"The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" ... Bogart, Shakespeare, The Maltese Falcon, Those Great Movies

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Mobsters, Pals and Skirts -- The Golden Age of Gangster Movies -- The Complete Series -- 1930 Through 1949

Edward G. Robinson

Humphrey Bogart



Some have been as good,
but no one has ever surpassed them.

James Cagney

Paul Muni

Why do we love the old gangster movies? I’ve never seen a gangster in my lifetime that was anything close to the handsome, colorful, well-dressed movie mobsters of the 1930’s and 40’s. The truth is that Al Capone, Busy Siegel and Lucky Luciano were no different than the sociopathic, predatory, drive-by shooting monsters we have today. I think that we love the old gangster movies, and the gangsters themselves, because although they depict violent events by murdering men, there is never a drop of blood, the gangsters are almost child-like in their desire to look rich and be part of high society, they speak in amusing accents, and they are played by incredibly charismatic, strikingly appealing men. They speak in colorful language – guns are gats, rods, heaters; women are skirts, dolls, tomatos; policemen are coppers, bulls, flatfoots. I believe it is also because there is an element of safety in the fact that these movies are of a long-past era, the true horror diffused by the cloaking veil of black and white film.

Humphrey Bogart and Ann Sheridan,
two great gangster movie favorites
One aspect of the classic gangster films that has always interested me is the mobster’s relationships with friends and women. This characteristic of gangster movies is my sole focus in this series. Warner Brothers in particular created a formula that worked like a charm, and their movies rarely strayed from it until after World War II. Every bad guy had a corresponding friend -- a former crime partner who is good at heart and wants out of the racket, or a childhood friend or brother who chose the path of righteousness. The gangster’s women also followed the studio blueprint – the innocent girl who captures the gangster’s heart, the whore with the heart of gold who suffers unrequited love, the bad girl who likes the gangster just the way he is. And of course, the mothers – long-suffering, anxiety-ridden little women who cannot believe their baby has gone so bad. This was pure movie-making genius, and audiences loved it. Jack Warner may have been an SOB, as he is so often described, but he knew what worked.  *Because of the requirements of discussion on this topic, there are *Spoilers* within the reviews.*

The Big Three are the original talkie gangster movies released from 1931-32. First to be released was Little Caesar with Edward G. Robinson, January 25, 1931. Second was Public Enemy with James Cagney, April 23, 1931. Both were products of Warner Brothers.  Another studio slipped in there, however, with one of the Big Three – Scarface with Paul Muni, released April 9, 1932 by United Artists, produced by Howard Hughes. Scarface was actually the first movie made – it was filmed in early 1930, but release was delayed for 2 years because of difficulties with censorship issues. It is said that Howard Hughes had finally had enough, and released the film in 1932 without censor approval. Interestingly, in my opinion, Scarface is the most sophisticated and realistic of the Big Three, with characters more 3-dimensional than the other two. The look and sound of Scarface was better as well, although it had been filmed before either of the other two.

Little Caesar
Caesar Enrico Bandello was the first of the classic gangsters to hit the screen. Edward G. Robinson strutted into view and was given the name Little Caesar by a mob leader who meant it disparagingly. But we know better – Rico was born to murder and bully his way to the top, earning his title as most of the Roman Caesars did. Rico brought with him a friend who had done his share of robberies and shootings, Joe Massara, played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Robinson was 38 years old at the time, and Fairbanks only 23 and very handsome. Robinson said of himself, “Some people have youth, some beauty – I have menace.” Few movie gangsters are as menacing as Rico. To me, Rico is the least likeable of the Big Three. It isn’t just because of Robinson’s famous mannerisms, the sneer, his sarcastic “Yeah! See? Yeah!” Rico is a killing machine, never swerving from his path to the top. He hesitates only once in his murderous rise, and that involves his friend, Joe.

Olga (Glenda Farrell) and Joe (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.)
Perhaps because it was the first, Little Caesar does not follow the formula where women are concerned. Rico has no women in his life. I don’t remember that he was ever shown with any woman. When Joe divulges to Rico that he wants to go back to a dancing career and meet women, Rico responds with a sneer, “Dancing, women, where do they get you?” He wasn’t kidding. He had no interest in them. He truly hates the girl that Joe falls in love with, Olga (played by Glenda Farrell before she found her niche in movies as a wise-cracking blonde). Olga wants Joe to pull out of the racket, and Rico wants her out of the way. There is absolutely no soft side to Rico, nothing to sentimentalize or feel sorry for. There is no apparent family in Rico’s life, and it is almost hard to imagine he ever had a mother. The only time Rico shows any emotion besides anger or avarice concerns Joe. In a furious rage at Joe’s decision to leave him, Rico comes to Joe’s apartment to kill both Joe and Olga. It is a famous scene, in which Rico advances toward the camera, his eyes wide with blood lust and murderous intent. However, as he stands in front of Joe, gun ready, Joe says, “Go ahead, shoot!” Rico’s face begins to show signs of doubt and confusion, and he backs down. I’m not convinced that Rico was struck by sudden conscience and friendship for Joe. He is still seething with anger, but now it is at himself, because he is unable to shoot Joe, a weakness he cannot understand.

The great Edward G.
Even in death, Rico is an archetypal sociopath. At the moment of his death, he cannot grasp the concept of his non-existence, because to him the world and people have no function except as related to him. He doesn’t ask for forgiveness from God, he feels no regret, he only says, “Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?” Great ending line, wonderful movie, fantastic performance by the great Edward G. Robinson. I am always struck by the fact that Robinson was so good at playing threatening, menacing characters, when in reality he was a gentle, sophisticated man with a passion for great art. That’s show biz, I guess…

Public Enemy
Tom Powers was introduced to viewers just three months after Rico met his death behind a billboard. James Cagney, at the age of 32, had originally been hired to play Matt Doyle, childhood friend, with Edward Woods as Tom. However, director William Wellman saw Cagney’s potential and switched the two. Tom Powers was as different from Rico as fish from fowl. Tom needed women, all types, all sizes, all ages. Tom is more likeable than Rico, although just as brutal and without sense of morality. We see Tom as a bad young boy whose father had a heavy hand with the razor strap when Tom was too bad. His mother (Beryl Mercer), on the other hand, is a nervous little pudding of a woman who can’t see any bad in her boy. Tom’s brother Mike (Donald Cook) takes the high road to education and decency. Tom’s descent into crime is helped along by seedy adults more than happy to take advantage of his natural tendencies to steal and bully. Tom and Matt grow up together to become partners in crime. Matt is always second banana to Tom, not as hard or ambitious, but always at Tom’s heel like a faithful puppy. Matt wants a more normal life, and he meets and marries Mamie (Joan Blondell), a girl perhaps a little off-color, but basically a good girl.

