Tag Archives: William A. Wellman

Pre-Code Hollywood #5 – The Public Enemy (1931)

51fcd0976b353e7078f582fafe787b39The Public Enemy (1931)
Directed by: William A. Wellman
Written by: Harvey F. Thew (based on Beer and Blood by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright)
Starring: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke

The anti-hero and the gangster movie go hand in hand, dating all the way back to the dawn of film as an artistic medium. William A. Wellman’s 1931 film The Public Enemy lays the early groundwork for iconic movie characters like Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone and Tony Montana, and Robert DeNiro’s James Conway, and to an extent, Travis Bickle. For that, we have the immortal James Cagney to thank – his lack of empathy towards anybody but himself, violent outbursts, and sinister smile create a three-dimensional, vivid, and highly memorable character. Cagney would continue playing anti-heroes and crooks in films about the criminal underworld, leading him to the very top of the Hollywood food chain in the 1930’s and 40’s. The enforcement of the Hays Code would see the re-release of The Public Enemy with several missing scenes, most of which weren’t restored until the film’s release on home video years later.

The Public Enemy follows young Tom Powers (James Cagney) and his best friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) as they slow rise through the ranks of Chicago’s underground bootlegging business. Tom’s family begs him on multiple occasions to go straight and give up what is looking to be a dangerous life of crime, but their Tom is too far gone – the young man has long since romanticized the exciting lifestyle. We watch Tom and Matt go from petty, clumsy thieves to legitimately dangerous made men. Together, Tom and Matt burn bridges, let down their families, break hearts, and even kill. By the time the film’s shocking ending arrives, bootlegging and larceny are the least of their worries.
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When talking about the pre-code era of Hollywood, it’s important to note just how shocking and groundbreaking a film like The Public Enemy probably was. It’s chock full of unlikable characters, prohibition-era shenanigans, and violence (domestic and organized) among other things that the Hays Code would soon outlaw. There’s just no way something like it would have been made even five years later, which is truly a shame. The Public Enemy doesn’t just set out to shock its viewers with exciting subject matter, but instead gets deep inside the head of a sociopathic anti-hero. James Cagney’s portrayal of Tom Powers is sly and sadistic from the get-go, it’s clear that his attitudes towards the world he’s living in are less than optimistic. Tom sees a life of luxury at his fingertips, and doesn’t seem to mind having to kill and break the law in order to get there, making him very different than most big screen characters of the time. Almost every pre-code element of The Public Enemy is perpetrated by Tom Powers or involves him – he murders thugs and police officers alike, explores pre-marital relations with a number of women, smashes a grapefruit into a woman’s face during breakfast, straight up murders a horse, and is raped by a woman while being nearly blackout drunk. Cagney’s Tom Powers is the most unlikable character I’ve seen from this era of Hollywood, and yet every minute spent with him is fun and exhilarating. The highlight of Cagney’s performance is the aforementioned grapefruit scene, which comes off as a genuinely spur of the moment action, perfectly capturing Tom’s compulsive nature. While Cagney’s performance is far and away the best part of The Public Enemy, its screenplay is also worth noting. Adapted from an unpublished novel called Beer and Blood, Harvey Thew teamed with authors Kubec Glasmon and John Bright to create a criminal underworld that feels genuine in its intricacies, and a cast of characters that live and breathe thanks to some healthy character development. Their crowning achievement comes in the film’s final moments, where our main character finally learns the dangers of the lifestyle the hard way, and his family is forced to suffer for his actions. For their efforts, the screenwriters were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing. This would be the only nomination for The Public Enemy, although the film would later be recognized by the Library of Congress and submitted to the National Film Registry.

William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy is a landmark of crime films, specifically the gangster subgenre that has spawned countless classics. James Cagney’s Tom Powers will go down in movie history as one of Hollywood’s great anti-heroes, thanks to Cagney’s prowess as an actor, the strong screenplay, and the film’s shocking pre-code material. It may not seem like it today, but The Public Enemy is an absolute trailblazer, and a thrilling one to boot. By the time you reach the film’s conclusion, you’ll be begging for more. William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy is highly recommended.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #4 – Night Nurse (1931)

Night_Nurse_1931_PosterNight Nurse (1931)
Directed by: William A. Wellman
Written by: Oliver H.P. Garrett, Charles Kenyon (based on Night Nurse by Dora Macy)
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Ben Lyon, Joan Blondell, Clark Gable

Academy Award-winning director William A. Wellman’s film Night Nurse served as one of the first platforms where legendary actress Barbara Stanwyck could show her talents as a leading lady. Stanwyck had the sensibilities of a modern woman and a physical acting method that put her leagues above the competition – her acting prowess would lead her to being nominated for Best Actress four times between 1938-1949 for classic films like Stella Dallas, Double Indemnity, and Ball of Fire. Night Nurse gave talented director William A. Wellman and star Stanwyck the boundary-pushing material needed to create something truly unique and ultimately memorable.

