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Le crime organisé à la ville et à l'écran aux États-Unis, 1929-1951

Trevor Harris
Dominique Daniel

The gangster cycle, the Impact of the Depression, And Cultural Struggles of the early 1930s

Melvyn Stokes

Texte intégral

1According to Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., film in the 1930s had "a vital connection with American emotions." Movies, he argued, "were near the operative center of the nation's consciousness" (Bergman, xii). Because of this quality, films of the Depression era offer a major source of material for contemporary scholars who, like Robert Ray, Michael Rogin and Richard Slotkin, are interested in reinterpreting American history through the analysis of the production and consumption of its cultural texts.

2Movies, for example, seem to have reflected to some extent the fact that popular perceptions of crime changed considerably in the first half of the decade. At first, following the release of Little Caesar in 1931, moviegoers were presented in several films with a fairly appealing view of big-city crime during the Prohibition era. Urban criminals were usually portrayed as ethnic in character, and the narrative of the movie focused on the Horatio Alger-like story of one character's rise to underworld power. Although that character would finally be killed off, he had previously enjoyed the kind of wealthy lifestyle that, as Michael Woodiwiss has pointed out, "contradicted the official dictum 'Crime Does Not Pay'" (Woodiwiss, 1990, 13).

3This was followed by a second stage in the treatment of organised crime, which viewed it with considerably less sympathy. The methods of gangsters were shown critically, their wealth and ostentation were contrasted with the poverty inspired by the Depression, and their ethnicity was used to suggest that they were somehow "un-American." A good example of this approach was the treatment of gangsters in Gabriel Over the White House (1933). According to Gabriel, President Judson Hammond was divinely inspired, after a near-death experience, to confront both the economic Depression and organised crime (which he perceived as being as big a threat to American society as the Depression itself). Chased and arrested by a vigilante-like police force, gangsters-including mobster Nick Diamond-were tried by special police courtsmartial and executed by firing squad with the Statue of Liberty in the background.

4Two years later, Hollywood movies seemed to suggest that popular distaste for gangsters had increased still further. During this third stage, the focus of films switched away from gangsters towards the work and exploits of law-enforcement officers. Stars who had made their names (indeed, been typecast) as gangsters now found themselves playing lawmen: James Cagney, for example, having been crime boss Tom Powers in Public Enemy, switched sides to join the FBI in G-Men (1935).

Transitions between stages

5There are various possible cultural and political explanations for the emergence of each new stage. Much of the early preoccupation with gangsters in sound movies came, of course, from the encouragement given organised crime by the enactment of Prohibition at the end of the First World War. Men such as Al Capone, Johnny Torrio, Dutch Schultz and George "Bugs" Moran became the leaders of criminal gangs in large part because of the large profits to be made from the bootlegging of illegal liquor. Yet the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt to the presidency on a "wet" platform in November 1932 signalled the beginning of the end for Prohibition. As soon as the election was over, Congress moved to repeal Prohibition by proposing a new constitutional amendment. By December 1933, Prohibition was gone. One factor behind the arrival of a second stage of treatment of crime in the movies, therefore, was the fact that Prohibition was actually coming to an end or had ended.

6A second reason for the emergence of a second stage was the culminating effect of the various social investigations that seemed to indicate that gangster movies encouraged filmgoers to commit criminal acts themselves. Most of the sociological investigations financed by the Payne Fund were published in 1933. Also in 1933 appeared Our Movie-Made Children, a book by popular journalist Henry James Forman that endeavoured to summarise the findings of the studies as a whole. As Forman told it, impartial scientific research had now finally established what critics of the movies had long asserted: that children were inspired by the films they viewed to embrace anti-social behaviour. Movies (and gangster movies in particular must have been very much in his mind when he wrote this) were openly attacked by Forman for "helping shape a race of criminals" (Black, 1994, 152).