The famous grapefruit scene
Cagney’s unforgettable mannerisms are all fully-developed in his portrayal of Tom – shooting the cuffs, clipping everyone on the chin as an affectionate gesture, hitching his pants, the sardonic wink, and the choppy punches to the face that look all too real. Tom is hard-boiled, alright, but he needs women. Some he uses and throws away, like his floozy girlfriend Kitty (Mae Clark). Kitty is the girl who gets the grapefruit in the kisser, a movie scene known to almost anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock. Both Cagney and Clark insisted that they had dreamed this up together as a gag for the crew, but it looked so good that Wellman kept it in the movie. In his autobiography, Cagney revealed that Mae Clark’s ex-husband liked the scene so much he went to the movies every day to watch just that scene and then leave. Women’s groups at the time were not happy about the abusive act, and protested it.

Cagney on set, waiting to film the ambush scene!
While Kitty was a girl who didn’t mind that Tom was a criminal as long as he was nice to her, another woman he meets is quite happy to be in the company of criminals. Tom and Matt are forced to lay low for a while in the apartment of an unnamed gangster’s moll, and Tom spends most of the time drunk. The moll, who has seen better days, goes after Tom while he is drunk. I always found it so strange that this woman talks to Tom as if he were a child, calling him “a good boy” and “a fine boy.” Then she drags him into bed. Weird. The next morning, we are led to believe that poor innocent Tom does not remember anything. When he realizes what has happened, he pushes the woman away and storms out of the apartment with Matt at his heels, indifferent to the fact that they are in danger of being ambushed. That does indeed happen, and Matt is shot and killed. Tom watches from behind a wall, and he has the strangest little smile on his face. He doesn’t look upset at all, just perhaps relieved that he was faster and smarter than Matt. Yet, he goes after the killers by himself, and is seriously wounded.

Eddie (Cagney and Gwen (Harlow)
The strangest and most significant woman in Tom’s love life is Gwen Allen (20-year old Jean Harlow). She is the society girl who is attracted to the danger Tom represents. Harlow was absolutely terrible in this part. She looked uncomfortable, moved awkwardly, her voice was awful, and her attempts to sound refined are just pitiable. Tom and Gwen have not gone to bed together yet, as is hinted in his talk with her about their relationship. She is in only two scenes, the first where Tom picks her up on the street, and one in her apartment. She calls Tom her “spoiled boy” and “bashful boy”. Bashful? Tom? Then, as the Victorians might say, she draws his head down upon her bosom. We don’t know what might have happened, as Tom is called away, and we never see hide nor platinum hair of Gwen again. I thought this character was very poorly written and undeveloped.

Eddie with brother Mike (Donald Wood)
and Mother (Beryl Mercer)
Besides Matt, the other male counterpart for Tom is his brother Mike. Tom thinks Mike is a sucker for working and going to school, and especially for enlisting to fight in the First World War. Mike tries to steer Tom the right way, but Tom has nothing but contempt for his brother. After Mike returns from the war, he discovers what Tom really is, and how he comes by the money he uses to help their mother. At Mike’s coming-home party, Tom has provided a big keg of beer. Mike refuses to drink any, and finally snaps:

Tom: So beer ain't good enough for you, huh?
Mike: Do you think I care if there was just beer in that keg? I know what's in it. I know what you've been doing all this time, how you got those clothes and those new cars. You've been telling Ma that you've gone into politics that you're on the city payroll. Pat Burke told me everything. You murderers! There's not only beer in that jug. There's beer and blood - blood of men!
Tom: You ain't changed a bit. Besides, your hands ain't so clean. You killed and liked it. You didn't get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.

"I ain't so tough."
What a terrible thing to say to a man who has fought in a war and returned shell-shocked. But that’s Tom – he is just plain amoral. Ma Powers, who is always trying to reunite her boys, is actually relieved when Tom is shot after Matt’s death. Tom appears to have a change of heart, an event for which no prior indication was ever given. Tom does come home, but not as he expected. He is delivered to the front door by his rivals, like a package wrapped in a shroud, while Ma sings as she prepares his room for his homecoming.

As with Edward G. Robinson, Cagney’s success as a bad guy was also unexpected. He too was a very gentle man who loved the country, preferred song-and-dance parts, and wanted nothing to do with the Hollywood scene. One of the nicest anecdotes about Cagney tells that he would often leave early, claiming he was too ill to do any more shooting. This was to ensure an extra day of filming so the underpaid crew and extras could get additional salary. Can you see Tom Powers doing that? I don’t think so

Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) with his "Chicago typewriter"
Tony Camonte was the third gangster big-shot to hit the screen and to me, he was the most realistic and frightening of the Big Three. While Rico was based upon Chicago mobster Salvatore Cardinella, and Tom Powers was inspired by Irish gangster boss Dean O’Bannion, Tony Camonte is 100% Al Capone. Capone was indicted for tax fraud and sentenced to prison in early 1932. Scarface was released April 9th of that year, and Capone did not report to prison until May. Capone saw the movie and loved it. Capone may have been good at bootlegging and murder, but he was not a very bright guy. The great Paul Muni, 36 years old at the time, makes him look like a murderous ape, an ignorant man who thinks he is smart and whistles an opera tune when he kills, a man who carries incestuous lust for his own sister, and who ends up yellow, begging for his life. I can’t imagine being thrilled to be portrayed like that, but then who can know what a man like Capone has in his head.

Guino (George Raft) flipping the coin
Tony’s’ closest friend is Guino, who Tony refers to as “Little Boy.” As played by 30-year old George Raft, Guino may be short, but he is incredibly handsome, always dressed to the nines, and constantly flips a coin up and down. Raft spoofed this mannerism for his appearance in Some Like It Hot, and it also appeared in a dance number with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse in Singin’ In The Rain. Tony and Guino are inseparable, and Guino is completely loyal to his friend. The women in Tony’s life represent most of the types I have discussed. His anxiety-ridden mother (Inez Palange) has given up on him, and is now trying to keep his sister Cesca from following him. Cesca is played by the gorgeous Ann Dvorak, a good actress with eyes even bigger than Bette Davis. I have always felt that Dvorak should be better known for her work in classic films. As Cesca, she runs the acting gamut from naïve to angry, frightened to vengeful. Poppy (Karen Morley) is the mistress of Tony’s first boss, Johnny Lovo, played as a nervous, cowardly type by Osgood Perkins. Tony is smitten by Poppy and determined to have her. She is a true gangster’s moll who loves the life, and it doesn’t take much for Tony to take her away from Lovo.

