Let's get this out of the way first:
That, of course, was the famous grapefruit scene starring James Cagney and Mae Clarke from The Public Enemy. Even people who don't know gangster films from the early '30s know Cagney was the guy who'd poke you in the puss if you served him grapefruit for breakfast—and can you blame him? Give me Honeynut Cheerios or give me death, I always say.
But if that's all you know about the gangster films of the early sound era, boy, are you in for a tasty treat. A remarkable amount of violence and amorality showed up on the screen in the years before Hollywood began enforcing the Production Code in mid-1934 and except for a handful of phony disclaimers slapped on the prints in post-production, the purveyors of this fabulous filth were pretty unapologetic about it.
Several gangster pictures made it into theaters between 1928 and 1933 seeking to cash in on the much-publicized bootleg booze wars of the Prohibition era, but I'd call three essential—Little Caesar and The Public Enemy which were released in 1931, and Scarface, which was filmed at the same time but got hung up in endless wrangles with state censorship boards and didn't hit theaters for another year. Scarface I'll talk about at length after the New Year when we get to the movies of 1932, but the other two I've touched on before and now is the time to fulfill all those promises to talk about them at some length.
Little Caesar came first (either in December 1930 or January 1931 depending on who you believe; details are sketchy). Based on Al Capone's rise and fall, the story of a "tough mugg" (as Variety put it) who rises through the ranks to take control of an organized crime racket only to be done in by his own ambition was a familiar one to audiences when the film came out—"same formula and all the standard tricks," said the review in Variety—but Edward G. Robinson as Caesar Enrico Bandello was a sensation.
"Money's all right, but it ain't every- thing," Rico sneers in the very first scene. "Nah, be some- body, look hard at a bunch of guys and know they'll do anything that you tell 'em, have your own way or nothin'—be somebody!" It's this burning ambition that he doesn't yet know can never be satisfied no matter how high he climbs that drives him to murder his way up the organizational chart at an Eastern city's local mob office.
As with every role he ever essayed, Robinson played the part of a ruthless sociopath with utter conviction and was so convincing as a tough guy he was typecast for the rest of his life, a career that spanned more than fifty years and 93 movies, and every actor who afterwards stepped into the guise of a gangster had Robinson's template to deal with. In fact, Robinson was pretty much the opposite of the parts he played—cultured, sophisticated and well-educated, too, originally studying to become a rabbi until he received a scholarship to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Later in life he collected fine art with the same gusto Rico used to collect corpses.
Little Caesar is far from a perfect movie. If you've ever seen a gangster film, you already know the plot; as I mentioned before, even audiences in 1931 knew what was coming. Plus the work of the supporting actors is pretty bad—both stiff and hammy at the same time, and utterly unconvincing. Even Edward G. Robinson, as great as he is, isn't quite up to Edward G. Robinson standards. Maybe the primitive sound technology of the day didn't capture the fullness of his growling timbre, or maybe the cinematographer lit him differently, hiding the deep shadows of his face, but whatever the explanation, Robinson doesn't quite look or sound like himself and it's just enough off-putting to say that if you're somehow not familiar with his work, this is not the movie I'd start with.
Still, somewhere along the line as you journey toward film fluency, Little Caesar needs to be on your itinerary.
A better film, less predictable and centering on an even more explosive performance, is William Wellman's The Public Enemy. If Little Caesar is the study of an ambitious man's rise and fall, The Public Enemy, starring James Cagney as Tom Powers, is a study of the sort of man Rico Bandello would have routinely used to do his dirty work, a small-time thug with no ambition other than to have a few bucks in his pocket and with no scruples about how to get them.
The Public Enemy starts out with a traditional "good brother-bad brother" conflict, a favorite trope of storytellers ever since Moses penned the fourth chapter of Genesis, but then Cagney, director Wellman and screenwriters John Bright and Kubec Glasmon upset our expectations and with them, societal norms, by making Cagney's Tom dynamic and exciting and the good brother (Donald Cook) a shellshocked, underemployed sad sack. Part of this was the result of a last minute casting change—Cagney originally had a supporting part until Wellman saw him in rehearsals and switched him with projected lead Edward Woods—and part is the result of some wicked subversion on the part of all involved, especially Cagney, but in any event, the lesson is clear: crime pays better than a straight job and since either way you wind up dead, what are you waiting for?
As with Little Caesar before it and Scarface after it, the studio forced a disclaimer onto the picture, stating there was no intention to glamorize violence. Unlike the other two, which clearly wanted to bask in Al Capone's limelight, the character of Tom Powers as written really isn't a glamorous guy. He's strictly small-time, not too smart, impotent despite his locker room boasts and has some definite Oedipal issues—the only woman we know for sure he has sex with is an older woman who mothers him, gets him drunk and takes him to bed, an act that so disgusts him, he flees his hideout and leads his best friend into a hail of bullets—what we in the trade call a "loser."
And yet Cagney is so dynamic in the part that, as Chris Barsanti put it for Slant, "you can imagine kids at the time flocking out of the theater and cocking their caps just like him." Maybe the result is at odds with the intent, but the truth is, without Cagney, The Public Enemy wouldn't have amounted to much and the movie and movie history benefitted immensely from Wellman's casting change.
Both Little Caesar and The Public Enemy have been preserved in the National Film Registry and both Robinson's Rico Bandello and Cagney's Tom Powers made the American Film Institute's list of the Top Fifty Film Villains of All-Time.
Yet while both pictures did get noms for their screenplays—an Oscar tradition, by the way, using the screenwriting category to recognize edgier fare—the Academy ignored their stars and directors, and would continue to do so for years to come.
Maybe this shouldn't come as a surprise. The awards were created in part to stave off various attempts at state and federal censorship by creating the illusion that movies were art—"Art" with a capital "A"—stuffy snoozefests that your mom and her preacher could feel comfortable watching. Gangster movies, along with comedies and anything with, say, a nearly-naked Joan Blondell, not only didn't fit this definition of "Art," they were the very movies potential censors wanted to get their hands and scissors on.
So come Oscar-time, Hollywood in the early 1930s had to pretend gangster movies—and the people who made them—didn't exist. After a while, the Academy began to believe its own claptrap, that gangster movies, comedies and naked Joan Blondell flicks were not Oscar worthy. The studios were happy enough to bank the money that Robinson and Cagney brought in—they would have gone bankrupt without them—but God forbid they actually honor them for the effort.
Cagney eventually broke through this hidebound prejudice, receiving a nomination for Angels With Dirty Faces in 1938, but only after proving so versatile not only as tough guy but as a song-and-dance man and even as a Shakespearean actor that the Academy simply couldn't ignore him. Even then, it took a tour de force effort right after Pearl Harbor in what was billed as the most patriotic movie ever made—Yankee Doodle Dandy—to actually win the thing.
Robinson wasn't so lucky. As great as he was, no role ever came along so far outside of his expected range that he was able to shatter the perception of him as "merely" a tough guy actor. Not only did he never win an Oscar, he was never even nominated, not for Little Caesar, not for Double Indemnity, not for nothing. The Academy finally did award him an honorary Oscar at the 1973 ceremony—two months after his death. Too little, too late.
"If I were just a bit taller," he once said, "and I was a little more handsome or something like that, I could have played all the roles that I have played, and played many more. There is such a thing as a handicap, but you've got to be that much better as an actor. It kept me from certain roles that I might have had, but then, it kept others from playing my roles, so I don't know that it's not altogether balanced."
Not exactly the way a tough guy would have put it but then again that's not who Edward G. Robinson was. Too bad it took so long for Hollywood to recognize that fact.