James Cagney, who died last Sunday, caught the public's eye in 1930 with gangster roles in his first two films, "Sinners' Holiday" and "Doorway to Hell," but he became a star with his 1931 portrayal of a cocky, dame-slapping hoodlum in "The Public Enemy." Excerpts from reviews of those early films follow.
"Cagney has by no means an easy role in his portrayal of a highly nervous youth who by nature cannot go straight. It is the type of part which can be spoiled by the slightest shade of over-acting, but Cagney carries his characterization in each sequence just far enough."-- Exhibitor's Herald-World
New York Times, by Mordaunt Hall, Oct. 11, 1930 The romance of a carnival barker and the daughter of a penny arcade proprietress is well told in the screen version of Marie Baumer's play, "Penny Arcade," now known as "Sinners' Holiday."
Grant Withers as Angel Harrigan and Lucille La Verne as Ma Delano are well cast, but the most impressive acting is done by James Cagney in the role of Harry Delano. His fretful tenseness during the closing scenes is conveyed with sincerity.
Variety, by Rush, Oct. 15, 1930 Story of only moderate appeal but moderately well screened, leaves it pointed for just about that kind of box office even for program material. Picture has interesting background and atmosphere and a truly fine performance by Lucille La Verne of the only honestly sympathetic character in the play. No name in cast for film fans.
Best of the story people are designedly anti-sympathetic and generally well-played, particularly a couple of types. James Cagney handled the renegade Harry neatly, a nice piece of acting in poor surroundings, but his sequences with Miss La Verne are all the drama has to stand on, little enough, in sum.
Time magazine, Oct. 20, 1930 Although the picture involves liquor-running and murder, it is less a picture of action than of character, made so by the skill of Lucille La Verne and James Cagney. She is the owner of a penny arcade, which she runs with an avarice only equalled by her devotion to bourgeois respectability and her son, Cagney, a sniveling, dependent coward.
'DOORWAY TO HELL'
"The supporting cast is uniformly good, with honors going to James Cagney as Mileaway. . . . Cagney is excellent in this role, his work being nearly on a par with the splendid performance he gave in the screen version of 'Penny Arcade.' "
"Robert Elliott and James Cagney . . . furnish admirable portrayals. . . . Cagney exhibits splendid ability in characterizing a role."
--L.A. Times, by Edwin Schallert,
Nov. 29, 1930
"Also unusually good are the performances by James Cagney and Dorothy Mathews."
--L.A. Examiner, by Jerry Hoffman, Nov. 29, 1930
"Several others earn my plaudits . . . James Cagney, as Steve Mileaway, loyal to the gang chief but betraying him with his wife. He's fine."
--L.A. Evening Herald, by W. E. Oliver, Nov. 29, 1930 Variety, by Sid, Nov. 5, 1930.
Original title for this film was "A Handful of Cloud," a gangster term. It gives Lew Ayres a chance to play a baby-faced killer. His adolescent pan was one of the chief worries while this picture was in production. The studio was concerned over how it could reconcile Ayres' boyish front to the character of an underworld dictator. It works out OK, perhaps mainly because there's as much interest in a couple of surrounding characters as in the former banjo player. These individuals are James Cagney as Ayres' lieutenant, and Robert Elliott, playing the inevitable detective in the inevitable manner. Between them they take the picture away from the featured name, although Ayres gives a very good account of himself.
'THE PUBLIC ENEMY'
"Edward Woods and James Cagney, as Matt and Tom respectively, give remarkably lifelike portraits of young hoodlums. . . . Slugging disloyal bartenders, shooting down rival beer men, slapping their women crudely across the face, strutting with vast self-satisfaction through their little world, they contribute a hard and true picture of the unheroic gangster."
--New York Times, April 24, 1931
"Mr. Cagney is the toughest young customer to be shown in any of the gunman pictures. He would seem to represent for the younger element what Edward G. Robinson does for the more mature. There isn't a gesture, a slant of profile, a spoken line which isn't altogether hoodlum, whether it is when actual murder is required of his plans or, in a gentle mood of idle passing exasperation, he smashes his lady friend's face with half a grapefruit because of her tedious mannerisms."
--New Yorker, by J.C.M., May 2, 1931