Cesca (beautiful Ann Dvorak)
The most controversial aspect of Scarface is Tony’s incestuous feelings for Cesca. He cannot stand to see her with other men. When he catches Cesca kissing a guy in their foyer, he is enraged. Cesca screams back that he can’t tell her what to do. Tony says that he is her brother, but Cesca looks scared and says “You don’t act like….sometimes I think….” Even their mother tells Cesca that to Tony, she is just another girl, and when he needs her for his bad life, he would use her too: “He hurt you. He hurt everybody.” Tony sees Cesca in a nightclub dancing, and he physically forces her to go home with him. They have another shouting match, ending with Tony tearing her dress and exposing one barely-covered breast. He beats her until she is able to escape. There is nothing subtle about Tony’s brutal desire for his sister.

Cesca and Guino fall in love. They keep it a secret from Tony because of Guino’s fears of Tony’s reaction. While Tony is away, they marry and decide to surprise him. Tony finds Guino in Cesca’s apartment before he knows this, and he shoots Guino to death. Cesca is devastated and terrified of her brother. Strangely, though, she goes to him in his final shoot-out with police to kill him herself, but ends up telling him “You’re me, I’m you, it’s always been that way.” Perhaps Cesca has harbored forbidden feelings for Tony as well. Just as their mother predicted, Tony does not try to save Cesca by sending her away. He is happy that she wants to fight it out with him. When Cesca is killed by police bullets, Tony finally realizes that he has lost Guino, Cesca, Poppy, even his toady Angelo. He stumbles about calling their names in the tear gas-filled room, staggers out to meet the police, pleading for his life, tries to run and is cut down in a a hail of bullets.

In my opinion, Scarface is the best of the Big Three. The only flaw I can see in the movie is the character of Angelo, played by vaudeville comedian Vince Barnett. Angelo is Tony’s toady, and to me the character is extremely annoying in the attempt at comic relief. Perhaps the filmmakers thought it would distract viewers from the constant violence and sound of tommyguns, but it doesn’t work that way and is just irritating.

Like Cagney and Robinson, Paul Muni was not a bad-guy type. He was never typecast as a gangster, unlike the other two. Muni played parts in many genres, famous for his ability to change his looks and accent to inhabit a role. For Scarface, he wore lifts in his shoes to add 3-4 inches, as well as padding so that he would appear more hulking and menacing. Of himself, despite his superstar status, Muni said “I’m an actor…a journeyman actor. I think ‘star’ is what you call actors who can’t act.” In an unusually generous tribute from one movie star to another, Muni described Robert Donat’s performance in Goodbye, Mr. Chips as “…the most magnificent performance I’ve ever seen on any screen…he is the greatest actor we have today.” Very nice man.




The first gangster films were the seminal blueprint for those to come. By the late 1930’s, the gangster movie formula as highlighted in the series prologue had been perfected. By this time, the bad guys had evolved from sociopathic thugs without conscience to criminals who, for the most part, had started life as normal people for whom bad luck and desperate circumstances were the causes for turning to a life of crime. Because of this depiction of the criminal, audiences found themselves feeling sympathy and understanding despite the gangsters’ same basic appetites for money and power that resulted in murder and social chaos. I have chosen three movies of the late 30’s to spotlight this important modification in the image of the villain in movies: Dead End (1937) with Humphrey Bogart, Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939), both with James Cagney.

Dead End
Adapted from a Broadway play, Dead End was produced by United Artists.  Director William Wyler and set designer Richard Day created a slum neighborhood so realistic that New York natives recognized it as a real part of the city. A posh apartment building surrounded by a wall looks down on a poverty-stricken area of struggling people trying to survive day to day. The movie takes place in a 24-hour period, weaving several stories into a tapestry of differing dreams, despondency and hopes. The cast is spectacular – Humphrey Bogart, Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrea, Claire Trevor, Allen Jenkins, Marjorie Main and the Dead End kids. For our purposes, we will concentrate on the story of Baby Face Martin as portrayed by Bogart.

The Dead End Kids
Bogart was 34 years old at this time, and Dead End was his first portrayal of a serious mobster of some depth. His earlier roles had been limited to the rather spineless lesser member of criminal gangs. Even after Dead End, he was again relegated to that type, as we will see in Angels With Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties. However, in Dead End we see the future Bogart legend in its early development.

Baby Face (Humphrey Bogart) and
sidekick Hunk (Allen Jenkins)

The story of Baby Face Martin reminds me of a famous literary quote: “You can’t go home again.” Wanted by the law, even having changed his face with plastic surgery, Baby Face is drawn to his old neighborhood and the need to reconnect with his mother and his first love, who in his mind are still the same. Baby Face’s loyal friend Hunk, portrayed by the wonderful character actor Allen Jenkins, acts as the voice of realism. Hunk knows that it is foolish of Baby Face to return to the home base, and also that nothing would be accomplished for Baby Face but disappointment and pain. However, his boss refuses to listen. Something in Baby Face desperately desires to go back to his youth, when he had love and hope.

Ma Martin (Marjorie Main)
The Dead End kids, slum boys with no male figure to help them develop into decent men, are impressed by Baby Face and his charismatic tough guy reputation. Baby Face revels in their hero worship which feeds his ego and gives rationale to his life of crime. But this is not enough for him. He wants to see his mother again, and finds her in the foyer of the tenement in which he grew up. He is like a happy boy as he runs up to his mother crying “Ma, Ma…it’s me. I had my face changed a little, but it’s me!” Ma, played beautifully by Marjorie Main, is a woman overwhelmed by the despair and defeat that has ruined her life, especially where her son is concerned. Ma’s reaction to her son’s visit is shocking. “You no-good tramp. You dirty old dog.” Baby Face is stunned. “It’s been 10 years, Ma. Ain’t you glad to see me, Ma?” Ma is not glad to see him. She slaps him hard across the face and slowly climbs the stairs, reciting like a litany the sorrows her criminal son has brought to her. With tears and revulsion in her face, Ma says “Why don’t you leave me be? Why don’t you go away and die?” Baby Face is devastated, his face full of pain. He returns to the bar where Hunk is waiting and puts his face in his hands. It is a heartbreaking scene.

