficult for Warner Brothers as they were for all the other studios, with the overall loss on the studio balance sheets for the period 1930 to 1933 estimated at $113,000,000.2 De­spite the successful innovation and public adoption of sound films, by 19J1 Hollywood was in serious financial difficulty, due in large part to the overoptimistic expansion of the studios in acquiring theater chains throughout the 192OS. Andrew Bergman in his study of Depression films notes that "when the movie public began to stay home, the direct financial impact on movie companies owning

Public Enemy 59

theaters was immediate and immense."3 It was under these trying circumstances that the Warners brought into their Burbank plant an increasing flow of talented young stage actors, writers, and direc­tors in the hope of providing the studio with the properties to ensure its survival.


Writers, in particular, saw promise in the new medium, and, as James R. Silke has pointed out:
They came with a purpose. Hard times were eroding the nation, eating out its heart, its spirit; but to the literate, educated, thinking man, the Depression was only tearing down the old way to make way for the new. The time was ripe for change, and the socially aware writers needed a stage for their words. One place appeared perfect, Holly­wood.4
Two of these young writers attracted to Hollywood in 1930 were John Bright and his partner Kubec Glasmon. In Chicago Bright had worked for Glasmon as a soda jerk in a drugstore frequented by gangsters and young hoodlums, and using this as their back­ground, they wrote the novel Blood and Beer. Arriving in Los Angeles with the unpublished manuscript, they were able to interest Darryl Zanuck, who had just been made head of production at Warners, in their property. Warners purchased the novel for fifteen thousand dollars, and signed the young writers to a long-term con­tract.5 The title of the film was altered to Public Enemy, as the Hays Office did not like the use of the word "blood," and the film was assigned to William Wellman to direct.
The original casting of the film called for Eddie Woods to play the role of Tom Powers, and for the relatively unknown Cagney to play his friend Matt Doyle. After three days of shooting Wellman agreed that Bright and Glasmon had been correct in their complaint that the casting was wrong, and that the roles should be reversed. Despite the fact that Woods was engaged to marry the daughter of the powerful Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons, Well­man got permission from Zanuck to make the change. According to all reports, Cagney's image was simply too powerful against the easy-going Woods. Of such things are Hollywood legends made.
For both Wellman and Cagney this film was an important mile­ in their careers, while for Zanuck it was one of a series of

60 AMERICAN HISTORY/AMERICAN FILM


important films (Little Caesar, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Forty-second Street) that he oversaw in his brief career at Warner Brothers, which ended in 1933 after a violent argument with Jack Warner.6 Public Enemy was a success in every sense; aesthetically Wellman and his cameraman Dev Jennings created a series of well conceived scenes that moved the narrative along at an ideal pace. There is very little in the film that is not essential to the development of the plot or to providing important clues to Tom's character.
For Cagney the film represented a personal triumph which en­sured that from then on Warners would give him star billing. Public Enemy was shot in twenty-six days, at a cost of 151,000 dollars, and made well over a million dollars in its initial release. The studio was elated, and in typical Hollywood fashion decided that if this for­mula had worked once, it would work again. In his perceptive ex­amination of Cagney as "auteur," Patrick McGilligan notes that Cagney's popularity meant "money in the bank," and that "after 1934, none of his Warners' releases grossed less than 1,000,000 dol­lars."1 The public eagerly embraced the Cagney "tough guy" image, and he was literally forced to play these roles for the rest of his career, although he was an accomplished song-and-dance man and his only Academy A ward came for his performance as the patriotic entertainer George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).8
The underlying violence in most of Cagney's screen portrayals was a topic for serious discussion among film critics as they at­tempted to understand the social and cultural significance of his popularity in early-Depression America. Lincoln Kirstein, writing in Hound and Horn in 1932, noted that the archetypal American hero had changed from the "lean, shrewd, lantern-jawed, slow-­voiced, rangy, blond American pioneer," to "a short, red-headed Irishman, quick to wrath, humorous, articulate in anger, represent­ing not a minority in action, but the action of the American major­ity-the semi-literate lower middle class."9 Kirstein went on to make the very important point that Cagney

. . . is the first definitely metropolitan figure to become national, as opposed to the suburban national figure of a few years ago, or of the farmer before that. . . . No one expresses more clearly in terms of pictorial action the delights of violence, the overtones of semi-conscious sadism, the tendency towards destruction, towards anarchy which is the basis of American sex-appeal.10



Public Enemy 61

Whatever the basis of Cagney's personal appeal, the image of the gangster as a "hero" in American popular culture is now well estab­lished. (Witness the incredible public response to the morally rep­rehensible "family" depicted in the novel and films of The God­father [1972] and Godfather II [19741.) Robert Warshow has pointed out the curious position of this criminal character in the popular culture of a country that "is committed to a cheerful view of life." He suggests that gangster films do not so much deal with the problem of crime in American life, as with the modern, urban experience of the American people.

