The gangster film The Public Enemy was released in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression that followed the crisis of 1929 and the Prohibition (1920-1933).
The gangster picture was one of the most popular pictures of the early thirties. First because it was largely inspired by the headlines about bootlegging and gangs that flourished during that time. In addition, gangster pictures were relatively inexpensive to make. The latter element is not negligible since the studios also tremendously suffered from the Great Depression. Warner Bros lost almost eight millions dollars that year. Interestingly, Public was released the same year the term “American Dream” was defined. The American Dream, “from rags to riches,” is supposed to be attainable for everybody, regardless social background, religion or nationality. As any gangster film, Public portrays the ascension and fall of a hoodlum, Tom Powers (James Cagney.) The aim of this essay will be to discuss the position of this film in relationship to the American Dream. The question raised is whether this film gives a version of the American Dream which could encourage delinquency.
First I will try to define the American Dream more precisely and show how this term is itself contradictory and explain how contradictory this expression is regarding American social and intellectual context. Then I will analyse the film in the light of Edward Mitchell’s patterns of links between American culture and the gangster film. I will look more closely at the relationship between the gangster film and the audiences.
[The Gangster Film: An Expression of the American Dream Paradox]
The American Dream, “is the notion that aside from material success, ‘each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.’” First we must look at the notion of American Dream as regards American culture and the gangster film. Edward Mitchell defines three patterns from the American culture that apply to the gangster film: secularised puritanism, social Darwinism and the “rags to riches” myth.
Puritanism is about people’s relationship to the good and evil and God. In this light, Mike (Donald Cook), Tom’s brother would be an embodiment of good and Tom of Evil. Tom’s acolyte, Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) would be in the middle. He is a hood, however contrary to Tom, he does not enjoy killing, and he does not treat his girlfriend badly. His death, caused indirectly by Tom could signify that one must choose a side.
Social Darwinism is based on “survival of the fittest” in nature, meaning that the sustainability of a species was ensured by its adaptability, aggressiveness and intelligence. Applied to modern humanity, “Social Darwinism served as a rationalisation for economic and geographic rapaciousness.” Tom would be an embodiment of the “fittest,” his cunningness and violence leading him to the “top of the chain.” He indeed succeeds in the material aspect of the American Dream since he can afford expensive cars and tuxedos.
Lastly, the “rags to riches myth,” coming from Horatio Alger’s stories, is linked to Social Darwinism in the sense that the Alger hero must survive, thanks to his intelligence, to get back money/inheritance that was stolen from him. Contrary to Alger’s heroes, Tom does not struggle against a machination but looks for trouble himself, and uses not only cunningness but illicit means and violence. Moreover, the ending is never at the advantage of the hero, or anti-hero who is inevitably “fated.” Indeed, the punishment is death; but also collateral damage. Consequently, the American dream is to be considered paradoxical per se, displaying the contradictory “relationship between self-interest and social obligation.” Mitchell argues that the gangster hero “insidiously demands our admiration.” However I would say that it is not the case in Public. Tom appears unlikeable and sociopathic for no reason; the environment does not justify all of Tom’s actions, since he has a loving mother and an honest brother. In this respect, Public is ambivalent.
[The Gangster Hero/ Tom Powers and “the Decent Alternative”]
The plot starts in 1909. I would that this first chapter is the main sociological one. It begins by shots of a city (probably Hollywood), which seems modern and prosperous. Those shots are contrasted with those of much poorer neighbourhoods, as if unveiling a reality far from glamour. This first chapter aims at showing Tom’s childhood, and therefore the origin of his delinquency. Tom and his acolyte Matt are then young boys do petty-mischief but their youth and playfulness make them sympathetic to the spectators. It is during this time that the boys will start working for the first crook, Putty Nose, who will draw them into criminality.
Already during the scene with Tom’s brother Mike and Matt’s sister Molly, their roles are set. Tom has offered Molly stolen roller skates that his brother Mike commands her to give them back. Mike appears law-abiding and Tom is “the bad boy.” Tom is spanked – the spanking is off-screen due to Hays code but the use of sound makes up for it – by, what seems to be, his father. He is at least an authorial figure because he is wearing a uniform. One would assume there are no other depictions of violence on the child because of the censor, but the film suggests that this kind of punishment does not help pre-delinquent children. This man will not appear again; it is the figure of the mother (Beryl Mercer), loving and forgiving that will take over. I would argue that the film – which asserts its sociological approach in the beginning – falters in depicting the social hardships of the poor. Indeed, we do not know why Tom and Matt fall in the wrong crowd and Mike does not. Criminality would therefore be a matter of choice or a character trait.
Since the start, we have seen there is a rivalry between the brothers. Tom mocks Mike for being earnest. “He’s too busy going to school. He’s learning how to be poor.” This sentence expresses the conflict of the meanings of success. It implies that being serious and honest does not assuredly pay. Indisputably, the American Dream is all about the money obtained through hard work. One could argue that criminality is easy-money, however, the gangsters take risks and play their lives in these operations; so one could not call that “easy-money.”
In 1917, Mike is enlisted in the Marines, reinforcing the discrepancy between the two brothers: one as the dutiful honest man, the other as lowlife. However the scene is not that transparent since Tom says about his brother going to war: “You always did take all the breaks.” It implies that Tom is somehow jealous of Mike’s aura and prestige, despite the fact that he earns more money thanks to his illicit business. Tom is at the opposite of Mike by provocation but at the same time envies him.
When Mike is back from war and wounded, he refuses Tom’s beer saying it is blood, to which Tom replies: “Your hands ain’t so clean. You killed and liked it. You didn’t get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.” Public raises ethical and moral issues, questioning the classical and Manichean hierarchy of values, even though its primary aim was not to question the implication of the US army in Europe.