Baby Face and Francey (Claire Trevor)
There is one more hope for Baby Face – his first love, Francey. The marvelous Claire Trevor spends only about 5 minutes on screen, but the scene between Francey and Baby Face is unforgettable.  Baby Face has no right to place himself above anyone after the violent life he has led, but he cannot accept or sympathize with the appalling truth he learns about Francey's desperate life as a prostitute.  He expected the innocent young girl he left behind many years before, and perhaps her own fate mirrored his own too closely.  Bogart and Trevor play this scene with the undeniable acting gifts with which each was blessed.  Although the original play made no bones about the fact that Francey has syphilis, the movie code allowed only a hint of the reason for Francey's condition. Once again powerless to have stopped his boss from more grief, Hunk tells him “We all make mistakes, boss. That’s why they put rubber on the end of pencils…..never go back, always go forward….where you go, I go.” If nothing else, Baby Face had one unwavering friend in Hunk. Baby Face is bad, no doubt about that, but he is also a pitiable character for whom audiences feel sorrow and sympathy.

Angels With Dirty Faces
In my opinion the best of this decade’s gangster movies, Angels With Dirty Faces has everything – James Cagney as Rocky Sullivan, the most captivating and magnetic of gangsters; Pat O’Brien as Fr. Jerry Connolly, the childhood friend who became a priest; the Dead End kids once again, this time as Cagney’s awestruck disciples; Bogart as James Frazier, Cagney’s backstabbing crime partner; and Ann Sheridan as Laury Ferguson, the street-wise but good girl who loves Rocky. Directed by Michael Curtiz, it is the Warner Brothers gangster formula at its best. As an interesting aside, the Dead End Kids were difficult to handle during filming. Their behavior was chaotic, ad-libbing lines and even destroying props. Cagney, normally a laid-back man, finally had enough and popped Leo Gorcey in the nose. The chaos ended.

As young boys, Rocky and Jerry are kids of the slums, wayward and not above a little stealing, but basically decent growing up in such conditions. During one escapade, Rocky and Jerry try to steal fountain pens from a freight car. Railroad bulls give chase, and Jerry falls onto tracks with a train bearing down upon him. Rocky runs back and saves him. The boys climb a fence to get away – Jerry makes it over, but Rocky is caught. This sets the stage for the divergent paths of the two friends. Rocky is sent to reform school, is influenced by criminals and starts a life of crime. Jerry goes on to be educated and becomes a priest.

Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) and
old friend Father Jerry (Pat O'Brien)
The two friends are reunited as men when Rocky returns to the old neighborhood. He enters the Catholic Church where he and Jerry used to be members of the children’s choir. Fr. Jerry is leading the current crop of boys in choir practice, and Rocky mouths the words of their song, the exquisite “Hosanna in Excelsis”. The group of young singers is actually the well-known St. Brendan’s Boys Choir. Rocky surprises Fr. Jerry in the sacristy and identifies himself with his signature greeting, “Whaddya hear, waddya say?” The two men, so different in character, are still like brothers. Fr. Jerry would like to see Rocky put away his life of crime, but Rocky has no intention of doing so.

Rocky and the gang
Rocky’s charismatic personality endears him to the Dead End kids and his childhood friend Laury. In a wonderfully humorous scene where Rocky and Fr. Jerry try to teach the boys to play basketball by the rules, Rocky trips them up and slaps them around when they bully the other team. Accustomed to that kind of treatment, the boys do not feel abused. They understand his technique and admire him even more. Fr. Jerry tells Laurie that he believes Rocky could be straightened out. But it is not to be. Ann Sheridan’s role as Laury is minimal and rather low-key. Perhaps this is because the main focus of the movie is the friendship between Rocky and Fr. Jerry.

Rocky’s motto is “Don’t be a sucker”, and he proves that by threatening his former lawyer and crime partner, James Frazier, with violence if money promised to Rocky is not paid. Frazier, scared and mopping his brow, pretends that he has every intention to pay Rocky. However, he and the big boss, played by character actor George Bancroft, plan to have Rocky knocked off. Fr. Jerry, despite his love for Rocky, is determined to save his boys from emulating gangsters and begins a public campaign to bring down the criminal element, including Rocky, Frazier and the boss. Frazier and the boss plan to kill Fr. Jerry as well as Rocky, but Rocky hears their plan. He shoots the boss, then kills Frazier as Frazier cowers and begs for his life.

Rocky takes Fr. Jerry hostage
Thus begins Rocky’s last stand as he is chased by police and takes refuge in a warehouse, for a standoff that reveals his true dangerous side. In a shooting spree during which everyone seems to have an endless supply of bullets, Rocky kills several policemen. Tear gas is lobbed into the warehouse. Fr. Jerry and Laury come to the scene, and Fr. Jerry insists that he be allowed to talk to Rocky. He enters the building and tries to talk Rocky into surrendering. Instead, Rocky uses Fr. Jerry as a shield, and leaves the building threatening to shoot him in the head. Rocky says “Duck, Jerry”, pushes his friend away, and runs down a blind alley. He is trapped by police. One officer finds that Rocky’s gun has no bullets. “Empty,” he says. Defiantly, Rocky sneers “So is your thick skull, copper.”

Walking the Last Mile
Condemned to death in the electric chair, Rocky is still a hero to the gang of boys, who believe he will go out laughing and heroic. Fr. Jerry comes to Rocky on the day of his execution and asks if he is afraid. Rocky answers “To be afraid, you gotta have a heart. I don’t think I got one”. Fr. Jerry then asks the ultimate favor of Rocky, to act like a coward as he goes to his death. He wants the boys to be ashamed of Rocky, and lose the hero worship they have felt for him. Rocky refuses to shame himself like that, and says no vehemently. Fr. Jerry accompanies Rocky on one of the best-filmed last-mile scenes, asking him again to do this for the boys, but Rocky rebuffs him again. The two men say goodbye, Rocky asking Fr. Jerry not to let him hear the priest’s prayers. Fr. Jerry answers “I promise you won’t hear me.” Rocky is taken in to the electric chair. Suddenly he begins to cry and plead to be let go. He tries to grab onto anything he can find, making the guards pull and force him into the chair. Rocky continues to cry and beg until the electricity kills him. Fr. Jerry looks to heaven and cries his own tears of gratitude.

The boys refuse to believe the headlines that announce the tough guy’s cowardice. Fr. Jerry comes to them, and tells them that it was true. He died as they said. The devastated boys have lost their admiration for Rocky. Fr. Jerry says “All right fellas. Let’s go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could.” Cagney would never reveal whether or not he believed Rocky died a true coward or found the courage and caring heart to let the boys feel shame and disappointment as Fr. Jerry wanted. Once again, though Rocky was a ruthless killer, we like him, believe in a basic goodness, and mourn his fate.

The Roaring Twenties
Another WB production, directed by Raoul Walsh, The Roaring Twenties is a nostalgic picture of an era. During the credits, the words of writer Mark Hellinger are displayed, summing up his feeling about the story: "It may come to pass that, at some distant date, we will be confronted with another period similar to the one depicted in this photoplay. If that happens, I pray that the events, as dramatized here, will be remembered. In this film, the characters are composites of people I knew, and the situations are those that actually occurred. Bitter or sweet, most memories become precious as the years move on. This film is a memory - and I am grateful for it."

