James Cagney, who died last Sunday, caught the public's eye in 1930 with gangster roles in his first two films, "Sinners' Holiday" and "Doorway to Hell," but he became a star with his 1931 portrayal of a cocky, dame-slapping hoodlum in "The Public Enemy." Excerpts from reviews of those early films follow.
"Cagney has by no means an easy role in his portrayal of a highly nervous youth who by nature cannot go straight. It is the type of part which can be spoiled by the slightest shade of over-acting, but Cagney carries his characterization in each sequence just far enough."-- Exhibitor's Herald-World
New York Times, by Mordaunt Hall, Oct. 11, 1930 The romance of a carnival barker and the daughter of a penny arcade proprietress is well told in the screen version of Marie Baumer's play, "Penny Arcade," now known as "Sinners' Holiday."
Grant Withers as Angel Harrigan and Lucille La Verne as Ma Delano are well cast, but the most impressive acting is done by James Cagney in the role of Harry Delano. His fretful tenseness during the closing scenes is conveyed with sincerity.
Variety, by Rush, Oct. 15, 1930 Story of only moderate appeal but moderately well screened, leaves it pointed for just about that kind of box office even for program material. Picture has interesting background and atmosphere and a truly fine performance by Lucille La Verne of the only honestly sympathetic character in the play. No name in cast for film fans.
Best of the story people are designedly anti-sympathetic and generally well-played, particularly a couple of types. James Cagney handled the renegade Harry neatly, a nice piece of acting in poor surroundings, but his sequences with Miss La Verne are all the drama has to stand on, little enough, in sum.
Time magazine, Oct. 20, 1930 Although the picture involves liquor-running and murder, it is less a picture of action than of character, made so by the skill of Lucille La Verne and James Cagney. She is the owner of a penny arcade, which she runs with an avarice only equalled by her devotion to bourgeois respectability and her son, Cagney, a sniveling, dependent coward.
'DOORWAY TO HELL'
"The supporting cast is uniformly good, with honors going to James Cagney as Mileaway. . . . Cagney is excellent in this role, his work being nearly on a par with the splendid performance he gave in the screen version of 'Penny Arcade.' "
"Robert Elliott and James Cagney . . . furnish admirable portrayals. . . . Cagney exhibits splendid ability in characterizing a role."
--L.A. Times, by Edwin Schallert,
Nov. 29, 1930
"Also unusually good are the performances by James Cagney and Dorothy Mathews."
--L.A. Examiner, by Jerry Hoffman, Nov. 29, 1930
"Several others earn my plaudits . . . James Cagney, as Steve Mileaway, loyal to the gang chief but betraying him with his wife. He's fine."
--L.A. Evening Herald, by W. E. Oliver, Nov. 29, 1930 Variety, by Sid, Nov. 5, 1930.
Original title for this film was "A Handful of Cloud," a gangster term. It gives Lew Ayres a chance to play a baby-faced killer. His adolescent pan was one of the chief worries while this picture was in production. The studio was concerned over how it could reconcile Ayres' boyish front to the character of an underworld dictator. It works out OK, perhaps mainly because there's as much interest in a couple of surrounding characters as in the former banjo player. These individuals are James Cagney as Ayres' lieutenant, and Robert Elliott, playing the inevitable detective in the inevitable manner. Between them they take the picture away from the featured name, although Ayres gives a very good account of himself.
'THE PUBLIC ENEMY'
"Edward Woods and James Cagney, as Matt and Tom respectively, give remarkably lifelike portraits of young hoodlums. . . . Slugging disloyal bartenders, shooting down rival beer men, slapping their women crudely across the face, strutting with vast self-satisfaction through their little world, they contribute a hard and true picture of the unheroic gangster."
--New York Times, April 24, 1931
"Mr. Cagney is the toughest young customer to be shown in any of the gunman pictures. He would seem to represent for the younger element what Edward G. Robinson does for the more mature. There isn't a gesture, a slant of profile, a spoken line which isn't altogether hoodlum, whether it is when actual murder is required of his plans or, in a gentle mood of idle passing exasperation, he smashes his lady friend's face with half a grapefruit because of her tedious mannerisms."
