Gangster films of the 1930s and their many levels of fascination (Part I)

PUBLICEN31-maintitleIt’s been my opinion for some time that Warner Bros. produced the most consistently entertaining films of the 1930s and ’40s — a view that’s been cemented in the past three months.

As I said in my Jan. 27 post, I’ve been re-examining the gangster films of that period, primarily through Warner Home Video‘s four-volume DVD series, “The Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection.”

To be sure, the depictions of violence are tame by modern standards, and after Hollywood’s Production Code was tightened in July 1934, it’s unfortunate to see some of the compromises that had to be made in the portrayal of edgy themes, violence and sex. Warner frequently seemed to turn to comedic versions of gangland figures, with varying degrees of success.

At its best, however, the gangster film was hard to top, and may be the kind of film that best holds up for some kinds of modern audiences.

Birth of a genre

After some notable examples were set during the late silent period, Paramount’s “Underworld” (1927) and “The Racket” (1928), Warner Bros. made the genre its own.

“I think that Warner Bros. of all the studios is the one that’s closest to the ground,” said Saul Austerlitz, film historian and author of “Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy,” in an interview with Reveal Shot.

“MGM and Paramount are the ones with the big stars and the biggest productions,” Austerlitz said. “Warner Bros. is the one that really seems to make movies about people living in cities, who are struggling, who are criminals. If people went to see an MGM or Paramount film, it was because they wanted to be swept away. Warner Bros. was the diametric opposite of that.”

Part of this comes across in the fact that most of the big male stars at Warner — Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart — looked like the average person. “There’s more of a working-class aesthetic, and the performers  chosen were supposed to reflect that. It tells the audience that it isn’t Cary Grant or Clark Gable, but rather someone who looked more like them.”

The studio did cast someone with “traditional” good looks as the lead in one of its earliest efforts in the genre, “The Doorway to Hell” (1930). The WASP-ish Lew Ayres, who had just become a sensation in Universal’s “All Quiet On The Western Front,” stars as Italian tough guy Louie Ricarno, who organizes the city’s gangs into a well-oiled machine, then dares to try retiring from the rackets. As his main henchman, Cagney appears in just his second film, already showing the easy physical grace, supreme confidence and staccato vocal delivery that immediately made him stand out from most actors during the first three or four years of the sound era, who spoke slowly to accommodate the needs of primitive microphones.

Then, of course, the watershed: “Little Caesar” (released in January 1931) and “The Public Enemy” (April 1931).

I like “Little Caesar,” mostly for Edward G. Robinson’s snarling Rico Bandello, whose viciousness quickly takes him from small-timer to bigshot. “The Public Enemy,” though, is easily my favorite of the Big Three gangster sagas of the early ’30s (the third member of the trio, chronologically, was “Scarface,” released by United Artists).

“The Public Enemy”

After its main titles, “The Public Enemy” offers us one of the forewords of a type commonly seen before gangster movies of this era, in an effort to appease Will Hays and his Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, which had to approve any film for public exhibition.

“They sort of embody the attitudes of the day toward crime — that it was some arcane aberration we could expunge,” said Christopher Sharrett, a professor of communication and film studies at Seton Hall University.

“There’s a crawl in front of every one of those films that make it seem as if they’re public service announcements.”

We are introduced to protagonists Tom Powers and Matt Doyle  as kids, growing up tough on Chicago’s South Side in 1909. Early on, Tom gets into trouble at home, and his father is seen, belt in hand, ready to administer punishment. When the film moves ahead six years, it is clear that Mr. Powers has died.

“You have in the portrayal of the family the saga of the absent father,” said Sharrett. “The implication is that if he had survived, he would’ve been there to straighten out [Tom].

“Today we might look at ‘Public Enemy’ and think that the strapping of the kid might be the reason why he’s a criminal. But these were the mores of the time.”

One of the main influences in their lives is a hood named Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell), who sets them on their first criminal exploits.

For Sharrett, it is indicative of the unsavory assumptions of the period that Putty Nose is clearly Jewish.

“The idea of the kid being subjected to the malevolent Jew is an old refrain,” he said. “You see it in 19th century novels, especially Fagin in ‘Oliver Twist.’ But there are lots of others. You also see it in horror films, like ‘Nosferatu,’ where the vampire is an Eastern European Jew, basically.”

In a famous scene, the adult Tom (Cagney, in his star-making role) shoots Putty Nose to death as he plays the old piano ditty he once played for the kids at the pool hall, as revenge for an early betrayal — but also because he is the one who led them into a life of crime.

