Spotlight: Sexy Pre-Code Harlow (Post Four)

Welcome to another Film Friday! Today we’re continuing our look at the Pre-Code work of Jean Harlow! (I’m fighting a cold right now, so please excuse me for this post’s comparative brevity. In fact, I just sneezed on the computer screen!)

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Jean Harlow was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri on March 3rd, 1911. The daughter of a dentist and an over-coddling mother named Jean, Harlean was nicknamed “The Baby” by family and friends. After divorcing her husband, Jean moved Harlean to LA, but the move lasted less than two years when Jean’s wealthy father threatened to disinherit her if she didn’t return. The pair soon moved to Chicago, to be close to Jean’s new boyfriend. Jean married Monta Bell in 1926, and Harlean followed suit by eloping with Charles McGrew, a wealthy heir, who took his new bride back to Los Angeles in 1928. On a dare, she strolled into Central Casting, and registered under the name Jean Harlow. Mother Jean and husband followed “The Baby” to LA and pressured her into accepting small extra and bit roles. She signed with Hal Roach studios, but tore up the contract due to the strain it was putting on her marriage. She and McGrew split anyway, and Howard Hughes cast the still unknown Harlow in Hell’s Angels (1930). An audience favorite (but not a critical one), Jean Harlow worked regularly for the next two years in films like The Public Enemy (1931) and Platinum Blonde (1931).

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By 1932, Harlow became romantically involved with MGM producer Paul Bern, who convinced the studio to buy out her contract with Hughes. Her career exploded at MGM and she married Bern, but the marriage ended with his scandalous suicide later that year. Harlow soon began an affair with Max Baer, but the studio, afraid of more negative publicity, paired “The Baby” up with cameraman Howard Rosson instead. Their marriage also lasted under a year. During this time, Harlow’s career continued to boom with films like Bombshell (1933) and Dinner At Eight (1933). Like Joan Crawford, Harlow also found success being paired opposite Clark Gable. Unlike Crawford, however, Harlow’s popularity continued to rise after the Code. Following her divorce, Harlow became romantically involved (and perhaps engaged) to actor William Powell. But at the height of her career, Harlow suddenly died of complications from kidney failure in 1937. She was only 26-years-old.

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So far we’ve featured the starry Dinner At Eight (1933), the steamy Red Dust (1932), and the riotous Bombshell (1933). Today we’re looking at the infamous The Public Enemy (1931).

 

The Public Enemy (1931)

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An Irish-American street punk tries to make it big in the world of organized crime.

Starring James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, Donald Cook, Leslie Fenton, and Beryl Mercer. Written by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright. Screen adaptation by Harvey Thew. Directed by William A. Wellman.

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Let’s get one thing straight. If you’re watching this film for Harlow, you’ll be disappointed. She gets very little to do, but that’s okay. This is a Jimmy Cagney picture. I’ve never been a huge fan of his work, but there’s no doubt that he elevates every picture he’s in with his unique persona and presence. This is especially true in a film such as The Public Enemy, which, along with Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932), represents the epitome of that infamous Pre-Code hallmark — the gangster picture!

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Tom Powers (Cagney) and Matt Doyle (Woods), two tough young kids growing up poor in Chicago, work for Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell), a fence. He sets up a robbery deal for them, promising to get them out of trouble if anything goes wrong, but when they bungle the job he abandons them. During Prohibition, they find a new ally, Paddy Ryan (Robert O’Connor), who sets them up in the illegal brewery business. When Mike (Cook), Tom’s older brother returns from World War I, he berates Tom for his dealings with gangsters and Tom angrily leaves home. The gang’s big boss, Nails Nathan (Fenton), uses Tom and Matt to pressure the local speakeasies, which are caught between rival gangs, into using only the beer that they sell. Tom grows into a ruthless gangster. One day he takes out his frustrations on his girl Kitty (Mae Clarke), shoving a grapefruit in her face and dumping her in favor of glamorous Texan Gwen Allen (Harlow).

