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The Public Enemy

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It was a supporting role in a long-since forgotten George Arliss programmer that convinced the brothers Warner that James Cagney, with but three minor pictures to his credit, had what it took to play fast-talking big city bootlegger Tom Powers. (Edward Woods, who co-stars as Tom’s henchman, Matt Doyle, was originally signed to the role.) Unlike Caesar Enrico Bandello or Tony Camonte — fellow period movie tough guys played with respective muscle by Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni — Cagney envisioned Tom as a full-dress psychopath. The film’s most enduring scene involves Cagney introducing Mae Clarke’s face to half a grapefruit. Was this the “fiercely misogynistic moment“ that one critic labeled it, or a practical joke for the studio’s Christmas gag reel? The action wasn’t in the script. According to Cagney and Clarke, the two decided to have a little fun at the crew’s expense. Director William Wellman liked the ad-lib so much that he decided that the bit stays in the picture. And pay extra attention to Jean Harlow’s delivery. Scorsese was right to call attention to her “strange line-readings.” (1931) — Scott Marks

Rated NR | 1 hour, 24 minutes

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