originally published January 21, 2014

Back before Luca Brasi slept with the fishes, before Tommy DeVito shot Spider in the foot while trying to make him dance, and long before Frank Costello tossed Oliver Queenan off a rooftop, the Hollywood gangster splattered onto screens at the birth of the genre, walking the floss-thin tightrope between dream fulfillment and cautionary tale. These stories came from a time when one would need to interact with criminals just to get a cold beer. Prohibition gave organized crime its steadiest market while the prevailing societal conservatism helped only to romanticize those who would don pin-stripe suits, wide-brimmed hats and grab a tommy-gun on their way out the door to work. 

I have written before on the Hays Code, the army of noble moralists who spent the decades prior to the current rating system protecting us from soul-snuffing words, kid-corrupting violence and the dreaded scourge of exposed boobies. The Code was adopted as an unenforceable finger-wag in 1929, but by 1934 it had become Hollywood law.  

Fortunately, the gangster genre had just enough time to be created before that. 

Retroactively declared to be the first gangster film, Underworld slipped into theaters in 1927 at the end of the silent era. The movie set the template for the entire genre: a tough, grizzly antihero, a rise to criminal success amid shadowy streets and ominous lighting, a violent climax battle with the police, and a distinctive outcry by community leaders who feared that young folks would use the film as a teaching tool and turn from sparkly-headed citizens into unkempt thugs. 

It took three submissions, a name change and a laundry list of edits before Underworld was allowed on British screens. In America, there was an audible backlash but the paying public drowned out the offended critics. A series of copycat features peppered the ensuing years, and in 1929 Underworld’s author Ben Hecht won the Oscar for Best Writing (old-timey speak for Best Original Screenplay) at the first Academy Awards. This was the movie that changed how criminals were portrayed on film. Next came the films that would establish the gangster flick as a legitimate form of cinematic art. 

If you have never witnessed the menacing snarl of Edward G. Robinson (he’s the guy on the left), then you have been deprived of the finest pre-James-Caan acting in the tough-guy-with-a-gun performance style. In Little Caesar (1931), Robinson plays Rico Bandello, an Al Capone-inspired hoodlum who moves to Chicago and quickly scoots up the ranks of organized crime. Once again the state-run censor boards fretted over the film’s content, with the surprisingly conservative New York censor board insisting upon multiple changes. 

Looking at Little Caesar now, the formula of the gangster flick appears to have been very much in place. And while author William R. Burnett, who had penned the original novel, complained about the blatant homosexual subtext in the film, what remains is a formidable primer in Prohibition-era perception of the gangster lifestyle, which appeared to take on a heightened romanticism as the Great Depression took hold, showing an idealized life of abundance free from the influence of the skull-crushing economy. 

As much as Robinson carved out the archetype of the motivated, up-and-coming gangster, James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1932) was the proto-Joe Pesci. Cagney’s Tom Powers was violent, unhinged, hooked on his love for his mother, and just a little scary. In one scene, inspired by William A. Wellman’s own breakfast-table fantasy with his wife, Tom shmushes a half-grapefruit angrily into his girlfriend’s face to shut her up. Not surprisingly, the ex-husband of Mae Clarke – who played Kitty, the girlfriend – loved that scene. Cagney claims the guy used to time it in his head so he could buy a ticket and walk into the theatre just to see that scene. 

The Hays Code wanted changes to The Public Enemy but didn’t get them. Some states cut scenes out (Maryland and Ohio nixed the grapefruit scene, possibly because they love their citrus there), but it wasn’t until the movie was re-released in 1941 that the Hays Code really moved in with their scalpels. An effeminate tailor was clipped from the flick, as was a scene in which two characters rolled around in bed, and another in which Tom was seduced by a woman. Will Hays himself, the author of the sacred Code, was discouraged by the public’s love for this film. He probably figured our society was doomed. 

Howard Hawks’ Scarface, which also hit theaters in 1932, stoked the flames beneath Hays’ ire with its graphic violence, and even worse its willingness to meld comedy with the bloodshed. Also based on Al Capone’s life – which made the glorifying-criminals argument all the more valid – Scarface was written by Underworld scribe Ben Hecht. Hecht was allegedly visited by some of Capone’s goons, but the writer was able to convince them that his movie was based on the stories of other gangsters (despite the fact that Capone’s nickname was ‘Scarface’). It didn’t really matter; when the movie came out, Capone adored it. 

With the Hays office shrieking in defiance of the proposed script, producer Howard Hughes told Hawks to specifically make the movie “as realistic and grisly as possible”. While shooting the movie was fraught with near-disaster (comedian Harold Lloyd’s brother lost an eye when he dropped by the set to check it out), it nonetheless scored big with audiences and of course inspired the 1983 Brian DePalma remake in which Tony Camonte is Cubanized into Tony Montana. In fact it was Al Pacino who pushed for the remake after having seen Hawks’ original and deciding that the story – and indeed the gangster film story structure – was timeless. 

Did these early gangster classics really make young people yearn to be mobsters? Probably, some of them. Hell, for a period after I saw Goodfellas at age 18 I tried to smoke my cigarettes like Robert De Niro did, and foolishly believed I looked at least half as cool. But I’d argue that it’s unlikely that any of these movies became the actual cause of young people turning to a life of crime. The fact that the Hays Code slapped down its authoritative fist with actual censorship ability in 1934 should then suggest that no one actually became a gangster after that point. But organized crime continued to climb over the next few decades, despite the fact that mobsters weren’t really glorified as the heroes of cinema again until the 1970’s. 

Nine gangster movies were released in 1930, climbing to 28 by 1932 and then only 15 in 1933. Prohibition ended, Al Capone was sent to die in prison, and the fad of the antihero subsided. The censorship aspect played a part as well, since criminals were to be depicted as unlikable and villainous only – there would be no Tony Soprano, no Michael Corleone, no Walter White to root for in spite of their evil. 

Thankfully the die had been cast and the gangster film had been birthed and molded into a pulse-gripping genre before its temporary decline. Almost makes me want to run out and buy a dark overcoat and a fedora to accompany the sneer I’ve been practicing. 

Yeah, right. Like I’m that impressionable. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s