China Seas (1935): Celebrating Clark Gable On The Silver Screen

by Paul Batters


Of all the stars that graced the silver screen during MGM’s heyday, none was ever as dominant as Clark Gable. Younger generations may have never seen any of his films, yet Gable’s face is still recognisable to them today.  Justifiably, he was called the ‘King Of Hollywood’ and was without doubt the king of his home turf – MGM Studios. For classic film fans, there are quite a number of Gable’s films that are particularly celebrated, none moreso than Gone With The Wind.

During the mid 1930s, Gable was arguably Hollywood’s biggest star, which was certainly assured after his Academy Award winning performance in 1934’s sleeper hit, It Happened One Night, directed by Frank Capra and also starring Claudette Colbert. The film was a ‘punishment’ of sorts by MGM, lending Gable to the studio when he complained about the roles he was getting. It would showcase Gable’s talent for screwball comedy, as well as quick repartee. MGM would not make that mistake again and would jealously guard their now biggest star.

With stardom assured, MGM spared little expense in the films in which Gable featured. During the period that immediately followed, many film historians tend to focus on two films –Mutiny On The Bounty (1935) and San Francisco (1936). Both reveal classic MGM production values, with outstanding casts and were huge hits for MGM. They are both exemplary in showcasing Gable’s screen presence and talent. Yet China Seas, the film he made not long after It Happened One Night, whilst not completely forgotten, does not get as much attention as the aforementioned films.

As biographer Warren G. Harris points out, Gable had just come off an Oscar win which meant a new lucrative MGM contract, with far better conditions. China Seas would be the first film of this new contract, which meant star treatment for Gable.


Directed by Tay Garnett, MGM’s golden boy, Irving Thalberg, had eyed China Seas for production since 1931.  With some of MGM’s biggest stars and a supporting cast with good depth, China Seas was a big hit for the glamorous studio in 1935 and further cemented Gable’s superstar status. An adventure/romance sea epic, China Seas, was the perfect vehicle for Gable and MGM’s other major star, Jean Harlow, with both appearing in their fourth film together. The studio wanted to capitalise on the wonderful screen chemistry that the two shared and they certainly sparkle, with the raw sexuality of Harlow matching the man’s man machismo of Gable.


From the opening scene, Herbert Stothart’s musical score underpins the busyness of the port of contemporary Hong Kong, which in 1935 means it’s an integral part of the British Empire. The hustle and bustle eventually focuses on the ‘Kin Lu’, a steamer that runs between Hong Kong and that other port of British empirical power of the period, Singapore. The steamer’s captain, Alan Gaskell (Clark Gable), has a reputation as tough, fearless and a hard player. Most are wise enough to stay out of his way or at the very least make sure they don’t arouse his ire if they can’t. However, we soon discover that deep down Gaskell is a good guy, particularly when parrying with the ships’ owner, Sir Guy (C. Aubrey Smith). Despite all appearances, the two share a mutual respect and affection, and Sir Guy recognises that he has a captain that is worth keeping. The duplicitous Jamesy McArdle (Wallace Berry) wears the façade of a friendly though rough-edged trader in the Orient but as the audience soon discovers, Jamesy has other plans and is in league with a gang of pirates. Garnett sets the tension early and establishes the story’s later complication when a number of the aforementioned Chinese pirates disguised as women are caught by Gaskell. McArdle praises Gaskell whilst sending out a message to keep the caught pirates quiet. McArdle’s warmth and geniality is the perfect cover for a dangerous man in league with desperate men.


Furthermore, the 250,000 British Pounds in gold bullion to be transported to Singapore has been hidden in the steamroller. McArdle knows it’s on board through his contacts and he and the pirate gang are after it. But naturally only Gaskell (and the audience) knows where it is. Will McArdle and the pirates get the gold?

We get a feel for who Gaskell is early in the piece, particularly when addressing his crew. As he chews out the first mate Dawson (Dudley Digges), Gaskell barks at him, ‘Its bad enough to have a ship that looks like this and a Captain that looks like me, without having a Chief Officer who looks like you!’ When entering his quarters, Gaskell finds the young newly appointed officer Rockwell (William Henry) mocking his captain in the mirror, to which Gaskell gives Rockwell all the space necessary to embarrass himself. Suitably chastened, Rockwell asks for forgiveness, to which Gaskell smiles and says forget it. Gaskell may be tough but deep down he’s a ‘good egg’. He even smiles to himself once the inexperienced officer leaves the cabin, tripping over himself.



But we also see Gaskell’s compassion for the newly appointed Third Officer Davids (Lewis Stone), a former captain himself who was disgraced after being the only survivor of a pirate raid, whilst the rest of his crew perished. Gaskell is gruff with Davids yet welcomes him on board and even casually offers him one of his own uniforms. There is an element of well-placed foreshadowing, and even Gaskell looks up afterward with a moment of thought. Will Davids rise to the occasion if and when needed?

