…comes home to Ma in the final scene of prototype gangster movie THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931). I won’t spoil the surprise but for sheer grotesque horror I’m prepared to equate this with the denouement of THE MONKEY’S PAW: it shocks me rigid, every time. But from start to finish this is a wholly nasty, stylishly sadistic movie – speeding along at 79 minutes (those were the days), but seeming even nippier: maybe because in its cynicism and attitudes it is so modern.
As it is also in its lechery. Tiny (he was just under 5’5″) tough mad-eyed grinning Cagney is a sexy little psychopath. There’s a hint of the mother-fixation in THE PUBLIC ENEMY that was later to be worked out so thoroughly and disturbingly in WHITE HEAT, two decades later. And look out for the remarkable scene – now restored on DVD after being cut for the film’s re-release in the more prudish 1940’s – where Jimmy is painstakingly measured by an ogling and lascivious male outfitter. Even creepier than the creature who waits on Bill Holden in SUNSET BOULEVARD, the tailor whips out his tape & announces a waist of 31 and a half ¤. ( “O sir! Here’s where you need the room…such a muscle!”). Exactly as you’d imagine in this compact little ex-dancer and off-screen equestrian, who then goes off to shove a grapefruit into Mae Clark’s face before picking up the whorish Gwen (Jean Harlow, 2nd billed) while kerb crawling the highway.
Cagney was highly attractive to female audiences and appeared opposite a string of glamorous – and esoterically sexy – leading ladies including Rita Hayworth, Barbara Stanwyck and Mary Astor. His own off-screen marriage was a 64 year idyll. But was Cagney also a coded and unconscious gay icon in his time, as was reputedly his British contemporary, King George V? Gangsters were certainly a big turn-on for their contemporaries of both sexes and there’s a lot of evident homo-eroticism in these early “social realism” movies. The “endearing frog face of Edward G Robinson” appears as Rico in LITTLE CAESAR which premiered just 4 months before PUBLIC ENEMY. Here’s another miniature monster, this time in a satin dressing gown and spats: Rico has no time for girls, but hangs around with fawning guys who loll on the bed with the boss, or strike the sort of leggy poses Dietrich was just then making the acme of eroticism.
Cagney’s contemporary, Billy Wilder, full of the worldly wisdom of old Europe, picked up on all these cross currents when he made SOME LIKE IT HOT nearly thirty years later. Not only does he reference explicit scenes and shots from the Warners classics, but he goes further and makes female impersonation, sexual ambiguity and satyriasis v. impotence the main themes of his own picture. Yet for all its risky riffs ( the heavy drinking, priapic & presumably under-age bell boy; Joe E Brown’s preoccupation with his mama; and Marilyn’s astonishingly rude nude souffle dress) SOME LIKE IT HOT is an essentially innocent comedy, despite the killings and the gangster menace. “You couldn’t take offence”. To use an awful phrase, it’s a feel-good picture. THE PUBLIC ENEMY is most emphatically not a feel-good movie: it is seamy, sinister, misogynistic, heartless and very frightening. Look out for the rude song of a dirty old man at the piano; the voyeuristic touch of Joan Blondell and Edward Woods having noisy intimacy just out of shot; the inaudible but clearly lascivious whispering (“..whispery and obscene…”); and the first screen example of a horse’s head in a bag. And meantime – as in Ken Russell’s WOMEN IN LOVE decades later – the infantile, haunting “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” reprises on the soundtrack, the moans of trampled Depression innocence.
Needless to say, no one is seen applying scent: that really would be beyond the pale, of a piece with Fatty Arbuckle’s parties and Valentino’s pink face powder. Cagney expert John McCabe tells us that in private life Jimmy was addicted to heliotrope, having been entranced as a child by a teacher who smelled of this sweet powdery almondy scent. Heliotrope is a mauve floral oil, a whiff of the Edwardian era: tranquil, soft, maybe faintly fruity, slightly triste, the colour of half-mourning. Ambiguous and stylish, it sits well on both sexes. Try it at Les Senteurs, striking a chord in Secrete Datura, L’Eau d’Hiver, Un Bateau Pour Capri, Gris Clair and perhaps most intriguingly and prominently in Mona di Orio’s extraordinary Musc.
JAMES CAGNEY 1899 – 1986
¤ inside leg comes in at “33 and a half”. Poetic licence. Hips are “37 and a half”: the sequence is the titillating aural equivalent of Marlene posing beside the nude statue of herself in SONG OF SONGS or Valentino being dressed like a doll in MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE .