Powered by Blogger.

GANGSTER FILMS OF THE NINETEEN THIRTIES.


THE PUBLIC ENEMY, 1931.

GANGSTER FILMS AND THE "TALKING PICTURE."
DATE: 1930s. 

The events of the Prohibition era and the St. Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929 coinciding with real-life gangsters like AL CAPONE, "PRETTY BOY" FLOYD, JOHN DILLINGER, and "BABY FACE" NELSON,  created an audience who were interested in lawlessness, organized crime, and on-screen violence. Dozens of the pictures plots came straight from newspaper headlines, feeding into the public's appetite for crime pictures and the rise of its characters, the bootleggers and gamblers brought these mobsters to hero status. Hundreds flocked to the theaters to be apart of the gangster's rise to wealth and power, feeling the same satisfaction and thrill of violence.

Without sound, these films couldn't come to life. The roar of machine-gun fire, the scream of a far off woman, screeching brakes on wet pavement, the tires squealing, and the now distinct urban talk of a gangster. The first all-talking picture came in 1928 with THE LIGHTS OF NEW YORK. An urban crime, with whip-cracking dialogue and sound effects of gunshots and squealing tires. Another picture was CITY STREETS in 1931, said to be Al Capone's favorite film, starring Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sydney as two people in love and trapped by gangland connections. 1931's BAD COMPANY was the first picture to feature the massacre on St. Valentine's Day, the gang-related murder of seven people associated with Chicago's North Side Gang, a war between "BUGS" MORAN and AL CAPONE

"BESIDES, YOUR HANDS AIN'T SO CLEAN. YOU KILLED AND LIKED IT. YOU DIDN'T GET THEM MEDALS FOR HOLDING HANDS WITH THEM GERMANS." - TOM POWERS, THE PUBLIC ENEMY, PLAYED BY JAMES CAGNEY.

During the Great Depression, the casting of gangsters as the new heroes created, of course, a new genre of film, one that excited and kept audiences returning, but as well as a genre that showed the decay of American society, as well as the evergrowing fear that traditional values perhaps would not survive the economic downfall. The gangster pictures made before the code was enforced showed the gangster as a creation of society, the social and economic climate as the main influence, instead of a simple rebel against rules. These pictures mirrored the true crime that was happening outside of movie studios, stories of the bank robbers, and rural criminals, mirroring the same gangsters that the newspaper reported about. This was stopped when the code became enforced. At the height of the hunt of JOHN DILLINGER, a gangster who operated with a group called the "The Terror Gang", a group who was accused of robbing twenty-four banks and four police stations. The Production Code office issued an order that no films should be produced about Dillinger, as the code did not want to further glamorize him or his group or the crimes he committed. The code would become enforced in the mid-thirties, creating an area of pictures we now call "PRE-CODE". 

Pre-code gangster pictures often dealt with class conflict, pushing the idea that perhaps the American system was flawed and that criminals were products of the society that was put upon them, a mix of poor morals and economic status, with most of them coming from a lower-class background. Which in terms resonated with some audiences, the lower class that was suffering more than the higher class with the economic crisis. The Production Code office was not pleased with this, the sympathy for a criminal. Most of the code was written towards films in this genre. Examples of some of the rules ret upon studios: NO USE OF FIREARMS. NO THEFT OR ROBBERY. NO SYMPATHY FOR CRIMINALS. NO METHODS OF SMUGGLING. NO LUSTFUL KISSING, ESPECIALLY CRIMINALS. Many of the gangsters and or crime pictures after the enforced code took place had to be smarter about how the gangster could be portrayed. One thing was showing the criminal being punished at the end of the film, showing that the life of a gangster was not one to glamourize. 


THREE PRE-CODE GANGSTER FILMS.

FILM: LITTLE CAESAR.
DATE: JANUARY 9TH, 1931.
DIRECTED BY: MERVYN LEROY.
WARNER BROS. PICTURES.
TIME: 79 MINUTES.
TRAILER, X.

LITTLE CAESAR is the first true film in this new genre. Depicting the rise of a small-town mobster to the pinnacle of organized crime. It premiered on JANUARY 9TH, 1931, and starred EDWARD G. ROBINSON as Caesar Enrico Bandello. The picture along with SCARFACE and THE PUBLIC ENEMY have cemented the gangster genre, establishing themes and conventions that would go to be pinnacle points in the genre. Two other reasons this film is a turning point in motion picture history is that one, unlike some of the crime based pictures during the silent era, Caesar lives and dies unrepentant of his crimes. Two, the picture became so successful that it became Robinson's breakthrough role and prompted studios to create more gangster pictures, as fifty more were produced in 1932, cementing it as a new genre.