--New Yorker, by J.C.M., May 2, 1931
"Mr. Cagney is a rising young talking-picture actor to keep an eye on. He photographs well, his voice records effectively, he has an undeniable flair for getting inside a character and remaining there. Up to now, his characters have been what even he might call standardized and I trust he will do everything he can to keep from being forced into a gangster mold."
--New York World-Telegram Variety, by Sid, April 29, 1931.
Roughest, toughest and best of the gang films to date. It's so strong that full-throated protests across the country are either apt to smother or enhance its natural box office capabilities.
Made on a lot which already has turned out the two best among the money-getting gangster features, this is yet another which goes beyond its predecessors on merit. It is paced by a performance which tops anything in the preceding duo in the hands of the boy who stole "Doorway to Hell"--James Cagney.
There's no lace on this picture. . . . It's raw and brutal with that brutality flung to the front in an uncouth boy's treatment of his women. And when they're through with that comes a shudder. It made women in the audience gasp at the Strand. The hair on the back of a few male necks did a little bristling too.
Bill Wellman sent this one across and has continuously built it up to a peak with his direction. It's low-brow material given such workmanship as to make it high-brow. Maybe Wellman's still sore because they wouldn't let him do his balloon corps picture, and so the resultant venom went into this effort. To square everything there's a forward and postscript moralizing on the gangster as a threat to the public welfare. That possibly will see it through but the yelp about this one from the smaller communities seems as certain as the flood of attendance it's going to get anywhere. There are also two offsets in the dialogue. One supposedly is an "out" for two boys living with their girls. The other infers that the same duo's original desire was to be on the level.
Wellman hasn't glossed his version of the modern badman with any heroic attributes or anecdotes other than with an abundance of physical courage. This boy is a bully behind his gun with men and the same with his fist toward his women. Cagney makes it an ungrammatical and powerful performance realizing upon everything, and a little more, than he flashed in "Doorway."
Pushing a grapefruit into the face of the moll (Mae Clark) with whom he's fed up, socking another on the chin for inducing him to her for the night while he's drunk, and spitting a mouthful of beer into the face of a speak-easy proprietor for using a rival's product are a few samples of Cagney's deportment as Tom the tough in the modern gangster's dress and way.
The story traces he and Matt (Edward Woods) from the street gamins in 1909 as a couple of rowdy neighborhood boys. At that time they're petty larcenying their way into the favor of a 20th-Century Fagin. Titles then designate lapses in time as of '15, '17 and finally '20. During this interim they've killed a cop on their first big job and both kids are set to go the hard way.
The comedy in the picture, as well as the rough stuff, is in the dialogue and byplay with the dames who include, besides Miss Clark, Joan Blondell and Jean Harlow. The types are excellent, but Miss Harlow better hurry and do something about her voice. She doesn't get the best of it alongside of the Misses Clark and Blondell, who can troupe.
Feature runs close to an hour and a half, but there doesn't appear to be a wasted foot of film. That means speed. Plenty of action, with practically all of the gun stuff masked, and the dialogue has no superfluities. It's the jargon of the strata and too obvious to be missed. Much of it is funny and all of it is smart theater.
As a delineation of a racketeer's narrow psychology and relations with women, this is the broadest and boldest yet placed upon the screen or stage. The defense will be that wording at the finish which reminds the public that something ought to be done about the gangster. Many women will consider much of the action an outrage to the decency of womanhood, but no one can doubt its veracity. And its moral holds something to the effect that young boys shouldn't have free street liberty.
Men will go for this picture all the way and not only guffaw at but gurgle over many of the side lights in the dame stuff. It may perhaps fascinate that type of woman to whom this dame treatment is but the faintest of hearsay. If that is the case nothing can keep "Public Enemy" from sweeping through to big matinees as well as nights. If the intent was to throw a veil of doubt around the morals of Miss Harlow's character so that she might be construed as a good girl, the street pickup by Tom and her voluptuous appearance immediately belie any such attempt.
This film seems sure of two or three weeks at the Strand. Especially in view of what other gang pictures have done at the same house where this type of film draws a prize fight crowd. Male attendance should spell a fortnight's stay. They've got to go out talking about this picture, for or against. The danger is that such word of mouth will pyramid into a round-robin protest.
For Cagney the situation is ultimately apt to be crucial, for he won't find it easy to follow this performance, which spots him as the best of the screen gangsters and on a lot which is evidently overboard with talent for this type of film.