James Cagney as Tom Powers, dangerous gangster and bootlegger
Chicago, Spring 1922
Film: The Public Enemy
Release Date: April 23, 1931
Director: William A. Wellman
Costume Designer: Edward Stevenson
Wardrobe Credit: Earl Luick
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
One hundred years ago at midnight tonight, on January 17, 1920, the Volstead Act went into effect, beginning a 13-year prohibition of the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States… and kicking off what Herbert Asbury referred to in his informal history of the Chicago underworld as “the saturnalia of crime and corruption which has been called ‘a noble experiment’,” due to the resulting surge in organized crime that effectively gave rise to the modern gangster.
As moving pictures evolved as a popular medium in the waning years of Prohibition, so too did the gangster movie. Warner Brothers took the lead, exposing audiences to snarling violent hoodlums based on the real-life criminals who bloodied the streets of New York and Chicago. It was in the 1931 hit The Public Enemy that James Cagney made his star-making turn as the psychopathic gangster Tom Powers.
“Our character was a swashbuckling, hard-fisted guy,” said [co-writer John] Bright, “a hoodlum who had come up from the Irish ghetto to the top. He had an income of ten thousand dollars a week or more. Notches on his gun. Been shot at many times.” [Darryl F.] Zanuck pitched the script to Jason Joy with this pitch: “In The Public Enemy, we also have a very strong moral theme, to-wit: If there is pleasure and profit in crime, or the violation of the Eighteenth Amendment, then that pleasure and that profit can only be momentary, and it ultimately ends in disaster to the participants.”
— Mark A. Vieira, Forbidden Hollywood: The Pre-Code Era (1930-1934)
Like its pre-Code contemporaries Little Caesar and Scarface, The Public Enemy took its violent narrative cues straight from newspaper headlines at the time, basing much of its plot on the “beer wars” that bloodied the Windy City during the roaring twenties. Crime historians will recognize Chicago North Side crime figures like “Schemer” Drucci and “Nails” Morton represented on screen by the thinly veiled characters “Schemer” Burns and “Nails” Nathan (Leslie Fenton), respectively, even co-opting the unusual circumstances of Morton’s death when the World War I veteran suffered the unlikely gangland death of being accidentally thrown from his horse and trampled to death in May 1923. In both the film and real life, Nails’ confederates took their revenge by shooting the horse to death.
Nails Nathan’s death ignites a gang war between the unseen Schemer Burns’ faction and Tom’s chief, the avuncular “Paddy” Ryan (Robert Emmett O’Connor), that results in Paddy insisting his boys go into hiding at the apartment of his sultry squeeze, Jane (Mia Marvin), and taking away their guns and money to remove any temptation to leave. “Even you wouldn’t be sap enough to go for a stroll without your gat,” Paddy explains. “This won’t be for long, boys. I’ll have the mob lined up again in a couple of days… Jane, you’ll see that they’re comfortable, eh?”
Jane takes a liking to Tom, taking advantage of the captive young gangster’s drunkenness that evening to take extra measures to ensure his comfort with what begins as “a good night kiss for a fine boy.” The next morning, Tom is disgusted with himself upon learning of the seduction and—despite the fact that Paddy had taken his guns away—leaves the apartment. Tom’s loyal pal Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) comes running after him, upset that his friend seemingly abandoned him.
Matt: Hey, Tom, wait a minute! What happened?
Tom: Nothing. l just got burned up, that’s all.
Matt: What do you wanna run out on me for? We’re together, ain’t we?
Having made quick amends, Tom and Matt barely have time to reconcile before machine gun fire erupts from a Vickers mounted in the window of a corner apartment across the street. Tom jumps for cover, but Matt lays dead on the pavement, mirroring the ambush that ended the life of North Side boss Hymie Weiss outside Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral on October 11, 1926. The scene marks one of the dangerous occasions in early American gangster films where real weapons proved to be the only option for the intended cinematic effect; an expert marksman aimed a machine gun at a wall less than 20 feet away, and—as soon as James Cagney ducked behind the corner—the marksman opened fire to create a tight, and very real, circle of bullets.
As director William A. Wellman, himself a veteran of the Great War, told Warner Brothers studio head Darryl F. Zanuck: “I’ll bring you the toughest, most violent picture you ever did see.”
What’d He Wear?
