James Cagney as Tom Powers, dangerous gangster and bootlegger
Chicago, Spring 1920
Film: The Public Enemy
Release Date: April 23, 1931
Director: William A. Wellman
Costume Designer: Edward Stevenson
Wardrobe Credit: Earl Luick
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Today is the 86th anniversary of the 21st Amendment that repealed Prohibition, the 13-year ban on the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States. Even before Prohibition was repealed on December 5, 1933, the wave of organized crime it inspired across the country was a popular subject for movies of the era, with Warner Brothers taking the lead with hits like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface that made stars out of intense actors like Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney.
The latter was particularly renowned for his performance in The Public Enemy, a “ripped-from-the-headlines” tour de force of violence based on an unpublished novel written by two former newspapermen who had witnessed firsthand the impact of Al Capone’s brutal stronghold on Chicago during the beer wars of the roaring ’20s.
As #CarWeek continues, let’s flash back to the Prohibition era as Cagney’s Tom Powers hopes to make an impression with his new tailored suits and shiny new touring convertible. Soon after he’s acquired each, Tom flaunts his wealth at a “black and tan” nightclub to the tune of “Toot, Toot, Tootsie”, one of several anachronisms as this 1922 song scores Tom’s arrival in a 1930 model car… far advanced for the scene’s supposed setting of early 1920.
Tom struts into the club, arm in arm with his cheery pal Matt Doyle (Edward Woods, who was originally supposed to have Cagney’s role), where the two easily pick up Mamie (Joan Blondell) and Kitty (an uncredited Mae Clarke), though Tom’s relationship with the latter swiftly goes as sour as the grapefruit he would infamously mash into her face.
Before the grapefruit incident, Tom and Matt are all charming, using their newfound influence at the speakeasy to get Mamie and Kitty’s sleeping dates sent home (“Listen, why don’t you send them two smack-offs home to their mothers? They’re no good to the joint anymore!”) before Tom cuddles up to Kitty and instantly wins her heart with an infallible pickup line:
You’re a swell dish. I think I’m gonna go for you!
The afternoon after he effectively ends their relationship with the business end of a grapefruit, Tom and Matt are back in their luxurious LaSalle tourer when Tom spots voluptuous Texan blonde Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow) on the street beside them. “How goes it, babe?” Tom calls out from the car. Gwen’s receptive to joining the smooth young gangster, though she’s “not accustomed to riding with strangers.”
“We’re not gonna be strangers,” he assures her with a smile. The two slide into the back seat with a gregarious Matt chauffeuring, though—like scores of Uber passengers nearly a century later—Tom has no time to talk:
Stick to your drivin’, mug!
What’d He Wear?
Like many a swaggering young movie gangster to follow—from Paul Muni in the following year’s Scarface to the teenage Henry Hill (Christopher Serrone) in Goodfellas—Tom Powers’ first stop after his initial taste of success is to pick up some new duds. Tom and Matt’s trip to the tailor was one of three scenes either excised or markedly cut down when submitted to the MPAA for the film’s 1954 re-release as the effeminate tailor’s mannerisms and innuendo were a violation of the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the “Hays Code” after MPAA president Will H. Hays. While the 1927 list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” had technically been in effect since February 1930, it wasn’t until censorship czar Joseph Breen began strictly enforcing the Code in 1934 that it had its draconian impact, rigidly shaping American cinema for thirty years to follow.
A staple item of Tom Powers’ new wardrobe is a knee-length polo coat made from a heavy, light-colored woolen cloth that’s likely a light golden brown shade associated with camelhair. “Camelhair is the real thing—a rich, golden-fawn colored cloth that is the natural color (cleaned up a bit of course) of the soft hair from the underside of a camel,” defined Hardy Amies in ABCs of Men’s Fashion, in which the droll sartorialist concluded: “This makes it expensive.”
Per its name, the polo coat originated among English polo players as a warm garment to wear between chukkas. Brooks Brothers takes credit for establishing the garment stateside in 1910, around the time when polo migrated across the pond and style-conscious spectators began adopting the coat as outerwear. By the end of the roaring ’20s, the more practical polo coat eclipsed the raccoon coat as the Ivy-preferred outerwear of choice.
Once the polo coat—also known as a camel coat in reference to the camel’s hair construction—became a sideline style staple, a button-closure was added as a more practical means of closing the coat rather than the belted wrap coat often worn by polo players. In some cases, the buttons replaced the belt while other camel coats, like Tom’s coat, were rigged with both buttons and belt. Tom’s full self-belt is suspended by tall loops above the waist, wrapping around the top of the three two-button rows and fastening through a single-prong buckle.