The Roaring Twenties is a most unusual gangster film. Documentary scenes set the stage for the history of the era before and during Prohibition. Cagney as Eddie Bartlett is not a ruthless killer, but a man forced into crime against his will. Eddie first meets George Hally (Bogart) and Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn) in a trench during a horrific battle in World War I. Hally plans to go back to his former life as a bootlegger, but Eddie’s dream is to return to his job as a garage mechanic and work toward having his own business. Lloyd wants to be a lawyer. The men survive the war and go their different ways. Eddie returns to the States to find that his job is gone, another man who had not gone to war having taken his place. He returns to his old friend Danny Green (the wonderful Frank McHugh), and tries to find a job. His only option is to share a job driving a cab with Danny. Eventually, Eddie finds himself in the bootlegging business to make something out of himself. Danny is a true friend, and trustingly follows Eddie into the business. Lloyd becomes Eddie’s lawyer, and George becomes a business partner with Eddie.

Danny Green (Frank McHugh) and
Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney)

Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn), Jean
Sherman (Priscilla Lane) and Eddie
Eddie flourishes in the bootlegging business and becomes a top man in town. As in many of the Warner Brothers movies, a beautiful young girl comes into Eddie’s life. Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane) is a girl from a good family who wants to be a singer. Eddie gives her a break by hiring her to sing in his nightclub. Priscilla Lane as Jean is naïve and cute as a bug in this part, and sings some of the favorite songs from that era, “I’m Just Wild About Harry” and “Melancholy Baby.” Eddie falls in love with her and Jean allows the relationship to grow, unsure of her feelings for Eddie. When Eddie asks Jean to marry him, she realizes that she is not in love with him. It becomes clear that Jean and Lloyd have fallen in love and want to marry. Eddie is distraught at losing Jean, but takes it with good grace. Lloyd also wants to leave the business and be a respectable lawyer. George is distrustful of the knowledge Lloyd has about their bootlegging business, but Eddie warns him to leave the couple alone.

Eddie and Panama (Gladys George)
Another important woman in Eddie’s life is Panama Smith (the great Gladys George), a nightclub hostess. Based on the real-life nightclub hostess Texas Guinan, Panama used to be popular and successful, but she is getting older and past her prime. Panama is Eddie’s friend and shoulder to lean on, but she is also in love with him. He carries his love for Jean in his heart, and does not return Panama’s love. That does not deter her from always being there for Eddie when he needs her.

The disastrous fall of the stock market on Black Tuesday, October 19, 1929, destroys Eddie’s fortune. The end of Prohibition causes the bootlegging business to disappear. Eddie has lost his dear friend Danny in a gang shootout. He is a ruined man. He begins to drink heavily, and Panama does her best to make him dry up and find a way to make a living. Eddie goes back to cab driving, and one day unknowingly finds that Jean is a passenger. He is still hurt about losing her, but Jean asks him to come into the house and visit with her. Jean and Lloyd now have a 4-year old child. Eddie, though sad that he missed out on a happy home life, wistfully admires the family that Jean and Lloyd have built.

George Halley (Humphrey Bogart)
and Eddie face-to-face
George, who unlike Eddie has continued his life as a criminal, finds out about Lloyd’s rise in the district attorney’s office, and plans to kill him because of the chance that Lloyd will use his knowledge of George’s illegal activities. Down-and-out Eddie learns of the plan, and goes to George’s office. Eddie is now a laughable figure to the well-off George, who feels contempt for Eddie’s protectiveness of Jean and her family. Eddie picks up a gun – he has never been a killer type, but feels that he has no choice. George begs Eddie not to shoot him, but Eddie kills him.

"He used to be a big shot."
Out on the street, Eddie is shot in the back by one of George’s cohorts. Panama has followed Eddie, and sees him stagger down the street toward the steps of a church. He dies on the steps, with Panama holding him in her arms. In one of classic film's most famous endings, a policeman arrives, pulls out his notebook, and asks Panama “Who is he?” “Eddie Bartlett.” “What was his business?” “He used to be a big shot.” The Roaring Twenties presents us with a truly sympathetic character in Eddie. A good man who was forced to go bad, a loving man who gave his life for his friends, Eddie is not really a gangster. He is a tragic figure.



This, the final installment in my series, centers on three movies that proved to be the end of the era of classic gangster films. For this purpose, I have chosen three great Warner Brothers productions, High Sierra, Key Largo and White Heat. Each spotlights the most legendary actors of this genre, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. These three movies reflect the changes in the classic formula, so ingeniously created by Warner Brothers, for characters in the gangster genre. Gone are the two major types of mobster pals typical to the 1930's. The women in the lives of the gangsters no longer fit the stereotypes as discussed in Part One. See my prologue in Part One for a brief summary of the purpose and historical basis in spotlighting my focus on the relationships of the movie mobster to his friends and women. *Because of the requirements of discussion on this topic, there are *Spoilers* within the reviews.*

High Sierra
Celebrated as the movie that made Humphrey Bogart a star, High Sierra is considered by some to be the last of the great classic gangster films. This is true to a certain extent, but as you will see in my assessment of White Heat, I believe it was only by date of release that High Sierra could be regarded as such. Released by Warner Brothers in 1941, and directed by Raoul Walsh, High Sierra was the fortunate cause, by default, for Bogart’s stardom. Paul Muni of Scarface fame was first considered, but Muni was not interested. George Raft was the next choice, but turned it down. Raft wanted to change his image, was cannily steered away from the role by Bogart; Raft did not want to play an older gangster who is killed in the end. After lobbying by Bogart, he was cast as “Mad Dog” Roy Earle.

Marie (Ida Lupino), Red (Arthur
Kennedy), Babe (Alan Curtis)
and Humphrey Bogart (Roy Earle)
At the start of the movie, Roy is being released from a long stretch in prison. Roy is referred to several times in the movie as an old-timer, a relic from the days of Prohibition. Some of the young crop of gangsters admire him greatly, but to others he is considered past his prime. How wrong they are – Roy is just as tough as ever, confident and skilled in the criminal trade, and intimidating in his power. He is an unapologetic gangster, yet he is older and carries with him the fear of being locked up in prison. Several stretches in jail have created in Roy the determination to “crash out” if he is ever locked up again. He has nightmares about it. “I’ve done all the time I’m ever going to.” Roy, born and raised on an Indiana farm, is the type of Depression-era gangster that people could understand, like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, men who started their careers during times of poverty and oppression. Roy never shoots or kills anyone in cold blood. He is a professional thief, not a vicious murderer. Roy is the last of these men, and audiences liked and sympathized with Roy.

