Cagney, May Clarke, and the Grapefruit Legacy
by Don Stradley
James Cagney fought, shot, sneered, danced, and sang his way through 70 or so movie roles. For moviegoers of the 1930s, the Cagney phenomenon started with The Public Enemy (1931), and the not so delicate way he smashed a grapefruit into the face of an actress named Mae Clarke.
Cagney was new in the movie business when he landed the plum role of Tom Powers, a charismatic gangster. A 31-year-old tap dancer who acted every scene on the balls of his feet, Cagney was the proverbial coiled spring ready to leap out at his rivals. He was born to play tough guys and killers.
Strangely, Cagney was first cast in a different role, that of Powers’ quiet childhood pal, but director William A. Wellman knew the feisty little guy was better suited to play the ruthless lead character. Wellman apparently raised a stink about it with producer Darryl Zanuck, arguing that Cagney should be given the lead role. Cagney would write in his memoir, “He knew at once that I could project that direct gutter quality…”
Like most films in the antediluvian days of Hollywood, The Public Enemy was a rough and tumble production. Among the hazards Cagney recounted was the studio’s use of real machine guns. Warner Bros. enlisted a trained World War I gunner to fire above the heads of actors as they skittered around on the set. If dodging real gunfire wasn’t bad enough, a stage punch from co-star Donald Cook left Cagney with a chipped tooth. And of course, there was the grapefruit incident.
According to Cagney, the scene was inspired by a true episode from the life of Chicago hoodlum Hymie Weiss, who allegedly grew so tired of his girlfriend’s nagging that he shoved an omelet in her face. Agreeing that an omelet would be too messy, Cagney and Mae Clarke decided to use a grapefruit. Years later, Cagney wrote that he and Clarke “had no idea it would create such a stir.”
Purportedly shot in 26-days on a budget of approximately $151,000, The Public Enemy went on to be one of the year’s top grossers and a smash for Warner Bros. As a result, Cagney became an overnight sensation. The grapefruit became instantly iconic. It was even rumored that Clarke’s ex-husband was going to the movie twice a week to cheer every time she got hit.
The key to the scene was Cagney’s sheer offhandedness. Tom Powers is the sort of character who could crack a joke or crack your skull. The grapefruit moment is bursting with as much humor as shock. As Ty Burr said in his 2013 Hollywood history, Gods Like Us, “it was Cagney’s innate genius to slam the gesture right into the dark crack between cruelty and comedy.”
The grapefruit shot heard ‘round the world became Cagney’s indelible trademark. For years he couldn’t sit down at a restaurant without some wise guy sending over a plate of grapefruit slices. If nothing else, the movie’s success guaranteed Cagney a decade or two of Vitamin C intake.
A handful of urban legends were born around the scene, each more spurious than the one preceding it. One was that Cagney used the fruit on impulse without letting Clarke know beforehand, while another was that Cagney and Clarke only used the grapefruit as a joke not intended for the film. Wellman was supposedly so amused by the prank that he left it in the finished cut of the movie. Both rumors are doubtful. However, there’s no doubting the scene’s impact on Depression era audiences.
The Public Enemy was a hit with the ticket buyers and movie critics alike. Few lead characters had ever been so reprehensible, which made it all the more fascinating. Still, there were many who felt the movie’s rough tone was overdone.
“I am completely fed up with this sort of entertainment,” wrote an Indianapolis reviewer, calling the film “unpleasant.” Variety called it, “repulsive in some aspects.” Even Cagney said later in 1931 that he was tired of playing gangsters. He expressed hopes that Warner Bros. would find a different use for his talents. Meanwhile, women’s groups protested the film out of concern that Cagney’s treatment of Mae Clarke would set a bad example for the day’s youth.
Indeed, a few critics noted that men in audiences cheered when Cagney connected with the grapefruit. Robert E. Sherwood, who would go on to win three Pulitzer Prizes for drama, was awestruck by the moment, calling it “a beautiful demonstration of highly refined sadism.” Sherwood swore he heard a fellow near him gasp, “What a man!” Sherwood wrote in his syndicated column, “There was a genuine admiration in his voice, and a distinct note of envy.” Chances are it was Sherwood who gasped, but a chap of his pedigree could never admit to admiring such a rat as Cagney portrayed in The Public Enemy. After all, Sherwood was a Harvard man.
Richard Murray, a reviewer from Brooklyn’s Standard Union, marveled at how the audience cheered Cagney’s every hostile move, “as a crowd urges a football player to greater glory.
“It is difficult to explain the reaction…Anyway, it was obvious that most of the spectators, reveling in the gory deeds, were getting some sort of emotional release from a humdrum existence.”
Indeed, The Pubic Enemy introduced a new type of criminal to moviegoers.
The grapefruit was only part of it. Cagney’s Tom Powers was a villain with charm. This was unusual for a Hollywood movie and there was no turning back.
As for Mae Clarke, her part in the grapefruit scene has also been subjected to myth and fable.
According to one of the film’s writers, John Bright, Clarke arrived to shoot the famous scene while suffering a head cold. She reportedly asked Cagney to just hit her lightly. Wellman overheard this and took Cagney aside. He told the actor that the scene was too important, and that he should let her have it full force. Cagney agreed. When the time came, Cagney took the soon to be legendary grapefruit and scored a bullseye. Clarke managed to finish the scene but as soon as Wellman said “cut,” the humiliated actress cursed everyone on the set and stormed back to her dressing room.
Bright’s tale was amusing, but Clarke dismissed it as pure fiction. She was quick to add that she never used vulgar language.
Clarke’s remembrance of how things went down was recorded in an article for American Classic Screen in 1983. She claimed there were two takes. The first had Cagney simply throwing the grapefruit at her and then strutting away. Wellman and Cagney had a quick meeting and decided the scene might be a better if, instead of throwing it, Cagney pushed it into her face. Clarke agreed on the condition they do it in one take.
Clarke’s memory is somewhat in line with Wellman’s, who recalled that he shot the scene differently than it had been written. The director couldn’t remember whose idea it was to use a grapefruit – it seemed everyone from Zanuck to the Warners’ catering crew wanted credit - though he assumed the writers were responsible. In Wild Bill Wellman, a biography written by his son based on an unpublished memoir, Wellman also said he had once considered shoving a grapefruit into his own wife’s face. He relied on that memory when it came time to film the scene.
Regardless of how it happened, the scene followed Clarke as relentlessly as it did Cagney. In a career that saw her work with the likes of Boris Karloff, Bette Davis, Spencer Tracy, and Rock Hudson, talk always came back to the grapefruit. For those asking how it felt to get hit by one, Clarke had a quick answer.
As a companion to the above article, Don Stradley narrates our homage to James Cagney in our ongoing, "Legendary Faces" series.