Gangster movies have been around almost as long as the motion picture industry itself, but it was not until the advent of sound pictures that the genre really took off. Ordinary moviegoers went to theaters to see dramatized the kinds of events they been horrified to read about everyday in the headlines. Real gangsters by all accounts liked seeing themselves glorified on screen. It became a question of life imitating art, or the other way around.
UNDERWORLD, written by Ben Hecht and directed by Josef von Sternberg, is often cited as the first “modern” gangster film. Los Angeles Times review Marquis Busby called it one of the best crook melodramas to reach the screen. “If the baby has to go barefooted this winter, if the roof leaks like a sieve, and even if the lizzie needs gasoline, dig down into the jeans and go see Underworld” he advised. A “silent” film, it starred George Bancroft as gangster “Bull” Weed (a fictionalized version of “Terrible Tommy” O’Connor) with Evelyn Brent as his girlfriend “Feathers” McCoy.
Underworld debuted in Los Angeles at the Metropolitan Theater, 6th & Hill, on August 26. In real life, vice crusading city councilman Carl Jacobson was facing trumped up morals changes after being framed by bootlegger king Albert Marco and others with the help of police officers.
In May 1928, Bancroft and Brent were reunited for another silent feature at the Metropolitan, THE DRAGNET, with Bancroft this time playing a policeman. Los Angeles Times arts critic Edwin Schallert gave it an enthusiastic review, warning, though, that some audience members might be put off by its excessive (though as yet, silent) violence. In June, the Clara Bow-Richard Arlen silent feature LADIES OF THE MOB had its showing at the same theater, followed in July by THE RACKET.
Produced by Howard Hughes and directed by Lewis Milestone, The Racket was based on Barlett Cormack’s stage play of the same name and starred Lewis Wolheim as murderous bootlegger Nick Scarsi with Thomas Meighan in the good guy role. Marie Prevost plays a nightclub singer. In local headlines, Los Angeles was in the midst of a bootlegger war, which claimed at least 7 victims in six weeks, and Albert Marco beat a fellow patron at the Ship Café in Venice and was being tried for assault with a deadly weapon.
In October of 1928, Raoul Walsh’s ME, GANGSTER opened at the Loew’s State Theater. The picture, based on a Saturday Evening Post story by Frances Coe, was already considered “different” in that it did not depict the typical machine gun blasts and murders.
Christmas week 1928 brought ROMANCE OF THE UNDERWORLD to Loew’s State. Directed by Irving Cummings, with Mary Astor and John Boles starring, it was based on a stage play of the same name and had already been filmed once before, in 1918. Though pleased with Romance, reviewer Busby complained that “underworld pictures are beginning to repeat characters, plots and incidents. To the constant filmgoer, the underworld must be as familiar as the family bathtub.”
Busby suggested to producers making their New Year’s resolutions for 1929 that they might want to swear off making more underworld pictures. For a while, it seemed as if he got his wish. Hollywood was busy upgrading its sound technology and getting theaters ready for the next big thing: talking pictures. The plots and characters may not have changed but at least audiences could now hear the din of modern gangsterdom: the sputter of machine gun fire, the blast of a shotgun, the screeching tires of a getaway car, the wail of police sirens.
Warner Brothers burst onto the gangster picture talkie scene in in a big way November 1930 with THE DOORWAY TO HELL, directed by Archie Mayo, starring Lew Ayers as a “baby faced killer,” and James Cagney as his sidekick.
Warner then debuted LITTLE CAESAR at their Hollywood theater on January 30, 1931. Its star, Edward G. Robinson, who portrayed the Al Capone-like gangster Rico Bandello, was there in person as was director Mervyn LeRoy, and W.R. Burnett, who adapted the script from his groundbreaking 1929 novel of the same same.
In March Times reviewer Philip K. Scheuer noted that while The Racket had been considered “daring and revolutionary” when it was first released because it put a “realistic spotlight on crime” it would be considered tame” by 1931 standards.
