The Public Enemy was a terrific example of the gangster genre, which emerged in full force during the early 1930s. As the film came out in 1931, and was unhampered by the restrictive measures of the Hollywood Production Code, enforced in 1934, The Public Enemy retains its punchy lines, seedy settings, and bawdy women: grit essential to the murky vigor of organized crime. As I was watching the film, I quickly understood why audiences, some eighty years ago, were struck by the gangster drama. As the American psyche was inextricably bound up with the accumulation of wealth and success, a story of a self-made man seems irresistible. However, The Public Enemy is, in actuality, a cautionary tale that debunks the reliability of the American Dream.
The intoxicating allure of upward social mobility was instilled in the collective American conscience by stories designed by Horation Alger, and inspired by men like Rockefeller and Carnegie. The American myth, that anyone could make it to the top if they just worked hard enough, or possessed the right character, was a misconception understood by most Americans during the 1930’s, and is a myth that stands strong to this very day. Circumstance and luck had nothing to do with success in the traditional Gilded Age understanding of the word. Just as personal success was attributed to character, so too was poverty; thus, poverty took on a meaning of laziness and personal inadequacy. However, after the fall of the stock market in 1929, around 25% of American workers found themselves jobless and poverty was thrust into the face of the middle class. Poverty was too big of an issue and too close to home for average Americans to sweep under the carpet, and so poverty was beginning to be comprehended as a problem with the economic and government system, not an individual’s lack of character.
With the disillusionment of the American Dream in mind, consider the plotline of The Public Enemy. James Cagney is mesmerizing on screen as the fast-talking, quick-moving, and unapologetically bad Tom Powers. Tom’s humble beginnings and harsh childhood allow the audience to empathize with the hero’s descent into the world of organized crime. During the 1930s, when jobs were scarce and waist belts were tight, audiences would have understood Tom’s involvement in the crime world as an act of survival and courage. Now, that the audience is fully empathetic to Tom, it can revel in the themes of violence, sex, and money, along with Tom; hence, living vicariously through Tom. Throughout most of the movie, Tom takes what he wants, whether it’s a punch, a dame, or some dough, and this is the part of the movie which served as escapist fodder for audiences. His violent and uncaring behavior is a reflection of a bloated sense of unfettered individualism and ego– a dark facet of the American Dream. It seems that Tom can ride the swell of personal success and unlimited power, doing just as he pleases without any regard for the well-being of other people. However, the principles of laissez-faire society had to be tested, as seen in the concluding scenes of The Public Enemy. The ebb was coming.
As a parallel to the collapse of the economy and the integrity of the American Dream, The Public Enemy takes the audience on a thrilling ride to the top, where money sex, and power are plentiful, and then rips success away from the hero; leaving him, in the final scene of the movie, as the powerless, bound and mummified remnants of a once “great” man (A misogynist murderer is certainly not my idea of a great man, but this is the dirty thirties). The shocking image of Cagney left on his mother’s doorstep, bloodied and wrapped up like a package, reminds the audience of how quickly a man can be humbled—no matter how powerful. Cagney’s character fought the stagnant world of convention and mediocrity and lost. He was a self-made man, like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt, but fell prey to the gods of circumstance and chance. Perhaps Cagney’s character reminded people facing hard times, or the threat of hard times, that it wasn’t a person’s fault if they failed, it was merely the hand of fate. “The gangster film became a contemporary version of the Gospel of the Gilded Age. But the gangster film always dealt with both rise and fall; when the gangster, sitting “on top of the world,” dies spectacularly alone, his success proves hollow and short-lived, like the bubble of prosperity in the 1920s.” (228, Dickstein)
Likewise, the hero’s involvement with the crooked Puttynose, illuminates not only the ways in which environment and circumstance can forge a man’s life but how unreliable people and organizations can be when you really need their help. While Puttynose was responsible for putting malicious ideas in the mind of Power’s character and a gun in the youth’s hand, old Puttynose failed to support the very beast he had created when it came back to his creator. This, again, parallels American society– filling youth’s heads with ideas of grandeur, informing them of the steps they need to take to be a success, and then turning its back on youth when the rug of the American Dream is pulled out from under them. Just as the veteran soldiers of WWI formed the Bonus Army and trekked to Washington in search of help, only to be hosed off the pavement and whisked away by fellow officers of the army, so too did Puttynose reject his own.
Aside from the theme of the individual being explored—an idea most cherished by American culture— the importance of community and sticking together is found throughout The Public Enemy. Take the scene in Public Enemy where Powers questions Patty’s (owner of Patty’s Pub) decision to do him a favor:
Tommy: “Why do you want to front for us? We ain’t ever done nothin’ for you.”
Patty: “Maybe not. I might need a friend sometime. I’m older than you, and I’ve learned that nobody can do much without somebody else.”
Contrary to the American ideal of self-sufficiency and individualism, the idea of needing to depend on other people for survival or success is explored in many of the Golden Era films, The Public Enemy is no exception. With growing awareness of the fragility of the American Dream, many Americans began to look at socialist models for society as an answer to capitalism gone amok. The American government, for the first time in its history, took responsibility for the well-being of its people through government programs, designed to support those who were less fortunate and needed financial aid. These programs were a part of the New Deal, under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s command, and acted as a buffer against the American Dream, which was chafing under weight of grief, stress, loss, and despair felt by many millions of jobless Americans.