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Non-citizen Arthur marries reporter Murphy for a bogus gangster's confession. A divorce is needed, and Murphy is fired. The gangster wants her to be his girlfriend, the police are outside, and only one who can save her is Murphy.
Erle C. Kenton
"Public Hero No. 1" is part of the FBI public relations program to make G-men into heroes and replace the gangster as the box office attraction (e.g., "G-Men" with Jimmy Cagney, "Bullets or Ballots" with Edward G. Robinson). After all, in the early 30s, it's the gangster who got the big box office bucks "Little Caesar", "Public Enemy", etc.
Chester Morris plays the undercover G-man who infiltrates the notorious Midwest Purple Gang by breaking the gang leader (Joseph Calleia) out of prison. Along the way he meets the mob doctor (Lionel Barrymore) and falls in love with the mobster's sister (Jean Arthur).
The first third of the film is a standard prison film with a pretty exciting prison break sequence, although it wouldn't make my top 10 list ("Cool Hand Luke", "Each Dawn I Die", "Papillion", "Midnight Express", "The Shawshank Redemption", "The Escapist", "I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang", "Escape from New York", "Stalag 17", "The Great Escape"). No sooner do we get comfortable with the prison genre, the film dramatically changes tone and becomes a classic 30s screwball comedy with Jean Arthur exchanging verbal bullets with fast talking Chester Morris, and a very animated Lionel Barrymore overplaying his role as a drunken physician. When it returns to the crime drama with star crossed lovers, the film begins to wobble a bit, but eventually it moves to the happy ending expected in the mid 30s, with a Dillinger-esque shootout to cap it off.
It's a fast paced film, but there are far better crime films and screwball comedies from this era. Still, the performances are uniformly good, so if you're a fan of Morris, Callelia, Barrymore, George E. Stone, Paul Kelly, et al you'll enjoy the film
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