What matters is that the experience of the gangster as an experience of art is universal to Americans. There is nothing we understand better or react to more readily or with quicker intelligence. . . . In ways that we do not easily or willingly define, the gangster speaks for us, ex­pressing that part of the American psyche which rejects the qualities and the demands of modern life, which rejects "Americanism" itself.

The gangster is the man of the city, with the city's language and knowledge, with its queer and dishonest skills and its terrible daring, carrying his life in his hands like a placard, like a club. . . . The real city, one might say, produces only criminals; the imaginary city pro­duces the gangster: he is what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become. 11

America had become a predominantly urban-based nation accord­ing to the 1920 Census, and the resulting demographic shift had also caused an obvious change in the popular cultural pursuits of

its people. Newspapers, the motion picture, and, after 1922, radio had each helped to erode the emphasis on local interests and entertainment, leaving in their wake a new national "mass culture,"

with a decided urban cast. In every city, town, or village across the country these images and sounds were taking precedence over the local culture, and precipitating new sources of influence and so­-

cialization, especially for the young.12 The Lynds in their 1925 study of Middletown (Muncie, Indiana) devoted considerable effort to examination of these forces, noting that

at no point is one brought up more sharply against the impossibility of studying Middletown as a self-contained, self-starting community than when one watches these space-binding leisure-time inventions imported from without-automobile, motion picture, and radio-re­shaping the city,13


62 I AMERICAN HISTORY/AMERICAN FILM

It is against these changes, and the fact of Prohibition that Public Enemy is most usefully understood.
Like most of the Warner Brothers films of the early '930S Public Enemy is quite short, lasting slightly under ninety minutes. This relatively short running time proves to be an asset, as the story of the rise and fall of the smalltime hoodlum is told in a series of per­fectly conceived sequences. The opening sequence is introduced with the title "'909," and Wellman effectively uses authentic news­reel footage of an earlier period in Chicago to set the mood.14 These early "atmosphere" scenes also clearly establish the innocent use of alcohol as a pervasive aspect of life in '909, with scenes of gushing beer taps pouring their contents into buckets, the horse-drawn brewery truck, and a stockyard worker carrying back to his work­mates six cans of beer carefully balanced on a long wooden pole; all juxtaposed by the noisy reminder of the Salvation Army Band marching past the saloon-a portent of the legislated prohibition that is to come.
There is an attempt in Public Enemy to provide the audience with some sociological and psychological justification for the deviant character of Tom Powers, but while these scenes are interesting, they do not adequately explain why one brother (Tom) becomes a hoodlum and the other (Mike) a war hero, although they both grew up in the same environment.
We first see the young Tom and his friend Matt standing at the "family entrance" of a saloon where they have been sent to buy a pail of beer. Tom, in a gesture which he repeats several times in the film, gives a quick glance over his shoulder, and surreptitiously takes a swig from the family pail, wiping the tell-tale moustache of froth away with his hand. At this point two young girls, also on their way to buy beer, stop to talk to Tom and Matt, and Tom's somewhat callous attitude (in comparison to Matt's anxious enthusi­asm) provides us with a clue to his subsequent behavior toward women. In the next scene we see Tom and Matt running through a department store, being pursued by a floorwalker and subsequently a policeman, but they escape capture by sliding down the bannister of the escalator. Tom later steals a pair of roller skates and gives them to Molly, Matt's sister, so that he can cause her to stumble. When Tom's older brother Mike comes to Molly's rescue, he ac­cuses Tom of the theft, and the scene ends with Tom lying across
Public Enemy 63

his policeman father's knee receiving a thrashing. This opening "socialization" sequence ends with Tom and Matt entering the Red Oaks "Youth" Club, where the Club organizer, a smalltime hoodlum and fence named Putty Nose is singing risque ditties to a group of teenage boys. Calling Putty Nose into the backroom, the boys sell him a card of stolen pocket watches for fifty cents each, minus. their club dues. And so begins their formal career as petty thieves.


The next sequence of scenes is titled "1915," and opens with the two boys, now in their adult personae, approaching the same club, which they enter after Tom has given his usual suspicious glance over his shoulder. The members of the club are now older, and Putty Nose offers the boys an opportunity to participate in a rob­bery of a fur warehouse, handing them each a revolver as a Christ­mas present. The robbery is botched when the nervous Tom fires several shots at a large, stuffed polar bear, and in the subsequent confusion Tom kills a policeman (psychological revenge against his father?). When he learns that Putty Nose has left town rather than "protect" them as promised, Tom vows to kill him when next they meet.
The next title, "1917," is followed by a series of scenes showing the U.S. entry into World War I, and Mike's enlistment. The two brothers have a violent argument when Mike suggests that Tom "spend a little more time at home," and become the man in the family (the death of the father is understood). Tom is clearly un­able to understand Mike's values regarding duty and patriotism (no doubt a popular sentiment with many in the 1931 audience), and instead to a more systematic life of crime under the tutelage of Paddy Ryan, a local bar owner.