Before long Gaskell finds that former girlfriend and ‘professional entertainer’ Dolly ‘China Doll’ Portland (Jean Harlow) is on board. It seems that Dolly is very much a part of the China Seas, illustrated by her familiarity with the crew and her warm interaction with McArdle as they are boarding.  The interaction is a great example of the snappy and witty dialogue that liberally peppers the script from start to finish:

Dolly: Say, there ain’t enough dough in all Asia to make me change the way I feel about one guy.

Jamesy: Still crazy about that Gaskell, huh? Well, whenever you get tired of running around with an Airedale and you want to run around with a St. Bernard, why you let me know.

Dolly: Sure.Whenever I get lost in the Alps, I’ll whistle for you.

Jamesy: All right, I’ll come running.


Gaskell tries to shoo her off the ship, to which she Dolly gets defensive and defiant:

Gaskell: Get on your horse, we’re shoving off.

Dolly: Say, why are you so anxious to get me out of your sight? Is that hunk of caviar makin’ the round trip?

Gaskell: What hunk of caviar

Dolly: That redhead Russian princess that was on board from Singapore.

Gaskell: She isn’t a Russian and she isn’t a princess and I have my doubts about her hair color.

But Dolly manipulates Gaskell into letting her stay. Their relationship seems to be one that has been more physical than emotional, judging by Gaskell’s annoyance when she gets ‘close’, after which she returns to being sassy to save the situation.


But Gaskell will discover a greater affaire de Coeur to deal with, when he discovers that a former love from England, Sybil Barclay (Rosalind Russell) is on board. The now widowed English rose hints at their former (and possible future) romance when she delicately quips to him ‘I’m in your hands again, Alan’.  When told immediately afterwards that he looks like he’s seen a ghost, Gaskell slowly responds ‘I have…’. All this is quietly witnessed by Dolly and the pang of sadness she emotes is impossible to ignore.


Before long the ship is at sea and Gaskell and Sybil become reunited and are joined by Sir Guy at dinner. Dolly, encouraged by McArdle thanks to his desire to disrupt and distract Gaskell, cannot hide her jealousy nor allude to the details of her prior relationship with Gaskell. Her hot temper and aggression gets the better of her, leaving some of the other guests embarrassed and feeling awkward. Gaskell responds to Dolly’s jibes with a cold smile and a short ‘that’s right, darling’ sending Dolly a clear message. But perhaps the most telling and revealing moment belongs to Sybil, who says nothing but smiles sadly at Dolly and then responds with equal sadness to Dolly’s aggressive demand:

Dolly: What are you grinning at?

Sybil: You must be very fond of him.

Dolly: What makes you think so?

Sybil: To humiliate yourself like this.

The situation gets uglier as Dolly declares loudly ‘don’t worry, he knows where the royal suite is and so do I! And I had it the first time I sailed on this ship!’ Not long after, while trying to apologise, Dolly gets the cold treatment from Gaskell who tells her to stay far away.


But Dolly is not going to quit her man, despite her initial congratulations when she hears Gaskell and Sybil are going to be married. It means not only quitting the China Seas but also obviously leaving Dolly.  Attempting to see if the rumours are true, Gaskell finds Dolly in his cabin under the pretense that she is borrowing one of his books ‘to improve my mind’. What follows is Gaskell’s barely veiled revelation as to why he is marrying Sybil, with a cruel putdown that is impossible to not decipher:

Gaskell: Did you ever see an English river, Dolly?

Dolly: No, I’m dumb with geography, just like I am with everything else.

Gaskell:Well, it’s cool and clear and clean. Put a stream like that alongside any river out here – dirty, yellow, muddy – you’ll see the difference.

Needless to say, Dolly is unimpressed at the insult.

The drama and sniping that follows will test Gaskell particularly when Dolly begins flirting and drinking with McArdle.

But the real test will be the mighty storm that has suddenly sprung up and the passengers, as well as the precious cargo, are in danger. The storm sequence is packed with action and beautifully shot and Gaskell risks all to save the steamroller, as well as protect his ship. By all accounts, Gable did his own stunts much to the concern of MGM.. But it takes nothing away from what still proves an exciting action sequence that leaves the audience holding their breath.  The typhoon proves to be an ominous sign of worst to come.



Here also is where Garnett uses well-placed secondary characters to further the story. The disgraced former captain Davids, now Third Officer, fails in his duty to help during the storm. He has also failed Gaskell who put his faith in him and gave him a chance. Will he redeem himself? Will he be the only one who lets Gaskell down?


The audience discovers the answer as the turning point in the film arrives when Dolly is put to the test in terms of her love and loyalty towards Gaskell. Whilst playing a drinking game with McArdle, Dolly discovers the truth and later risks all to try and warn Gaskell about McArdle’s intentions. His fatigue after the storm, disappointment and anger towards Dolly results in his rejection of her, much to his misfortune. Like the classic and clichéd woman scorned, Dolly swears she will make Gaskell pay and sure enough painfully goes into league with McArdle to assist him in his plans.


