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Oddly enough, the role of The Public Enemy (1931) that catapulted James Cagney into the ranks of major stars almost went to another actor. The scrappy street kid Cagney was initially cast as quiet, easy-going Matt Doyle, while the part of brash, volatile Tom Powers went to the well-educated, well-spoken Edward Woods, an actor of rather genteel background. But director William Wellman had seen Cagney's tough performance in Doorway to Hell (1930), and after three days of shooting - and much urging by screenwriters John Bright and Kubec Glasmon - he realized a big casting mistake had been made.Luckily, producer Darryl Zanuck allowed the two actors to switch roles, otherwise film audiences would have been robbed of one of the most ferocious and iconic performances of the decade, perhaps of all Hollywood history.
The Public Enemy (1931) follows the lives of two kids from the tenements of Chicago's South Side, Powers and Doyle, who find a way out of desperate circumstances through a life of crime, ending with their violent deaths - not at the hands of police (who are rarely seen) but by rival criminals. Along with Warner Brothers' earlier hit Little Caesar (1930), this movie set the tone for the popular gangster dramas of the Depression period, gritty and brutally realistic, and Cagney's performance established him as the essence of the ruthless, hair-trigger hoodlum. That image was indelibly stamped on him in a scene that is remembered and imitated even today - the shocking grapefruit-in-the-face moment that stunned audiences and had womens' groups protesting the treatment of the hard-luck moll played by Mae Clarke.
Bright and Glasmon based the scene on a real-life incident. The two learned that Chicago gangster Earl "Hymie" Weiss had once slammed an omelet into the face of his jabbering girlfriend. Wellman liked the idea but thought the omelet would be too messy, so he came up with the notion of using half a grapefruit. What happened next depends on who tells the story. Clarke said Cagney was only supposed to yell at her in the scene and that the actor surprised her with his impulsive use of the breakfast food. Cagney claimed the grapefruit had been decided on beforehand but that it was supposed to brush past her at an angle that would only appear to be a bona fide attack. Whatever the truth, when the time came to get the shot, Cagney smashed the grapefruit directly (and painfully, the actress said) into her face, and Clarke's very real look of horror and surprise was recorded for posterity.
While it certainly stamped him with an unforgettable image, Cagney later came to regret the action. For years after, whenever the actor dined out somewhere, fans would have waiters bring him half a grapefruit with his meal. Clarke became equally weary of references to the scene, although she must have gotten a bit of satisfaction from a similar shot that caught Cagney on the receiving end of some violence. Donald Cook, who played Tom Powers's war-shattered brother in the film, was supposed to explode in fury with a hard sock to Cagney's jaw. In his autobiography, Cagney said he was sure Wellman had urged Cook to let his co-star really have it. Instead of faking it for the camera, Cook hauled off and belted Cagney right in the face, sending him flying across the set and breaking a tooth. Fortunately no such mishaps took place during the film's most dangerous scenes: the use of real bullets in some of the shooting sequences.
The grapefruit incident wasn't the only memorable scene concocted by Bright and Glasmon, who adapted the screen story from their novel, Beer and Blood. The two provided Cagney with a concise and powerful moment of self-realization. In a heavy downpour, Cagney is riddled with bullets and falls into the gutter. As his blood mingles with the flowing rainwater, he mutters, "I ain't so tough," a line that has become almost as familiar as Edward G. Robinson, "Is this the end of Rico?" Elements like these earned Bright and Glasmon an Academy Award® nomination for their work.
As successful as the picture was for its leading actor, writers and director, it was nearly a disaster for another rising young star, Jean Harlow. Under contract to Howard Hughes, Harlow was actually a good-natured, middle-class girl most often cast as vulgar blond floozies. In The Public Enemy, she played a slumming society dame who briefly becomes Tom Power's mistress. The picture was hailed as a sensation, with praise going to the entire cast - except Harlow. Critics slammed her for ruining the scenes she appeared in, having a voice desperately in need of training, and delivering the only uninteresting acting in the film. Although she later became a major star at MGM, hailed for her earthy comic performances, the mishandling of her talents by agents and directors in early roles like this one could have buried her career completely if not for the public interest in what was considered her greatest asset in this Pre-Code era - freewheeling sexuality and an enticing body clad in revealing, usually bra-less, costumes. Her fascinating "traits" even caught the attention of her very-married leading man. On the set one day, Cagney stared at her cleavage and asked, likely in perfect innocence and good humor, "How do you keep those things up?" "I ice them," Harlow said, before trotting off to her dressing room to do just that.
Director: William Wellman
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay: John Bright and Kubec Glasmon (with Harvey Thew)
Cinematography: Dev Jennings
Art Direction: Max Parker
Music: David Mendoza
Cast: James Cagney (Tom Powers), Edward Woods (Matt Doyle), Jean Harlow (Gwen Allen), Mae Clarke (Kitty), Joan Blondell (Mamie), Donald Cook (Mike Powers).
BW-84m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Rob Nixon