The final time title, "1920," is followed by a montage of actual newsreel footage and studio scenes of the chaos during the hours 5 before the imposition of Prohibition at midnight on January 16, 1920. The advent of Prohibition provides Tom and Matt with the opportunity to rise in the criminal hierarchy, and they become salesmen for an illegal beer operation run by Paddy Ryan, "Nails" Nathan, and a crooked brewery owner, Leeman. They acquire tailored clothes, a big sporty car, and take up with two women they have picked up in a nightclub. Tom has a showdown with Mike at a party given in honor of the latter's return from the war, when Mike


64 AMERICAN HISTORY/AMERICAN FILM
destroys a keg of beer that Tom has brought home. Mike shouts at Tom, "You Murderers! It's not beer in that keg! It's beer and blood. Blood of men!" Tom's reply indicates his contempt for his brother's motives, "Your hands ain't so clean. You killed. . . and you liked it! You didn't get no medals for holding hands with them Germans."
It is immediately after this that the famous grapefruit sequence takes place. Tom, obviously fed up with the increasing domesticity of his arrangement with Kitty (Mae Clark) smashes a grapefruit half into the side of her face at the breakfast table.15 In the next scene Tom picks up Gwen (Jean Harlow) and switches his- atten­tion to her. At a nightclub, celebrating Matt's engagement, Tom and Matt spot Putty Nose, and after following him home, Tom shoots Putty Nose as his former boyhood mentor pleads for his life.
Nails Nathan is accidentally killed when thrown from his horse, and Tom and Matt wreak vengence on the horse, Rajah, shooting the animal in its barn.16 Nails's death precipitates a gangland war with the "Schemer" Burns gang over control of the liquor rackets, and after hiding out, Matt is cut down by a hidden machine gun. Tom, again honoring the code of vengence, singlehandedly attacks the Burns headquarters, and is seriously wounded. Emerging from the building, in the pouring rain, Tom staggers along the street, and collapses in the gutter uttering the famous line, "I ain't so tough!" Tom is taken to hospital, where, swathed in bandages, he is recon­ciled with his mother and brother Mike. While waiting for Tom to recover and return home, Mike learns that Tom has been kidnapped from his hospital bed by the Burns gang. The end comes swiftly and dramatically, as Tom is "delivered" home, trussed up like an Egyptian mummy, and his body falls into the house as Mike opens the door. The closing scene of Mike walking slowly away from his brother's mutilated remains is played against the sounds of a record of "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" clicking to an end on the gramo­phone. The film closes with yet another title: "The Public Enemy is not a man nor is it a character, it is a problem that sooner or later we, the public, must solve."
There is nothing particularly pathbreaking about the plot or cinematography, both being fairly conventional. Rather, the film's success and importance are based on the way in which the individual
Public Enemy 65

elements-story, stars, and production-have been combined into a memorable whole. There are, however, some interesting plot ele­ments worthy of note. Wellman handles the violence in a somewhat curious manner, and only one killing, that of Matt, is actually shown . on screen.17 The point at which Tom cold-bloodedly shoots Putty Nose is indicated by the reaction on Matt's face, and by the sound of Putty Nose's body falling across the keys of the piano he was playing in an attempt to arouse nostalgic sympathy from his former 'pupils. Cagney's character, as already noted, is a riveting one, made all the more so by such occasional light touches as his loving mock punch on his mother's cheek 18 or his trying out a revolver in a gun !shop and using the weapon to hold up the storekeeper.


The gangster film cycle of the early 1930S benefited enormously !from the technical improvement of sound quality. (Some film historians suggest that the' advent of sound was responsible for precipitating these films.) Public Enemy is no exception, and the ;sounds of gunfire, the snappy dialogue, and the background music are all important elements in the plot. (One scene has Tom indicat­ing his dissatisfaction with their relationship to Gwen with the song "I Surrender Dear" playing in the background.) The movie's sets !were typically those of the Warner Brothers art department, and such lower class homes, apartments, and hotel rooms were to be the studio's trademark throughout the 1930S and 1940s.19
The authenticity of many incidents in the plot of Public Enemy has already been noted, but the film as a whole deals fairly accurately with an event in American social history that is the source of much misunderstanding-Prohibition. The film was, of course, made while _Prohibition was still in force, and reflects a great deal of the cynicism toward the morality behind the imposition of Prohibition, and the hypocrisy with which the Volstead Act (the Eighteenth Amend­ment) was enforced. While there have been many interpretations of the events that lead up to the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment, Joseph Gusfield sums it up best in his study, Symbolic Crusade.