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Later, celebrating in an expensive night club, Tom spots their old pal Putty Nose. Tom and Matt follow him to his apartment, where Tom kills him. When Nails dies after a fall from a horse, his death precipitates a gang war. Paddy sends the gang into hiding, but Tom refuses to stay. He and Matt are ambushed by the rival gang as they leave, and Matt is killed in the shootout. Tom vows revenge and single-handedly takes on his rivals. He kills several, but he is wounded himself and collapses outside in the pouring rain. He survives, but the gang kidnaps him from the hospital and delivers his bandage-wrapped dead body to the door of his mother’s house. (This summary comes courtesy of TCM.)

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What makes this picture, and the entire gangster genre so appealing, is not only the compactness of the story (which runs only 83 minutes in the surviving Post-Code print), but the narrative’s ability to present its main character with a complexity that rarely is seen in other genres. The film follows the trajectory of Cagney’s life from childhood to death, so there’s an inherent investment from the audience — who curiously want to see him both rise, and perhaps inevitably, fall. Of course, the industry at the time feared the surge of gangster pictures was glamorizing these common criminals. The studio went so far as to put disclaimers at the beginning and end of the film — explaining that they are NOT glorifying these hoodlums, who indeed pose a serious public problem.

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I actually don’t think the picture needs these disclaimers; the film makes that statement on its own. Though we are fascinated by Cagney and are anxious to see what happens to his character, there’s no question that he is a bad guy. The complexity I mentioned above comes from our ability to see his motivations through the focus he’s awarded in the script. There’s less complexity in his actions, but that doesn’t hamper the entertainment value; it’s nice to see a character, a wrongdoer, without the modern insistence that he must be presented as “morally gray.” I mean, the current trend to over-dimensionalize villains is often counterintuitive to the story and seems to me, indicative of a team that’s more concerned with social significance than entertainment. I may be in the minority with that opinion, but sometimes, a wrongdoer should just be presented as a wrongdoer. And that doesn’t make him any less watchable.

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There’s no doubt, however, that there is a certain glamour afforded to Cagney’s character — he has money, power, and Jean Harlow! I’ve read that many critics felt like Harlow didn’t come into her own as an actress until the following year, but this picture, which gives her scant to do, makes it too difficult to tell. All I can say is she’s well-cast and has chemistry with Cagney.

But it’s the relationship between Cagney and Cook, who plays Cagney’s brother, that gives the picture it’s best human conflict, while the relationship between Cagney and Woods (who actually switched parts during Pre-Production!) provides emotional gravitas, and much discussed homosexual undertones. (This is separate from the overtone provided from the very effeminate tailor, not uncommon in Pre-Code cinema.) Cagney and Woods may have their share of women throughout the film, but they’re a partnership — closer to each other than to anybody else. As a result, their scenes are more interesting than Cagney’s scenes with the women of the film.

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However, this picture is often remembered for the scene in which Cagney spontaneously shoves a grapefruit into the face of his then-girlfriend, Mae Clarke. Certainly a highlight — it’s a unique (and contrary to popular belief, it WAS scripted) demonstration of the violence of which Cagney’s character is capable. Unfortunately, most of the film’s violence occurs off-screen (or was cut upon its Post-Code release, like some of the delightful Joan Blondell’s stuff). I say unfortunately because the film works best when it goes into those dark places — the anger, the crime, the suffering. It’s good drama.

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But the last twenty minutes are the film’s best, and Cagney’s character’s downfall and death evoke a combination of surprising sadness and joyful justice. However, what really brings the emotion is the very end. The family is excited when they receive a call that Cagney is coming back home. Of course, when Cook goes to answer the door, he finds his brother is now a bandage-wrapped corpse. And as Mom and sister joyfully prepare for the prodigal son’s return, we see who the REAL sufferers are going to be. It’s very powerful.

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In summation, this is an incredibly worthwhile film. The plot is engaging, and Cagney is marvelous. He turns an unquestionably bad guy into a guy we’re interested in watching — even if we know he’s doomed to fall. There are moments of real human drama, and the ensemble is uniformly well-cast. Not only a pillar of Pre-Code gangster films, The Public Enemy is an enjoyable picture that entertains, with moments of powerful storytelling and a surprisingly fascinating star.

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Guess that wasn’t as brief as I thought it would be! Come back next Friday for more Harlow! And remember to tune in Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment! 

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