Cagney, Robinson and the various guises of 1930s gangster thrillers (Part II)

Cover of "The Public Enemy"

(Continuing Reveal Shot’s examination of 1930s gangster movies, particularly those made by Warner Bros. Inspired by viewings from Warner Home Video’s four-volume DVD series, “The Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection.” )

One of the most celebrated scenes in “The Public Enemy” (1931) is its most misogynist: Tom Powers (James Cagney), who has grown tired of girlfriend Kitty (an uncredited Mae Clarke), smashes her in the face with half of a grapefruit.

This began a pattern in which Cagney hit or manhandled women in several films, sometimes for comedic effect. In “Public Enemy,” we are hardly surprised that someone as casually brutal as Powers would do such a thing, but it seems odd that slapping “dames” around became such a crowd pleaser.

Andre Sennwald’s review of the film in the New York Times noted that the audience at Warner Bros. flagship local theater, The Strand, “laughed frequently and with gusto” at the premiere, as Tom and Matt beat up and otherwise intimidated various people, which in the critic’s view, “took the brutal edge” off the picture. 1

From the beginning, then, it was obvious that audiences were rooting for such appealing murderers, which led to one of the main tenets of the tightened Production Code instituted three years later: Gangsters had to be portrayed as being so despicable that no one could identify with them. Various groups worried that many moviegoers, especially young people, would imitate their heroes and emulate the kind of behavior they saw on the screen.

“Before the Code, there was a much more honest portrayal of sex and violence,” said Christopher Sharrett a professor of communication and film studies at Seton Hall University. “There’s a film called ‘The Beast of the City’ (1932, from MGM), that’s thought of as a precursor to ‘The Wild Bunch’ because it had this explosive shoot ’em-up ending where lots of people are killed at close range. There were tons of melodramas with a flagrant display of sexuality. There’s a film called ‘Safe In Hell,’ about the plight of the female. A woman kills a man who tried to rape her, and flees to a Caribbean island.

“The Code did terrible damage,” Sharrett went on. “Some argue that it made directors think in a more imaginative way, because they couldn’t be as explicit — but I don’t buy it, because pre-Code films showed a lot of interesting things about social conditions.”

“Scarface” (1932) of course dates from the pre-Code era, and aspects like its frank exploration of themes like incest and the sheer volume of killings in the movie were primary targets of the Legion of Decency and other reform-minded groups.

Considering the window the studios had between 1931 and July of 1934 (when Joseph Breen’s tougher Code took effect) to make relatively uncompromised films, it’s frustrating to realize that neither Cagney nor Edward G. Robinson made pure gangster thrillers during the period that could top “The Public Enemy” or “Little Caesar.”

Each of them tired very quickly of playing thugs, so that after playing Rico Bandello and Tom Powers, Robinson and Cagney spent these three years moving away from those roles. Each man was strong enough to resist the demands of Jack L. Warner, Hal Wallis or anybody else on the lot.

After “Public Enemy,” Cagney teamed up with Robinson in “Smart Money,” which starred Robinson as a small-town barber who goes to the big city and becomes a ruthless gambler. It is made clear that neither man is particularly evil, despite Robinson’s unintentional killing of Cagney in the final reel. In contrast, Rico Bandello and Tom Powers are evil incarnate, though appealing.

The irrepressible Cagney was then seen in such films as “Taxi!” (1932), where he is a hotheaded cabbie who repeatedly gets into fights and tries to kill the main villain before he and Loretta Young settle in for a happy fadeout; “The Crowd Roars” (1932), as a race car driver with a short fuse who alienates his true love (Ann Dvorak) and his kid brother (Eric Linden) before coming to his senses; “Picture Snatcher” (1933), as a gangster who gets out of jail and tries to go straight by taking a job as a photographer for a sleazy tabloid; and “Lady Killer” (1933) — for my money the best of his 1931-34 output — as a chiseler who becomes the leader of a confidence gang in Chicago, flees to Hollywood when things get too hot and becomes a movie star. This one is remembered for a scene in which the Cagney character drags Mae Clarke by her hair to throw her out of his bedroom, and kicks her in the behind for good measure.

Robinson’s work during this period includes “Five Star Final” (1931), featuring E.G.R. (as he was sometimes referred to in promotional materials) as a newspaper editor at a scandal sheet who causes tragedy by hounding a woman who killed in self-defense years before. Boris Karloff is amusing here as a slimy reporter, and Aline MacMahon is very good, as usual, as Robinson’s secretary.

The harrowing “Two Seconds” (1932), in which Robinson is a construction worker who accidentally causes the death of his best pal, and murders his wife and her lover, a story told in flashback as he is being executed in the electric chair; and “The Little Giant” (1933), which established the template for numerous funny gangster tales. Robinson plays a Chicago gang leader who is put out of business by the repeal of Prohibition and goes to Santa Barbara to buy his way into “classy” high society.

This first try at the formula is the one of the most successful, with genuinely funny by-play between the uneducated but very smart E.G.R. and his new acquaintances in several “fish out of water” scenarios. One laugh-out loud scene shows Robinson trying to play polo, swinging the mallet wildly and looking uncomfortable on a horse.

A very appealing Mary Astor shines as Robinson’s eventual love interest.

“Robinson was a very talented actor, who got caught up in a stereotype,” said Sharrett. “This little sawed-off guy who kept doing this schtick of ‘Yeah, well, see.’ He turned it upside down in some parodies, like ‘A Slight Case of Murder‘ (1938) and ‘Larceny Inc.‘ (1942).” 2

Though Warner Bros. proved to be ingenious at getting around the Code once it came in, something was irretrievably lost.

“To some extent [pre-Code] films have been erased from the record,” said film historian Saul Austerlitz, author of “Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy.”

“They’ve only been rediscovered in the last 10, 15, 20 years, with Warner putting them out on DVD, and The Film Forum here in New York has put on several series of pre-Code films. The rules of the Code clamped down on filmmakers’ ability to tell certain kinds of stories, and to tell them in certain kinds of ways. And so, it would be very interesting to see what would’ve happened if the kind of moral ambiguousness and sexual daring that you see in some of the early ’30s films had continued forward.

“We forget that the medium was so young at that point. It’s not just that movies themselves had only been around for a little while (c. 1895), but sound films had only been around for seven years by the time these rules come into place. Filmmakers were just beginning to figure out what they could do, and then they were told that they couldn’t anymore.”

— David B. Wilkerson

Part III: Warner Bros. calls for penal reform in “I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang”

Enhanced by Zemanta
  1. “Two Thugs,” New York Times review of “The Public Enemy,” by A.D.S. (Andre D. Sennwald). April 24, 1931. (subscription required)  
  2. For Sharrett, Robinson’s peak as an artist came later. “He really showed the range he had in films like ‘Scarlet Street’ (1945) and ‘The Woman In The Window’ (1944), Fritz Lang’s psychological crime films, where he becomes his own opposite, this meek guy who’s somewhat castrated. Who’s not in control of anything, and is being dominated by the typical femme fatale.”

    Sharrett also admired the actor’s performance as Keyes, the brilliant insurance investigator who hears colleague Fred MacMurray’s confession of murder in “Double Indemnity” (1944). “He’s the conscience of the MacMurray character, and kind of a father figure.”