7A third discernible reason for the transition to the second stage was the growing criticism in newspapers and from civic groups of crime in general. America seemed to be becoming an extremely violent nation. In 1933, there were 9.7 murders for every 100,000 Americans—twice the level of 1910, and the country's highest murder rate until that point (Pitney, 1998, 47). If one single event more than any other dramatised the dangers and insecurities of the time, it occurred on the night of 1 March 1932 when aviator Charles Lindbergh's baby son was kidnapped from the family home in Hopewell, New Jersey. Lindbergh was very much a media personality, and the media spotlight that had followed him since his solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 guaranteed that the kidnapping (unlike the 300 others that took place in the U. S. in 1932) would dominate newspapers and radio (Doherty, 1999, 218-19; Woodiwiss, 1990, 14).

8The second stage, in common with the first, was characterised by a distrust of the established order, which was tainted by the attempt to impose Prohibition and also by its helplessness when confronted with the Depression. This provided the backcloth to the third stage in the treatment of crime on screen. Underworld imagery, indeed, would become less prominent in films for four principal reasons. First, organised crime really became organised in cities such as Chicago. The gang wars of the 1920s were as much a symbol of the disorganised nature of crime as they were of the effects of Prohibition (Woodiwiss, 1988, 14, 76, 81). Second, media interest shifted away from the cities and their gangs towards bank robbers who operated mainly in the South and the West: Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, "Pretty Boy" Floyd, "Baby Face" Nelson and John Dillinger (Woodiwiss, 1990, 16). Third, the chosen instrument of the New Deal's so called "War on Crime" - J. Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigation-was keen to take on the bank robbers and the kidnappers, but remained notoriously shy about confronting organised crime (Woodiwiss, 1988, 35-36; Woodiwiss, 1990, 18)). Fourthly, in 1934 the movie industry acquired its own "alphabet agency": the Production Code Administration (PCA). A year later, partly to show that it had teeth, and partly to appease those who were accusing the movie industry of exploiting the public fascination with robbers such as Dillinger, the PCA announced a moratorium on all gangster film production (Munby, 1999, 19).

9Film writers have devoted much time and space to writing about the "classic" gangster cycle of the early 1930s-the cycle that began with Little Caesar and included Public Enemy and Scarface. Yet the curious thing about this cycle was, as Richard Maltby has pointed out, that it was of very limited duration-in practice being largely confined to the 1930-31 season-and included (based on the industry's own operating definitions) only some 23 movies (Maltby, 1995, 111). Much of the explanation for this has to do with the vulnerabilities of the studios at the time, together with the impact of cultural conflicts in the wider society.

The weakness of the studios

10The weakness of the studios was a compound of several interrelated developments: exhibition strategies, the change-over to sound, and the delayed impact of the economic depression beginning with the Wall Street "Crash" of 1929. During the 1920s, studios had set out to acquire their own chains of movie theatres. In 1927, one of Fox's financial backers estimated that the studios had invested some $ 1,250 million in exhibition real estate (Maltby, 1981, 46). Nor was the attempt to reconstruct themselves as vertically-integrated companies over. Warner Bros., which made huge profits from its pioneering of sound, ploughed those profits back into building up its exhibition empire, acquiring the three hundred theatres of the Stanley chain in 1928. When the Depression struck, the studio was forced to retrench sharply, selling or closing over half its theatres and paring production costs to the bone (Gomery, 1985, 209; Balio, 17).

11To the financial impact on the movie industry of its huge investment in real estate was added, during the late 1920s, the effect of the conversion to sound. It has been estimated, in terms of re-tooling the industry with the technology needed to produce sound films and the installation of sound equipment in theatres, that the total cost of the conversion was some $ 500 million (Maltby 1981 47). Sound also increased the cost of producing films, while at the same time—at least temporarily-it reduced the revenues from foreign markets. By 1931, hit pictures grossed a maximum of $ 500,000, but cost between $ 300,000 and $ 800,000 to produce (Balio, 1993, 13-14).