Night Nurse follows nurse trainee Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) as she begins her career in a new hospital. Her roommate Miss Maloney (Joan Blondell) quickly becomes her best friend, and Lora begins to make the best out of her new place of employment. She is assigned to the night shift in the emergency room, where she meets a bootlegger named Mortie (Ben Lyon) after he is shot. After passing her training, Lora moves on to private nursing, where she looks after two young sick children called Desney and Nanny Ritchie. Their mother (Charlotte Merriam) is a drunk socialite who is infatuated with her chauffeur Nick (Clark Gable). Lora soon comes to find out that young Desney and Nanny are being starved to death by Nick, in a plot to marry their mother and subsequently inherit their trust fund. It is Lora’s sworn duty to interfere in the plot, but everything seems to be working against her. Night Nurse was notable at the time of its release for its risque nature, and later became known as an important launching pad in the careers of Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable, Joan Blondell, and Ben Lyon.
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From the very beginning of Night Nurse, I knew I was in for something completely different both stylistically and tonally. The first shot of the film follows an ambulance in first person as it speeds through the streets and into the hospital loading zone – it is a simple but thrilling moment that sets the tone for the film to follow. The hospital setting is full of oddball characters who make the setting feel vibrant and alive. Barbara Stanwyck’s Lora Hart is kind-natured, independent, and witty – watching her acclimate to her new hospital atmosphere is the highlight of the film’s first half. Her chemistry with Joan Blondell’s Maloney is undeniable in their comic timing, and I found myself wanting more interactions between the two. Lora and Maloney are two of the most fiercely independent characters in Night Nurse, a feat that is all too rare for the early 1930’s. Both women know what they want out of life and will stop at nothing to get it, with neither letting much of anything shake them. They verbally spar with their coworkers and the people surrounding them, showing that they’re not going to be toyed with. Night Nurse is a perfectly paced film with a runtime of just 71 minutes, making the best out of every single minute. The film’s tone takes a dramatic turn once Lora Hart has passed her training program and begins to look after the sick Ritchie children. Here we immediately hear a grizzly tale of how Nanny and Desney’s sister met her demise, meet the drunken Mrs. Ritchie, and watch as Lora is assaulted and very nearly raped by a drunk house guest. Movie legend Clark Gable plays the film’s antagonist Nick, who immediately makes his brutish presence felt by knocking out Lora’s would-be rapist, and forcing Lora to pump Mrs. Ritchie’s stomach. Gable is intimidating and quite frankly horrifying as Nick, a man with no moral code to speak of.

Some of the most memorable aspects of Night Nurse come in the form of its pre-Hays Code content, which there’s an awful lot of. We see Barbara Stanwyck’s Lora Hart and Joan Blondell’s Maloney undressing several times, the film deals with the attempted murder of young children, and multiple characters make reference to swear words – Lora at one point looks to a passed out Mrs. Ritchie and utters “you mother-”. The film’s ending is another example of pushing boundaries in the pre-code era, where two main characters laugh at the strongly hinted death of a third major character. The true brilliance of Night Nurse’s screenplay (written by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Charles Kenyon) is the way it turns several character archetypes on their heads. Ben Lyon’s criminal bootlegger character Mortie becomes one of the crucial heroes of the film, while Clark Gable’s handsome and charming chauffeur Nick is a sadistic child murderer. Night Nurse takes already familiar movie tropes and turns them into something wholly unique – it’s a film that constantly challenges you while also being highly entertaining and groundbreaking in many ways.
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While it may be something of a B-movie at its heart, William A. Wellman’s Night Nurse is the most fun I’ve had with a new film in quite some time. It’s boundary-pushing content is a joy to watch unfold, and it features an incredibly talented young cast. Barbara Stanwyck’s strong and independent Lora Hart is an incredibly memorable pre-code character, as is Clark Gable’s vicious antagonist Nick. The film features a strong supporting cast and lively environments that feel exaggerated in the best way. When Night Nurse reaches its conclusion after just 70 minutes, I was very much blown away by what I had just seen. It may not be the type of film that will change your life, but it’s one I feel should be given more attention today. William A. Wellman’s Night Nurse is funny, charming, thrilling, and highly recommended.

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