The Public Enemy (1931) and the Real-Life Pain of Losing a Sibling


1931 could arguably be summed up as “the year of the gangster”: the newspapers were full of ‘em: stories of “bloody bootleg rackets” and “bootlegger bandit death trysts” dominated the headlines and, thanks to the Warner Brothers studio, the silver screen as well. The studio, which only a few years earlier had revolutionized the industry by ushering in sound with 1927’s The Jazz Singer, began 1931 with a bang when they released the gangster talkie Little Caesar, a film so popular that theaters had to keep it running 24 hours a day just to satisfy audience demand. Riding the wave of gunfire, Warner Brothers followed Little Caesar with The Public Enemy, released in April of 1931. Considered one of the most influential gangster films of all time, The Public Enemy starred firecracker James Cagney, shooting his words out quicker than bullets from a Tommy gun as Tom Powers, a nasty bootlegger bending Prohibition – and the streets of Chicago – to his will.

For all of its violence, guns (and grapefruit), The Public Enemy is at its core a movie about family. The script was adapted from Kubec Glasmon and John Bright’s novel Beer and Blood and that title sums up all of Tom’s world: his “beer” family of bootleggers and his “blood” family, played here by Beryl Mercer as his naïve, loving mother and Donald Cook as his conservative big brother Mike.

The relationship between brothers Tom and Mike is interesting. It is complicated and intense in the way that relationships between real-life siblings often are. Tom Powers may thumb his nose at Mike’s responsible lifestyle (“He’s too busy going to school – he’s learning how to be poor”) but the hard-core gangster – who can literally shoot a man in the back before calling his moll up for a date – doesn’t defend himself when his disapproving brother gives him a sock in the jaw (and the punch was reportedly real – Cook hit Cagney so hard that Cagney cracked a tooth).

No matter how many times I have seen it, the ending of The Public Enemy always shakes me to the core. A repentant Tom Powers reconciles with his mother and Mike. He is in the hospital after a violent shoot-out and he vows to leave the gangster lifestyle behind and return home to them.  His mother and Mike jubilantly prepare for his homecoming just as Tom is kidnapped by rival gangsters. In the film’s final scene, Mike opens the door, expecting Tom, only to be greeted by his brother’s mummified corpse being tossed onto his mother’s living room floor. In shock and pummeled with grief, Mike slowly lurches toward the camera as the needle on a phonograph scratches over a now forgotten record.

This scene hits me on a personal level because that is exactly how it feels to lose a sibling: it is a record that never stops skipping. It is a song that never plays out.

Two years after I lost my sister and long before I ever saw The Public Enemy, I wrote a long poem titled “Making Words” as both a tribute to her and also as a way to work through my bereavement. I too used the image of a broken record as a symbol for my grief:

I was the one who had to make it into words for Mom.  You know that.  You were there, sitting on top of her stereo, hiding behind her cat and thinking that I couldn’t see you.

You were the one scratching the needle over the record; the song was Daydream Believer and it started skipping.  The Monkees stopped dancing.  Mom’s heart opened up and swallowed the words and I couldn’t reach her anymore.

That’s what gets me too about the ending of The Public Enemy: knowing that Mike will have to be the one to tell Ma that her baby is never coming home.

I know how that feels and this is why The Public Enemy is such a personal film for me. Like Mike and Tom, the relationship between my own sister and I was rocked by sibling rivalry but anchored with love.

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