What Prohibition symbolized was the superior power and prestige of the old middle class in American society. The threat of decline in that position had made explicit actions of government necessary to defend it. Legislation did this in two ways. It demonstrated the power of the old middle classes by showing that they could mobilize sufficient politi­-

66 I AMERICAN HISTORY/AMERICAN FILM

cal strength to bring it about and it gave dominance to the character and style of old middle-class life in contrast to that of the urban lower and middle classes.20


In reality this meant the assertion of power by the Protestant, rural, native American, and was directly aimed at the emerging power of the Catholic and Jewish immigrants, and the urban middle class. The Temperance Movement' has had a long history in the United States, but it was no historical accident that it should turn its power toward national legislation in the precise decade when urbanism became the dominant mode of American life style. "The result," Gusfield notes, "was that what for one group was a part of daily existence and a legitimate and welcome source of leisure, was to the dry forces a vice whose eradication was essential."21
There are many myths surrounding the failure of Prohibition, in particular that Prohibition's unenforceability created a deepseated cynicism that one could not legislate morality. As Gusfield has pointed out, however, it was the changes in the philosophy of po­litical life precipitated by the Depression which were ultimately responsible. "The Depression had enormously strengthened the de­mand for increased employment and tax revenues which a reopened beer and liquor industry would bring, and it had made issues of status secondary to economic and class issues."22 Public Enemy, although dealing with incidents in the early 1920S, nevertheless reflects the outlook on Prohibition seen from the first years of the Depression. Tom and Matt have no remorse for their illegal activities, seizing upon Prohibition as a fortuitous chance to get rich as quickly as pos­sible. Their immigrant Irish upbringing could not have made them do otherwise in the face of a law which their culture considered ridiculous. Their open defiance of the law at a family gathering (the beer keg episode) brings tacit approval from all present except Mike, whose objections are on other than moral grounds.
The advent of Prohibition provided the ideal opportunity for criminals of all types to make money by becoming bootleggers. Public Enemy deals with this specific period of "individualistic com­petition" in the years before bootlegging became a highly monopo­listic industry like most other large American industries, an organi­zational development that characterizes much of the criminal activity in the United States.23 Thus Paddy Ryan and Nails Nathan mobilize immediately, eliciting the assistance of the former brewer Leeman,


Public Enemy 67
whose plant is now closed, Their initial meeting to organize the bootlegging operation is worth recalling. Leeman, a small, dapper man in his early sixties, makes a pretense at altruism and says:

"You can understand, of course, that my desire is merely to furnish a better grade of beer than the working man can now obtain under the present. . . oh . . . unfortunate. . . ."


He is interrupted by Nails, who makes the position of the gang clear:
"In your hat! I've heard that north wind before. If you're in this, you're in for the coin the same as the rest of us."

Tom and Matt are impressed by Nails's forthrightness and smile knowingly at each other. Leeman has no reply and merely nods agreement. The veneer of piety is shattered.24


One factor common to all three of the most famous gangster films of the early 19305 (Little Caesar, Public Enemy and Scarface), was the immigrant backgrounds of their major characters. Thus Rico Bandello, Tom Powers, and Tony Carmonte are each faced with the same problem of rising from humble origins to attain "The American Dream," a plot line which Philip French has suggested is a grotesque parody of the Horatio Alger myth.25 Despite what may now appear to be merely conventional plot elements,26 there is clear historical evidence to support their characterizations as mem­bers of ethnic minorities. Mark H. Haller, in his historical study of crime in Chicago notes:
Crime has had enduring ties with urban political factions, [and] played a crucial part in the social life of ethnic groups struggling up­ward in urban slums. . . . In Chicago, criminal activity and the criminal justice system were rooted in the city's ethnic neighborhoods and were a means of social mobility for persons of marginal social and eco­nomic position in society. (The ethnic political machines served the same purpose.) As a result, criminals, politicians, and enforcement officials often shared experiences and values.27
Throughout the 1920S the criminal activities of ethnic minorities had concerned the city fathers of Chicago, and statistics compiled by University of Chicago sociologists William F. Ogburn and Clark Tibbits in 1930 confirmed their worst fears. Of the 108 ""directors" of the Chicago underworld, 30 percent were of Italian
68 AMERICAN HISTORY/AMERICAN FILM

ancestory, 29 percent were Irish, 20 percent were Jewish, and 12 percent were black. Their report noted that "not a single leader was recorded as native white American of native born stock." The criminal justice system had a similar distribution of groups (except for blacks), and to further underscore the stereotype, 76 percent of the police captains were Irish.28 Haller's study confirms the validity­ of the criminal way of life depicted in Public Enemy, pointing out ,that criminals usually worked with a mob, with clearly defined areas of organizational responsibility ("fence," "mouthpiece," etc.). He also notes that the "organized" crime, which was largely precipitated by Prohibition, altered the nature of criminal activity from dealing with victims to dealing with customers. In fact, "the distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages in Chicago during Prohibition brought organized crime to a level of income and customer support that revolutionized the city's underworld."29