“I think the idea of the young, orphaned, or semi-parented boy being the subject of predators [had some traction then],” Sharrett said. “I think pedophilia is involved with this, as well, as was true with Dickens, though they couldn’t verbalize it.”

Asked about the fact that the Warner brothers were Jewish, as were many of the early movie moguls, Sharrett said that studio heads “by and large internalized a lot of this stuff. And they certainly weren’t critical on other issues of race. Look at black people in films like ‘Gone With The Wind,’ for goodness sake.” 1

There are bigoted themes throughout these films, of course. ” ‘Little Caesar’  also associates crime with the ambitious ethnic Other,” Sharrett said. “The point is most obvious with ‘Scarface,’ and its caricatured Italians, who at the time were placed just below blacks as racial contaminates …  The central point is that crime is seen here as an aberration caused by bad racial elements, something that can be expunged.” 2

In “The Public Enemy,” Cagney’s performance truly stands out.  He just does so many fascinating things, big and small, with the Tom Powers character. Facial expressions, inflections, threatening movements. Most of the other actors in the film seem to come from the more florid theatrical traditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Only Leslie Fenton, as crime boss “Nails” Nathan, and Robert Emmett O’Connor, as early ally Paddy Ryan, come across as relatively authentic people.

Asked if Cagney represents the beginning of modern acting, Austerlitz replied: “I think you could make a good argument for that. I think that in this particular genre, some of the other actors could be a little more stodgy, like Paul Muni, who I like a lot, but who I think comes out of a more theatrical background.

“But taking a step back and looking at some of the other actors who were around at the same time, Cagney’s realness is similar to people like W.C. Fields or Mae West, who seem to be more authentic than their fellow performers, reacting to some of the cardboard backdrops that they’re working with.”

The film’s most over-the-top characterization comes from Donald Cook as Tom’s brother, Mike. There is a scene in which Mike, suffering from what would now be recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder after his experiences in World War I, goes berserk at the family dinner table. It inspires a reading from Cook that might have been at home on the stage in the 1870s.

In my next post: more on “The Public Enemy” and other great Warner Bros. crime films of the 1930s and how the Production Code compromised them.

Feel free to leave a comment below. It would be great to have some discussion about these movies.

— David B. Wilkerson

Part II: Cagney, Robinson and the various guises of 1930s gangster thrillers

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  1. If this was true in 1931, there are certainly signs that Harry and Jack L. Warner evolved beyond self-loathing as the decade progressed.

    “Starting in the mid ’30s, there’s this growing sense that Nazi Germany is a big problem,” said Austerlitz. “Most of the films being made either don’t address it, or deal with Germany in a weird and dysfunctional way, because there’s so much business to be had in Germany. And Warner Bros. is the only studio that makes explicit films about the dangers of Nazism … and I think that willingness to go there is something of a reflection of the same sort of realism that they were picking up on in the early ’30s.”

    The studio severed all ties with Germany in 1934. First the studio took on Fascism more broadly in its films. “Black Legion” (1937) stars Humphrey Bogart as an American who gets involved in a Ku Klux Klan-like organization. “They Won’t Forget” (1937) was based on the story of Leo Frank, a Jew who was lynched in Georgia in 1915. With “Confessions Of A Nazi Spy” (1939), starring Edward G. Robinson, Warner Bros. specifically targeted Hitler’s regime.  

  2. Casual racism abounds in films of the ’30s and ’40s, reflecting attitudes that obviously dated all the way back to the days of slavery.

    One gangster film I will never watch again is “Smart Money” (1931), the only film in which Robinson and Cagney appeared together. Repeatedly, Robinson’s character insists on rubbing the heads of African-Americans he encounters in the film “for luck,” in one of the more insidious superstitions of the first half of the 20th century. In his ghostwritten 1912 book “Pitching In a Pinch,” the celebrated baseball hurler Christy Mathewson writes (pg. 245) about how players of his time would stop a black kid and “rub their hands through his kinky hair.” Having done so, the player would “go out and get two or three hits that afternoon and play the game of his life.”

    I like older movies because they are like  stepping through a  time portal. Unfortunately, part of the compact when you step into that portal is that what you’ll find on the other side will sometimes be hostile. As I’ll explore many times on this site, I still think the journey is worthwhile, even if only as a means to a greater understanding of America. And of course they’re often entertaining and satisfying when they’re not engaging in noxious ideas.