April 1931 saw the L.A. release of CITY STREETS, said to be a favorite of the real Al Capone, at the Paramount (formerly the Metropolitan). Based on a story by Dashiell Hammett, it starred Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sydney in a role originally to be played by Clara Bow. HELL BOUND followed at the Los Angeles Theater on April 24 with Leo Carillo playing a “Napoleon of crime” with a sense of humor and Lola Lane as his love interest. On May 4, THE SECRET SIX came to the Criterion. Taking its title from the Chicago crime committee, the story was written and adapted by Frances Marion. The cast included Wallace Beery, Clark Gable, and Jean Harlow.
May 15, 1931 was the Los Angeles premiere of Warner Brothers’ THE PUBLIC ENEMY, a Cain and Abel type story directed by William Wellman, with James Cagney as a bootlegger contrasted with his brother who chose a different path. Mae Murray and Jean Harlow played the love interest roles.
A few days later after Public Enemy hit theaters, in local crime news, Charles Crawford was shot to death in his office along with journalist Herbert Spencer. Former Deputy D.A. Dave Clark, who had successfully prosecuted Albert Marco in 1928, confessed to the crime, claiming self-defense.
Despite critical and audience enthusiasm for Public Enemy, reviewer Schallert noted by July 1931 that gangster films were currently held in “mixed esteem.” He nevertheless praised Warners’ THE STAR WITNESS when it came out in August. It focused on a family as innocent victims terrorized by gangsters, inspired by actual events in New York, and featured Walter Houston as the D.A.
October saw the release of BAD COMPANY with Helen Twelvetrees and Ricardo Cortez as super-racketeer Goldie Gorio who, in a fictional depiction of Chicago’s 1929 St. Valentines Day Massacre, lines rival gangsters against the wall and mows them down with a machine gun.
THE GUILTY GENERATION came to the R.K.O. Hillstreet Theater in January 1932. Reviewer Muriel Babcock recommended it to moviegoers who “have followed the course of the gangster film and take an interest in their fireworks, both as plot and sound effects.” It starred Leo Corillo as a prosperous gangster in a bootlegger’s war with rival Benedicto Ricca. Ricca’s son was played by Boris Karloff, currently making a splash in the studio’s big hit, Frankenstein.
April 23, 1932 was the premiere of SCARFACE, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Paul Muni as another Capone-like gangster, Tony Camon. Co-written by W.R. Burnett, it too depicted the St. Valentine’s Day massacre as well as a siege like the one experienced by New York gangster Francis “Two Gun” Crawley. The film was heavily edited by the New York censor board, which cut even the version okay’d by the Hays office. Because of this, Edwin Schallert predicted it would be the last “out-and-out gangster picture that will be released in many a long day.”
Whether the censors were to blame or not, Schallert was more or less right. While the reel gangster didn’t vanish completely, the next few years in gangster history overlapped with the onset of the Depression and the repeal of national prohibition. Many of the colorful bootleg era gangsters like Al Capone and Jack “Legs” Diamond, dead or in prison, were yesterday’s news. A new type of public enemy, represented by midwestern bandits like John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelley, Baby Face Nelson, was starting to make headline. The hunt for these figures by “G-Men” of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and the effort;s of New York’s “gangbuster” prosecutor Thomas Dewey, captured the public’s attention. Hollywood, as always, capitalized on the heightened interest by focussing on the detection side of gangsterdom.
In February 1935, it was reported that several “G-Man” films were racing to the screen. The first was G-MEN, directed by William Keighley with James Cagney in the tile role. Its violent depiction of machine gunning and killings resulted in the film being banned in Chicago for violation of the local film censor standards.
June 9 brought the low-budget but first-rate LET ‘EM HAVE IT! the “thrilling inside story of the Department of Justice’s war on gangland.” It was followed by PUBLIC HERO NUMBER 1 on the 21st. Starring Lionel Barrymore and Jean Arthur, with Chester Morris as the bad guy, reviewer Scheuer noted that at times the piece “promises to approach that early, incomparable gangster cycle in stark realism.” Scheuer called the next release, MEN WITHOUT NAMES (originally tiled Federal Dick), with Fred MacMurray and Madge Evans the “best of the new crime cycle.”