The reasons for the popularity of the gangster hero during' early years of the Depression are still a matter of conjecture. There has always been room for the antihero in American popular culture (witness Billy the Kid and Jesse James), but these were usually in the Robin Hood "rob the rich to feed the poor" mold. The urban ethnic gangster seldom had any such" redeeming qualities in the films of the early 1930S, although by the end of the decade, the second cycle of gangster films, which began in 1935, concentrated on role of the crime fighters in their war against criminals.30 It was also in the period 1932-1937 that studios particularly Warner Brothers) began to turn their attention to films which dealt with the social problems of the day. Wellman's Wild Boys of the Road (1933), Mervyn LeRoy's 1 Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), and Michael Curtiz's Black Fury (1935) were all products of the Warner Brothers studio, which quickly acquired a reputation for producing films about the "working class," and which openly supported Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal philosophy.”3I The mood of the Depression certainly encouraged an intensive examination of American life-what it stood for, its strengths a its weaknesses-in° an attempt to hold on to the useful while discarding or altering the useless or outmoded ideas of a previous age. In many ways these early gangster films can be seen as a form cultural catharsis, which demonstrated the results of a credo that made a virtue of the drive for success at any price, including murder.
Public Enemy 61

The gangster simply ignores the laws and mores of a society which were being questioned anyway; and he establishes his own code of justice and social order within the hierarchy of the criminal under­

world. To many in the audience the comparison between the gang­ster and the grasping, well-organized, business tycoons, who were held to be responsible for the Depression (in the popular culture at any rate), must have been obvious. The gangster embodied both the best and the worst elements of the American ideal, and in these films audiences were given the opportunity to examine these alternatives. In the long run the majority of the moviegoing public opted for the more positive solution, and the movie studios turned their attention to social issues and the fight against crime, rather than its glorification.33 That these changes occurred after 1933 and the implementation of the New Deal Administration is no mere coincidence, for the new mood of optimism engendered by Roosevelt, although not borne out by any economic reality, was reflected in much of Hollywood's product.34
As was noted earlier, Public Enemy was a financial success, but it did not arouse any great outpouring of critical acclaim at the time of its release. Andre D. Sennwald in the New York Times

called it "just another gangster film, weaker than most in its story, stronger than most in its acting, liked like most maintaining a certain level of interest through the last burst of machine-gun fire. . . ."35 The anonymous Time reviewer noted that the film

. . . is well-told arid its intensity is relieved by scenes of the central characters slugging bartenders and slapping their women across the face. V.S. audiences, long trained by the press to glorify thugs, last week laughed loudly at such comedy and sat spellbound through the serious parts. . . . It carries to its ultimate absurdity the fashion for romanticizing gangsters. . .36
Dwight MacDonald, a critic who has always been extremely difficult­ to please, on reviewing the film thirty years after it had first been released, said, "I had remembered it as good, but not as good as it now appears to be . . . [Cagney's] performance is as great :is anything I've seen in movies. . . ."37 Judging from most present-day critical opinion, the quality and impact of Public Enemy have now come to be appreciated. However, as has been true throughout the history of the American film industry, critical and public opinion