“From the early twentieth century until well after the Second World War, the polo coat was the all-enveloping outdoor equivalent of the bathrobe, donned by sportsmen to prevent a chill after sweating int he saddle or on the tennis court,” described Esquire‘s The Handbook of Style. “Characterized by its roomy double-breasted cut, big, lumpy patch pockets, and a full or half belt, it is habitually made of a thick plush wool or camel hair to give instant warmth after the melee.”
The coat sleeves fasten over the cuffs with tabs that close on one of two buttons, both spaced far apart; Tom wears the tab fastened to the closest button for the loosest fit over his cuffs. There are large patch pockets on the hips that are covered by a flap that has prominently “swelled” edges as seen on the rest of the coat from the broad peak lapels to the cuff tabs.
Tom’s new coat is first seen when he arrives at the black and tan club, worn over what is ostensibly a new three-piece suit colored in a medium-to-dark wool styled similarly to the darker suit he would later wear for his brother Mike’s homecoming dinner. Magnoli Clothiers includes the “Cagney suit” in its collection, no doubt inspired by the “golden age” tailoring that Cagney wore during the decade, though the Magnoli suit has a three-button front while Tom Powers’ suit in this scene has a single-button jacket.
For his visit to the nightclub, Tom wears dark shoes with dark thin silk socks and a dark homburg hat.
The style of Tom’s suit is anachronistically more reflective of 1930 fashions than the scene’s setting a decade earlier, though the single-breasted, peak-lapel suit jacket emerged during the ’20s as a natural evolution of the increasingly popular peak-lapel dinner jacket. “By rigging a single-breasted jacket with a double-breasted rever, this lapel treatment virtually neutralized the double-breasted edge in formality,” wrote Alan Flusser in Dressing the Man, and the style also amplified the flattering athletic silhouette of strongly built shoulders and a suppressed waist.
Cagney’s single-button suit jacket has broad peak lapels with high gorges on a slant that pushes the sharp peaks to within a few inches of each roped shoulder. In the jacket’s welted breast pocket, Tom wears a pocket square of light, colorful silk. The ventless jacket has straight jetted pockets on the hips and three-button cuffs with the buttons placed closely together but spaced far up each cuff. The suit has a matching six-button waistcoat with the lowest button undone over the notched bottom. The flat front trousers are finished on the bottoms with turn-ups (cuffs).
Tom wears a white shirt with a long point collar and double (French) cuffs, though the sleeves of his suit jacket cover enough of Tom’s shirt sleeves that his cuff links go unseen. His multi-striped tie is colored in at least three different colors in high-contrasting light, medium, and dark shades striped in an “uphill” direction.
Later, when Tom meets Gwen during his daytime ride with Matt, he wears a lighter-colored three-piece suit in what appears to be a lightweight flannel. Tom doesn’t remove his overcoat during the sequence, so the only details discernible on screen are the fact that it’s a three-piece suit and that the generously fitting trousers have turn-ups (cuffs), though a behind-the-scenes photo (at right) reveals more of the outfit, including a single-breasted waistcoat and jacket with notch lapels and gently flared cuffs, possibly the same suit that Cagney wears in this publicity photo for Warner Bros. & Vitaphone Pictures.
Tom wears an off-white shirt—possibly ecru, light blue, or light gray—with a slim, rounded club collar with a wide spread as opposed to the longer point collar of his earlier shirt. He wears another striped tie, this one patterned in a series of light, low-contrast “downhill” stripes. Though he again wears dark lace-up shoes, he tops this daytime look with a lighter felt fedora with a high crown, unpinched crown, and narrow brim.
On Tom’s left wrist, he wears a metal wristwatch on a metal bracelet.
Hey, stoop! That’s got gears, that ain’t no Ford!
Tom Powers is rightly proud of his new ride, a 1930 LaSalle All Weather Phaeton “Fleetway”, the most expensive of the six Fleetwood-built models offered by LaSalle for the 1930 model year. The car, and even the marque itself, are anachronistic for a scene meant to be set shortly after Prohibition went into effect in January 1920, though audiences a decade later would recognize the LaSalle as a burgeoning status symbol for a young man on the rise.
