100% Pure Gravy ...
... those being Variety's words, not mine, when summing up came for Warners' 1954 boxoffice. They'd had hits ... The High and The Mighty, Dragnet, Them! ... but who figured relics from early talking days to form block-long queues at otherwise first-running houses nationwide? Of reissue success stories, Little Caesar and Public Enemy's was one for the books, not unprecedented though, as there'd been Frankenstein and Dracula for Universal, a matched pair not unlike Cagney and Robinson's defining hits. To my mind, they were always roommates, forever in a three-legged race with Scarface for hottest gangster show of all. 50's patrons who remembered thought so too. Accounts of how Caesar/Enemy shocked were passed down like folklore by moviegoers around before censorship pulled teeth out of crime pics. Adding to mystique was fact WB couldn't get a Code seal to reissue Public Enemy (they tried in 1938) and so kept it and Little Caesar off screens for over two decades. Who'd have figured late 1953 and '54 being ripe occasion to try them again? Cinemascope was just out and color was becoming de rigueur. Would this public sit for stuff so ancient? Emphatically yes said numbers astounding to a jaded trade who figured for having seen everything.
Warners prepared by going scissors-in-hand to PCA monitors in August 1953. Whatever needed cutting, they'd cut. Mischief made to Public Enemy's negative amounted to crime worse than that depicted in the film, a real grapefruit to faces of those expecting fun like old times. But what did newer generations know from footage trimmed? There was still Cagney, Robinson, and reputation both shows brandished like sidearms. Road-testing would come first. Little Caesar and Public Enemy booked into Broadway's Holiday Theatre, a 950-seat also-ran normally shut out of top first-run product, according to manager Mike Rose. He'd try the pair for a week and Warners would measure interest therefrom. What happened next, nobody saw coming. Little Caesar and Public Enemy knocked house records for a loop through five breathtaking weeks, $100,000 racked up in grosses. Warners now had wicket votes enough to proceed with nationwide rollout, confident that expense of fresh campaigning would be more than rewarded. Found money this was, but adding to it meant fresh paper, trailers, and new prints for saturation play. Quick run-off in opening months of 1954 was figured, only question being ... could Little Caesar and Public Enemy abide a tough winter?
These two oldsters rolled up a gross for seven days that would have been gratifying for a brand new super-production, said Motion Picture Herald reports out of Buffalo where the combo filled snowy dates (the first long line at the boxoffice in many, many months, according to management --- it extended two blocks). Bad weather was no deterrent as Little Caesar and Public Enemy spread across the northeast. Unlike the reissues aimed primarily for the small-town and nabe house, these pictures are aggressively pitched at the prime first-run situations before they are sold to the subsequents, said Variety of the gangster duo and other high-profile encores of the season, including The Best Years Of Our Lives, The Egg and I, and Pinocchio. The pictures, in short, are handled exactly as an important new release (note Warner's trade ad here with Caesar/Enemy on equal footing with Hondo, The Command, and other new arrivals). For Little Caesar and Public Enemy, response was topping that accorded fresh fare out of competing majors. Wham biz in Detroit saw Cagney/Robinson ahead of The Eddie Cantor Story, Take The High Ground, and Forbidden, all first-run but second to the vintage pair. Same was happening in Los Angeles, with Little Caesar/Public Enemy in two prime locations downtown, trampling much of what was just out of neighboring gates. Variety's nationwide survey in late January put the combo at # 8 for all features in release at the time, unusually sock for two oldies.
There were bumps, mostly minor, some proving beneficial in a long run. Worcester, Massachusetts police inspected Little Caesar and Public Enemy at the city's Warner Theatre and ordered several deletions before the show went on. Cries of censorship resulted in page-one coverage, Worcester's police chief maintaining his department was empowered to discipline theatres playing pictures complained of. Boxoffice reported the incident, observing that the police always have been sensitive about gangster films, their feeling dating back to the time when hoodlums were in control of much of the nation. Publicity value of all this was obvious, as was open-mindedness among local censors elsewhere. Vancouver's board had condemned Public Enemy back in 1931. Now the show was passed with members saying it makes a good comedy with the takeoff on gangster films(!). "Old-time" aspects of the bill were emphasized at San Diego's Linda Theatre where patrons were invited to ID "stars of yesteryear" posted on lobby displays. Dated aspects of Caesar/Enemy were neatly side-stepped at other sites with new posters using mature art of both Cagney and Robinson to suggest more recent vintage of the pics. Warners claimed both would be compatible with wide screens, to which many houses had converted, but showing these with heads lobbed off couldn't have been pleasing to crowds. Urban play proved more rewarding than small town engagements. It was interesting to see the cornball acting that knocked them dead, said exhibitor Nate Oglesbee of Ramona, California, adding we lost out flat on this pair.
There would be an interesting footnote to the Little Caesar/Public Enemy revival. Mike Rose, whose Holiday Theatre in New York started it all, came back to Warners requesting another gangster combo for his 1954 July 4 program. Once again, the Holiday served as testing ground, said Variety, to learn if lightning strikes the same place twice. Featured was Smart Money, a 1931 pairing of Robinson and Cagney, and The Roaring Twenties, 1939's look back at prohibition gangland, also starring Cagney. The combination started strong with a $22,000 opening week, dropping to $14,000 the following, with $8,000 and $5,200 banked a third and fourth week. Unusually fine for oldies and comparing with great biz done by Little Caesar and Public Enemy, said Variety, but total from the four week engagement at $49,200 was less than half the $100,000 realized on Caesar/Enemy, deep-sixing plans for country-wide release. Two years later, all four features would shuffle off to television, with Public Enemy playing there for a next fifty years in the truncated version generated for its '54 reissue. Warners has more recently put back footage long missing for DVD consumers, and Amazon Streaming now offers both Public Enemy and Little Caesar for on-demand viewing in high-definition.