Like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy was produced at Warner Brothers by Darryl F. Zanuck. It was filmed in January and February, 1931, and released the following April, three months after Little Caesar. Reportedly Zanuck changed directors right before production, replacing Archie Mayo with William Wellman. Wellman decided to switch roles between Edward Woods, who was to have played Tom Powers, the lead, and James Cagney, who was to have played Matt Doyle, Tom Powers’ friend. This established James Cagney as a star, in the genre in which he would be most remembered.
The original story, called “Beer and Blood”, was by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright, who were nominated for an Oscar for it, and the script adaptation was by Harvey Thew. Cinematography was by Devereaux Jennings, and art direction by Max Parker. Cagney, Woods, and their co-stars Jean Harlow and Joan Blondell were all very new to pictures. The film cost $151,000, and earned over a million dollars. Cagney wrote in his autobiography that a theatre in Times Square showed the movie twenty-four hours a day. The version available today is 84 minutes. Apparently some scenes were cut for one or several post-production code re-releases in the 1940s and 1950s. Some sources say all the cut scenes have been restored, some say some were lost.
The critic David Thomson wrote, “There’s a sly coyness about Public Enemy. That’s why it picks a forbidding and impersonal title when it really wants to offer us the gutter charms of James Cagney as gangster Tom Powers. It’s as if the film is wondering: Can we get away with it? . .Public Enemy is as terse as good journalism, with good side bits by Jean Harlow, Joan Blondell, Donald Cook, Leslie Fenton, and Frankie Darro. There had never been anything as cheerful and dangerous before.”