The Public Enemy – 1931 – dir. William A. Wellman
It’s one of my favorite Old Hollywood vignettes, and I don’t know if it’s apocryphal or not. I stumbled across it in the Turner Classic Movies glossy Leading Men: The 50 Most Unforgettable Actors of the Studio Era, and it revolves around the famous scene in director William Wellman’s 1931 gangster classic The Public Enemy where James Cagney spontaneously shoves a grapefruit into co-star Mae Clarke’s face. According to the book: “The scene made Clarke’s ex-husband, Lew Brice, very happy. He saw the film repeatedly just to see that scene and often was shushed by angry patrons when his delighted laughter got too loud.” I love the story because it’s silly and ridiculous and not-outside-the-realm-of-possibility: spiteful exes have been known to do worse. But the story also gets at some of the key elements of an uncommonly enduring movie scene, one so memorable that, as critic Carlos Clarens notes in his book Crime Movies: “Not one reviewer failed to mention it, and it undoubtedly contributed to the film’s success.” (Even Pauline Kael’s pithy two-sentence capsule review of The Public Enemy namechecks Clarke as “the girl who gets the grapefruit shoved in her kisser.”) The grapefruit bit remains a shocker, and was even more jarring in its day, but, as Brice certainly understood, it’s also kind of humorous in its utter nastiness. It catches many a viewer – if not Brice on his hundredth viewing – off-guard, leaving them helpless to do anything but gasp or laugh.
The sudden eruption of violence in the famous grapefruit moment is echoed throughout the film, and for that matter, in other Cagney gangster pictures. There is an unpredictably to Cagney’s gangster characters, and an electricity in him as a performer, that makes him both charismatic and frightening. He’s like a tightly coiled spring; he always seems ready for a scrap, and you can never quite make out his next move. Naturally, you can’t take your eyes off of him. Slant’s Chris Barsanti was undoubtedly on target when he wrote that Cagney “radiates such a brash Fenian cockiness you can imagine kids at the time flocking out of the theater and cocking their caps just like him,” which may have made the studio uneasy. They made it a point to wrap The Public Enemy in disclaimers, reminding us all that Cagney’s character Tom Powers and his ilk “are problems that we – the public – must solve.”
But while the film but has its cake and eats it on some level, allowing audiences be riveted by, even revel in, Cagney’s outlaw cool while still decrying his violent lifestyle, the fallout of Tom’s life of crime is brutal enough to jar its audiences from their cops-and-robbers fantasies. There is real horror in The Public Enemy, never more so than in its final moments, when a mother and son are perversely reunited: the boy is a corpse. More than sixty years after The Public Enemy’s release, Quentin Tarantino proved that he’d learned its lessons well, giving us the seductive cool of Reservoir Dogs’ strutting-thieves opening credits sequence only to sucker punch us with a post-credits scene of one young thief bloody, screaming, and scared. The Public Enemy got there first, reminding us that these hoods are some mother’s sons, kids who’ve learned to look and act the part of a tough. Clarens notes that the film takes the time to show how Tom “matures from a mischievous urchin in knickers and cap to a full-grown, vicious minor hoodlum,” and indeed, this progression is a key the narrative. Knowing where Tom has come from, we know the truth of his famous admission late in the film: “I ain’t so tough.”
But let’s go back to that grapefruit. I’ve attached a wealth of adjectives to that iconic scene already, but there’s one that I haven’t hit on yet: childish. It was a childish thrill that Lew Brice got out of seeing fresh produce slammed in his ex-wife’s kisser, and the surprised laughter that the scene can provoke is partly rooted in the fact that it’s startling to see a grown man act the way that Cagney’s Tom Powers does. The tragedy of the film is that while Tom has grown bigger and more brutal, but he hasn’t really matured, and, trapped by his life as a public enemy, he never will.