Sunday, June 6, 2010

Alternate universe movies: "The Public Enemy" with Louise Brooks instead of Jean Harlow

I do love a good Cagney movie. White Heat, Angels with Dirty Faces, Yankee Doodle Dandy....

Like Bogart or Ingrid Bergman or Cary Grant, James Cagney is one of those vintage Hollywood actors who compels me to stop and watch while channel-flipping, who occupy an amount of shelf space among the DVDs I dip into when I'm, say, "in the mood for a Cagney movie" the same way I get in the mood for a good burger or a familiar favorite album in my iTunes library.

Among my favorite bits in movie-ized Shakespeare is Cagney's roisterous comic turn as Bottom in Warner Bros.' 1935 version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, a peculiar viewing experience if you know Cagney only from the tough-guy roles that helped make him an icon of his era. Those roles had already started by then, thanks to his head-turning breakout performance in 1931's The Public Enemy. This is the movie that made a star out of Warner contract player Cagney, who thereafter embodied no-bullshit gangster cool for generations.

Alongside '31's Little Caesar and the following year's Scarface, The Public Enemy made the pulpy tommy-gun melodramas into something, as Box Office said at the time, "absolutely serious from start to finish," something "meant to be taken seriously by the audience." The New York Times noted Warners' "laudable motive" of "apprising the audience that the hoodlums and terrorists of the underworld must be exposed and the glamour ripped from them," and the film's moral that "civilization is on her knees and inquiring loudly as to what is to be done."

Nonetheless, up until the final reel, in The Public Enemy the wages of sin are obvious: a kid street punk with an abusive dad and a talent for petty crime can grow up to be a big-shot racketeer with loads of dough, flashy cars, tailored suits, and beautiful, willing dames. (Too bad about that final reel, but it's a good one too.) The film did such an effective job of showing that, yes, Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta, its prologue and epilogue disclaimers extolling its wholesome social intentions failed to budge the delicate bluenose pressure groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the League of Decency. The Public Enemy's violent realism, scenes blatant in their sexual suggestiveness, and the snappy allure of Cagney's performance helped ring in Hollywood's self-censoring Production Code of 1934, which sanitized criminal and sexual subject matter for years.

Under the masterful guidance of director William A. "Wild Bill" Wellman, Cagney gives The Public Enemy its dynamism and rewatchability. No one else onscreen can hold a candle to him. Originally, Cagney and co-star Edward Woods (as Powers' life-long pal and partner in crime) were cast with their parts here reversed, Woods having the lead role as Powers. But after catching sight of Cagney in action in another film, studio bosses flipped the casting just before shooting began.

With Cagney in the lead, it was guaranteed that volatile mobster Tom Powers was the most attractive and captivating force on the screen. His success proved, if by then there was any doubt, that audiences will go for a charismatic lowlife over a dull hero any day of the week, a lesson Hollywood never forgot.

Cagney's body language and his ease with street-level speech — a holdover from his own youth on the streets of New York City's Hell's Kitchen — were a revelation. Tom was no cartoonish caricature of a thug, and the reviews of the day praised Cagney's naturalism as part of the film's realism. In the documentary featurette on the DVD, Martin Scorsese says that before he shot The Aviator he showed his cast The Public Enemy, and when Cagney's entrance arrived someone exclaimed "Modern screen acting begins."

Keep that "modern screen acting" thought in mind — I'm coming back to that in a moment.

The Public Enemy is, of course, the movie that gave us the most famous grapefruit in Hollywood history:

That's Mae Clarke getting the citrus in the kisser, a moment that took on a life of its own in the decades since (it has even been parodied on The Simpsons) and that has an uncertain origin story. (TCM's page on the film probably provides the best summary.) Clarke is one of several women in the life of Cagney's brutal yet magnetic gangster.

Taking second billing after Cagney is Jean Harlow as the classic bottle-blond Other Woman. Unfortunately, while the rest of the film's "girls" (among them Joan Blondell) are fine, the clanging exception is Harlow, whose line-readings sound so leaden and amateurish that not even Cagney can save her.

One of a harem's worth of Howard Hughes discoveries, Harlow was already a star thanks to Hughes' Hell's Angels the year before. Her lack of acting talent didn't go unmentioned by the critics, although Variety, in its review of Hell's Angels, wisely observed that, "It doesn't matter what degree of talent she possesses ... nobody ever starved possessing what she's got." Regarding The Public Enemy, Variety added, "Harlow better hurry and do something about her voice. She doesn't get the best of it alongside Clarke and Blondell."

I wish I could find an online video of the Harlow-Cagney scene in the image up there to the right. In it her nails-on-a-blackboard voice and unconvincing performance just drain the juice from the scene, illustrating my thesis perfectly. Still, here's the scene where Cagney and Harlow meet:

As much as I enjoy The Public Enemy, Harlow is the bug in the fruit salad for me.

However, when I listened to the DVD's thorough commentary track by author Robert Sklar, I discovered that William Wellman, who had directed actress Louise Brooks three years earlier in Beggars of Life, originally offered her the role that Harlow lead-balloons here. At first Brooks accepted the part, but then changed her mind and went to New York. That decision began the end of her too-short career, and kicked off the decades-long professional and personal downturns that followed.