Roy, Marie and Pard (Zero)
Most of the male friends in Roy’s life have either been killed or imprisoned for life. He has two pals from the old days, Big Mac (played by character actor Donald MacBride), for whom Roy works, and Doc Banton (Henry Hull). Big Mac is dying but still tough as nails, and happy to see one of his best men from the old days. Doc plies his trade in the criminal world without a medical license, and is loyal and always there to help Roy. Two young men who are helping with Roy’s latest caper represent both types of youthful attitude towards Roy. Red (Arthur Kennedy) has admired Roy since childhood and is thrilled to be working with him. The other, Babe (Alan Curtis) thinks of Roy as a man whose glory days are long over. Roy does have one true friend, a strange one -- a little stray dog named Pard (played by Zero, who is actually Bogart’s own dog). Pard has adopted Roy and Marie, a girl who has hooked up with Roy, and Pard refuses to be left behind. He chases after their car, and Roy reluctantly allows Pard to jump into the car. The usually lone wolf Roy is unable to resist taking along either Pard or Marie. “Of all the 14 carat saps, starting out on a caper with a woman and a dog.”

Two women who symbolize in some respects the Warner Brothers formula for gangster films play an essential part in Roy’s life. Marie (the beautiful Ida Lupino) is a girl who has never gotten a break, who has tried to crash out of her own desolate fate all of her life. Marie is tough in order to protect herself from life, but she is good at heart. She loves Roy and wants to be with him in whatever he does. But Roy is smitten with a crippled young farm girl, Velma (Joan Leslie), whom he met with her family on the road to California. Velma’s Pa (Henry Travers) is unaware of Roy’s criminal life, but he sees a basic decency in him and hopes that through Velma, Roy will be part of the family. Roy brings in Doc to see if Velma’s club foot can be corrected, and he pays for her operation. Doc sees Roy’s longing for Velma, and advises Roy to forget her. “You need a high-steppin’ filly who can keep up with you….remember what Johnny Dillinger said? Guys like you were rushing toward death, just rushing toward death.” Roy is deaf to Doc’s warning. Velma proves to be dishonest with Roy, letting him open his heart and his wallet for her while knowing she wants another man. She turns Roy down when he asks to marry her. Her rejection is very hurtful to Roy, and he also feels the loss of a deeply-felt dream of the simple life he grew up with on the Indiana farm.

Velma (Joan Leslie)
Marie and Roy

      ? < Bad Girl/Good Girl > ?

In this way, the two women are actually reversed in their roles. Velma is the deceitful one for whom we feel contempt and anger. It is actually Marie who is honest and loving, which Roy finally realizes. He falls in love with Marie and finds real happiness with her. When Roy and Marie have a fight, Marie feels badly about yelling at him. Roy says with a smile, “I like it! That’s the way married people oughta act!” But it is too late for Roy now. Because of the bungled robbery with the two young men, and Roy’s self-defensive shooting of a crooked cop, he is dubbed unfairly as Public Enemy No.1. Roy sends the heartbroken Marie away for while to protect her while he runs from the police. In one of the most spine-tingling and poignant endings to a gangster movie, Roy is trapped in the High Sierras, taking refuge in the mountains to escape police. Among cold, bleak rocks, Roy makes his last stand. Unable to get to Roy, the police send a sharpshooter to climb above Roy’s hiding place.

Roy trapped in the High Sierras

Despite the danger to herself, Marie puts aside her fears and goes to the mountain site. She stands behind the police line with Pard in a basket and, unable to hide her tears, she is recognized. Pard hears Roy’s voice calling from above that he will not give up, and jumps out of the basket to find his beloved owner. Roy hears Pard barking, and forgetting his own danger, runs out to call to Marie. The sharpshooter has reached a place above Roy and is waiting for him. Roy has written a note telling police that Marie was never involved in any killing, but the note is lost when he is shot and killed. He falls down the side of the mountain, where Pard finds him. Marie kisses Roy, realizing that he has finally crashed out. “Free…free…” she says as she is led away, tearful but joyful that Roy’s nightmares are over.

Key Largo
Key Largo is a textbook representation of the transformation of the gangster image brought about after World War II. Released in 1948, directed by John Huston, the movie illustrates a significant change in audience views. America had suffered under real monsters, Adolph Hitler of the Third Reich and Hirohito of the Empire of Japan. Movie audiences had lost the naïve admiration of movie gangsters in the 1930’s. It was no longer possible to feel empathy for men whose motives were too similar in their merciless appetite for power and control.

Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall)
and Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart)

Mr. Temple (Lionel Barrymore)
telling about the great hurricane
 In a much more sophisticated manner than Little Caesar 17 years before, Edward G. Robinson is again a killer without conscience for which no empathy is possible. Unlike Little Caesar, Johnny Rocco has women in his life, and his cruelty to them is abhorrent. There are several levels to Key Largo’s story, all brought together with the arrival of a devastating hurricane – Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) as the war-weary and disillusioned man who just can’t do combat with evil anymore …”I believed some words…(but now) I fight nobody’s battles but mine… one Rocco more or less isn’t worth dying for.”; Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall) as the war widow who can’t understand Frank’s attitude … “When you believed like George did, dying didn’t seem to matter…If I felt like you, I’d want to be dead too.”; James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), a crippled but strong-minded man whose son George was killed in the war, and has no fear of angering Rocco with his contempt … “You filth …You don’t like it, do you Rocco, the storm. Show it your gun … if it doesn’t stop, shoot it!”; Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor) as the aging, drunken nightclub singer clinging to the increasingly scornful and disinterested Rocco … “Gee, honey, you’re awful mean to me.” The focus of this series is the gangster, and it is Edward G. Robinson’s character that will be highlighted.

Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson)
with Nora and Frank
Rocco and his men hole up in Temple’s hotel waiting for their fence to pick up counterfeit money. Rocco has no male friends, just toadies who work for him. Like Roy in High Sierra, Rocco has outlived his contemporaries. Unlike Roy, he does not believe there could ever be an end to Rocco; he desires no other kind of life. We first meet Rocco as he soaks in a tub to escape the heat of the Florida key, smoking his cigar, a fan perilously close to the water!  He has no feeling for the innocent people trapped in the hotel with him. He enjoys the power, makes fun of the crippled Temple and leers at Nora. He hands Bogart a gun and tells him to go ahead and shoot.  An injured young cop grabs the gun and shoots. The gun is unloaded. Rocco has him killed, and feels only admiration for his own cleverness.