The police in the film are nearly non-existent or useless. They first appear after the death of one of Tom’s accomplice in the stealing of furs. They are drinking beers and one of them says what is the warning of all gangster films: “Larry got what he asked for.” The film, as we have seen earlier with the father, gets controversial regarding authority figures (the father/police/military.) They are either too violent or completely incompetent; it reflects the Depression era’s lack of trust in social structures.
Tom treats his girlfriend badly, again giving an unglamorous portrayal of gangsters’ private life. When Matt gets killed, Tom smiles. This is illogical, I would argue that it is a flaw of the plot. This smile would highlight some kind of sociopathic trait, explaining Tom’s taste for killing. Although Tom is not a sympathetic character, he and Matt shared a spirit of comradeship and trust. The ending is that of a horrid vision, intercut with the mother humming joyfully at the prospect of her son coming back home. The “bad” is indeed punished in the end, the problem is that his family is also punished, because despite who he was, they loved him. This might be why the film could be an unconscious critique of the American Dream, because, in the film, it does not reward the good – apart from the fact that they remain alive – and the “bad” was not given a chance of redemption despite the choice of a “decent alternative” embodied by his brother.
[The Gangster Film, the Audiences and the Moralists]
I think the film is a symptom of the era. The film does not directly critique the American ideal of working hard to earn money; because thanks to the example of the older brother, the film underlines that criminality is also a matter of choice. However the social background and poverty give a social approach to the story.
The beginning and the ending of the film show these statements:
It is the ambition of the authors […] to honestly depict an environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life, rather than glorify the hoodlum or the criminal. /The end of Tom Powers is the end of every hoodlum. ‘The Public Enemy’ is not a man, nor is it a character – it is a problem that sooner or later, we, the public, must solve.
By these statements, Warner Bros wanted to position the film in a sociological approach but also to go round the critic of the moralists, who accused the gangster film of glamourizing violence. The idea of a collective responsibility gives a socialist line to the film, which is quite opposed to the American individualism. One could argue it is to please morality. The final statement asserts that crime does not pay; yet expensive clothing and cars show that crime indeed pays. This sentence is superficial and right-thinking because the sociological approach of the film is imbalanced compared to the individualist approach – the film focuses more on the gangster hero than on the societal causes.
The audiences liked the gangsters – fictional or non-fictional – and their “egoism, social protest, amoral virtues and sado-energy.” It was highly problematic for the moralists. The Hays Code instituted in 1934 eradicated the gangster films.
For Robert Warshaw, “The gangster is the ‘no’ to the great American ‘yes’ which is stamped so large over our official culture.’” Indeed, during the tough years of the Depression and the increased social gaps, the audiences enjoyed by proxy the ascension of a poor character buying fancy outfits and driving flashing cars, therefore being equal to privileged people.
Is the film a critique or an endorsement? To answer this question, one is to ask “what is the impact of this film on the spectator’s perception of the gangster? And the answer is mostly negative by comparison.” It depends if we perceive the American Dream as earning money quickly, and whether we feel sympathy for the Anti-hero. This is again to be opposed to another important figure of American culture at that time: the “self-made man”, also an alternative to an illegal choice of life. The notion of “choice” and its consubstantial “responsibility” can be seen as a remembrance of Christian conservative culture. In this respect, the film might also be considered as a critique.
Adams, James Truslow. The Epic of America New York : Blue Ribbons Books, 1931.
Balio, Tino. Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939, ed. Charles Harpole, (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: Univesity of California Press, 1995), 283.
Hardy, Phil. “Crime Movies.” In The Oxford History of World Cinema, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith ed., 304-312. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Mitchell, Edward. “Apes and Essence: Some Sources of Significance in the American Gangster Film.” In Film Genre Reader 2, ed. Barry Keith Grant (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), 203-212.
Springhall, John. “Censoring Hollywood: Youth, Moral Panic and Crime-Gangster Movies of the 1930s.” In Journal of Popular Culture, 32, no.3 (1998), 135-154.
Stevens, Dennis Lamar Jr. “The Aesthetics of the American Dream: Experiencing the Visual as Meaning Beyond Truth,” Teachers College, Columbia University, ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 2010.
“The Gangster File: From the Musketeers to GoodFellas,” Monthly Film Bulletin, 58, (1991), 93-97.
Wellman, William A. The Public Enemy, 1931.
 Tino Balio, Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939, ed. Charles Harpole, (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1995), 283.
 Balio, 13.
 James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America New York : Blue Ribbons Books, 1931.
 Adams, quoted in Dennis Lamar Stevens, Jr, “The Aesthetics of the American Dream: Experiencing the Visual as Meaning Beyond Truth,” Teachers College, Columbia University, ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 2010.
 Edward Mitchell, “Apes and Essence: Some Sources of Significance in the American Gangster Film,” in Film Genre Reader 2, ed. Barry Keith Grant (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), 203.
 Mitchell, 203.
 Mitchell, 204.
 Mitchell, 206.
 Mitchell, 207.
 “The Gangster File: From the Musketeers to GoodFellas,” Monthly Film Bulletin, 58, (1991), 95.
 John Springhall, “Censoring Hollywood: Youth, Moral Panic and Crime-Gangster Movies of the 1930s,” in Journal of Popular Culture, 32, no.3 (1998), 135-154.
 Monthly Film Bulletin, 96.
 Robert Warshaw, quoted in Phil Hardy “Crime Movies,” in The Oxford History of World Cinema, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith ed. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 306.
 Hardy, 306.