Dolly: You just wait! I’ll fix you! You’ll be lower than a coolie! You’ll be lower than Davids! You’ll come crawlin’ to me on your knees!

With Dolly’s assistance, McArdle puts his plan into action and the pirates board seeking the gold. Robbing the passengers, Gaskell appears calm and collected as they ransack the ship for the gold. McArdle’s duplicity is played to the hilt as he pretends to be concerned whilst secretly desperate to find the gold. Gaskell’s toughness is put to the test as the pirates torture him with ‘the boot’ and despite McArdle’s false concern, Gaskell merely replies that his size is 9C. The brutality of the torture is difficult to bear and we see just how callous McArdle is as well. He’s clever enough to play out his deception, even as Gaskell is being tortured. Yet all is not doom and gloom, as Davids redeems himself during the pirate raid – exactly how will not be revealed here.


Annex - Gable, Clark (China Seas)_NRFPT_02

Indeed, to avoid spoilers, this reviewer will not divulge the result of the pirate raid or what the consequences are. Needless to say, the tension and drama continues right to the very end with Gable at his very best.


Overall, China Seasis a thoroughly entertaining feature film, with the perfect combination of action, adventure, romance and even some comic relief.  Running at 87 minutes, it feels a little longer thanks to plenty of action and well-written dialogue. Additionally, the film is very well paced and Garnett handles direction with appropriate use of tension with tact to drive the story forward. Humour is injected in the right places and it certainly works well when Gable and Harlow fire their lines at each other. Much of the fire of their work during the Pre-Code Era had to be tempered for China Seas but their fire is a sizzling slow burn that does not disappoint. There’s also the allure of an exotic setting a la Red Dust, with plenty of sexual jealousy to add spice to the adventure. Admittedly, Harlow is less the loose, dangerous woman of Red Dust and more a loveable party-girl who only has eyes for Gable and whose heart belongs to him as well.

China Seas (1935) 07

The sub-plots and intrigues of the secondary characters at times may seem superfluous but they rarely interrupt the story and indeed often work well to add interest. Lewis Stone as the disgraced former captain, who initially shows cowardice during a storm, finds the hero within himself during the great crisis moment in the film. There are interjections of humour with the permanently inebriated Charlie McCaleb (Robert Benchley) oblivious to the typhoon’s might as he attempts to play chopsticks on a piano that’s wreaking havoc and later trying to light a cigarette as waves crash into the film. Throughout the film, Benchley throws out highbrow one-liners that would be right at home around the Algonquin Round Table.

Jamesy: Twenty years on the China Seas and she never lost a spangle.

McCaleb: I had a spangle once. It was a cocker spangle. She had a liter of field mice.

Conversely, Edward Brophy as Timmons provides some blue-collar humour surrounding the sub-plot of his wife’s jewellery. Played by the beautiful Lillian Bond, it’s hard to imagine her with Brophy but she’s also manipulated by Romanoff (Akim Tamiroff) with suggestions that would have been more explicit before the Code took hold.  Some great dialogue also highlights an uncredited appearance by Hattie McDaniel as Isabel McCarthy, Dolly’s maid:

Dolly: Would you say that I look like a lady?

Isabel: No, sir, Miss Dolly. I been with you all too long to insult you that way.


With all due respect to the film’s cast and creators, there is fair amount of silliness and removal from reality in China Seas. The story itself is pretty far fetched and Gable as an Englishman who is ex-Navy is about as believable as a snowman in the Sahara. How a character like Dolly ends up in the China Seas is anyone’s guess. Many of the characters seem to fit the formula but it’s a formula that works and suspense of disbelief is very easy to achieve because China Seasis so much fun to watch and enjoy. The dialogue and interaction between the characters feels natural, leaving the audience believing in the relationships that are depicted on the screen.  The stiltedness of dialogue and movement that could be found in some of the early Pre-Code films is no longer present and it seems that MGM found a ‘formula’ that worked well. Yes, the parallels with Red Dust are evident but Garnett does more with the material he has and the action scenes are incredibly well done.

Not only is the success of China Seastestament to Tay Garnett as director and the high production values afforded by Thalberg and MGM but also due in particular to the great cast. For Thalberg, it was a return to the all-star cast format that had been used by MGM in Grand Hotel. And it certainly paid off. Beery is outstanding as the dangerous McArdle, particularly as he appears so likeable as the friendly trader. The audience can even feel for him when he readily admits his feelings for Dolly:

Jamesy: Lovin’ you is the only decent thing I ever did in my entire life. And even that was a mistake.