One of the scenes between Rocco and Nora is significant in demonstrating the difference between the early era and the post-war gangsters. Rocco steps up to Nora and whispers in her ear. Her face shows us that he is suggesting filthy sexual acts. Nora steps away. Rocco again whispers in her ear, and she turns and spits in his face. His rage is frightening, and he wants to kill Nora, but Frank turns his attention aside. Mobsters always had women and treated them badly, but we had never seen the truly disgusting side of their nature until now. There is no possibility for any kind of respect for Rocco after this unsettling scene.

Rocco and Gaye Dawn
(Claire Trevor)
Gaye Dawn, a character based on Lucky Luciano’s moll Gay Orlova, receives the worst cruelty from Rocco. She is a broken woman. Rocco got her started as a nightclub singer when she was just a young girl. Claire Trevor, now 38 years old, gives another haunting portrayal similar to the one she played 11 years earlier in Dead End. At every opportunity, Rocco points out her aging looks and her need for alcohol. He continually humiliates her. When Gaye begs for a drink, Rocco agrees on the condition that she sing one of her old songs. Gaye knows she will be pathetic singing without music, and also because in her heart she is aware of the great change in her looks and voice. But her need for a drink wins out. The scene is very hard to watch as Gaye warbles out “Moanin’ Low”, trying to be what she used to be and failing. When the wretched performance is over, Rocco refuses to give her a drink. Gaye is devastated. “Johnny..you promised!” “So what? … you were rotten.”

Rocco shows his true cowardice

Rocco’s cowardly fear of the hurricane, as well as his fear of Bogart’s complete control over his fate in the final scene of Key Largo, are the final evidence of his repulsive character. As in Little Caesar, Rocco cannot believe he will die, since to him the world only exists for his wants and desires. Edward G. Robinson’s performance in this movie is phenomenal. Key Largo is an essential film in the post-war gangster movie genre.

White Heat

Cody Jarrett (James Cagney)

Released in 1949, directed by Raoul Walsh, White Heat is James Cagney’s swan song as the ultimate gangster. Cagney was 50 years old at this time, but fast-talking and energetic, still using his famous mannerisms even better than before, drawing upon depth and sophistication. In my opinion, it is also his greatest and most flawless performance. During the 30’s and 40’s, gangster films were snubbed by the Oscars, and no performance was as unfairly ignored as Cagney’s role as Cody Jarrett in White Heat. As I mentioned in the above review of High Sierra, I believe that White Heat is actually the last of the golden era of gangster films. Although part of the movie is devoted to modern police technology, it is very similar to films of the late 30’s. We find ourselves back to a story about a man who is admittedly a sociopathic killer, but who is also mentally ill and elicits sympathy. And of course there is Cagney – it’s almost impossible not to like him no matter who he plays.

Cody  munches on a chicken
leg and shoots a man
I believe a round of applause must be given to the writers of White Heat. The original story was written by Virginia Kellogg, who also wrote Caged, with Eleanor Parker, one of my favorite prison movies about female criminals. The screenplay for White Heat was created by writers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts. Goff and Roberts worked on several very good films together, of which White Heat is their best. The two men created an unforgettable character in Cody Jarrett, with lines of dialogue that not only horrify us, but sometimes make us laugh at the most brutal events. One of the most famous scenes elicits this kind of coffin laughter, as my grandmother used to call it. Cody has kidnapped a rather wormy, nervous little man who has tried a failed assassination attempt. He is locked in the trunk of a car. The man has been in there for a long time, and Cody strolls over to the car: “How ya doin’ Parker?” “It’s stuffy in here. I need some air.” “Stuffy, huh? I’ll give you a little air.” Cody pulls out his gun and shoots several times into the trunk, all the while munching on a fried chicken leg. Earlier, Parker had asked Cody “You wouldn’t kill me in cold blood, would you?” Cody replies “Nah, I’ll let ya warm up a little.” In another scene, when Cody and his men are hiding out after a train robbery and killing, he finds out that one of his men has been listening to the car radio, against Cody’s explicit orders. Cody says “If that battery is dead, it’s gonna have company.” Without these writers, White Heat would have been a good crime flick, but perhaps not the great classic it is.

Cody and Vic Pardo
(Edmund O'Brien)
In the beginning, Cody has no male friends. His group of followers, including Big Ed (Steve Cochran), obey him not only because he is the best at crime, but also because he scares most of them to death. Not Big Ed, though. Big Ed is a handsome young man who has big ambitions for himself. He also has a yen for Cody’s wife, Verna (bombshell Virginia Mayo) which is just fine with Verna. But Cody is sharp as a tack. He is well aware of Ed’s thinking. Cody stares Big Ed down and says “You know something Verna? If I turned my back long enough for Big Ed to put a hole in it, there’d be a hole in it.” Cody meets a young fellow inmate while in prison, Vic Pardo (Edmond O’Brien). Vic makes efforts to befriend him. Cody, at first angry and distrustful, comes to like Vic. He talks to Vic in their cell, and eventually takes him into his trust, a previously unheard of vulnerability for Cody. Only the audience knows that Vic Pardo is actually a police detective operating under an alias. Vic has been planted in the prison to get close to Cody and find evidence of crimes they have not been able to pin on him. Vic is finally able to obtain Cody’s trust when he helps him with one of Cody’s dangerous weaknesses – debilitating migraine headaches.

Cody and Verna Jarrett
(Virginia Mayo)
Cody’s searing headaches are just a symbol for his real problem -- he is a psychopathic, sociopathic man, whose father and brother both died, as Cody puts it, “…kickin’ and screamin’ in the nut house.” Cody himself is just as crazy, merciless, gleeful in his killings – he enjoys it. His only support and bizarre love comes from Ma Jarrett (wonderful Margaret Wycherly). His wife Verna is a sex toy for Cody, a real broad who loves nothing but herself and luxury. She teases Cody with sex so she can have the good life. “I’d look good in a mink coat, honey.” Cody replies, “You’d look good in a shower curtain.” But when Verna is sarcastic about Ma, explaining to Cody why Ma has left their hiding place to go to a grocery, “You like strawberries, don’t you? Well she just had to get her boy strawberries.” Cody knocks her down, and Verna is lucky he doesn’t do worse.

Cody and Ma Jarrett
(Margaret Wycherly)
It is Ma who truly controls Cody’s life. The character of Ma Jarrett was based on the real-life Ma Barker and her boys Ma Jarrett is a far cry from the devastated mothers of the 1930's, praying that their criminal sons will reform. Ma encourages Cody in his criminal life, and has apparently lived vicariously through him since childhood. Cody as a child used to fake headaches to get his mother’s attention, but over time the headaches became real. He loses control, falls to the floor and moans, and Ma is always there to pick him up, hide him from sight, give him a drink, even hold her middle-aged son in her lap and massage his neck to get him back on his feet. Ma is in complete control of her son. Freud would have a field day with this mentally incestuous mother/son relationship. Ma often says to her son “Top of the world, son!”, and that is Cody’s unrelenting motto. This twisted bond, as well as hereditary insanity, is largely responsible for Cody’s madness, and you cannot help but feel sorry for him, despite his horrific actions.