12The crucial point to note, in terms of the acquisition of exhibition empires and the conversion to sound, is that these changes had undermined the stability and patterns of control of the movie industry in ways that would not become really apparent until the time of the Depression. Most of the studios had heavily over-extended themselves, assuming vast long-term debts that could only be repaid from ongoing profits. In the process, they had also invited bankers into their business. Men such as A. P. Giannini of the Bank of Italy (who backed Columbia and United Artists) and Waddill Catchings of Goldman, Sachs (who helped to finance Warner Bros, expansion) seemed allies of the movie industry in the 1920s. By the 1930s, they and their successors were in virtual financial control of most of the studios, and exerting considerable pressure on film-makers to avoid risks so far as humanly possible in an industry buffeted by both falling demand and popular and media criticism.

13It seemed for a time, as the economic depression began, that the movie industry itself would succeed in avoiding the slump. In 1930, attendance at motion pictures reached a peak of 80 million a week (Balio, 1993, 13). E. W. Hammons, an industry insider, believed that the industry would not be hurt by financial hardship since people "can always afford the price of a seat" (Bergman, 1977, xii). The chickens, however, began to come home to roost in 1931. Theatre admissions dropped to around 70 million a week and, as house managers tried to keep their patrons loyal, the average price of a theatre ticket was reduced from 30 cents to 20 cents (Balio, 1993, 13). Many theatres began to close, as box office receipts declined by 10/35 per cent in most localities (Doherty, 1999, 28). New York-based studio executives imposed a "rigid economy wave". By the end of 1931, The Film Daily Year Book was describing the previous twelve months as "the most trying year in the history of screen entertainment." "Nineteen thirty-one," commented Andrew Bergman, "... represented Hollywood's first deep confrontation with the hard facts of America's dying economy; the dream factory was stricken along with the steel factory." (Bergman, 1977, xx-xxi)

14Warner Bros., which had continued to make slender profits of $ 7 million in 1930, dropped sharply into the red in 1931, losing almost $ 8 million (Bergman, 1977, xxi). While Warners suffered the worst deficit amongst the major studios, it (just) managed to stay afloat while RKO, Paramount and Fox went into receivership (Balio, 1993, 15, 17-18). In such a situation, and pressed by the bankers who had helped them to expand, Warners and the other studios concentrated on cost-cutting efforts and shoring up the position of the industry as a whole. This quest for stability would soon conflict with the gangster cycle, which was one of the few apparently bright spots amongst the economic disasters of the 1931 slump. "Taken all in all," declared Variety, "the gang cycle has been more productive commercially than any other so-called cycle in years." In New York, so great was the public demand that Little Caesar played eleven performances a day at Warners' Strand Theatre (Doherty, 1999, 155). Yet before turning to the conflict that effectively brought the cycle to an end, I would like to suggest that the commercial success enjoyed by the gangster cycle in 1931 was unlikely to last for very long in the light of its limited appeal to two crucial movie markets.

Female and foreign markets

15In the 1920s, most male Hollywood executives and filmmakers believed that the audiences for their films were predominantly female. This belief was actively encouraged by the trade press: in 1924, Photoplay estimated that 75 per cent of movie audiences were women. Three years later, an article in Motion Picture World argued that they constituted as much as 83 per cent of cinema audiences (Studlar, 1996, 263). In 1929, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors' Association (MPPDA) itself suggested that three out of every four members of its audiences were female (Maltby, 1995, 470). No movie cycle or genre that offended women-or failed to engage their enthusiasm-was consequently likely to last for very long. What, therefore, did women think of the gangster cycle? Alice Miller Mitchell's survey of Chicago school-children, conducted in 1927, suggested that what she termed "mystery" films (covering various types of crime) had a more limited appeal to girls than several other types of film (Mitchell, 1929, 104-5). A 1942 survey cited by Leo Handel indicated that a low proportion of women (by comparison with men) actually liked what was by then classified as "Gangster, G-Men Pictures," and that the relatively few women who did like such films was vastly outnumbered by the women who really disliked them (Handel, 1950, 121, 124). But there does not seem to be empirical evidence available on the attitudes of female moviegoers towards gangster films at the time of the cycle of the early 1930s (most of the Payne Fund Studies published in 1933-35, for example, actually dealt with the period before the release of Little Caesar).

