The Public Enemy (1931)

Noirvember Retrospective: The Women of “The Public Enemy”

By Joan Amenn

In this early noir classic women are categorized in three ways; the passive and not very bright good girls, the party girls who like to have fun but maybe not break the law and those hard bitten few who walk on the wild side. This last category is personified by the iconic Jean Harlow who can go toe to toe with James Cagney’s volatile gangster, Tommy Powers. They set off sparks together but glamorizing a criminal lifestyle is quite the opposite of what “The Public Enemy” is supposed to be about.

The Public Enemy (1931)

Despite a sternly worded opening and epilogue spelling out “crime doesn’t pay” to the audience, the law-abiding characters of “The Public Enemy” are not very likable. This is especially true of the women, represented by Tommy’s mother played by Beryl Mercer and Rita Flynn as the sister of Tommy’s best friend, Matt. Ma Powers seems pretty simple minded in her inability to figure out how her son Tommy is suddenly making so much money. Molly Doyle welcomes home Tommy’s straight arrow brother Mike from the war and spends the rest of the film mutely obedient to him and his mother. For all the chemistry between them, Mike might as well have gotten a cat for companionship. These two might be what Hollywood studio heads thought of women in the 1930’s but it isn’t very appealing in the twenty-first century.

The gangsters Tommy and Matt pick up a couple of girls at a nightclub one evening. Kitty (Mae Clarke) and Mamie (Joan Blondell) are happy to help the boys spend their money on a good time. Mamie and Matt eventually get married and it probably helps that Blondell plays her as a bubblehead swept up in the glamor of hotel suites and partying to the early hours of the morning. Kitty seems more grounded or maybe Tommy is more capricious but their relationship doesn’t last long. Poor Mae Clarke famously got slapped in the face with half a grapefruit for questioning Tommy’s need for booze at breakfast. She was also terrorized by a much taller but much less attractive co-star in “Frankenstein” (1931) the same year as this film was released. Mamie and Kitty set the standard for women in future gangster films in that they either went along with their partner’s questionable morals or they paid a price.

The Public Enemy (1931)
The Public Enemy (1931)

The woman who captures Tommy’s heart is Gwen Allen. Sensuous, sharp and aloof, she is no one’s fool. Tommy is smitten but she seems to know that his volcanic personality will ultimately be his undoing. She confesses that the men she knew before him were all rather boring in their socially acceptable behavior. Gwen has a temper of her own and announces to Tommy she will be leaving town shortly as fond as she is of him. It seems she doesn’t like playing second fiddle to his gang activities or maybe, like Etta Place in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) she just doesn’t want to see Tommy violently die. Harlow is stunning in her furs and jewels but her confession of her attraction to Tommy is poignant in its vulnerability and candor. She was much more than just a sex symbol; she could leave an audience breathless with her acting ability. She and Cagney set the screen on fire and launched them both into film immortality.

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