The Gangster Film: A Public Enemy?

Paper by Angelina Vollucci.

Along with the technical innovations within the film medium, censorship has had one of the most significant impacts on the film industry. Before the Production Code Administration (PCA) was established in 1934, Warner Bros. produced many gangster films considered “Pre-Code” that exemplified violence and sexuality and romanticized the American criminal. However, through the films Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and G-Men, the roles of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney can be analyzed as they transition from gangsters to federal detectives due to the studio’s compliance with the PCA after 1934. Ultimately, the censorship enforced by the PCA relates to modern filmmaking as the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) continues to face controversy over its rating system for violence, sexual content, and profanity.

The history of film censorship dates back to the beginnings of cinema in the 1890s, as local townships established censorship boards; however, by 1922 the Hollywood studios developed their own self-censorship apparatus that would strongly influence filmmaking until the 1960s: the MPPDA. The MPPDA, or The Motion Picture Producers and Distributers of America, was a public relations and industry trade organization led by former postmaster general, Will Hays. It was established in 1922 to self-regulate the film industry and promote a socially responsible, scandal-free image after women’s clubs, religious groups, and other reform organizations threatened to boycott studios’ films due to their stars’ scandals. Among the many scandals in the early twentieth century was the death of starlet Virginia Rappe, who was believed to have been raped and murdered by silent film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle”. When this scandal broke, “thirty-six state legislatures were considering film-censorship bills” (Lewis, 52). However, the MPPDA quickly supported the ban on Arbuckle’s films and prevented exhibitors from exploiting the films of Virginia Rappe, demonstrating self-regulation. Widespread state and local censorship declined as a result of Will Hays’ efforts, which ultimately benefitted film studios. This is due to the fact that studios feared government censorship and wanted their films to be able to “move freely through the marketplace without…having to worry about print seizures or boycotts” (Lewis, 111).With the decline in state and local censorship, the studios continued to make a profit, while Will Hays soon introduced the first industry-wide regulation list of “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls” in 1927. The eleven “Don’ts” included prohibitions on “profanity, ‘suggestive or licentious nudity’, depictions of drug trafficking, white slavery, and childbirth” and expressed prohibitions on the “‘willful offense to any nation, race, or creed'”(Lewis,111). In addition, miscegenation was “absolutely forbidden”, despite the fact that tolerance was to be the rule, and twenty-five “Be Carefuls” existed as well (Lewis, 11). Among the realistic depictions of crimes that the “Be Carefuls” cautioned against were “theft, robbery, safecracking, arson, the dynamiting of trains, smuggling, rape, the branding of animals or people, and cruelty to children or pets” (Lewis, 111). However, the list of “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls” was largely ignored since its rules prevented films from being sensations; after all, the provocative content that was banned by the list was what often attracted the masses. Given the failure of the “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls”, the MPPDA turned to a Jesuit priest, Father Daniel A. Lord, and a devout Catholic journalist, Martin Quigley, to create a more detailed and comprehensive list of production regulations. The resulting censorship development was the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code. The 1930 Motion Picture Production Code featured twelve areas of concern, which included: crimes against the law, sex, vulgarity, obscenity, profanity, costume, dances, religion, locations, national feelings, titles, and repellent subjects. Although subjects such as vulgarity, obscenity, and profanity are more or less self-explanatory, the Production Code elaborated on crimes against the law, sex, costume, and national feelings. For example, the methods used by criminals were not to be shown in films, to avoid influencing “vulnerable” audiences; scenes of passion were banned, with a “specific prohibition on ‘excessive and lustful kissing'”; nudity was forbidden, in addition to overly revealing clothing; and “reverence for flag and country must be observed, and respect given to other nations and nationalities”(Lewis,112). However, it proved difficult to enforce the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code, and between 1930 and 1934, studios mostly ignored the new regulations, creating an era known as “pre-code” Hollywood. Within this period, Warner Bros. released the two early-sound-era gangster films, Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, which would not have been approved of after 1934.