16On the whole, however, I think it unlikely that female moviegoers were impressed with what Thomas Doherty has called "the vicious nature of the relationships between men and women" in the gangster film (Doherty, 1999, 150). The cycle itself revolved around raw-edged male violence and that male violence was sometimes directed at women-as in the famous shot when James Cagney as Tom Powers shoves a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face, or punches out another woman who has "taken advantage" of him while he was drunk. There are relatively few characters for women to identify with in any sense. Few women—with the exception of Public Enemy's Gwen, played by Jean Harlow—are seen to possess power or agency in the gangster cycle. Scarface's Cesca, who craves independence and sexual freedom, is effectively hemmed in and destroyed by her brother Tony's patriarchal prejudice (which many writers on the film see as a cover for his incestuous passion towards her). Rico's affection for Joe in Little Caesar- with its "distinct home-erotic undertones"-functioned as a barrier to any relationship with women (Ruth, 1996, 90-91). Finally, the gangster cycle inverted the traditional gender roles, with men rather than women indulging in the satisfactions of consumer indulgence, devoted to the acquisition of clothes, cars and possessions as the symbols of their new material success (ibid., 2, 67-71, 90).

17If American women were, as I suspect, on the whole deeply unenthusiastic about the gangster cycle, another segment of the movie audience was even more hostile. A crucial factor in Hollywood's financial success in the years up to the Depression had been its foreign markets.

18Before 1930, such markets had on average been responsible for between 30 and 50 per cent of a picture's worldwide gross revenue (Balio, 1993, 32). Not only did such markets begin to decline with the advent of the Depression, but also the gangster cycle in particular was unpopular with overseas audiences (Doherty, 1999, 156). "I recognise that there is a point of view from which one can argue that Canadians ought to be told about the wickedness of the United States," wrote one official of the Motion Picture Distributors and Exhibitors of Canada. He himself, however, remained unconvinced "that the U. S. is doing itself any favors... when it sends gangster films abroad" (Munby, 1999, 107). Sometimes, moreover, gangster films ran into strong official resistance. The Italian government was unhappy that gangster films seemed to focus very largely on criminals of Italian extraction. As Ruth Vasey observes, one not very successful attempt to counter this impression was the insertion-into the Italian version of Scarface-of an additional scene "depicting an upright Italian-American character condemning the activities of the gangster protagonist" (Vasey, 2000, 123-4).

Catholicism v. Protestantism

19While its profitability in the long run was questionable, however, what doomed the gangster cycle at the start of the 1930s was its involvement in a cultural struggle. The cycle came near the end of a struggle that had lasted for nearly a century between the forces of predominantly Protestant, mainly rural and small-town America-forces that had tried to impose their own brand of morality and behavioural codes on society at large-and society in the cities where, since the 1830s, immigrants had congregated (immigrants who, beginning with the Irish, had frequently belonged to the Catholic faith). In 1928, with the reelection of Republican President Herbert Hoover, the forces of Protestant, rural and small-town America seemed triumphant. But Hoover's opponent, Alfred E. Smith, the first Catholic to run for the presidency on a major party ticket, had begun a process of political change by capturing many of the large cities on a "wet" (anti-Prohibition) platform (Burner, 1975, 183-84, 210, 228). The Depression completed the work Smith had begun, undercutting the authority of the old Protestant elite and establishing a new political (and arguably cultural) order in which Catholics-as the representatives of large urban congregations-would have considerably more power. It was to Catholics Martin Quigley and Daniel Lord that Will Hays of the MPPDA turned in 1930 for a Production Code which, according to Andrew Bergman, "was obsessed with both the idea and techniques of lawlessness" (Bergman, 1971, 5).

