Cagney's Breakout: The Public Enemy

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“The Public Enemy was the film that really launched my career,” James Cagney said. “It was one of the first of many chances I had to portray that kind of person, the fist-swinging gangster who becomes ruthless in order to succeed.”

The career-defining film was based on Beer and Blood by two writers who captured real stories from the gangster days in Chicago.

Continue to go behind the film below!

1. Cagney changed characters.

Originally, James Cagney was cast as Matt Doyle, the friend, while Edward Woods was the titular character. However, Cagney’s performance in The Millionaire proved to the studio that he was ready to be a leading man. So Cagney and Woods switched parts. Interestingly, the child actors who played the younger versions didn’t switch roles so “young Doyle” looks more like Cagney and “young Tom Powers” looks more like Woods.

2. Cagney got a big raise.

The Public Enemy made Cagney a house-hold name. His career-making role solidified his ability to play the tough guy. However, Cagney wasn’t getting paid like he was a star. He was originally making $450 a week, less than other actors receiving top billing. When Warner Brothers refused to give him a raise, he was prepared to leave the studio – that is, until they caved. According to Cagney, real bullets were used in some of Public Enemy’s scenes, so a raise is completely justified!

3. That grapefruit scene…

There are a couple different legends about how the famous scene came about. By some accounts, it was based on real life, when mob boss Hymie Weiss did the same thing – but with an omelet. According to Cagney, it was director William Wellman’s idea as part of a practical joke which was eventually kept in the film. “The grapefruit thing got awfully old after a while,” said Mae Clark, the grapefruit’s recipient. When asked how it felt, she’d always reply, “Wet.”