Both Little Caesar and The Public Enemy exploit violence, sexuality, and the American criminal in defiance of the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code and reflect the attitude of pre-code Hollywood. The films of studios like Warner Bros. were able to reach American screens in the early 1930s due to the corruption of the MPPDA board that was in charge of code enforcement. According to film scholar John Lewis:

If a studio disputed a decision made by the code administrators, it could file an appeal with the MPPDA board, which was composed of executives from the member studios. In the spirit of working together (and protecting their products in case of a future dispute) the studio executives routinely signed off on everything. Much as they did after the list of “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls” was introduced, the studios took voluntary compliance to mean that they did not have to do anything if they did not want to. (112)

As a result, films that defied the Code and embraced sexuality, crime, and violence became very popular, and Little Caesar and The Public Enemy helped to establish a gritty gangster genre. Released in 1931, William Wellman’s, The Public Enemy centers around gangster themes and situations that strongly conflict with many of the twelve areas of concern listed in the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code. For example, the first rule prohibited “crimes against the law”, which includes murder, “the methods used by criminals who stole”, and alcohol production, distribution, and consumption (Lewis, 112). The Public Enemy blatantly violates this rule: the protagonist Tom murders others; Tom’s best friend Matt is visibly gunned down on the street; characters steal alcohol from barrels with a rope and signal method; and alcohol is distributed and consumed in many scenes, most notably during the celebration for Tom’s brother, Mike, upon his return from World War I. The Public Enemy also defies rules regarding sex, vulgarity, and repellent subjects. For example, after receiving a phone call from his boss, Tom needs to talk with Matt; however, Matt is “busy” in the bedroom next door with his girlfriend, Mamie, and laughter can be heard. Tom then tells Matt to “shake a leg” and he replies reluctantly, “In a minute!”.

Although this scene seems very tame to modern audiences, it suggests sexual activity before marriage, while the scene in which the wife of Tom’s boss, Jane, seduces Tom while he is drunk and sleeps with him depicts adultery. Other scenes violate the rules regarding “good taste” and repellent subjects: following the news of the Prohibition Act, people rush to buy alcohol, and the camera focuses on a man pushing a baby stroller filled with bottles of liquor in replacement of a child; when Tom misbehaves as a child, his father beats him with a belt; and after “Nails” Nathan is killed in a horse riding accident, Tom and Matt track down the horse and simply shoot it. These scenes demonstrate moral decay, cruelty to children, and animal cruelty, respectively. Perhaps the most disconcerting element that makes The Public Enemy a pre-code film, is the celebration of the sociopathic protagonist and gangster, Tom Powers. Skillfully played by James Cagney, Tom was “nothing less than the impish smiling, fresh-scrubbed face of evil” (LaSalle,58). Throughout the film, Tom often smirks and kills out of spitefulness, as in the case of the horse that led to “Nails” Nathan’s accidental death. He treats his “all-American” brother, Mike, with disdain, and even states of him, “he’s going to school so he can learn how to be poor!”. These declarations accompanied by visual rewards could have been seen as influential to youth, especially as the nation entered The Great Depression after the stock market crash; the fast, get-rich-quick lifestyle of the gangsters is both alluring and tempting. In addition, Tom represented the pre-code attitude of the time as he was: a realist, equipped for survival in the twentieth century, and he embodied traits moviegoers admired and wanted to emulate- not criminality but skepticism; not cruelty, but strength, as well as a hostility to fake talk, and imperviousness to platitudes, and the courage to break with the pack” (LaSalle, 59).

Also released in 1931, Melvyn LeRoy’s, Little Caesar, defied the Production Code and romanticized the American criminal. It follows Caesar “Rico” Bandello, an aspiring small-town criminal as he moves to the city of Chicago “to hit the big time” and is accompanied by his friend, Joe Massara, who decides to leave the crime world and enter into show business (Munby, 45). Little Caesar does not shy away from the suggestion that Rico is a homosexual; Rico has a great affinity for his friend Joe, and is often upset by Joe’s interest in women. Furthermore, Rico’s gunman, Otera, is “loyal, but that loyalty seems grounded in an unrequited desire for Rico” (Lewis, 120). Played by Edward G. Robinson, Rico represents a criminal in the politically incorrect light, in the sense that his sociopathic nature is supposedly caused by his repression or denial of his homosexuality. In addition, Little Caesar employs the media itself to sensationalize gangsters like Rico, most notably in the scene in which his picture is taken for the newspaper. This act parallels the front-page news of real gangsters such as Al Capone, the Chicago kingpin who even made the cover of Time magazine in 1930. Overall, the celebration of criminals in both The Public Enemy and Little Caesar represents what the MPPDA, religious groups, and activists feared most: that audiences who so avidly consumed these motion pictures might do what they saw on the screen (Lewis, 111). Ultimately, the controversies surrounding pre-code films led to the formation of stricter rules and new administrations in Hollywood.

Following the studios’ defiance of the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code, public activists- who were supported and financed by the church and wealthy Catholics- prompted the formation of the Catholic Legion of Decency in 1933; the MPPDA then created the Production Code Administration (PCA) in 1934. The Catholic Legion of Decency introduced its own film-rating system, either A (“all ages”) or C (“condemned”), which parishioners highly regarded; if they were seen at a C-rated film, they would have plenty to confess (Lewis, 117). Studios began to consult with the Legion after an organized church-sponsored boycott in 1934 reduced box-office receipts by 40 percent. After threats of further boycotts, and fear of outside censorship, the MPPDA created the Production Code Administration (PCA) in 1934. The PCA was led by a Catholic, pro-censorship activist named Joseph Breen, and it modified the content of films by strictly enforcing the 1930 Production Code. For example, scenes that violated any of the twelve areas of concern such as crimes against the law, sex, vulgarity, profanity, and repellent subjects had to be cut from the film. Many studios were willing to cut their films to suit the code for the “larger goal of maintaining stable public relations between Hollywood and the American film audience” (Lewis, 118). As a result of the PCA, however, the content of film became strictly regulated, leading to the decline of the gangster genre and the turn to “gangster-as-cop” films.

The effect of the Production Code Administration on the gangster genre can be analyzed through Warner Bros.’ 1935 film, G-Men. The story follows a New York City lawyer, Brick Davis, who is played by James Cagney and is supported by a local gangster. When Davis’ federal agent friend is killed by gangsters, he hunts down the criminals on his own, relying on the help of his former love interest. Although Davis is technically corrupt due to his support from the local mobster, “Mac” Mackay, the film was intended to counteract the Hollywood trend of glamorizing and celebrating criminals, as in The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. In addition to the transition of gangster films to “gangster-as-cop” stories, the most significant effect of the Production Code Administration was the elimination of risk-taking, provocative scenes that best captured the protagonists. For example, one of the most iconic and infamous scenes in The Public Enemy occurs when James Cagney, as Tom Powers, shoves a halved grapefruit into his girlfriend’s face over breakfast. At this point, Tom has grown tired of his girlfriend, Kitty, likely due to her inclinations toward a domestic life together. The scene is extremely raw, and it perfectly captures the animalistic, entitled nature of Tom and how he responds to disturbances. In contrast, Brick Davis of G-Men represents a man attempting to make an honest living, but he is lured into the crime world- as a cop- to avenge the death of his friend. Although played by James Cagney as well, Davis portrays a restrained, civilized man with respect for other women. One particular scene in G-Men contrasts sharply with the breakfast scene in The Public Enemy: Davis bids farewell to Jean Morgan, who is the star of MacKay’s nightclub. When Davis reports that he has joined the police force, he reacts shyly as Jean speaks to him; he wrings his hands together, and hesitates to give her a kiss when he leaves. In addition, Davis is dressed in a suit and hat, while Tom’s character is disheveled and wears pajamas. These scenes reflect the artistic divide caused by the Production Code Administration, and consequently the demise of gangster films like those of the early 1930s.

Overall, the censorship enforced by the PCA relates to modern filmmaking as the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) continues to face controversy over its rating system for violence, sexual content, and profanity. According to Jonathan Kuntz, a UCLA professor of American cinema history, “People have always been complaining about MPAA ratings, and before that they were complaining about the production code…it’s something that’s been going on for 100 years” (Sneed, Tierney). However, in recent years complaints have been made about the system for not being stringent enough when rating violence, and it was also criticized for rating other films too harshly for profanity and/or sexual content (Sneed, Tierney). Ultimately, the issues that continue to surround the MPAA ratings demonstrate that the attitudes and call for reform that led to changes in the early 1930s are still pertinent today.

Overall, Warner Bros. produced many gangster films called “pre-code” that differed greatly from those produced after the Production Code Administration was established in 1934. The films, Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and G-Men capture the changes in the roles and attitudes of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney as the studios complied with the PCA. Lastly, this censorship enforced by the PCA is significant to modern filmmaking as the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) continues to face controversy over its rating system for violence, sexual content, and profanity and still prompts public discourse over the regulation film content.

Works Cited

Dirks, Tim. “Film History of the 1930s.” Film History of the 1930s. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 June 2015.
Doherty, Thomas Patrick. Pre-code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934. New York: Columbia UP, 1999. Print.
LaSalle, Mick. Dangerous Men: Pre-code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man. New York, NY: Thomas Dunne /St. Martin’s, 2002. Print.
Munby, Jonathan. Public Enemies, Public Heroes: Screening the Gangster from Little Caesar to Touch of Evil. Chicago: U Of Chicago, 1999. Print.
Sneed, Tierney. “Don’t Expect Any Major Changes to the MPAA Ratings System in 2014.” US News. U.S.News & World Report, 7 Jan. 2014. Web. 25 June 2015.


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