Mae Clarke: Beyond the Grapefruit
by Heather Babcock, 2019
In the early 1930s, gangster movies used real bullets but the most explosive scene in The Public Enemy (1931) doesn’t involve gun fire at all: the film’s most notorious moment happens as the film’s protagonist, bootlegger Tom Powers (James Cagney), sits down to breakfast with his moll Kitty, played by the lovely Mae Clarke. They have obviously just had sex and Tom is acting more than a little cold and distracted. Kitty, looking fabulous in a pair of silk lounging pajamas, asks him if he has met someone he likes better. Cagney’s sneer curls up like a fist as he picks up a half grapefruit and smashes it in Mae’s face. It is a cruel scene which still shocks today and it confirms our suspicion that Tom Powers is a sociopath.
It seems that almost every man who had a hand in making The Public Enemy has their own story of how this scene came to be shot; the most commonly accepted theory is also the most condescending: the belief that the scene was improvised by Cagney and director William A. Wellman, without Clarke’s knowledge or consent and that her response was thus genuine. This assumption irritates me as it is dismissive of Clarke’s admirable acting talents and relegates her to little more than a prop. Well, Mae Clarke was no prop and she sure as hell wasn’t a hack either: in 1931, in addition to the Public Enemy, she delivered strong performances in three important films: Waterloo Bridge, Frankenstein and The Front Page. As for that grapefruit, I’m going to go with Mae’s version of the story, both because I trust her talent and because I like her better than all those other mugs: in a 1983 interview with American Classic Screen, Mae said that the script originally called for Cagney throwing the grapefruit at her and then storming out. After trying this out, Wellman and Cagney felt that the scene wasn’t quite working so they took Mae aside and asked her if she would be okay with Cagney pushing the grapefruit in her face. Mae didn’t like the idea but agreed to do it on the condition that the scene be shot once and with no retakes. According to Mae, Wellman and Cagney agreed to her conditions. Still, according to her close friends, Mae always hated the “grapefruit scene”.
Viewers today may honor her talent by watching this great actress in the powerful role for which she would undoubtedly prefer to be remembered: as chorus girl turned prostitute Myra in James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge (1931).
Mae Clarke was much more than just “the dame who gets the grapefruit facial”. The most criminal thing about the Public Enemy is that she did not even receive a screen credit.
– Heather Babcock, 2019 (from my essay Beer and Blood: The Birth of the Public Enemy)