"LITTLE CAESAR," based on W. R. BURNETT'S novel of Chicago gangdom, was welcomed to the STRAND yesterday by unusual crowds." - Quote from the newspaper, THE NEW YORK TIMES, JANUARY 10TH, 1931. "The story deals with the career of Caesar Bandello, alias Rico, alias Little Caesar, a disagreeable lad who started by robbing gasoline stations and soared to startling heights in his "profession" by reason, of his belief in his high destiny." THE NEW YORK TIMES as mentions that this could have been another gangster film to add to the collection, but Edward G. Robinson's "wonderfully effective performance" changed that, adding that he becomes "a figure out of Greek epic tragedy, a cold, ignorant, merciless killer, driven on and on by an insatiable lust for power." 

WARNER BROS. was THE gangster studio, establishing a dozen of actor's careers, tough-guys that we now think of in terms of this genre: EDWARD G. ROBINSON, JAMES CAGNEY, PAUL MUNI, and HUMPHREY BOGART. Warner Bros. set the stage with the gangster pattern, fedoras, and double-breasted suits, all complete with their Tommy guns, a gun synonymous with their era.

FILM: SCARFACE.
DATE: APRIL 9TH, 1932.
DIRECTED BY: HOWARD HAWKS.
UNITED ARTISTS.
TIME: 95 MINUTES.
TRAILER, X.

SCARFACE, the most violent of pictures in 1932. Starring PAUL MUNI as Tony Camonte, a Chicago mobster, whose performance of the mad, immature, and power-hungry gangster still blows me away after several viewings. HOWARD HUGHES was in the market for another picture, one that would rival the success of his 1931 picture THE FRONT PAGE. Though advised that the gangster genre was crowded with pictures and that the code was starting to become concerned with the glamorization of crime and real-life gangsters, Hughes bought the rights to Armitage Trail's novel SCARFACE. The novel is inspired by the life of AL CAPONE, who when viewed some scenes during the filming of the picture, was impressed with their authenticity. Hughes asked HOWARD HAWKS to direct and co-produce the picture, to the surprise of Hawks, as the two had never been friends. In fact, Hughes filed a lawsuit at one time, citing that Hawk's film THE DAWN PATROL had been plagiarized his picture, HELL'S ANGELS. It wasn't until Hughes promised to drop the lawsuit over a game of golf that Hawks agreed to direct. 

The picture depicted 43 murders. This unsettled the Motion Picture Production Code, who refused to give the picture its seal of approval, and even though the picture would be released regardless of approval, it had to have scenes cut and the title change to SCARFACE: SHAME OF A NATION. The code at this point had no power over removing material from a picture, not until 1934, but at the time of SCARFACE, they could delay a picture's release, undo the premier, and prevent most pictures from being made. A trick most directors did was to put in scenes that were more suggestive, these scenes would then be taken out, settling the worries enough of the code office that they wouldn't notice the lesser immoralities that would end up in the finished picture. 

J. E. SMYTH called SCARFACE, "one of the most highly censored films in Hollywood history." Dozens of demands were sent to both Hughes and Hawks, demanding for a script rewrite, Hughes then ordered Hawks to shoot the film, "SCREW THE HAYS OFFICE, MAKE IT AS REALISTIC, AND GRISLY AS POSSIBLE." And after the initial screening for the picture, the code office was stunned and outraged, dozens of violations were noted, including the elicited sympathy for Muni's character, Scarface himself. The code office believed it would reveal to children a successful method of crime. Also noted was the violence itself. That and the inappropriate relationship between Scarface and his sister, they ordered the scene where he holds her in his arms after just having slapped her and ripped her dress, to be deleted. Hughes went on to delete more violent scenes and added a prologue to condemn gangsterism, as well as writing a new ending. One scene that was added, was a scene in which a newspaper publisher looks at direct at the screen and admonishes the government and public for their lack of action in fighting the mob and as well as a scene where the chief detective denounces the glorification of gangsters in the public. 


KAREN MORLEY AS POPPY. SCARFACE, 1932.

And though the picture would be completed, it would be released almost a year later. Released on APRIL 9TH, 1932. Each state has its own censorship boards, which means in some states the film was shown, but in others, it was not. Ohio, Maryland, Kansas, and Virginia all banned the film, as well as cities like Chicago, Seattle, and Portland. It wasn't until the HAYS office convinced these state boards otherwise, stating that the film had been changed and now documented against the gangster life and crime. All states agreed to show the censored and cut down version. 

VARIETY said that the picture had "THAT POWERFUL AND GRIPPING SUSPENSE WHICH IS IN ALL GANGSTER PICTURES IS IN THIS ONE IN DOUBLE DOSES AND MAKES IT COMPELLING ENTERTAINMENT." as well as stating that the actors performed, "AS IF THEY'D BEEN DOING NOTHING ELSE ALL THEIR LIVES."

And though some magazines and critics praised the picture and it's actors, there was some public condemning of the picture and the gangster genre itself. JACK ALICOATE of THE FILM DAILY said that the violence and subject matter of the picture left him with, "THE DISTINCT FEELING OF NAUSEA." as well as stating that the picture, "SHOULD NEVER HAVE BEEN MADE."