Aubrey is as British as they come, with a dignity in profile that even Barrymore would admire. The gorgeous Rosalind Russell as an English aristocrat shows poise even in a secondary role and to the script writer’s credit shows a little more than your standard secondary role. And of course, Jean Harlow is at her very best, matching Gable moment for moment and certainly outshines some of her more celebrated roles from the early 1930s. For my money, the chemistry that they shared on screen is best appreciated in this film.


But it’s the incredible talent of Clark Gable that makes this film a real gem. Yes Gable is playing Gable but that’s why it’s so much fun. Tough, uncompromising and with a powerful sense of self-deprecation, there are moments galore where you cannot help but like him. With so many great films as exemplars of Clark Gable at his best, China Seas should be added to the list of must-see Gable films.


This article is a proud entry into the Second Clark Gable Blogathon, kindly hosted by Love Letters To Hollywood. A huge thank you for hosting and allowing me to take part! Please go to the link for other great articles on the King Of Hollywood, Clark Gable.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.


A Review of Libeled Lady (1936): One of the great final performances of Jean Harlow

by Paul Batters


You can’t build a life on hate, or a marriage on spite. Marriage is too important. Mine only lasted an hour, but… I know.. Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy)

There are legends of cinema who became stars in the heavens as well as on the silver screen way before their time. They are forever remembered young, vital and beautiful; lives tragically cut short through illness or accident such as Rudolph Valentino, Carole Lombard and of course Marilyn Monroe. But with all due respect to the latter, it was an earlier star who first embodied the concept of the ‘blonde bombshell’. Jean Harlow was a star who combined sexiness with sass, quick-fire delivery with a devastating sexual slow-burn and was electric on the silver screen. Her chemistry with her co-stars saw her as one of the premier stars of MGM and her death would shock the Hollywood film community.

Yet her performances on screen remain timeless and a testimony to her long-lasting legendary status.


Libeled Lady was one of her final performances and such was her status that she received top billing over William Powell (her fiancé), Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy. Despite signing on for the key role of Connie Allenbury, MGM ‘s Louis B. Mayer wanted Powell paired with Loy to capitalise on the pair’s prior successes. Settling for the role of Gladys, Harlow still gives a spirited performance in a film that is fun, fast-paced and enjoyable. By all reports, Harlow was not bitter and ended up enjoying the role and the film overall.  Additionally, this great screwball comedy is a showcase of MGM’s top talent, something that few studios could boast and a characteristic that was commonplace on the MGM lot. On the surface, it’s easy to suggest that Libeled Lady was a vehicle for Loy and Powell, and as already mentioned Mayer wanted the two together. However, Harlow (and for that matter Spencer Tracy) were far more than supporting actors and the fact that Harlow received top billing suggests that as well.

The story, set around newspaper reporting, drew on a context popular and topical at the time, with numerous studios producing films with newspaper/reporting themes. Aside from radio and the newsreel, people got their news from newspapers (printed at least twice a day) so the ‘chase for the story’, journalists on the hunt etc were very familiar. However, in an era when newspapers were the kings of media, getting it wrong and being sued was a serious matter! As a result, the context allowed for all kinds of gags and quick-fire dialogue that were an integral part of screwball comedy and would suit Jean Harlow down to a tea. It certainly shows in her fine performance.




The plot revolves around Connie as a wealthy woman accused of breaking up a marriage and the fictitious New York Evening Star newspaper, run by Warren Hagerty (Spencer Tracy) is being sued by Connie for an incredible $5,000,000 for running the false story. Despite the occupational headache this had created for Hagerty, on a personal level it means his marriage to fiancée Gladys Benton (Jean Harlow) is now on hold till he cleans up the mess.

Gladys: You can’t do this to me, Warren Haggerty. Not to me. First, it was a fire at sea. Then it was a kidnapping. What’s the gag this time?
Warren Haggerty: Darling, there’s no gag. The newspaper’s made a mistake.
Gladys: Yeah, well so has little Gladys – engaged to a newspaperman.

In desperation, Hagerty calls on a former star journalist of the newspaper (and apparent womaniser) Bill Chandler (William Powell) who is an ‘expert on libel cases’ and is manipulated into accepting big money to help Hagerty. The crazy plan is for Chandler to marry Gladys (in name only) and masquerade as a married couple. The suave Chandler is then supposed to pursue and seduce Connie, only to be ‘discovered’ by a suitably distraught Gladys and use this as leverage to force Connie to drop the lawsuit. This mad scheme is only agreed to by Gladys, as Hagerty promises to marry her after the plan succeeds.

So how will this all end up? This reviewer will offer up no revelations and you will have to find out for yourself.