It wasn’t over yet. September saw SPECIAL AGENT hit theaters starring Bette Davis and George Brent. In contrast to the others, it contained no scenes of violence. It depicted the work of “T-men,” the treasury agents, whose “clever detective work triumphed over machine guns” according to director William Keighley.
Movies from the gangster point of view tended to have a different angle than in the old days. In February 1936, Humphrey Bogart reprised his stage role alongside Leslie Howard in Warner Brothers’ film version of THE PETRIFIED FOREST, playing Dillinger-type gangster Duke Mantee, directed by Archie Mayo.
Cagney played a gangster again in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, which debuted in Los Angeles in November 1938. Like The Public Enemy, it was a Cain and Abel type story line about two men who chose different paths. But as Edwin Schallert noted “While Angels With Dirty Faces may actually be but the old gangster type of film with new trappings, it is many lifts and lofts, so to speak, above the well-worn level.” Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, George Bancroft and the Dead End Kids had feature parts.
In January 1939, Bogart appeared as another gangster in KING OF THE UNDERWORLD, based on a story by W.R. Burnett, playing opposite Kay Francis as a “lady doctor.”
In November 1939, as real life symbol of the roaring twenties, Al Capone, was being released from federal prison, Cagney and Bogart were back in THE ROARING TWENTIES, Mark Hellinger’s somewhat revisionist history of the bootleg era. Based on the life of bootlegger-nightclub owner Larry Fay, who was murdered by an employee in 1933 it also featured Gladys George as a Texas Guinan type character and Priscilla Lane as Cagney’s love interest. Though he generally praised the film, reviewer John L. Scott noted “It doesn’t reach the status of epic of gangster pictures.”
The next few years didn’t bring a resurgence of the gangster on screen but it did see the beginning of a new type of crime picture that today is called Film Noir. Film Noir had its own take on the gangster. The films highlighted below are often included in lists of film noir titles today; to reviewers at the time, they were all just crime dramas.
In January 1941 Humphrey Bogart played a Dillinger-like public enemy era gangster Roy Earle in HIGH SIERRA, based on W.R. Burnett’s 1940 novel. Directed by Raoul Walsh, reviewer Schallert thought the film “recaptures much of the flavor of the author’s Little Caesar and other Warner gangster cinemas.”
In June 1942, Bogart played “Duke” Berne, his final big screen gangster, in THE BIG SHOT, the story of “the rise and fall of a gang lord and his lady!” (Irene Manning). Later that month, newcomer Alan Ladd appeared in This Gun For Hire, today regarded as an early Film Noir.
In July 1945, shortly before the Japanese surrender, DILLINGER burst onto the scene with showings at the Orpheum downtown and the Vogue Theater on Hollywood Blvd. Lawrence Tierney played the title role of the highly fictionalized bio-pic. The film’s violence brought calls for a ban on gangster pictures form parent-teacher organizations, film opinion groups, religious organizations and others concerned with the increase in juvenile crime. Pioneer Sam Goldwyn called on the industry to regulate itself in this matter.
In MAY 1946, HER KIND OF MAN was released, playing contemporaneously with film noir classics Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Dark Corner. It was also in May 1946 that local underworld figure Paulie Gibbons was shot in the street outside his Beverly Hills apartment. Her Kind of Man, with Zachary Scott and Janis Paige was set during the early 1930s era of bootleggers and racketeers, though the set design and costuming was very “1946.”
Los Angeles was still shocked and baffled by the “torso murder” of Elizabeth Short when T-MEN debuted in February 1947 with Dennis O’Keefe, an updated version of the G-Men films a decade earlier.
THE GANGSTER, a low-budget King Brothers production came out in December. Reviewer Scheuer said “it is a lot more accurate in its depiction of the small time underworld than many a souped-up, more tony ‘epic.”
January 1948 saw I WALK ALONE with Burt Lancaster and Kurt Douglas as prohibition-era beer bootleggers who meet up again after 14 years, often listed today as a film noir.
