When there was Prohibition, there were gangsters, and the awesome movies about them. The stories of gangsters became part of Hollywood iconography that were both romanticized and reviled their audience, and studios like Warner Bros. were more than happy to please that audience. 1931 was a banner year for Warner Bros. with the premiere of two classic gangster pictures, The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. Both films are exhilarating tragedies about the rise and fall of iconic gangsters during the Prohibition and Great Depression, infamous for their gaudy style and violence. In The Public Enemy James Cagney plays Tom Powers, a hotheaded brute turned prominent mob enforcer. Edward G. Robinson is Caesar Enrico “Rico” Bandello, a common thug that becomes a made man. The are crude, mean and irredeemable crooks, but their stories were reflective of a time where honest hard work was simply not enough to thrive in America, which are still compelling and resonant today.
The biggest similarity between the Tom and Rico is that they seek prospects in “The Big City.” Cities like New York and Chicago were both symbolic of freedom and opportunity, but also a cesspool for organized crime run by gangsters like Al Capone and Frank Costello, which Tom and Rico thrived in. The Public Enemy provides an epic vision of Chicago, starting with Tom’s unruly childhood in 1909 as a petty thief and ending at the height of the Roaring 20s. He becomes a surrogate for the audience was he witnesses firsthand the beginning of Prohibition and his heists for newly illegalized booze. Little Caesar has more abstract geography, at beginning Rico yearns about “going east,” rather than mention any urban city. However like Tom, Rico gets involved with the organized crime, the nightclubs, and he relishes it all. Within the all the chaos of urban bustle, they found opportunity in bootlegging booze, which is admirable in a defiant way.
Part of why Tom and Rico find so much work is that they beat their way into the criminal hierarchy with brutal efficiency. If there is a problem, they shoot it. If that does not work, they shoot it again. Like corrupt Robin Hoods, their killing sprees are touted with hero worship but there is an overt menace to their actions. Tom may look slick with a gun and a three-piece suit but he is a rabid dog at heart. He runs on his id, compulsively going for any violent action if he thinks it will satisfy him. The infamously nasty grapefruit scene only scrapes the surface of Tom's unbound cruelty. Tom is less interested in being admired as he is in making people fear him. When Tom finds the opportunity to get revenge on his old mentor, he savors every moment of it. Tom torments the guy for minutes on end, making him beg and sing in front of a piano before finally shooting him dead. The character is a sadist at heart, but is still compelling to watch because of his childish nature. This is in part because James Cagney’s performance is so great; he is so good at layering greed and naivety underneath all the anger. Tom Powers is a character know that grew up hungry and broke, and having tasted wealth he is going would rather.
Rico in contrast, is the more calculated with his actions. He knows perfectly well how to manipulate the public’s opinion of him with the right news headline or photograph while taking down his enemies. He does not even drink alcohol, preferring instead to indulge in fashion. His cunning and knack for presentation is most apparent after he guns down a disloyal colleague in front of a church when word got out that he would confess to the cop. The next scene reveals that Rico had bought the finest wreath for the man’s wake. As long as he smiles for the camera and carries a big gun, no one will call him out... except for Joe.
Another key element is that Tom and Rico have friends and family that do not abide to the gangster lifestyle, which they eventually lose. Before moving east Rico’s closest friend Joe tells him that he is quitting the racket to become a dancer. This disappoints Rico at first, but it progressively turns to violent jealously once Joe falls in love with his dance partner Olga. Yet once Joe calls his bluff Rico become powerless in an unexpected way. Rico’s love for Joe is both his most redeeming quality and also his one weakness because once he shows mercy, nobody is afraid of him. For Tom he has his mother, whom he dotes over, and his straight-laced soldier brother Mike, who prefer Tom to quit while he is ahead. To say that Tom disagrees, is an understatement. He is so temperamental and childish that he alienates himself from his family, as well as makes himself a target for a rival gang. By the time he asks for forgiveness, it is too late. In 1931, redemption was saved for the comedies and romances.
Both characters ultimately meet their ends in a similar fashion, once people start standing up to them, the good times end and they die alone and bloody. These are the Hollywood gangsters of 1931; the bad guys never win at the end, but at least the best years of their lives were glamorous. They pursued their perverse ideal of the American dream with the gusto and managed to taste the good life. It was brief and they wind up destroying everything around them but in circumstances like the Great Depression, it is a brilliant escape, and the audiences the loved every moment of it. Tom and Rico some of the first in a trend of charismatic crooks—villainous or otherwise—whose influence can be felt in films like Bonnie & Clyde, The Godfather, and even the early The Fast and the Furious movies. They are some irredeemably mean gangsters but they certainly made crime a fun time at the cinema.