70 AMERICAN HISTORY/AMERICAN FILM

did not coincide, and the approximately seventy million Americans who went to movies every week in 1931 gave their support to this latest gangster offering. It was precisely because of this popularity; that the early gangster films were attacked so vehemently by those groups that wanted to see the motion picture industry made more responsive to a public form of social control.38
In 1930, after eight years of trying various schemes of self- regulation, the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Will H. Hays, was finally able to get the studio heads to agree to the Production Code, which outlined a fairly comprehensive set of standards for motion picture content.39 But by 1930 Hollywood was a different place from what it had been in 1922, when Hays resigned as Postmaster-General to accept the role of "Czar" of the industry.40 The outcries against the "morals of the movies," which had been heard since their introduction in the I890s, increased in intensity during the early years of the Depression. The advent of sound and the resulting influx of "sophisticated" Broadway actors and playwrights only served to sharpen the focus of moralists who now decried the new "adult" content of Hollywood films. The onset of the Depression, and the economic chaos left in its wake, saw the film studios turn increasingly themes of sex and violence as a means of attracting audiences dwindling box-office lines, and the resulting public reaction finally provided Hays with the ammunition he needed to enforce his Code.41
Historians have disagreed as to why the Depression triggered new tone of moralism and an increased dependence on religion. Whatever the cause, by 1934 the time seemed ripe for a m revolution and the motion picture industry, as usual, proved to ready and willing target; only this time the industry itself, caught up in a desperate financial struggle for survival, was much more vulnerable to these attacks, and therefore also amenable to change. The increasing public concern with movie morality culminated the formation of the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency, a powerful pressure group with the full might of the Catholic Church behind it, dedicated to forcing the movie industry to, alter its content, and to be more responsive to public demands.42 The mere existence the Legion of Decency with its threats of a movie boycott, enough to provide Will Hays with the ammunition he needed to
Public Enemy 71
convince the movie industry executives that self-regulation was In their best interests.43
Public Enemy was only one of the many films that contributed to the events culminating in the establishment of the infamous Pro­duction Code Administration (Breen Office) in 1934. The film stands today as an excellent example of both a genre and a cultural symbol. Its place in the iconography of American popular culture is secure.

NOTES
1. For a perceptive examination of this genre see Stephen L. Karpf, The Gangster Film: Emergence, Variation and Decay of a Genre, 1930-1940 (New York: Arno Press, 1973); and Arthur Sacks, "An Analysis of the Gangster Movies of the Early Thirties," The Velvet Light Trap, no. 1, 1971, pp. 5-11, 32. Surprisingly, Public Enemy as an individual film has received very little attention from film scholars.

2. Studio financial statements have always been historical curiosities, and notoriously unreliable. These figures and other extremely useful data come from James R. Silke, Here's Looking At You, Kid: Fifty Years of Fighting, Working and Dreaming at Warner Brothers (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1976). See also Charles Higham, Warner Brothers (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975); and Ted Sennett, Warner Brothers Presents (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1971). A special issue of The Velvet

Light Trap, no. 1 (1971) is devoted to "Warner Brothers in the Thirties," and contains many interesting articles.

3. Andrew Bergman, We're In the Money: Depression America and Its



Films (New York: New York University Press, 1971), p. xxi. For details on the financial aspects of the film industry, see Mae D. Huettig, Economic Control of The Motion Picture Industry (Philadelphia: University of Penn­sylvania Press, 1944; reprinted New York: Jerome S. Ozer, 1971); the best source for the complex details surrounding the introduction of sound is J. Douglas Gomery, "The Coming of Sound to the American Cinema: A History of the Transformation of an Industry," unpublished Ph.D. dissertation,

University of Wisconsin, 1975.

4. Silke, p. 60.

5. In six months Bright and Glasmon wrote four scripts, Public Enemy, Smart Money, Blonde Crazy, and Taxi. All four films starred the unknown James Cagney, made him into a star, and made considerable profits for Warners. See Silke, p. 61.

6. For details on Zanuck's career, see Mel Gussow, Don't Say Yes Until I Finish Talking (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971).

7 Patrick McGilligan, "James Cagney: The Actor as Auteur," The Velvet Light Trap, no. 7 (Winter 1972/73), p. 4.

8. Cagney, of course, played a wide variety of roles in his long movie career, including that of Bottom in Max Reinhardt's movie version of A Mid­summer Night's Dream (1935). For details of his career, see James Cagney,

72 AMERICAN HISTORY/AMERICAN FILM


Cagney by Cagney (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1976). He was never

completely happy in these roles, or with his treatment at the Warners Studio, and this led to a long series of conflicts and many suspensions. He notes, "Actors were considered to be expendable material, just like props or makeup." (Ibid., p. 46).

9. Lincoln Kirstein, "James Cagney and the American Hero," Hound &

Horn (April-June, 1932), p. 466. (From a collection reprinted by Arno Press, N.Y., 1972).

10. Ibid., pp. 466-67.

11. Robert Warshow, "The Gangster as Tragic Hero," in The Immediate 'Experience (New York: Anchor Books, 1964), p. 86.

12. This question of national vs. local media, especially as it relates to the motion picture, is explored in some depth in Garth Jowett, Film: The Democratic Art (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1976). For an excellent examination of the irrepressible nature of mass culture, see Arthur J. Vidich and Joseph Bensman, Small Town in Mass Society (Princeton, N.J.: Prince­ton University Press, 1968).

13. Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, Middletown (New York:

Harcourt, Brace & World, 1929), p. 271. When they returned to Middletown in 1935, they found that cosmopolitanism had greatly increased. See Middle­town in Transition (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1937).

