Prototypes in Movies: The Gangster Cycle

Between the beginning of the Depression in 1930 and the early days of the Roosevelt administration in 1933, when confusion and desperation gripped much of the country, Hollywood momentarily floundered. Not only did the studios have to make the difficult transition to sound, they had to adjust to the rapidly changing tastes of a nation in upheaval. These two variables--sound and the Depression--created a whole new set of aesthetic demands requiring that the old Formula be placed within a new context. The studios at first experimented with extravagant musicals and photographed plays, but dwindling audience interest quickly prompted them to revert to action and melodrama. It didn't take too long to realize that the talkies required a greater surface realism. The romantic, ethereal fantasies of the twenties' films sounded ridiculous when put into words: John Gilbert's passion may have been eloquently mirrored in his face and eyes, but when he attempted to express it verbally the emotions seemed silly and banal. Correspondingly, the hard facts of the Depression demanded a shift in subject matter. Latin lovers and college flappers now seemed rather remote, completely unrelated to the changed mood and the overriding preoccupation with social breakdown. The romantic ideals of the thirties had to be more firmly grounded in a topical context.

The films of the early Depression years reflect much of the desperation of the time, both in their initial groping for new character types and settings and in their eventual preoccupation with an amoral society and the inefficacy of once-sacred values. By late 1933, with the New Deal inspiring confidence, Hollywood had found its bearings. The studios were now secure with the new sound medium and had established the dramatic conventions expressive of new attitudes. New Deal confidence and Hays Office moralism removed much of the hard edge from the early thirties cycles, but the basic groundwork for the remainder of the decade had been laid and Hollywood could now proceed with greater self-assurance.

It was during this period that the social problem film emerged as an important genre. It did not immediately spring into existence with the arrival of a major social crisis but was rather the end product of a gradual evolution. Important stylistic and narrative motifs had to be developed before the talkies could begin self-consciously to analyze the issues of the day. First among these were character prototypes--the gangster, the fallen woman, the convict, and the shyster--and a contemporary setting--the alleyways, slums, and speakeasies of the big city. Shot in a racy but essentially realistic style, these early films are the archetypal Depression movies. Though they do not really constitute problem films in themselves, the gangster, fallen woman, and prison cycles metaphorically comment on the relationship between the individual and society, taking a highly cynical attitude toward social institutions. The hero must be tough and amoral in order to endure in a society crumbling under the weight of its own corruption and ineffectuality. Dramas lingering on images of a hostile urban environment and glorifying criminal heroes seethed with antisocial undertones. Then by 1932-33, with these dramatic conventions firmly entrenched as part of popular culture, they could be readily extended into an overt discussion of modern society. The implied social criticism of these cycles quickly gave way to the exposés, commentaries, and inquiries of the problem film.

The most popular of the prototype cycles was the gangster movie. It reestablished the action movie as Hollywood's staple by grafting a realistic, fast-paced narrative style onto stories out of the headlines. For the first time, films went beyond mere talk and exploited the full possibilities of sound, utilizing the sound track to create a physical impact which increased dramatic tension. The screen exploded with "the terrifying splutter of the machine gun, the screaming of brakes and squealing of automobile tyres." Furthermore, the gangsters were character types more familiar to audiences than the teacup sophisticates of the photographed plays. They spoke like truckdrivers ( Bugs Raymond in Quick Millions, 1931), slum kids ( Tommy Powers in Public Enemy, 1931), Italian immigrants ( Rico in Little Caesar, 1930, and Tony Camonte in Scarface, 1932), and stockyard workers ( "Slaughterhouse" in The Secret Six, 1931). And most important of all, the films adapted the Formula to make the gangster a contemporary hero. Stress was still placed on the individual but his circumstances were made more appropriate to the times. Like the traditional Formula hero, the gangster hungers after personal success, but he is different in that he can no longer fulfill this goal within the bounds of society and must pursue it through crime. The old avenues of fulfillment had been circumvented by the Depression.

Rico (Edward G. Robinson) in Little Caesar demonstrates an absolute faith in the American Dream by carefully following Andrew Carnegie's step-by-step formula for success: he starts at the bottom and with a single-minded dedication works his way to the top, the whole time abstaining from such distractions as sex and alcohol and studying hard to learn the operation of his organization. Rico typifies the hardworking Puritan businessman, except that the corporation has been replaced by the gang and murder is Rico's main business tactic. Similarly, Tommy Powers of Public Enemy is a more cynical version of the early Douglas Fairbanks comic hero. Lewis Jacobs' description of the Fairbanks persona perfectly fits Jimmy Cagney's portrayal of Powers: "In all these films Fairbanks was the 'self-made man,' unbeatable and undismayed. Quick intelligence and indefatigable energy always won him success in terms of money and the girl." But the only area that can accommodate Powers' drive and energy is that of the corrupt underworld. So Tommy, the true thirties go-getter, turns to bootlegging to fulfill his potential.

Thus the traditional good guy whose success affirms society had been transformed into the good bad guy whose success questions society. The films demonstrate that in thirties America only crime pays. Tommy's virtuous older brother ( Donald Cook) is ambitious but stays within the law and languishes as a frustrated trolley conductor, while Tommy graduates to stylish suits, fast cars, and luxury penthouses. This of course contradicts a basic moral tenet and the films must therefore kill off their heroes to invalidate lawlessness as a route to success. But in trying to uphold society, the endings only reinforce the films' basic pessimism. The success drive either leads to frustration within the system or violent death outside it. The viewer is left with the choice between the bland existence of Tommy's brother and the exciting, doomed career of Tommy.

The Happy Ending has been temporarily turned topsy-turvy. The audience identifies with the evil gangster's aims and frustrations and is invited to laugh at the representatives of good. Tommy sneers that his brother is just a "ding-dong on the streetcar." The legal establishment is likewise hopelessly inept, something to beat. If the police manage to arrest a gangster, a mouthpiece lawyer is immediately able to secure his release. Newton ( Lewis Stone), the lawyer-gangleader in The Secret Six, is able to clear Slaughterhouse ( Wallace Beery) of murder by manipulating the jury with courtroom tricks and bribery. In Scarface, the manipulation becomes a running gag. Every time Tony Camonte ( Paul Muni) is arrested, he uses the phrase "habeas corpus" as an open sesame for his automatic release. The gangster's downfall is usually the result of gangland rivalry or a tragic personal flaw, not police efficiency. Rico has already been toppled by his rivals and has turned to alcohol when the police kill him, while Tony Camonte is destroyed by his incestuous love for his sister.

Thus, Good is hardly triumphant, and the audience, which vicariously identifies with the gangster's flaunting of every accepted code of social behavior (e.g., Cagney mashing the grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face), has very mixed feelings about Evil being vanquished. Robert Warshow suggests that the films are emblematic of our deepest fears, that the gangster expresses "that part of the American psyche which rejects the qualities and the demands of modern life, which rejects 'Americanism' itself."

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