Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The Public Enemy (1931)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The Public Enemy (1931)

In director William Wellman's gritty gangster classic released before the Production Code went into effect - it featured an effective portrayal of the lead anti-hero character Tom Powers (James Cagney) as a sexually magnetic, cocky, completely amoral, emotionally brutal, ruthless, and terribly lethal individual - a two-fisted bootlegger who was successful in materialistic ways, acquiring notoriety, power, wealth, and dames:

  • the film's foreword from Warner Bros. Pictures: "It is the ambition of the authors of 'The Public Enemy' to honestly depict an environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life, rather than glorify the hoodlum or the criminal..."
  • in the early scenes set in 1909, young Irish-American street punk Tommy Powers (Frank Coghlan Jr. as boy) grew up in Chicago - exhibiting meanness, dishonesty, and early criminality; he and his best friend Matt Doyle (Frankie Darro as boy) worked for a swindling fence named "Putty Nose" (Murray Kinnell) who paid them for stolen items
  • by 1915, the boys were teenaged hoodlums, each offered a gun as a Christmas present and hired by "Putty Nose" to rob The Northwestern Fur Company warehouse; they bungled the theft (Tom nervously fired his gun when frightened by an immense stuffed animal, leading to the shooting death of lookout Limpy Larry Dalton, a 3rd gang member, by an alerted policeman); and then as they fled from the scene, Tom killed the policeman; thereafter "Putty Nose" abandoned them: ("Putty Nose beat it. You'd better lay low for awhile. The heat's on"); Tom promised to seek revenge: "Why, that dirty, no-good, yellow-bellied stool. l'm gonna give it to that 'Putty Nose' right in the head the first time l see him"
  • in 1917, while Tom's strait-laced veteran brother Mike (Donald Cook) enlisted in the military in 1917 to serve in the Great War in Europe (leaving Tom as "the man of the family"), Tom and Matt were delivery truck drivers but decided to make more money by working for big-time, better-connected underworld operator Patrick "Paddy" J. Ryan (Robert Emmett O'Connor); by 1920, one of their biggest jobs was to steal a tank load of alcohol from a "booze warehouse" and earn a three-way split of $150,000
Tom and Matt's 'Employers'

Teenaged Hoodlums
(l to r): Working for Fence "Putty Nose"