Back in December, on the 86th anniversary of the 21st Amendment that effectively repealed Prohibition, BAMF Style explored the new polo coat, suit, and car that symbolized Tom Powers’ newfound success as a gangster at the dawn of the roaring ’20s. Now, on the 100th anniversary that the far less popular 18th Amendment had gone into effect, let’s look at the dark chalk-striped flannel suit Tom wears at the peak of his gangland success before it all comes crumbling down.
His hat pulled down and collar turned up against his neck, Tom gets his suit drenched as he waits in the rain to carry out his revenge against the Schemer Burns gang. When the time is right, he strides into the headquarters (fronted as the “Western Chemical Company”) with his hands jammed into his jacket pockets, ready to the draw the two Colt revolvers with which he trades about two dozen shots with the gang in four seconds.
At 5’5″, James Cagney is among the shorter leading men in American cinema, though the dapper actor made the most of flattering tailoring that—along with his explosive, dynamic performances—added a “larger than life” quality to his screen presence. This suit is an example of this flattering tailoring with a 4×2-button front that removes the top row of vestigal buttons from the traditional 6×2-button double-breasted jacket, providing the fashionably full wrap seen on double-breasted jackets of the era without overpopulating the limited space of the shorter actor’s jacket with unnecessary buttons.
The ventless jacket has wide peak lapels with low, long gorges. The hip pockets where he stuffs his hands when approaching the Western Chemical Company are jetted without flaps that would add more unnecessary layers to the jacket and de-emphasize Cagney’s height. The wide shoulders are padded and roped at the sleeveheads, and each sleeve ends with a three-button cuff.
The Public Enemy tested the limits of pre-Code cinematic enforcement, with this sequence in particular earning the ire of censors with its depictions of drunkenness and seduction. Over the course of both, Cagney’s Tom Powers removes his jacket and tie, revealing that he wears no waistcoat with his double-breasted suit. Though two-piece suits were not unheard of in the early 1920s (particularly in warm climates or seasons), the practice of wearing a suit without a waistcoat would be considerably more common by the early ’30s due to the both the loosened decorum over the roaring ’20s as well as the scarcity of materials during the Great Depression.
In addition to a fawning tailor and a face-smashing grapefruit, one of the more scandalous scenes in The Public Enemy found Jane assisting a drunken, reluctant Tom into her bed before turning off the lights and presumably joining him over his fading protestations. Jane undresses her “Tommy boy”, helping unbutton his white (or off-white) shirt down to Cagney’s waist, revealing a white sleeveless undershirt beneath it. Like the rest of his clothes, Tom’s shirt better resembles the trends of the early 1930s than the early ’20s, particularly the fashionably long point collar attached to his shirt. The shirt also has a plain front and double (French) cuffs, fastened with simple metal cuff-button links.
The striped tie that Jane so eagerly pulls from around Tom’s neck has “downhill”-direction pencil stripes in a light shade, balanced against a medium-colored ground.
Though belts were increasingly accepted as a simpler, if more informal, alternative throughout the 1920s, suspenders (braces) were still the most traditional option for holding up one’s trousers. Tom’s high-rise trousers curve up even higher in the back, where two buttons in the center are specifically placed to connect to suspender hooks. Tom’s light striped suspenders have dark leather hooks that connect to these double buttons in the back and to two double sets of buttons along the inside of the front of his waistband.
The trousers themselves have single forward-facing pleats flanking the fly, pockets along the side seams, and turn-ups (cuffs) at the bottoms.
“Be a good boy and sit down,” Jane instructively coos, pushing Tom onto her bed and offering: “I’ll take your shoes off, too.” She slips off Tom’s dark leather oxfords as he slumps dumbly on her bed, his feet stockinged in medium-colored socks.
Tom wears a dark felt short-brimmed fedora with a tall crown all but devoid of any pinching. The wide ribbed grosgrain silk ribbon, tied with a bow in the back rather than the side, likely matches the shade of the felt construction, suggesting black or brown; an all-black hat would befit his dark, violent nature.
World War I and the years immediately ensuing establishes the wristwatch as an increasingly popular timepiece for men, supplanting the more old-fashioned pocket watch that had reigned supreme for centuries. The iconic Cartier Tank led the way into the roaring ’20s with considerable luxury, rounding out the horological field with wristwatches developed by timekeeping stalwarts including Elgin, Hamilton, and Waltham.
Cagney wears a small wristwatch, likely gold, that my friend and BAMF Style reader Aldous theorizes may actually be a woman’s watch from the early 1920s, worn on a slim metal bracelet. Aldous supported this theory by pointing out how small the watch looks—even smaller than the usual 28-30mm men’s watches of the era—and comparing against then-contemporary women’s wristwatches like the pre-Bulova Rubaiyat.
