At the time the movie was made, James Cagney had appeared in several movies but was not yet a big star. During the making of Smart Money (1931), Cagney was simultaneously filming The Public Enemy (1931) with director William A. Wellman. (Screenwriters Kubec Glasmon and John Bright were re-writing dialogue for "Public Enemy" while working on the set of "Smart Money.") Knowing that his friend Edward G. Robinson was already a star, Cagney deferred to Robinson in most of their scenes together. But by the time "Smart Money" was released, "The Public Enemy" had been out for several months and had made Cagney a star as well, so Warner Brothers put Cagney and Robinson's faces together on posters for the film, and gave them equal billing.
The movie was made to capitalize on the success of Little Caesar (1931). Edward G. Robinson insisted that the script be re-written to make his character, Nick Venizelos, a more sympathetic gangster and less of a copy of his "Little Caesar" character, Rico Bandello.