If you’re reading this and thinking that the plot sounds absolutely ridiculous, you would be absolutely correct. Under a weak director with second rate actors and poor production values, Libeled Lady becomes a forgotten film and deservedly so. Yet what follows is classic screwball with a healthy dose of farce. What keeps it all together is tight pacing and a very-well written and cohesive script, with crackling dialogue that is right up there with the best screwball comedies of the era. The best of MGM production values are in place and most important of all, you have four of the best and brightest stars of the 1930s. Their chemistry is top shelf and the work off each other with crispness and a complete understanding of what makes farce work – accepting the absurdity of the plot yet making it enjoyable and believable to the audience, even when we know it’s ridiculous.

With the Breen Code in full force, the sexual escapades that could be easily exploited (especially by today’s standards) are deftly dealt with and allow for plenty of laughs, with subtle as well as clever innuendo on the nature of marriage and relationships. However, some of the thematic commentary on marriage becomes an ugly revelation of the ‘norms’ of the time i.e. how couples ‘fought’. There’s also a very cynical view of marriage that is exhibited:

Hagerty: “You mustn’t fight.”

Chandler: “Why not, we’re married.”

Yet there are also some fascinating insights into society’s views on the role of women and reviewer Jennie Kermode makes a valid point; “Gladys is caught between mainstream society’s concept of a virtuous woman and Hollywood’s demonization of it as a force curtailing male ambition”. If there was one star who in real life epitomised and suffered this paradox, it was certainly Jean Harlow.


Partnering Loy and Powell was not just MGM looking to capitalise on their previous pairings for big box office bucks. The two had wonderful chemistry and could work off each other, the way Rogers and Astaire did on a dance-floor. The rest of the cast are also strong, with Spencer Tracy perfect as the fast-talking and hard-boiled newspaper editor.

There’s plenty of style and sophistication in this classic MGM production, and the chemistry between Loy and Powell is a delight to enjoy. Make no mistake, however, Harlow is far from over-shadowed and her screen presence and real-life relationship with Powell adds a fascinating dimension to their own screen performances. Indeed, Harlow steals many scenes, simply through her presence and charisma, despite her personal health being not at its’ best and terrible tragedy was only around the corner. By all reports, the cast were very close and got along well, which meant an enjoyable shoot for all concerned and the great relationships they shared certainly transfer onto the silver screen. According to Frank Miller at TCM, there were all kinds of gags and off-screen fun which lightened the mood, added to the good atmosphere and even drew Powell out of his dressing room to join in on the amusement.


The film does build on some already well-established plot devices. As already mentioned, the newspaper angle had already been utilised in films such as It Happened One Night and Platinum Blonde, with far more originality than Libeled Lady. Not to mention the character of the ‘young rich girl’ living a leisurely lifestyle, which had been visited numerous times and would be re-visited numerous times in the future to the point of exhaustion. But you could pull Libeled Lady apart a little too much and miss the fun in the process. As Dennis Schwartz points out, “It’s harmless fun and not worth thinking about it too much. I would recommend just sitting back and going with the lively romp and lavishly costumed production”.

Case in point – the ‘fishing scene’ is hilarious, utilising the talents of Powell with that wonderful actor Walter Connolly, who is always a delight. Of course it’s a little silly but it also has charm mixed in with the laughs and it’s moments like this that make Libeled Lady so much fun.

Despite Powell and Harlow being an off-screen couple, the two did not get to spend a great deal of on-screen time together. However, by all reports Harlow would visit on the set during Powell’s scenes and when the two share screen time, it’s not hard to see Harlow’s real life love for her man.

Kermode correctly states, Libeled Lady ‘was made in an era when screwball comedy capers were at their best. They were also at their most prolific, with MGM focused on finding great pairings..’. This is not strictly a Jean Harlow film but one which displays the best of MGM. Audiences thought so too, as the film did very well at the box office and firmly established Harlow’s place at the top of MGM’s star roster.

However, with respect to the many great actresses of the era, put someone else in the role and it would not be the same film. Gladys’ lines have that sass and sizzle that only Jean Harlow could have delivered – and makes the film a delight to watch.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Public Enemy (1931) – The shaping of the classic film gangster


‘Why that dirty, no good, yellow-bellied stool. I’m gonna give it to him right in the head the first time I see him’.  James Cagney The Public Enemy (1931)

by Paul Batters

In my last article, the focus was on the gangster film: its’ inception and how it both reflected and was created by the context of the times. As a genre, it would change almost right after it emerged – in great part due to the new Hays Code but also because it expanded into new forms, across genres and most importantly, it had other things to say.

The original trilogy looked at the rise and fall of the gangster. Little Caesar and Scarface particularly feature a cold, cruel and brutal rise to power and an equally cold and brutal fall. The final scene of Enrico Bandello is a testament to how far he has fallen. The mis en scene of a lone figure in coat and hat, seeming small as he walks by a large billboard (ironically advertising his former friend turned dancer), as the cold, harsh wind and snow howls around him, certainly illustrates how pathetic and sad Bandello looks, adding to his deluded claims that he’ll be back one day at the top.

