Thursday, October 16, 2008

Gangster Lean


This semester, I was lucky enough to get into a course about gender and film. It focuses on fairly mainstream movies from the 1910s to the 1960s. My favorite movie so far [and the one I write a 5 page paper one due next week] is The Public Enemy (1931), starring James Cagney and Jean Harlow. It's a great movie. You can see how this was the beginning of gangster movies after it is similar, though not many actors have the swagger and violent energy of Cagney [that means you, 50 cent]. People pinpoint Little Caesar as the start of the genre, but I'm stickin' with Cagney. Cagney got so into his role that I thought, wow, he couldn't ever be anything other than an Irish gangster.

"He's a small-time hood who gets involved with a Prohibition racket in a big way!" That's what it says on the back of the DVD, and that more or less gives you the whole story. Tom Powers [Cagney] and his best friend from childhood, Matt Doyle [Edward Woods] live in a rough Chicago neighborhood, stealing here and there to get by. Just as Prohibition, they get pulled into big business with local bar owner Paddy Ryan and big time gangster Nails Nathan. They become the biggest bootleggers in all of Chicago, buy fancy clothes, cars and women, and are challenged only by the Schemer Burns mob. I hate to give away the ending, but you can sort of guess at it anyway.

The Public Enemy came out at a time when people, especially Protestants and Catholics, were all in a dither about degenerate pictures ruining the moral fiber of American society and moving towards censorship. I suspect that's why the movie's bookended with two screens claiming the film isn't glorifying criminal behavior, but simply pointing out this problem so the public could then solve it. Even in the reviews I found from 1931 [I'll start writing that paper any minute now], people knew that was a joke. They loved Cagney's vulgarity and violence, though the New York Times wrote it off as just another gangster movie but with good acting. Who were the producers fooling? Everyone loves a good gangster movie.

The fanciest woman in the movie is played by Jean Harlow and she sucks. She seems bored as hell with her role and doesn't sound anything like the Texan she's supposed to be. Her character is neither a badass gun moll or a loose flapper, though some of the dialogue implies she's a tease. Oh, well. Cagney and the plot more than pick up the slack for her lackluster performance.

I'll leave you with the famous grapefruit scene:


and a trailer:

Also, random fact: did you know 'gat' was used in the 20s as a word for gun? I had no idea. I thought that was really intersting.
All that being said, what's your favorite gangster movie?

1 comment:

Thanks so much for your comments!