20As Gregory Black has pointed out, the anti-movie lobby of the 1920s "consisted mostly of alienated Protestants." Organisations such as the Reverend William H. Short's Motion Picture Research Council (which obtained the original grant from the Payne Fund for a series of scholarly studies of movie-going) and Canon William S. Chase's Federal Motion Picture Council pressed for Federal censorship of films to be introduced. They also demanded an end to the practice of block booking, which ensured that small-town exhibitors would sometimes have to play "immoral" films since-whether they wanted them or not-they were in any case obliged to pay for them (Black, 1994, 33, 23). The Catholic approach to the problem of what to do about the movies was very different. Quigley, the publisher of an industry trade journal, did not believe in government censorship (which was always vulnerable to pressure from corrupt politicians) and saw no real advantage in eliminating block booking. His preferred solution was to ensure that films were made without the inclusion of questionable material through a tighter system of movie industry self-regulation. Conscious that postsound, Depression-era Hollywood was vulnerable to economic boycotts, Quigley believed that a new code of behaviour written by Catholics and supported by the Church would eliminate the need for censorship. The United States'twenty million Catholics were predominantly concentrated in urban areas, they had their own national press and, under the disciplined leadership of the church hierarchy, could threaten Hollywood with the possibility of impressively united action. When Quigley, supported by the church, took Lord's draft of the Production Code to Hays, Hays quickly realised its usefulness and secured its acceptance by the major film producers (Black, 1994, 35-37, 39-42).

21After the official adoption of the new Production Code by the movie industry on 31 March 1930, Hays gave the job of enforcing it to Colonel Jason Joy of the Studio Relations Committee (SRC). When the gangster cycle effectively began with the opening of Little Caesar in New York in January 1931, it created many problems for both Joy and Hays. A rising tide of criticism of gangster films from lawyers, police, judges, newspapers and civic organisations focused on the idea that such films-by glamorising crime-encouraged people to become criminals (Balio, 1993, 284; Black, 1994, 108-9). Much of this pressure came from old-stock American Protestants. According to Jonathan Munby, indeed, many of the complaints about glorifying crime and influencing the young masked a fear of the cultural "otherness" represented by the obviously ethnic actors/principal characters of these films (Munby, 1999, 83, 44). Local censorship boards, influenced by this growing criticism, responded either by making extensive cuts in gangster movies-or by banning them completely (Bergman, 1971, 3-4; Black, 1994, 110, 121). Hays and Joy found themselves in the curious position of defending gangster films they did not always know very much about. Since the submission of scripts was voluntary, and Joy had not seen that for Little Caesar, to find out what all the criticism was about he went to see the film himself at a local Los Angeles theatre. Joy liked the film and believed it embodied the "moral lesson" that crime did not pay (Rico was killed in the end) (Black, 1994, 115-6).

22The Catholic-inspired Production Code insisted that crime should never be depicted "in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with a desire for imitation," that murder should "be presented in a way that will not inspire imitation," and that criminal methods themselves "should not be explicitly presented." Hays and Joy, therefore, tried to defend gangster movies against opposition from mainly Protestant moral and civic groups by ensuring that the movies concerned came as close as possible to meeting the demands of the Code. Sometimes this involved the addition of framing devices-such as the credits at the beginning and end of The Public Enemy, disavowing any intention to glorify criminals and insisting that gangsterism was a problem that needed to be faced by the public (Doherty, 1999, 155). At other times, they were obliged to insist on changes to the narrative of the film itself. Although Scarface was finished in 1931, Hays did not agree to approve it until new scenes were added showing that the gangs survived because the public did not demand an end to them rather than through the inadequacies of the judicial system. Yet even when Scarface, with a new sub-title ("The Shame of a Nation ") and a new ending (which was later lost) showing Tony being tried and sentenced to death, received MPPDA approval in the spring of 1932, it was still rejected by many state and city censorship boards. In the end, it was Jason Joy who visited the various censorship boards and persuaded them finally to accept the film. He did this, according to Gregory Black, by assuring them "that Scarface was the end, not the beginning of a cycle" (Black, 1994, 130-31).