Two films that look at the gangster’s rise and fall still hold true to the fate of the gangster being one of futility. Both would star James Cagney. Both would be made at Warners Brothers. And both would have that special stamp of production that only Warner Brothers could bring to the gangster film, in terms of script, casting and direction. Both would arguably be bookends to the classic gangster film cycle.

This article will focus on the first film; one which made Cagney a star – The Public Enemy.

Directed by William Wellman, The Public Enemy deserves its’ reputation as a classic and a landmark film. The year of its’ release saw the world in the deep midst of the Depression and it still resonates with audiences today, even if it was a product of its’ time.

Even before we are launched into the story, Warner Bros. were cautious enough to begin with a written declaration, with the claim that the intention of the authors of The Public Enemy to honestly depict an environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life, rather than to glorify the hoodlum or the criminal”. It is easy to see such a declaration from a pessimistic standpoint as an attempt to keep the critics and social watchdogs happy. However, as Richard Maltby pointed out in his 2003 review, ‘the complex and contradictory cultural position occupied by Hollywood’s representations of criminality in the early Depression’ is what needs to be considered. Variety, in 1931, saw the film as a ‘hard and true picture of the unheroic gangster’. Warner Bros. were aiming to make a tough, violent film that grabbed everyone’s attention – and they certainly succeeded.

From the opening titles, we are greeted with a staccato version of ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’, which not only acts as a theme song throughout the film but speaks universally of ‘dreams fading and dying’ and ‘fortune always hiding’. Whilst the lyrics are not sung, the audience would have been more than familiar with what was a hit tune and a standard from 1919 onwards. On occasion, it returns to it’s dreamy ¾ waltz time but sharply snaps back into it’s jumpy jaunt, as if bringing us back into the harsh reality that the film purports to show its’ audience.

The use of music works in tandem with the documentary style of director William Wellman. Music acts as a ‘time-stamp’, not only creating atmosphere but also setting the context and educating us. Americans in 1931 were still under Prohibition, even though its’ death knell had sounded but they are taken back to 1909 via an opening montage of the streets, the saloon and boys buying and drinking beer – a reminder of that pre-Prohibition period. It is a quick social history lesson on why Prohibition was introduced and the Salvation Army Band marching along the street further adds to the lesson, without needing dialogue.

Likewise, the director William Wellman’s use of diegetic sound also expands the experience of stepping back in time. The camera work belies the myth that early talkies became anchored and stationery to accommodate sound equipment. In the opening scene, the camera moves with fluidity as we absorb the sounds of the streets, combining with the visual montage. Wellman brilliantly uses diegetic and non-diegetic sound, colouring the story and giving it a deeper impact in the key moments of the film.

Tom Powers and Matt Doyle are young boys – ruffians who get up to mischief, with Tom particularly drifting into delinquency. Despite the warning from his older brother Mike and the beatings from father, Tom is not tamed. Even here, the film offers commentary on the usual explanations for social ills – poor parenting or lack of it. Despite a father who is also a policeman and beats him regular, the old adage of ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ seems to be ineffectual and defunct. Tom’s father does not even speak to him and it appears the only relationship they have is one of violence, in complete contrast to the one Tom has with his mother. Even as he is about to be beaten, Tom shows no fear and indeed challenges his father asking ‘Well, how do you want them this time, up or down?’ as he indicates his trousers. As Tom is beaten, he neither cries out nor breaks into tears, accentuating the challenge that all the beatings in the world didn’t work before and won’t work now. Nearly 60 years later, Scorsese will amplify the same attitude in Goodfellas, as Henry (Ray Liotta) is beaten by his father, who reflects ‘every once and a while I’d have to take a beating. But by then, I didn’t care. The way I saw it, everybody takes a beating sometime.’ Tom Powers would have agreed wholeheartedly and understood the sentiment perfectly.


Tom and Matt’s furthering into petty crime becomes more apparent when we are introduced to the Faginesque Putty Nose (Murray Kinnel) – who runs a ‘club’ for boys as well as other miscreants. He plays a song to amuse the boys on an upright piano, which ironically will serve as his own funeral dirge later on. Putty Nose cheats the two boys by paying a pittance for the petty theft of some watches.


Jump forward a few short years and both Tom (James Cagney) and Matt (Edwards Woods) are now young men, whom Putty Nose convinces to help in a warehouse robbery. Despite his assurances that he will help them if they face trouble, Tom and Matt find Putty Nose gone after having to shoot a policeman. So much for honor among thieves!

Tom and Matt begin playing for larger stakes and their rise in the gangster world is accompanied by cold, brutal violence. The lesson is simple – the only way to the top is through violence, intimidation and murder. Those that do not learn that lesson are not only ‘soft’ but doomed to be stepped on. Working for Paddy Ryan, their rise is as fast as it is brutal.


