(director: William Wellman; screenwriters: story “Beer and Blood” by Kubec Glasmon & John Bright/Kubec Glasmon /John BrightHarvey Thew; cinematographer: Dev Jennings; editor: Edw. M. McDermott; 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), Leslie Fenton (Nails Nathan), Frankie Darro (Matt, as a boy), Frank Coghlan (Tom, as a boy), Murray Kinnell (Putty Nose), Beryl Mercer (Ma Powers), Purnell Pratt (Pa Powers), Robert O’Connor (Paddy Ryan), Robert Homans (Officer Pat Burke), Mia Marvin (Jane); Runtime: 83; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Darryl F. Zanuck; Warner Bros.; 1931)
“The film’s juiciest scene has the misogynist Tom squeeze a half a grapefruit in his nagging girlfriend Kitty’s (Mae Clarke) kisser.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Landmark brutal gangster film from the earlie talkie days; due to its success was a great influence on the gangster genre. It’s based on the novel Beer and Blood that was written by two druggists from Chicago, Kubec Glasmon and John Bright; the druggists also handled the screenplay with additional help from Harvey Thew. William Wellman (“Yellow Sky”/”Blood Alley”/”Track of the Cat”) keeps it raw and hopping along in a linear manner with a number of memorable scenes about the rise and fall of a small-time violent gangster. The genteel Edward Woods was originally cast in the lead part of Tom Powers, but after a few days shooting Wellman switched parts and James Cagney had the volatile lead part –the rest is cinema history. This is the edgy iconic part that made Cagney a superstar and known as a trigger-happy gangster.

Tom Powers (Frank Coghlan) and Matt Doyle (Frankie Darro) are raised in the slums of South Side Chicago, where Tom’s brutish cop father regularly beats him with a strap. The story picks up in 1909, where the boyhood friends are delinquents and rob small items to give to untrustworthy small-time fence Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell) who is located in a pool hall/beer hall. As young adults in 1915, Tom is played by James Cagney and Matt by Edward Woods. In a warehouse nighttime fur robbery organized by Putty Nose a panicky Tom fires his gun needlessly and that brings the police to kill one of the gang, though Tom and Matt escape. Putty Nose takes a powder, and the boys get jobs for the city as streetcar workers. When Prohibition comes in 1920, the boys are recruited by former bar owner Paddy Ryan (Robert O’Connor) into bootlegging. The boys partner with big-time hood Nails Nathan (Fenton), and they become wealthy, dress with fine clothes and become party boys. Tom’s simpering lamebrain mom (Beryl Mercer) is clueless about his gang activities, thinking he’s a good boy who got plenty of dough through political connections, though his disapproving older brother Mike (Donald Cook), a decorated ex-marine returning from WWI and attending nighttime college and during the day an honest streetcar worker, comes down hard on his brother for being a hoodlum and Tom gets another residence. The film’s juiciest scene has the misogynist Tom squeeze a half a grapefruit in his nagging girlfriend Kitty’s (Mae Clarke) kisser. Tom also spits a mouthful of beer into a speakeasy owner he’s shaking down and will get even with Putty Face on his return to town by putting a slug in him. Classy Texas society dame seductress Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow) goes slumming and becomes Tom’s latest squeeze after he dumps Kitty. When Nails dies in a freak horse accident, the rival gang attacks Tom’s weakened gang. Tom gets into a shootout with them and kills several of them but is severely wounded. While lying in a rain puddle filling up with his blood he utters the film’s most memorable line: “I ain’t so tough.” In the last scene, delivering with force the message ‘crime doesn’t pay,’ we see Tom delivered to his mom’s home as a bandage-wrapped corpse after being tortured to death while kidnapped from the hospital by the rival Schemer Burns gang. This happens while playing on a Victrola is “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.”

Great rough and tough stuff for its time, but has not dated that well. Aside from Cagney’s mesmerizing performance, the others in the cast look completely outclassed. The film is loosely based on the life of Chicago gangster Earl “Hymie” Weiss.

James Cagney and Jean Harlow in The Public Enemy (1931)