Thursday, September 16, 2010

Coffee and Grapefruit

The Castro had a Blonde Bombshell series in late August/early September. Marilyn Monroe featured prominently in the series but I only caught two films where the bombshells were Gloria Grahame and Jean Harlow.

The Big Heat starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin; directed by Fritz Lang; (1953)
The Public Enemy starring James Cagney and Jean Harlow; with Joan Blondell; directed by William Wellman; (1931)

Both films are well known and regarded. The Public Enemy along with Little Caesar (1931) with Edward G. Robinson kicked off the era of the gangster films in the 1930s and solidified Cagney and Robinson's careers. For years, the two of them (and to a lesser extent Humphrey Bogart) would be typecast as gangsters and tough guys. These films would be the progenitor of noir proper of which The Big Heat is a well regarded example.

Both films have famous scenes depicting violence towards women. In The Public Enemy, Cagney smashes a grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face. In The Big Heat, Lee Marvin throws hot coffee onto Gloria Grahame's face.

I don't recall seeing The Big Heat before. I have seen portions of The Public Enemy on television but it was so long that I couldn't remember the plot.


The Big Heat features Glenn Ford in his tough guy persona. I never found Ford as believable in those roles as he was when he played the "ordinary man." In The Big Heat, Ford plays Dave Bannion, a cop investigating the death of another police officer. Warnings from his boss & gangsters, his resignation from the police force and even a car bomb which kills his wife are insufficient to dissuade him from investigating the suspicious circumstances regarding the man's death. The main suspects in the murder are gangster Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) and his vicious lieutenant Vince Stone (Lee Marvin). Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame) is Stone's saucy and sauced girlfriend. Marsh flirts a little too much with Bannion and the infamous coffee in the face scene is her punishment.

Grahame and Marvin dominate the screen when they are on it (separately and together). I saw Grahame and Ford together in Fritz Lang's Human Desire (1954) at the Roxie in September 2009 as part of their Columbia Noir series. The difference between the two films shows the range Grahame and Ford had. The film follows Bannion's dogged pursuit of the killers and the redemption of and revenge by Marsh. Grahame's transformation in the film is remarkable.


The Public Enemy is the story of the rise and fall of gangster Tom Powers (James Cagney) during Prohibition. Painted in broad strokes, it's not clear to me what leads Powers into his life of crime and misogyny. As a boy, his cop father is distant and his mother uncritical of his behavior but that doesn't fully explain his descent into the underworld. Once Powers decides to be a gangster, he decides to be the best gangster he can be. At the time the film was released, Prohibition was still in effect and the depiction of the family life of Tom Powers must have seemed a realistic portrayal of a real-life problem.

Viewed nearly 80 years later, the film seems like a vehicle for "Cagney being Cagney." His twitchy mannerisms and distinctive speech patterns are present. Indeed, this was the film that made Cagney a star. Harlow's role is smaller. She doesn't show up until midway through the film. She plays a floozy who gets her hooks into Tom Powers but Tom is no one's fool except his own. That is to say that Powers isn't fooled by anyone because he doesn't trust anyone. However, Tom thinks himself invincible even as he kills and sees his friends and cohorts killed.

The grapefruit scene is a small part of the film and relates more to Powers growing dissatisfaction from his girlfriend (Mae Clarke) who will soon be replaced by the more venal and manipulative Jean Harlow. The legend is that the scene was a gag for the crew but director Wellman liked it so much that he kept it in.

The more iconic scenes are Cagney dodging machine gun fire by running around the corner of a building while his best is shot and the final scene where Cagney's corpse is left on the doorstep of his mother's house. Allegedly, real bullets were used in the scene where Cagney was dodging the bullets. He tripped during the filming so the bullets missed but if he hadn't the bullets would have struck him in the head and shoulders. Cagney laughed off the incident but it was the genesis for Cagney's later activism in the Screen Actors Guild.

Another interesting note is that in a scene where Tom's brother punches him, Wellman instructed Donald Cook to actually punch Cagney but he didn't tell Cagney it was going to happen. Cook punched Cagney so hard that he chipped one his teeth but Cagney stayed in character.


Both films were enjoyable. I have a decided preference for old films so my judgment may be biased. Cagney's death in The Public Enemy predates the Hays Code so there was no need for him to die. His death along with the social commentary via title cards made the ending distastefully moralizing for me. The story was entertaining and Cagney was charismatic.

The Big Heat was worth it to see Lee Marvin terrorizing everyone around him.

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