One of filmdom's rare sui generis evocative beauties, Brooks is best known today for her starring presence as the loose-living showgirl Lulu in German director G.W. Pabst's 1929 classic, Pandora's Box. It's one of the great films of the silent era, which was by then all but subsumed by the talkies.

Pandora's Box gives us an easy dozen images that snapshot our popular impression of Louise Brooks — that exquisite face, which seems made for close-ups; that jet-black helmet-cut bob; an effortless eroticism; a delicacy that's too joyful for a femme fatale yet too knowing for a mere naif.

Pabst had been so struck by Brooks' brief role in Howard Hawks' A Girl in Every Port that he insisted on casting her as the lead in Pandora's Box — after a two-year search for an actress to play the well-established German character Lulu (a search comparable to that for Scarlett O'Hara). Pabst created something of a national scandal when he rejected Marlene Dietrich, a bona fide German star, in favor of this minor Hollywood American player. Brooks ditched Paramount (no love lost on either side) and headed to Berlin.

Pabst treated her with a regard and respect that Hollywood had never given her, even though she irked him by relishing Berlin's "life is a cabaret" energy to a degree that would make Sally Bowles blush. (She later made it up to him by giving the director one night of what she described in her essays as her greatest sexual performance.) While in Europe she made Pandora's Box and Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl, then Prix de Beauté in France, a project begun with René Clair. Because of these films — although they were not well-received in their time and played in the U.S. and elsewhere muddled by heavily censored recuts — her eventual status as a beloved screen favorite was only waiting to be carved into our cultural marble.

Give all due credit to Pabst, but Brooksie pretty much single-handedly raises Pandora's Box above the doomed-bad-girl melodrama, the kind of one-tone moralistic parable so common in its time. Her deft, restrained performance of "tragic Lulu with no sense of sin" (as Brooks later described her) lifts the script with layers and shadings that wouldn't become common aims for years afterward. The Kansas-born actress didn't choose to play Lulu as a malevolent vamp knowingly attracting then destroying men beneath her heels (Marlene Dietrich would have fallen into that mode with one snarly look), or as some pre-War "Candy," an innocent unaware of the way men and women react to her sexually catalytic presence. Instead she walked that tightrope so tactfully that with repeat viewings we see more within her and may interpret her actions differently with every nuance. She made Lulu unfathomable, a well that always has more to give.

Brooks was not a trained actress. Despite that — or maybe because of it — she brought to the screen a performance style that's regarded as years ahead of its time in its naturalism and lack of pretense. As Brooks herself wrote,
"The great art of films does not consist of descriptive movement of face and body, but in the movements of thought and soul transmitted in a kind of intense isolation." 
In other words, film allows an actor to be not merely an animatronic puppet, but a communicator of a character's (and/or the actor's) innermost "thought and soul." In her later journals, she criticized a Garbo performance by noting that "She strains terribly... Is made to read line on top of line without pauses for mental transitions."

Watching Brooks today, we're bowled over by how modern she is, how subtle and unaffected. It's as if she intuitively understood that there's more "transmitted" power in a focused laser beam than in a wide-open spotlight.

Critics today laud Brooks' performance in Pandora's Box for the same modernity we see in Cagney's Tom Powers, and she did it two years before Cagney's entrance.

So it stabs me in the heart to learn that The Public Enemy might have teamed up Cagney and Brooks.

It's a pairing that would have changed the movie enormously, offering an altogether different heft and "reading" to the scenes between Powers and his mistress. Instead of Harlow diminishing those scenes (and the film), Brooks would have amplified and magnified them.

It's hard to imagine Brooks out-acting Cagney, but it's painfully easy to imagine the two of them together working so well that cinema might have witnessed as elemental a pairing as Bogey and Bacall, Hepburn and Tracy, or hydrogen and oxygen. Movies generally, and perhaps the social order, might be different today somehow.

Regrettably for us, Brooks detested Hollywood and its "play along to get along" ethos. As an actress, not to mention as an unapologetic sexual and professional maverick, she was ambitious but reckless. Cocksure but difficult to the point of self-destructive. Independent, emancipated, and willful but too damn temperamental and mercurial to commit to any situation — jobs, husbands, lovers, Hollywood studios — long enough to really get serious roots dug in. She described herself as "a born loner, who was temporarily deflected from the hermit's path by a career in the theatre and films."

It's a "What if?" that colors my viewing of The Public Enemy as I gnash my teeth through Harlow's grating performance. As with my previous Alternate Universe Movies post — "The Maltese Falcon" with Gene Tierney instead of Mary Astor — it's one of those often frustrating ponderables that emerges from the movies' long history of accidental convergences and tauntingly unfulfilled possibilities.

There's an excellent documentary about Brooks, Looking for Lulu, narrated by Shirley MacLaine and produced by Hugh Hefner for Turner Classic Movies. It used to be available on YouTube in six parts, but it's gone now. Find it if you can.

Also, there's much to see at Thomas Gladysz's Louise Brooks Society.

Music: Melody Gardot, Live from Soho
Near at hand: Balls of yarn Elizabeth has left in medias res.