Three years after Harley Earl introduced the 1927 LaSalle as Cadillac’s “junior” marque, the European-inspired LaSalle had risen to a position of considerable popularity, if not enduring prestige. The 1930 LaSalle, designated Model 340, was available in a dozen body styles, half with coachwork by Fisher and half by Fleetwood including the “Fleetway” All Weather Phaeton”topping out the offerings at a retail price of $3,995 according to Concept Carz. Nearly 15,000 Model 340 LaSalles were manufactured in 1930, though only 250 were the built-on-demand All Weather Phaeton, according to The Cadillac Database.
As a companion to the more expensive Cadillac, the LaSalle was powered by the same 90-degree L-head V8 engine, which generated 90 horsepower in 1930. When General Motors brass observed sales falling on the Cadillac during the Great Depression as buyers turned to the less expensive LaSalle, the LaSalle brand was reimagined for the 1934 model year when it was more aligned with the affordable Oldsmobile marque than the luxurious Cadillacs. By the end of the decade, however, the LaSalle was again reconfigured to resemble the Cadillac but it wasn’t enough to save the brand and General Motors discontinued LaSalle production in 1940.
A 1930 LaSalle All Weather Phaeton, body style 4080, similar to the one belonging to Tom Powers in The Public Enemy, was sold by Hyman Ltd. with the listing including a stunning photo and valuable information about this rare automobile, including the custom touches that include “chrome wire wheels, wide whitewall tires, dual side-mounts, luggage trunk, rollup division window and an opening vee-windshield.”
1930 LaSalle Model 340 All Weather Phaeton Fleetwood “Fleetway”
Body Style: 4-door convertible phaeton sedan
Layout: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive (RWD)
Engine: 341 cubic inch (5.6 L) Cadillac “90° L-head” V8
Power: 90 hp (66 kW; 90 PS) @ 3000 rpm
Torque: 208 lb·ft (282 N·m)
Transmission: 3-speed syncromesh manual
Wheelbase: 134 inches (3404 mm)
Tom gets frustrated when the nightclub’s valet grinds the LaSalle’s gears when he attempts to start it and park the car, famously barking at the man that it “ain’t no Ford!” as the Model T was famous for its foolproof planetary two-speed transmission. The LaSalle, on the other hand, was rigged with Cadillac’s innovative three-speed syncromesh transmission whose operation is clearly outlined in pages 14 and 15 of the 1930 LaSalle Operator’s Manual, digitally archived by the GM Heritage Center:
- Make sure that the transmission lever is in neutral.
- Place the throttle lever about one-fourth the way down from the idling position.
- In cold weather, move the ignition control lever all the way to “Starting.”
- Switch on the ignition.
- Unless the engine is still warm, pull back the carburetor enriching button and hold it back. If the engine is still warm, do not pull back the enriching button unless the engine fails to start on the normal mixture.
- Push the starter pedal forward and hold it until the engine starts. Release it immediately as soon as the engine starts.
- Let the carburetor enriching button partly in as soon as the engine starts, and all the way in as soon as the engine is warm enough to permit it.
- Note whether pressure is indicated on the oil pressure gauge, and stop the engine at once if no pressure is indicated.
- Move the throttle lever up to the idling position as soon as the engine is warm enough to permit it.
- If the spark lever was moved to “Starting” or “Retard” move it to the best position in the “Driving” range.
… maybe Tom should have just parked the car himself, though the model’s promotional materials assure the reader that “even a novice can shift gears as noiselessly as an expert.”
How to Get the Look
Tom Powers celebrates his newfound success by upgrading his daily kit to a rotation of natty three-piece suits and striped ties, all enveloped in the cozy comforts of a camelhair polo coat that kept many a Jazz Age gent warm and stylish from campus to club.
- Medium-dark wool or light flannel three-piece tailored suit:
- Single-breasted 1-button suit jacket with wide peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Single-breasted 6-button waistcoat with notched bottom
- Trousers with turn-ups/cuffs
- White cotton shirt with long point collar or narrow club collar
- Multi-striped tie
- Dark leather oxford shoes
- Dark silk socks
- Light felt high-crowned fedora or dark homburg
- Camelhair double-breasted polo coat with wide peak lapels, 6×3-button front, self-belt, flapped hip pockets, set-in sleeves with 1-button tab cuffs, and single vent
- Metal watch on metal bracelet
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
What do you mean, you could go for her yourself? You could go for an 80-year-old chick with rheumatism.