James Cagney's star has yet to rise. Sound engineers at Warner Bros. are busily perfecting the Vitaphone.
In perhaps 1931's most infamous Hollywood film, The Public Enemy, Beryl Mercer as "Ma Powers" is a silent-era harmonium among her fellow character actors. Out of step by more than chronological age, remaining forever asynchronous to her surroundings, she is elsewhere in her house when son Tom (Cagney) is fatefully shot, staggering en point, like a ballerina in the rain. We can hear the downpour and see a gigantic curbstone leaping upward as if to meet it.
Later, Tom’s lifeless corpse arrives special delivery—a rare case of an ending tacked onto a climax that actually makes things more traumatic, miserable, cruel, and violent. Some inscrutable force keeps Ma upstairs, humming goofily to herself. Depression Lesson #16 has got your morning paper: Beryl Mercer moons on infinite repeat, the model of mute endurance where criminal activity is concerned.
The Public Enemy’s iconic curbstone may as well be Cagney himself, lending the frame a rocketing sense of perspective. Mercer, on the other hand, embodies such extreme passivity that her symbol is that skipping record at film’s end.
Not one syllable will she utter against sociopathic mummies at her door.
Part of our on-going series Depression Lessons.