23Scarface excepted, the gangster cycle of the early 1930s lasted, in reality, for only a few months. Using the Catholic-designed Code as a means of leverage, the Hays Office responded to the growing demands of (primarily Protestant) censors and newspapers by helping convince producers to bring the cycle to an end (Black, 1994, 121; Balio, 1993, 285). In September 1931, the administration of the Production Code itself was considerably tightened. To ensure that all films had a "moral argument," scripts as well as release prints now had to be submitted in advance. In October, the Association of Motion Picture Producers (AMPP) passed a resolution placing far stricter limits on how gangsters could be shown on screen. Later, it was forbidden to represent directly gangsters' involvement in bootlegging or shoot-outs with police (Balio, 1993, 52; Munby, 1999, 66). With gangsterism on screen apparently disposed of as a problem, Joy and Hays now transferred their attention to sex. As Joy wrote to Joseph Breen on 15 December 1931:

with crime practically denied them, with box office figures down, with high-pressure methods being employed back home to spur the studios on to get a little more cash, it was almost inevitable that sex, as the nearest thing to hand and generally pretty sure-fire, should be seized upon (Balio, 1993, 52).

24When Scarface finally did appear in May 1932, Variety noted (sounding rather regretful in the process) that it was "presumably the last of the gangster films" (ibid., 284).


Works Cited

Balio, Tino, 1993. Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939. New York: Scribner's.

Bergman, Andrew, 1971. We're in the Money: Depression America and Its Films. New York: New York University Press.

Black, Gregory D., 1994. Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Burner, David, 1975. The Politics of Provincialism: The Democratic Party in Transition, 1918-1932. New York: Norton.

Doherty, Thomas, 1999. Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934. New York: Columbia University Press.

Gomery, Douglas, 1985. "The Coming of the Talkies: Invention, Innovation, and Diffusion." In Tino Balio, ed.. The American Film Industry. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press (192-211).

Handel, Leo, 1950. Hollywood Looks at Its Audience: A report of film audience research. Urbana, 111.: University of Illinois Press.

Maltby, Richard, 1995. Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.

— 1981. "The Political Economy of Hollywood: the Studio System." In Philip Davies and Brian Neve, eds.. Cinema, Politics and Society in America. Manchester: Manchester University Press (42-58).

Mitchell, Alice Miller, 1929. Children and Movies. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Munby, Jonathan, 1999. Public Enemies, Public Heroes: Screening the Gangster from 'Little Caesar' to 'Touch of Evil'. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pitney, John J., Jr., 1998. "Fascism in Gabriel over the White House." In Beverly M. Kelley, John J. Pitney, Jr., and Herbert E. Gooch, eds.. Reelpolitik: Political Ideology in '30s and '40s Films (45-60).

Ruth, David E., 1996. Inventing the Public Enemy: The Gangster in American Culture, 1918-1934. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Studlar, Gaylyn, 1996. "The perils of pleasure? Fan magazine discourse as women's commodified culture in the 1920s." In Richard Abel, ed., Silent Film. London: The Athlone Press (263-97).

Vasey, Ruth, 2000. "Beyond Sex and Violence: 'Industry Policy' and the Regulation of Hollywood Movies, 1922-1939." In Matthew Bernstein, ed.. Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the Sound Era. London: The Athlone Press (102-129).

Woodiwiss, Michael, 1988. Crime, Crusades and Corruption: Prohibitions in the United States, 1900-1987. London: Pinter Publishers.

— 1990. Organized Crime, USA: Changing Perceptions from Prohibition to the Present Day. BAAS Pamphlets in American Studies, No. 19.


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