As Tom and Matt drift into larger criminal enterprise, Wellman contrasts this with another issue still very familiar to audience in 1931; those young American men who would join World War One and return to become ‘forgotten men’, broken by the war in body and spirit. Later when Tom’s brother Mike returns from France and a party is thrown, he and Tom again have an altercation but it is punctuated by Mike’s haunted face, screaming that the provided keg is filled with ‘beer and blood’ (reflecting Harvey F. Thew’s novel on which the film was based). The pain of returned soldiers betrayed by their governments, the Depression and society at large, was a very real issue and though not explicitly focused on by Wellman, there is an implicit undercurrent concerning the problem. Tom berates his brother’s moral attack on his life of crime when he fires back at him saying ‘you didn’t get all those medals holding hands with them Germans’. Again, the themes of choices comes to the fore – two brothers choosing two different paths; one of honesty, truth and honor. The other one of crime, money and power on the streets. What price will each one pay?

Movies can be attacked for their lack of reality yet there is a certain truth to the gangster attitude towards women. Both Tom and Matt meet Kitty (Mae Clarke) and Mamie (Joan Blondell) at a speakeasy and take up with them. However, only Matt has greater designs on Mamie, falling in love with her and later marrying her.

However, Tom sees Kitty as a passing object to enjoy until he tires off her, which he does soon enough. The famous ‘grapefruit’ scene had been discussed at length and will not be re-analysed here except to say the following; Powers’ misogyny is evident when he arrives at the breakfast table. When asking for a drink, Kitty’s questioning his need for a drink so early in the morning is followed by a brusque ‘ I didn’t ask for any lip. I asked if you had a drink’. Tom sees Kitty as nothing more than something to sate his needs and desires. The violent grapefruit in the face highlights his lack of respect for women but also points out that he isn’t the ‘marryin’ kind’. After leaving Kitty, he and Matt are driving down Michigan Ave, only to discover Gwen (Jean Harlow). Gwen, however, knows the rules and the suggestion that she prefers bad men also makes clear that she too is not the marrying kind. But she fits his need to look successful, using her as an object to advertise his success, along with his car, his flash clothes and his reputation. The domestic life that Kitty represents is not on the cards for Tom Powers.


A particular scene removed from the film after the Production Code was established (and subsequently edited back in) also illustrates Powers’ attitude toward women. Later in the film, Powers is hiding out in a woman’s apartment, who seduces him whilst he is drunk. His reaction is one of violence and distaste. Tom Powers is the quintessential gangster – it is he who uses and seduces, not the other way around and control must be his. A sharp contrast to the gangster portrayals by Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939), where he seems to be a ‘one man woman’ and treats women with respect.

Likewise, the teaming up of Tom and Matt with the flash ‘Nails’ Nathan, also reflects the reality of the bootleg gangster. They flaunt their wealth and achieve their success through brutal violence against all who either step in their way or refuse to buy their product. Again, this is not dissimilar to the way gangsters worked during Prohibition and Wellman wants this raw realism to come across on the screen. These gangsters lack compassion and their criminal lives are normalized to such a degree that violence and murder barely make a mark on their conscience.

This cruel streak is best illustrated in two particular scenes, both which Wellman cleverly crafts.

The first is their re-uniting with Putty Nose. Now both high profile members of the Nathan outfit, Powers spies Putty Nose at a nightclub and he wants his revenge for what happened years before. It appears that Putty Nose has also moved up a little in the world, as Tom, reluctantly accompanied by Matt go back to a definitely improved abode complete with grand piano. Putty Nose pathetically begs for his life, trying to use sentimentality as his savior. He even plays on the piano for them, singing the very song he performed to them as kids (which will now become his funeral song), hoping that Tom will show a shred of compassion for him. But it is futile. It is here that Wellman’s brilliance shines – as the murder occurs off camera. The unseen violence seems even more graphic as it is left to our imagine, aided by the sound of the gun firing, followed by staggered piano keys as Putty Nose’s now-dead body falls across them. It is a cold, brutal killing, giving the moment an almost psychopathic element when Tom adds afterwards ‘Well, I guess I’ll go call Gwen..’. Matt says nothing but just contains the horror on his face. For Tom Powers, murder is as common and ordinary as blowing his nose.

The second is their response to the death of ‘Nails’ Nathan. However, rivals do not gun him down. Instead, he dies in a horse-riding accident. Again, there is not compassion even for an animal and Tom and Matt head straight to the stables, gunning down the horse in its’ stall. Again, Wellman uses sound and the violence occurs off-screen. We hear the gunshots and the horse’s grunts as it dies. Our shock is matched by the horror of the extreme violence. Again, the cold, cruel violence of these gangsters is more than apparent and actually finds basis in reality; gangster Samuel ‘Nails’ Morton was killed in a riding accident and ‘revenge’ was taken on the horse by his underlings.