KEY LARGO played locally for the first time in July 1948 with Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor. Edwin Schallert said it “sets off the fuse that ignites the powder keg of a vigorous gangster movie” and that Robinson “succeeds in reviving his Little Caesar with tremendous effect.”
April 1949 saw THE UNDERCOVER MAN with Glenn Ford as treasury agent Frank Warren, quietly going about his work to bring down “the Big Fellow.” It was based on the true story of Frank J. Wilson who helped put away Al Capone for tax evasion.
In September 1949, following the attempted assassination of real life gangster Mickey Cohen on the Sunset Strip that left one of his henchmen dead, WHITE HEAT was released, a throwback to the old style gangster film. Directed by Raoul Walsh, it “exploits the return of Cagney to gangsterdom” reviewer Scheuer wrote. Cagney played another gangster the following year in KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE, based on the novel by Horace McCoy. It debuted in Los Angeles on February 28, 1950.
On December 11, 1957, the 1930s era gangster exploded back onto the big screen with baby-faced Mickey Rooney in BABY FACE NELSON. Advertising for the film referenced gangster films of the past: “More Violent than Little Caesar! More Savage than Scarface! More Brutal than Dillinger!”
“The worst thing about Baby Face Nelson….” wrote Times reviewer John L. Scott, “is that it might start- heaven forbid- another gangster film cycle.”
Coincidentally or not, it was the beginning of a new gangster film mini-wave, over the objection of FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, who denounced the “gangster film” in general and Baby Face Nelson in particular.
But the screen gangster refused to lie down.
Taking their cue from Baby Face perhaps, these new gangster films tended to be “true life” (if heavily fictionalized) biographies rather than original stories, told in semi-documentary fashion.
A decade before Bonnie and Clyde, Bonnie Parker got her own biopic in THE FEMALE MOBSTER, THE BONNIE PARKER STORY, which debuted on a double bill with the Roger Corman directed MACHINE GUN KELLY. Together they unleashed “savage brute force” across Los Angeles on July 2, 1958.
On June 17, 1959, the biopic AL CAPONE came to area theaters with Rod Steiger in the title role. “He ruled America’s most roaring era! He invented the rub out and the one-way “ride… [Jack McErlane would have something to say about that –ed] and organized the crime syndicate we are still fighting today!
In September the same year, perhaps more to Mr. Hoover’s liking (or not), was a new, midcentury take on the G-man film, THE FBI STORY directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring Jimmy Stewart. Based on the 1956 book of the same name by journalist Don Whitehead, it was billed as “the story that out-excites every picture Warner Bros. ever made!”
Although gangsters stayed big, the pictures got small as the screen gangster found a new home on television at the end of the decade. As Los Angeles Times reviewer Cecil Smith wrote in July 1959, “Show business this year seems to be going in more intensely for studies of gangsterdom than at any point since Eddie Robinson and Jimmy Cagney shot their ways into public fame and Paul Muni created his indelible portrait in Scarface.”
In October he added “Televisions increasing preoccupation with gangsters and tales of the mobs of the prohibition and post-prohibition era is beginning to remind you of the old gangster cycle when Little Caesar, Public Enemy and Scarface led to such a rash of pictures that every hard-faced extra in Hollywood was wandering around with a permanent gun bulge in his coat.”
In December 1958 CBS broadcast a depiction of the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Playhouse 90’s “Seven Against the Wall.”
On April 16, 1959 NBC aired THE LAWLESS YEARS, created by Hollywood detective Barney Ruditsky. Ruditisky drew on his experiences fighting gangsterdom as a detective with the NYPD 1924-1941. “It makes me sick when movies and television glamorize the gangster” Ruditsky told the Times’ Don Page, who wrote that the series “has every aspect of being one of the hardest hitting packages ever loosed upon televisions frustated air.”
A few days later, The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse debuted a two-hour special, THE UNTOUCHABLES, based on the 1957 memoir of the same name co-authored by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraleyr, airing in two parts on April 20 and April 27. It was a ringing success. Picked up by ABC, it debuted as a series in the fall alongside The Lawless Years.
The gangster has rarely been absent from the screen big or small, since.