The Public Enemy Solidified Gang Rule Under James Cagney for 90 Years

James Cagney shoves grapefruit in Make Clark's face in The Public Enemy

Dames, Molls, and Grapefruits

Besides defying the ban on romanticizing criminals, both The Public Enemy and Little Caesar broke sexual codes. There are explicit signs that Rico Bandello represses his sexuality in Caesar. Scenes between him and his friend Joe, and his gunman Otera, thinly veil homoerotic overtones. Public Enemy’s Powers, by contrast, subtly encourages the gay tailor who is openly hitting on him.

There are strong indications Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell) is grooming Tommy and Matt for more than just fenced goods. Look at the way Putty sticks his ass in Powers’ face while he is shooting pool. Putty Nose’s execution at the piano is creepily informed by the unspoken sins between the men. Tommy relishes the kill.

However, Tommy doesn’t relish being manhandled when he’s too drunk to notice. While the gang goes to the mattresses in the movie’s gang war, Tommy is raped by Jane (Mia Marvin), his boss Paddy’s girl. Powers protests the best he can, but the camera angles leave no doubt. Tommy wakes up hungover, horrified, and feeling impotent. Matt, however, has no trouble getting “busy” with his girlfriend Mamie, played by Joan Blondell, in one of the scenes trimmed by the censors.  Blondell, Jean Harlow, and Mae Clarke, who plays Tommy’s girlfriend Kitty, represent a glitzy cross-section of white Roaring Twenties glamour. In the opening credits, when Harlow and Blondell smile at the camera, male audience members of the time blushed.

Harlow was Hollywood’s original “Blonde Bombshell,” starring in the movie that coined the term. Her earthy comic performances would make her a major star at MGM, but she was a dud to critics of The Public Enemy. Hers was the only part which was criticized, and the reviewers were brutal, declaring her voice untrained and her presence boring.

Harlow’s greatest asset had to be contained within the Pre-Code era. Straddled with a wordy part as a slumming society dame, she is directed to slow her lines to counter the quick patter of the rest of the cast. Yet Harlow uses that to her benefit in the film’s best moment of sexual innuendo. While telling Tommy about “the men I’ve known,” she pauses, and appears to be calculating them in her head before she says, “And I’ve known dozens of them.” When an evening alone with Tommy is cut short, Gwen’s exasperation over the coitus interruptus is palpable. Members of the Catholic Legion of Decency probably had to go to confession after viewing the film for slicing.

Most people know The Public Enemy for the famous grapefruit scene where Powers pushes a grapefruit into his girlfriend’s face. “I wish you was a wishing well,” he warns, “so that I could tie a bucket to you and sink ya.” Tommy treats women like property. They are status symbols, the same as clothes or cars. Kitty’s passive-aggressive hints at commitment get on Tom’s nerves. He can only express himself through violence. There are rumors Cagney, who would go on to rough up Virginia Mayo in White Heat and brutalize Doris Day in Love Me or Leave Me, didn’t warn Clarke he was going to use her face as a juicer. According to the autobiography Cagney by Cagney, Clarke’s ex-husband Lew Brice loved the scene so much he watched it a few times a day, timing his entrance into the theater to catch it and leave.

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