An interesting aspect of the filmmaking process is the murder of Matt by the rival ‘Schemer’ Burns gang. The setting up of a machine-gun across the road from Tom and Matt’s hiding place,

Wellman’s manipulation of the new sound opportunities for story telling is not a hand that he overplays. Appropriated from the real life murder of Hymie Weiss in 1926, Matt is gunned down in broad daylight, with Tom just escaping the bullets. Hiding behind a building corner, the bullets that Tom ducks away from which strike the masonry are not special effects; in fact they are real bullets fired from a real machine-gun controlled by veterans from World War One, who knew how to use a machine gun. It would be a few years before special effects could re-create bullets being fired.

The ending combines the best of Wellman’s direction. Tom seeks revenge on those who have cut down his long time friend and decides to deal it out himself. Standing in the pouring rain, Tom’s face breaks into a terrible grin before he heads into a gunfight where he will end up second-best. Only the gunshots and screams are heard, leaving the audience to picture the scene. Tom staggers into the pouring rain, which symbolically acts as a cleansing and finality to the violence. Or so it appears.

The film’s turn as family drama also takes another step into redemption at the end of the film. Hospitalized and recovering, the family go to see him and it is the first time that Mike and Tom connect and find some reconciliation between them. The whole film sees a family fractured by Tom’s descent (or ascent depending on your opinion) into crime but also by Mike’s refusal to allow Tom any leverage in the family. The one family member who seems to suffer the most, is Tom’s mother – kind, gentle and soft, and desperate to see the family happy and re-united. Her final happiness seems secured after the hospital scene and her lively singing and demeanour contrasts tragically with what will unfold. There seems to be some hope that all will end well until the final horrific ending – which still shocks today, despite the extremely graphic violence portrayed on today’s screen.

The brilliant work of director William Wellman cannot be overstated. A veteran pilot of World War One, Wellman was often accused of being difficult, contemptuous of actors and even a bully. Yet he was also an innovator, looking outside the apparent limitations of the new sound technology (and perhaps even inventing the boom microphone!). Wellman’s pacing, sense of story and interesting use of camera shots and angles give Cagney the framework within to work. Esquire’s Dwight McDonald, known for his scathing reviews, praised Wellman’s direction of the film and his subtle use of his main actor, allowing Cagney’s portrayal to grow as the plot unfolded.

But Wellman’s greatest asset to the film, as John McCabe outlined in his biography of Cagney, was his recognition of talent. Edwards Woods was initially signed to play Tom Powers, with Cagney in the secondary role. Yet Wellman was impressed with Cagney and could see no-one else in the main role of Tom Powers. Sticking to his guns, despite the studio politics that interplayed with the decision, Wellman won through. Wellman could see that Cagney could bring to the role something that the gentle Edward Woods could not; the tough realism and New York city smarts that Cagney possessed.

Indeed, James Cagney himself pointed out that his portrayal of Tom Powers was based on a friend of his father ‘not as a character but the way I played him’ (Cagney); a gregarious raconteur with a great sense of humor, who ended up in Sing Sing for a pointless murder. Like his father’s friend, Cagney saw Tom Powers as a ‘damned soul’ but played him without the humor as there was ‘no time to do that’.

The Public Enemy stands tall today for one main reason – James Cagney. Whilst the rest of the cast do their job well and assist Cagney in his performance, Cagney is electric and dominates the screen. Variety in 1931 lauded his performance, though were less enamored with Jean Harlow (though they felt she had great presence, Variety felt her voice needed work). Cagney is all New York – in attitude as well as dialogue and speaking voice. Unlike the other actors, who carefully annunciate their words (an expectation during the early talkies), Cagney doesn’t hold back with his fast-talking banter, bringing a ‘realism’ to the role. The audience is also drawn to the physicality and sense of movement that Cagney possessed. Being a dancer, Cagney was aware of how to utilize space around him and move with a deftness and fluidity that his fellow cast members seem to lack. As a result, the audience cannot help but look at Cagney constantly, adding his own personal mannerisms that bring a uniqueness to the role. Cagney would employ a particular gesture that his father used; a gentle and affectionate tap to the jaw – a perfect example of such a mannerism. Furthermore, Cagney’s interactions with characters are filled with an energy that never tires.

Everything about Tom Powers does not make him a likeable character; his treatment of women, his use of violence, lack of compassion and overall career choice are all character traits that are deplorable. Yet Cagney became a star – his portrayal of Tom Powers was what a great, breakthrough role is to any actor seeking stardom. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine any other actor in the role of Tom Powers. It is Cagney’s courage and determination to play the role as totally unsympathetic. And yet the audience still has sympathy and connection with Tom Powers.

Variety in December, 1930 said this in its’ review of The Public Enemy: ‘There’s no lace on this picture. It’s raw and brutal. It’s low-brow material given such workmanship as to make it high-brow’.

That review still rings true today.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.