The magazine MOVIE CLASSICS ran an issue urging movie audiences to demand to see the film at the theaters it was banned it. The picture also broke box-office records at a theater in Chicago after nine years of being banned. Hughes pulled the film from circulation as the poor performance from censorship battles caused the picture to lose profits, despite favorable critic and public reception. The film would remain unavailable until 1979

THE WORLD IS YOURS.

A SCENE FROM SCARFACE, 1932.
FILM: THE PUBLIC ENEMY.
DATE: APRIL 23RD 1931.
DIRECTED BY: WILLIAM A. WELLMAN.
WARNER BROS.
TIME: 83 MINUTES.
TRAILER, X.

TOMMY POWERS, the character that JAMES CAGNEY made famous. The anti-hero, an all-American anti-hero, if TOM SAWYER was a gangster in the nineteen-twenties. Set around Prohibition, James Cagney portrays an Irish American mobster, one who dismisses rules and finds his work a respectable craft. The picture is based on an unpublished novel, BEER AND BLOOD, written by two former newspapermen, JOHN BRIGHT and KUBEC GLASMON, who had witnessed some of AL CAPONE's murderous gang rivalries in Chicago. The film stars that of Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Donald Cook, and Joan Blondell

A YOUNG MAN'S RISE IN THE CRIMINAL UNDERWORLD. Made at the same time as LITTLE CAESAR and defined by JAMES CAGNEY's performance, THE PUBLIC ENEMY has become an iconic staple in the gangster genre. Without question, the role of Tom Powers, the fast-talking, brutal force of a man, was Cagney's breakthrough role. The main story is of two brothers, Tom and his more, straight-eyed and uptight brother Mike, who ended up on two completely different life paths. The picture places a large focus on how the early developmental environment one grows in and contributed to an evolving life of adult crime and the inevitable death because of it.

A disclaimer for THE PUBLIC ENEMY

"IT IS THE AMBITION OF THE AUTHORS OF 'THE PUBLIC ENEMY' TO HONESTLY DEPICT AN ENVIRONMENT THAT EXISTS TODAY IN A CERTAIN STRATA OF AMERICAN LIFE, RATHER THAN GLORIFY THE HOODLUM OR THE CRIMINAL."

With this disclaimer, most articles at the time placed a "sociological study" upon the film. Though this was not at all the studio's intention. The disclaimer, like the one that would be put the beginning to SCARFACE, was placed there to ease those who thought gangster pictures and crime pictures in general poison to audiences members. It's an empty gesture intended to ease the stress of concern that was beginning to boil at the time, almost about boil over. To avoid serious cuts to the film, WARNER BROS. told the censors that "if we can see the idea that, ONLY BY THE BETTERMENT OF ENVIRONMENT AND EDUCATION for the masses can we overcome the widespread tendency toward lawbreaking - we have then punched over a moral that should do a lot toward protecting us." - DARRYL F. ZANUCK, head of the production at WARNER BROS. Six scenes all together would be cut from the picture.

The difference between THE PUBLIC ENEMY with LITTLE CAESAR and SCARFACE, is that within this picture, Powers never gains the highest rise that the other two do. Powers remains at large, a hoodlum, he neither looses or gains power. He works within the bootlegging business but is far from running it, which makes the end all the more real in terms of showing that crime is not the answer. To lose everything when you barely had nothing. 

ZANUCK's said that the picture was "more biography than plot." This was not an inaccurate statement. THE PUBLIC ENEMY can be considered a semi-biographical tale of neighborhood gangs, such as the Chicago's Valley gang, led by PATRICK "PADDY THE BEAR" RYAN until his assassination in 1920, with two of his proteges becoming the first gangsters to mass distribute beer on a larger scale in Chicago after Prohibition, making them millionaires by 1924.

THE PUBLIC ENEMY also doubles as a family melodrama, a conflict between two social classes and worlds, with an officer telling Mike that the "worst part" or Tommy's delinquency "is that he's been lying to his mother." With a running theme of Tommy putting down every chance of peace within the family. This was also done to render its protagonist unattractive, but at the same time, within Cagney's first starring role, created a new star within Cagney. Similar to that of Edward G. Robinson's performance in LITTLE CAESAR, Cagney remained this role to the public, creating the ultimate screen persona, similar to that of a future HUMPHREY BOGART and his tough without a gun persona. 

THE PICTURES PROLOGUE:

"APPRISING THE AUDIENCE THAT THE HOODLUMS AND TERRORISTS OF THE UNDERWORLD MUST BE EXPOSED AND THE GLAMOUR RIPPED FROM THEM."

AND WITH THE COMING OF THE HAYS PRODUCTION CODE, GANGSTER FILMS BOILED OVER THE EDGE. PUTTING A BULLET THROUGH THE GLORIFYING CRIMINAL, THE OVER-EXPOSED SCENES OF CRIME AND VIOLENCE AND THE EXCESSES OF THE GANGSTER LIFESTYLE. FOREVER CEMENTING IT'S PLACE IN FILM HISTORY.