We are all so used to hearing people do bad impersonations of James Cagney that it is all too easy to dismiss him as a one-trick pony who did nothing but talk tough with a slight lisp and a vibrato in his cadence. In The Public Enemy, the film that made Cagney a star, he gives a very energetic, physical performance that proves that he was always much more than a distinctive voice.
Even though there are no attempts to use camera angles hide his short stature—as would be done with Alan Ladd a decade later—Cagney is physically intimidating in every shot he is in. As Mike Powers, a kid from the streets who quickly rises to a powerful gangster, Cagney is like a tightly-wound spring, rusty and jagged, ready to pop at any moment. One of the most shocking moments in this, or in any 1930s American film, comes when the keeper of a safe house where he is hiding out, Kitty (Mae Clarke) says something over the breakfast table that doesn’t sit well with him, and he rubs half a grapefruit in her face. His brother (Donald Cook) returns from Europe as a hero of World War I and is shocked to find Mike supporting their dear old mom with the proceeds of bootleg brew. “There’s not only beer in that jug. There’s beer and blood – blood of men!” he shouts over the dinner table. “Besides, your hands ain’t so clean. You killed and liked it,” Mike retorts in Cagney’s best moment in the whole film. “You didn’t get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.” At the same time, he is crudely charming when he wants to be and graceful. When he takes a punch on the chin from his brother but doesn’t strike back out of respect to his mother, who is watching the whole thing. Instead, in a move that is almost balletic, he does a back flip onto the carpet.
Mike gets into lots of trouble and then nearly two thirds into the film a 19-year-old Jean Harlow shows up and complicates things even further. Because of her striking platinum blonde hair and satin gowns—not to mention the way-off-the-mark impersonation by Gwen Stefani in The Aviator, Harlow is mainly remembered as a glamour goddess. But in The Public Enemy, she reveals herself as a very earthy actress.