Despite its enduring status as a pre-Code classic that helped firmly establish realism in the American gangster film, The Public Enemy contains more than a few “quirky” scenes that seem to have been added either for comic value or to make its content more accessible to non-criminal audiences in the film’s concise 83-minute running time.
Consider when Tom Powers is on the run, having handed over his firearms before abandoning the gang and watching his pal Matt Doyle die in a hail of gunfire, only narrowly escaping himself. Clearly, Tom needs to arm himself, but to whom does he turn? Not some underworld contact… instead, Tom finds a pawn shop off the streets of downtown Chicago and talks the sweet-as-pie proprietor (who really should not be in the firearm business in the first place) into handing him a revolver then, astonishingly, watching with a smile as Tom loads it with bullets from his own pocket and uses it to hold up the store.
Tom: l was looking at some of the pistols in the window.
Pawnbroker: Shall l show you some?
Tom: Yeah. l kind of like that big one.
Pawnbroker: That one?
Tom: All right… What do you call that?
Pawnbroker: That’s a .38 caliber. lt’s a fine-
Tom: You got any more like it?
Pawnbroker: l’ve got some smaller ones.
Tom: No, same size.
Tom: How do you load that?
Pawnbroker: First you break it. Then you stick the cartridges in the holes.
Tom: Could l see?
The pawnbroker probably should have been suspicious that the man who at first seemed initially uninformed about firearms was pulling .38-caliber rounds from the pocket of his pinstriped suit. Why did Tom already have bullets? Why was he carrying them loosely? How did they happen to perfectly fit the revolver he requested? Of course, we know he’s a gangster and that he knows exactly the kind of gun he needs, but the pawnbroker not only encourages this young man to load up a revolver in his shop but beams like a proud father as he watches Tom load the cylinder.
Pawnbroker: That’s right.
Tom: Like that?
Pawnbroker: lt’ll hold six.
Tom: This will be enough. Stick ’em up!
Of possible interest to some, the original screenplay called for the weapon to be “a .45-caliber Smith & Wesson” which would have surely intimidated the shopkeeper, but a smaller-framed Colt Police Positive revolver in .38 Special was swapped in for the actual production. It’s possible that a smaller weapon was chosen when the 5’5″ James Cagney was cast as Tom Powers, though some publicity stills (such as this) exist of Cagney in character holding the larger-framed .45-caliber Colt New Service.
Despite its name, the Police Positive found favor with many American gangsters during the early years of the 20th century, including the notorious Al Capone, no doubt favoring the weapon for packing six rounds of the powerful .38 Special cartridge into a small, easily concealed frame. Colt introduced the Police Positive in 1907 to replace the already aging Colt New Police, producing the weapon for the next 40 years until it was superseded by Colt’s more modern revolvers like the Detective Special and Official Police, which had both been introduced in the late 1920s.
And the question of where Tom got the bullets? The answer also tells us the fate of Gwen (Jean Harlow), Tom’s platinum blonde moll who seemingly disappears from the film. The original screenplay includes a brief scene after Matt’s death where Tom rushes into Gwen’s apartment, where he finds a note that she has gone back home but will always love him “with all the love at her command”. A depressed Tom gulps down some whiskey that he finds in her cabinet before desperately rummaging for a gun. Unable to find one, he does find some loose bullets, which he pockets and runs out the door.
The scene in Gwen’s apartment was evidently left on the cutting room floor as some prints exist of Tom entering the room, but it would have answered some questions left unexplained by the final cut.
How to Get the Look
While the color is likely lost to history, charcoal or dark navy are safe bets for this businesslike double-breasted suit that James Cagney wears as the dapper and dangerous Tom Powers for the climactic sequence in The Public Enemy.
- Dark chalkstripe flannel suit:
- Double-breasted 4×2-button jacket with wide peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, roped sleeveheads, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- High-rise trousers with single reverse pleats, straight/on-seam side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- White cotton shirt with long point collar, plain front, and double/French cuffs
- Plain metal cuff-button links
- Medium-colored tie with closely spaced white “downhill” pencil stripes
- Light striped suspenders with dark leather hooks
- Dark leather oxford shoes
- Medium-colored socks
- Black felt short-brimmed fedora with wide black ribbed grosgrain silk band
- Gold round-cased dress watch on thin metal bracelet
Do Yourself a Favor and…
I ain’t so tough!