AFI Catalog of Feature Films
Movie Detail
Name Occurs Before Title Offscreen Credit Print Viewed By AFI
The Public Enemy
Director: William A. Wellman (Dir)
Release Date:   15 May 1931
Duration (in mins):   74 or 83
Print this page
Display Movie Summary

Cast:   James Cagney (Tom Powers)  
    Jean Harlow (Gwen Allen)  
    Edward Woods (Matt Doyle)  
    Joan Blondell (Mamie)  
    Donald Cook (Mike Powers)  
    Leslie Fenton ([Samuel] Nails Nathan)  
    Beryl Mercer (Ma Powers)  
    Robert O'Connor (Paddy Ryan)  
    Murray Kinnell (Putty Nose)  
    Frankie Darro (Matt, as a boy)  
    Purnell Pratt (Officer Powers, Tom's father)  
    Robert E. Homans (Pat, a policeman)  
    Eddie Kane (Joe, headwaiter)  
    Sam McDaniel (Black headwaiter)  
    Mae Clarke (Kitty)  
    Rita Flynn (Molly Doyle)  
    Ben Hendricks Jr. (Buddy Moran)  

Summary: Tom Powers and Matt Doyle, two tough young kids growing up poor in Chicago, work for Putty Nose, a fence. He sets up a robbery deal for them, promising to get them out of trouble if anything goes wrong, but when they bungle the job he abandons them. During Prohibition, they find a new ally, Paddy Ryan, who sets them up in the illegal brewery business. When Mike, Tom's older brother returns from World War I, he berates Tom for his dealings with gangsters and Tom angrily leaves home. The gang's big boss, Nails Nathan, uses Tom and Matt to pressure the local speakeasies, which are caught between rival gangs, into using only the beer that they sell. Tom grows into a ruthless gangster. One day he takes out his frustrations on his girl Kitty, shoving a grapefruit in her face and dumping her in favor of glamorous Texan Gwen Allen. Later, celebrating in an expensive night club, Tom spots their old pal Putty Nose. Tom and Matt follow him to his apartment, where Tom kills him. When Nails dies after a fall from a horse, his death precipitates a gang war. Paddy sends the gang into hiding, but Tom refuses to stay. He and Matt are ambushed by the rival gang as they leave, and Matt is killed in the shootout. Tom vows revenge and single-handedly takes on his rivals. He kills several, but he is wounded himself and collapses outside in the pouring rain. He survives, but the gang kidnaps him from the hospital and delivers his bandage-wrapped dead body to the door of his mother's house. 

Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.  
Distribution Company: Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.  
Director: William A. Wellman (Dir)
Writer: Kubec Glasmon (Scr)
  John Bright (Scr)
  Harvey Thew (Adpt)
Photography: Dev Jennings (Photog)
Art Direction: Max Parker (Art dir)
Film Editor: Edward M. McDermott (Film ed)
Costumes: Earl Luick (Ward)
Music: David Mendoza (Vitaphone Orch cond)
Make Up: Perc Westmore (Makeup)
Country: United States
Language: English

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc. 4/4/1931 dd/mm/yyyy LP2194

Physical Properties: Sd:

Genre: Drama
Sub-Genre: Gangster
Subjects (Major): Bootleggers
Subjects (Minor): Accidental death
  Chicago (IL)
  Mothers and sons

Note: John Bright and Kubec Glasmon received an Academy Award nomination for their original story "Beer and Blood." According to MPH , the title Public Enemy came from a Chicago newspaper headline which caught Warner Bros. president Jack L. Warner's eye. This film made James Cagney a star and established the popular gangster personality that Warner Bros. continued to exploit throughout the thirties. Modern sources note that just before shooting began, Warner Bros. executive Darryl Zanuck replaced director Archie Mayo with William Wellman. It has been often reported that Wellman took the lead away from Edward Woods who had been assigned to the part and gave it to Cagney who had originally been the sidekick, however this is not correct. According to modern sources, Wellman first offered the part of "Gwen Allen" to Louise Brooks. Modern sources mention that the scene in which Tom and Matt shoot the horse that kills Nails Nathan is based on the death of gangster Samuel Nails Morton. In Wellman's autobiography, he said that the grapefruit scene was inspired by an argument with his wife in which he was tempted to do what Powers does in the film. Other modern sources note that Darryl Zanuck claims to have created the famous scene, and a third story is that the incident was loosely based on a similar event involving gangster Earl "Hymie" Weiss and an omelet. Modern film historians point to the fact that this is the most enduring of the thirties gangster films. It was one of the first films acquired for the Museum of Modern Art's collection. Modern sources add the following to the cast: Clark Burroughs ( Dutch ); Snitz Edwards ( Hack Miller ); Adele Watson ( Mrs. Doyle ); Frank Coghlan, Jr. ( Tom, as a boy ); Mia Marvin ( Jane ); Dorothy Gee ( Nail's girl ); Lee Phelps ( Steve the bartender ); Landers Stevens ( Doctor ); Douglas Gerrard ( Assistant tailor ); William H. Strauss ( Pawnbroker ); Russ Powell ( Bartender ). 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Film Daily   26 Apr 31   p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter   20 Dec 30   p. 4.
Motion Picture Herald   17 Jan 31   p. 50.
Motion Picture Herald   24 Jan 31   p. 48.
New York Times   24 Apr 31   p. 27.
Variety   29 Apr 31   p. 12.

Display Movie Summary
The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
Advanced Search
Support our efforts to preserve hisotory of film
Help AFI Preserve Film History

© 2017 American Film Institute.
All rights reserved.
Terms of use.