Delivery Truck Drivers

Switching Allegiances -
Working for Paddy Ryan

and Bootlegger "Nails" Nathan
(Leslie Fenton)
  • Tom and Matt became involved in the corrupt and violent business of truck-driving for bootleggers during Prohibition, working for Paddy and allied with Samuel "Nails" Nathan (Leslie Fenton), against an opposing gang run by Schemer Burns; Tom and Matt served as the enforcing "trouble squad" - as "Nails" insisted: "lt means they buy our beer or they don't buy any beer"
  • in a dinner-table scene (with a large beer keg of illegal booze as a centerpiece), returning shell-shocked, veteran brother Mike viciously argued with Tom; he was completely opposed to Tom's dishonest criminal life, and their widowed mother (Beryl Mercer) was naively unaware of Tom's career: "I know what's in it. I know what you've been doing all this time, how you got those clothes and those new cars. You've been telling Ma that you've gone into politics, that you're on the city payroll. Pat Burke told me everything. You murderers! There's not only beer in that jug. There's beer and blood - blood of men!"; he tossed the keg off the table; Tom countered his brother's dissatisfaction with disgust: "Your hands ain't so clean. You killed and liked it. You didn't get them medals for holding hands with them Germans"
  • during an infamous, argumentative breakfast scene at the Washington Arms Hotel, brutal, cocky, and misogynistic gangster Tom Powers stuffed half a grapefruit in the face of annoying mistress/girlfriend Kitty (Mae Clarke); when he came to the breakfast table in a grouchy and irritable mood, he asked his moll: "Ain't you got a drink in the house?" and when rebuffed with her reply: "Well, not before breakfast, dear", he felt insulted: "I didn't ask you for any lip. I asked you if you had a drink." Then after she told him: "I know, Tom, but I-I wish that...," he became even more grouchy: "There you go with that wishin' stuff again. I wish you was a wishing well, so that I could tie a bucket to ya and sink ya." She provoked him with: "Maybe you've found someone you like better," causing him to impulsively pick up a grapefruit half from his plate and contemptuously push it into her face to basically end their relationship
Infamous Grapefruit Scene: Tom Powers with Kitty (Mae Clarke)
  • mysteriously cool Texas blonde Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow) entered Tom's life as another glamorous moll, wearing expensive clothes; when he first met her on the street; Tom brashly told her: "We're not going to be strangers"; after chauffeuring her around town, with Matt driving, he began to date her after dumping Kitty
  • Matt and Tom sought revenge against long-time gang-leader "Putty Nose" who Tom claimed had led him into a life of crime: ("Sure, you taught us how to cheat, steal and kill. And then you lambed out on us"); "Putty Nose" begged for his life ("Ain't you got a heart, Matty boy? Don't you remember how l used to play to you? And didn't l always stick up for you? l ain't got this coming...You remember that song l used to sing? That song l taught ya? You remember, Tommy. Back in the club, how you kids used to laugh at that song"); he played a tune on the piano that he had played for Tom when he was a kid, before he was mercilessly murdered (off-screen) by Tom in cold blood; after two shots, he fell onto the piano keys and onto the floor
  • during a seductive love scene in Gwen's apartment at the The Congress Hotel, Tom knew she was "on the make", but was holding out on him and possibly not right for him; when he announced he was leaving her, she assured him - to the tune of I Surrender Dear on the radio, why she was attracted to him (a bad man), as she cradled his head to her breasts: "You're a spoiled boy, Tommy. You want things, and you're not content until you get them. Or maybe l'm spoiled, too. Maybe l feel that way, too. But you're not running away from me. Come here. (she sat on his lap) Now you stay put, if you know what that means. Oh, my bashful boy. You are different, Tommy, very different. And I've discovered it isn't only a difference in manner and outward appearances, it's a difference in basic character. The men I know, and I've known dozens of them, oh, they're so nice, so polished, so considerate. Most women like that type. I guess they're afraid of the other kind. I thought I was, too. But you're so strong. You don't give. You take. Oh, Tommy, I could love you to death"
  • in another crude murder scene, Tom vengefully executed Rajah, a "spirited horse," after his gangster boss "Nails" Nathan died in a horse-riding accident (he fell off the horse and was kicked in the head); he bought the horse for $1,000 and then promptly shot it in its stall (off-screen)
  • a gang war power struggle erupted after "Nails"' death; the rival Burns gang bombed Paddy Ryan's headquarters and their brewery was set on fire; as Tom and Matt left Paddy's home, they were machine-gunned down on the street from a perch set up across the street - and Matt lost his life
  • in a climactic shoot-out scene, the vengeful Tom single-handedly slaughtered and eliminated the rival Schemer Burns gang headquartered at the Western Chemical Company as the camera deliberately remained on the outside of the building while a barrage of shots and moaning screams of the wounded and dying were heard from inside, but then Tom stumbled seriously wounded onto the rain-soaked street, fell into the gutter, and muttered to himself: "I ain't so tough"
  • while Tom was hospitalized, a family visit brought Tom and his brother Mike to reconcile with each other; Tom sincerely apologized: ("I'm sorry"), and expected to return home after recovering, and his mother was overjoyed: "You're coming home, ain't you Tommy, to stay?...You're going to get well and strong. Both my boys back. All of us together again. I'm almost glad this happened"
  • in the final horrifying scene, the Powers home expected that Tommy would be coming home soon from the hospital; however, Paddy reported that the Burns' gang had kidnapped Tom from the hospital; Paddy had negotiated to "quit the racket" if they let Tom go; a phone call was soon received that Tom was indeed "on his way" home; his mother cheerfully went upstairs and hummed to herself as she prepared his room for his home-coming: "Oh, it's wonderful. I'll get his room ready. I knew my baby would come home"
  • a scratchy Victrola phonograph record played an upbeat tune, I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles on the soundtrack; in the rival gang's gruesome plan after kidnapping him from the hospital, they gift-delivered Tommy's bullet-ridden, rope- and blanket-wrapped 'mummified' corpse/body, announced by a knock on the door; when brother Mike answered the front door, Tommy appeared alive, bound from head to foot except for his exposed, bandaged and bloody face; it was the film's final memorable bone-chilling image - he tetter-tottered on the doorstep, and then his mummy-body fell and crashed with a dull thud - face-first onto the floor; the needle on the revolving phonograph record reached the end of the record, sounding like a heart-beat
Tommy's Mummified Corpse Delivered to His Home's Door
  • the film's somber message appeared over the image - the studio added a cautionary, yet ineffective, postscript to punish the anti-hero's transgressions by film's end: "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"


Young Tom Powers

As Young Boys, Fencing Stolen Items with "Putty Nose"

Tom 'Enforcing' The Purchase of Bootleg Beer by a Speakeasy Bartender

Mike's Dinner-Time Argument with Tom About His Dishonest Bootlegging Business

Tom's Counter-Argument Against Mike: "You killed and liked it"

Tom's and Matt's Fancy Lifestyle: Cars, Clothes and Women

Matt's Marriage to Mamie (Joan Blondell)

Cold-Blooded Murder of "Putty Nose"

Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow) with Tom


Matt's Gunning Down

Tom Hospitalized and Reconciled with Mike



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