The Public Enemy (1931)

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Images retrieved from on October 4th, 2014.

The chaotic scene of the 1931 gangster classic Public Enemy, depicting the frenzied purchasing of alcohol the night before the enactment of prohibition, implied that though liquor and beer were about to be outlawed, the demand would remain. The resulting thirteen years of American life under the Volstead Act, the law enforcing Prohibition, proved what the scene in Public Enemy projected. The widespread breaking of this unpopular law, compiled by the difficulty in enforcing it, led towards its eventual repeal in the wake of the Great Depression. The resulting lawlessness of the Prohibition Era, mainly in the form of bootlegging, racketeering and gangland murders, gave rise to one of the most popular contemporary forms of cinema: the gangster film.

In rising from the urban slums to the heights of wealth and fame, the gangster of film represented the success many immigrants had traveled to America in hopes of achieving. Arriving in a new world who's political, social and cultural institutions were dominated by "authentic" Americans of Anglo-Saxon heritage, these ethnic immigrants struggled for their own identity. Typically forced to the bottom of society through nativist-inspired xenophobia, immigrants had little opportunity to attain the success they had hoped to achieve. The ethnic gangster, in freeing himself from the cultural restrictions of a dominant, "top-down" Anglo hegemony, became a cultural hero for his brethren. Embodied in the title characters of Tony Camonte in Scarface (played by Paul Muni), Rico Bandello in Little Caesar (played by Edward G. Robinson) and Public Enemy's Tom Powers, the talking gangster film of the early thirties reflected this disaffection with the established law and order and placed the gangster in the spotlight. As an agent of this Anglo-Saxon cultural dominance, prohibition provided the movie gangster a milieu in which he could realize the American dream of the self-made man and become a hero for his fellow members of the ethnic, urban, working-class.

Text retrieved from on October 4th, 2014.