14. The exact date of this footage is unknown, but judging by the number of automobiles present on the street, and the fashions, it appears to be a few years later than 1909; probably 1912-1915.

15. The grapefruit scene is undoubtedly one of the most famous in the history of the American cinema. As one would expect there is disagreement as to how it originated. Darryl Zanuck has claimed that it was his idea; but so has William Wellman, who claims that he had Cagney perform an act which Wellman wanted to perform in real life on his own wife. The truth, more likely, is the claim that the scene was based upon a real incident when. A Chicago hoodlum, Hymie Weiss, shoved an omelet into his loquacious girl­

friend's face. Cagney notes: "It was just about the first time. . . that a woman had been treated like a broad on the screen instead of like a delicate flower. . ., That bit of business became so identified with me that years afterward when I'd go into a restaurant, people would send me half grapefruits with their compliments. . . ." Interview in Saturday Evening Post, July 14, 1956, p. 51.

16. This scene is not as far-fetched as it may seem, and was based on a similar incident after Samuel "Nails" Morton was killed by his horse. See Richard Whitehall, "Crime Inc., Part Three: Public Enemies," Films and Filming (March, 1964), p. 42.

17. An interesting point here is that in 193I the special effects were unable to simulate machine gun fire, and a real machine gun, manned by an expert named Bailey, was used. Cagey notes that this made for some hair-raising­ experiences, but the scene itself is graphic evidence that real bullets were fired into the wall above the actor's head. See Cagney, p. 44.

18. Patrick Gilligan has noted that Cagney's films often showed his

character's relationship with his mother: "No other actor has been so closely haunted by his nearest kin." This recurring motif reaches its climax in the complex Freudian dependence on his mother in his role as Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949). See Gilligan, pp. 1)-10.

19. Calvin Pryluck has noted that, "In the 30s Warner Brothers sets we cheaply constructed, their directors of photography were under instructions



Public Enemy 73
to avoid lighting the corners of the set so as to mask the shoddy construction." Calvin Pryluck, "The Aesthetic Relevance of the Organization of Film Pro­duction," Cinema Journal, vol. 15, no. 2 Spring, 1976), p. 4.

20. Joseph R. Gusfield, Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1963), p. 122. For other useful studies of Prohibition see Charles Merz, The Dry Decade (New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1930); Andrew Sinclair, Prohibition: The Era of Excess (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1962); and James Timber­lake, Prohibition and the Progressive Movement (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963). The best overall discussion of the long-term effects of Prohibition on American society is Joseph R. Gusfield, "Prohibition: The Impact of Political Utopianism," in Change and Continuity in Twentieth­ Century America: The /920S, edited by John Braeman, et al. (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1968), pp. 257-3°8.

21. Gusfield, "Prohibition," p. 294.

22. Gusfield, Symbolic Crusade, p. 127.

23. For further thought on the nature of criminal activity, see Daniel Bell, "Crime as an American Way of Life," in The End of Ideology (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1960), chapter 7.

24. Leeman's name is obviously European, possibly German. While this is not explored in the film itself, German immigrants have always been strongly connected with the brewing industry in the United States. During World War I this was the source of much popular outcry by the drys, again a reflection of the status argument suggested by Gusfield.

25. Philip French, "Incitement Against Violence," Sight and Sound (Winter, 1967-68), p. 3. He goes on to point out that later gangster heroes (John Dillinger, "Baby Face" Nelson, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow) are all "fourth or fifth generation WASPS from rural communities of the Mid-West and South-West," who actively _ought publicity. Bergman suggests that Little Caesar's Rico is following Andrew Carnegie's "The Road to Business Success, An Address to Young Men," only to fail when he strays from this advice. We're in the Money, pp. 7-10.

26. The concept of conventions in popular culture is examined in depth in a brilliant study, John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance (Chi­cago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976). Cawelti notes of the 192OS and 1930S urban gangsters: "These new formulas made protagonists or heroes out of lower-class figures characterized by crudeness, aggressive violence, and aliena­tion from the respectable morality of society." (p. 61).

27. Mark H. Haller, "Urban Crime and Criminal Justice: The Chicago Case," The Journal of American History, vol. 57, no. 3 (December, 197°), pp.619-620.

28. Quoted in Ibid., p. 620.

29. Ibid., p. 623. Haller's study also confirms the truth behind other scenes in the movie, such as the lavish floral tributes to dead gangsters, the open association with segments of Chicago upper society in the night life of the city, and the general tolerance of the police for these activities.

30. Warner Brothers was also in the forefront of this new cycle with such films as William Keighley's G-Men (1935), Show Them No Mercy (1935), The Petrified Forest (1936), and The Wrong Road (1937).

31. Harry Warner was one of the few Hollywood "moguls" to actively support Roosevelt in his 1932 election campaign, and he issued a directive to this effect to his employees. Russell Campbell has noted that the Warner

74 AMERICAN HISTORY/AMERICAN FILM


production chiefs (Hal Wallis, Darryl Zanuck, and Jack Warner) had, in fact, been receptive to "social realism" long before the directive. See Russell Campbell, "Warner Brothers in the Thirties: Some Tentative .Notes," The Velvet Light Trap, no. I (1971), p. 3.

31. William Stott explores this topic in an excellent study, Documentary Expression and Thirties America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).

33. It can be argued, of course, that even the crime-fighter films glorified the gangster. However, the marked shift in the mid-1930S cannot be ignored. It is interesting to note that the release of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967) started a new cycle of gangster or criminal "hero-worship."

34. No consideration of the cultural mood of this period would be complete without a serious examination of the insightful analysis by Warren I. Susman, “The Thirties," in Stanley Coben and Lorman Ratner, eds., The Development of an American Culture (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970), pp. 179)-218. For a useful overview of the historical literature of the period see Otis L. Graham, Jr., "The Age of the Great Depression, 192C)-1940," in William H. Cartwright and Richard L. Watson, Jr., eds., The Reinterpretation of American History and Culture (Washington, D.C.: National Council for Social Studies, 1973).

35. New York Times, April 24. 1931, p. 27:1.

36. Quoted in Homer Dickens, The Fl1ms of lames Cagney (Secaucus, N.J.: The Citadel Press, 1972), pp. 50-51.

37. Ibid., p. 50. J

38. The issue of social control and the motion picture industry is explored at length in Garth Jowett, Film: The Democratic Art. The questions surrounding the problems of movie censorship are discussed in Ibid., Ira H Carmen, Movies, Censorship and the Law (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966); Richard S. Randall, Censorship of the Movies (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968), and Douglas Ayer, et al., "Self-Censorship in the Movie Industry: An Historical Perspective on Law and Social Change," Wisconsin Law Review, no. 3 (1970), pp. 791-838.

39. The Code was explicit when it came to the treatment of crime on the screen. "General Principle" no. I read:

Crimes Against the Law: These shall never be presented in such a way to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with a desire for imitation.

I. Murder

a. The technique of murder must be presented in a way that will

inspire imitation

b. Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail

c. Revenge in modern times shall not be justified.

2. Methods of crime should not be explicitly presented

a. Theft, robbery" safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc., should not be detailed in method

b. Arson must be subject to the same safeguards I

c. The use of firearms should be restricted to essentials I

d. Methods of smuggling should not be presented. !

Obviously, not only were these rules being ignored, they were being open! flouted by the studios in the period 1930-1934. For a detailed examination I the failure of the Code, see John A. Sargent, "Self-Regulation: The Motion Picture Production Code, 193O-11}61," unpublished PhD. Dissertation, University of Michigan, 1963.



Public Enemy 75
40. In reality Hays was never a "Czar," as he lacked the basic power to force the studios to adhere to MPPDA regulations. It is also quite clear that Hays's appointment was based upon his close connection with the Republican Administration and was made in the belief that he would be able to thwart the introduction of federal censorship. In this role he was very successful.

41. The complaints about movie content came from all sources, but re­ligious groups were usually in the forefront. An editorial in The Commonweal in 1931 noted that a recent meeting of the New York State Chapter of the Knights of Columbus had considered a resolution that the gangster film "creates a criminal instinct in our youth." The editorial continued: "The gangster movies. . . are often brilliantly acted and directed. Their detail is conveyed with a vividness almost hypnotic." "Gang Films," The Commonweal, June 10, 1931, pp. 143-144.



42. Unfortunately limitations of space prevent a full discussion of the cir­cumstances surrounding the formation of the Legion of Decency, its tactics, and its ultimate effect. See Jowett, Film: The Democratic Art, pp. 246-256; land Paul W. Facey, The Legion of Decency: A Sociological Analysis of the Emergence and Development of a Pressure Group (New York: Arno Press,1974).

43. In July, 1934, less than three months after the formation of the Legion, he MPPDA agreed to the establishment of the Production Code Administrat­ion (PCA), to be headed by Joseph Breen, a Catholic, It was also agreed that no member company of the MPPDA would distribute or release or exhibit any film unless it received a certificate of approval signed by the PCA. These regulations were strengthened by the provision for a 25,000 dollar penalty for failure to comply-the first time such a "punishment clause" had ever been agreed upon by members of the industry organization. It was this infamous Code that would dictate the content of what was seen on American movie screens until the late 196Os. There are no really good examinations of the Production Code Administration. For an anecdotal account, see Jack Vizzard, See No Evil (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970).
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