Ma plans to knock off Big Ed
Ma visits Cody in prison to warn him that Big Ed and Verna have cut out. She intends to find the two and put them down for Cody's sake. Cody begs Ma not to try to take on Big Ed by herself, but Ma refuses to listen. Cody is in the prison dining hall eating a meal with the other prisoners when word comes that Ma has been killed (by Big Ed and Verna). Cody’s insanity breaks out, he screams, climbs on top of the table and crawls to the floor. The prisoners are completely shocked, and the only sound breaking the silence is Cody’s cries and punches as he tries to get out of the hall. Guards finally get hold of him and carry him out, all the while Cody is screaming “I gotta get of here…gotta get out…gotta get out!” It is a chilling scene. With Ma’s death, the friendship between Cody and Vic is cemented. Cody takes him as a 50/50 partner after breaking out of prison, trusting Vic completely now, even loving him as far as Cody is able to love. Cody is alone for the first time in his life, his other half, Ma, gone, and he is lonely. It is at this point that I began to truly dislike the police detective, Vic, and begin to feel sorrow that this incredibly sick man is being betrayed in his sorrow.

Cody’s last caper is a daring robbery of the payroll at a chemical plant. By this time, Vic has been able to get word to the police of the location and time of the robbery. Unbeknownst to Vic, a former inmate who has just joined the gang at the plant knows who Vic is and tells Cody he is really a cop named Fallon. This final insult and heartbreak strips away any remaining sanity in Cody. “A copper, a copper! How do you like that, boys? A copper, and his name is Fallon. And we went for it, I went for it. Treated him like a kid brother.” Vic/Fallon grimly pulls out his gun and points it at Cody, but is gun-butted by a man behind him. Teargas is lobbed into the payroll office, and Vic/Fallon escapes to the police surrounding the building. The gang runs, but Cody pulls one of them along with them. He begins to laugh, a chilling crazy life. As he manages to get out of the building, he says “They think they’ve got Cody Jarrett. They haven’t got Cody Jarrett.” The gang member breaks away and tries to surrender, but Cody shoots him in the back, still laughing.

"Made it, Ma!  Top of the world!"
Who could watch the ending of this movie and not be awestruck – certainly not me. Cody climbs to the top of a huge chemical holding tank, one of many clustered together by the factory. Fearful of the impending disaster that would occur, the police cannot keep shooting. Vic/Fallon is a trained sharpshooter, and at this point, he switches roles with Cody in my mind. Without any show of emotion, he takes aim and shoots Cody square on. Still laughing and clearly completely out of his mind, Cody keeps getting up, and Vic/Fallon shoots him again. He says calmly and without a hint of compassion, “What’s holding him up?” The heartlessness of this man made me turn against him completely. Mortally shot, Cody pulls out his gun and shoots down into the chemical tank. Tubes at the top begin to shoot out flames and smoke. Cody laughs and shouts out “Made it Ma, top of the world!” The explosion is on a grand scale. I believe that the movie should have ended right there. Instead, the camera cuts to a policeman saying “Cody Jarrett...” to which Vic/Fallon answers “He finally got to the top of the world, and it blew right up in his face.” To me, that weakened the impact of the ending with totally unnecessary remarks. Not only that, but I had to look at Vic/Fallon again, whom I had come to really despise. I wonder how many other people had that rather unusual reaction to the killing of a murderer by an officer of the law?

My sincere thanks to the loyal readers who have followed my gangster series. I loved writing it, and I hope you enjoyed it. Just for fun, I’m posting below some candid photos of the wonderful actors who made us believe for a while that they really were gangsters.

Bogart biking around the studio backlots

Huston and Bogart on the set of Key Largo
Robinson laughing between takes in the bathub in Key Largo
Robinson at the ball game with son Mannie
Cagney and Pat O'Brien with their wives at dinner
Cagney being fitted for a straightjacket after the
chilling dining room scene in White Heat

Again, warmest thanks to my friend, Robin S., who provided the wonderful candid and behind-the-scenes photographs.


  1. great post, becky...I have always referred to the thres as "the three pillars of gangster films"..they are all so different and yet the same...
    LITTLE CAESAR...the most iconic..
    PUBLIC ENEMY...the story I heard was that MAE CLARKE was NOT in on the grapefruit stunt, which is why we see a look of absolute surprise..
    SCARFACE...HUGHES did surrender a bit by accepting the subtitle...SHAME OF THE NATION to appease the censors
    thanx again...great insight into the world of amorality

  2. Oh Becky - loved this post. I am a Warner Brothers girl all the way. Loved the 2 great Anns (Dvorak & Sheridan) and Cagney, Robinson, Muni and later Garfield & Bogart. Can't wait for more bad guys and girls gone wrong! But - let me ask you this: Re: Scarfarce - why does Tony speak with such a thick accent and his sister Cesca speaks perfect English? Were they raised in seperate households? Just wondering....

  3. Becks,
    This post was fun fun and worth the wait!
    You put a great deal of work into this one and now that you've started this clever series I'll have to send you a lb of extra strong coffee and a soft cushion to sit on so these will continue on.
    I thought the amount of research you did on each character and your colorful descriptions made the post extra special. But now I feel awful that I ripped Scarface apart so badly.
    Oh well, they will always be Scarfalfa and Coin Toss to me.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Becks, I thoroughly enjoyed your excellent analysis of three landmark gangster films. I agree that SCARFACE is the most interesting of the three. However, I find it ironic that the other two have become more iconic: PUBLIC ENEMY for the famous grapefruit scene and LITTLE CAESAR for the title character's quotable exit line. Also, I think it's no happenstance that this trio of films all feature very versatile actors who managed to avoid being typecast as gangsters. Muni played just about every kind of role. Cagney did musicals, too. And Robinson appeared in some delightful comedies (and was great in supporting roles as DOUBLE INDEMNITY). I disagree, though, that the 1930s gangsters were the same as today's sociopaths. Certainly, some of them were, but others--like Dillinger--brought some style and perhaps a little humanity to their criminal lives.

  6. Becky, I'll join the other commenters in saying what a great and stimulating post this is. These three films ARE the pillars of the genre. I certainly agree that "Scarface" is the best movie of the three. It didn't hurt that it was directed by Howard Hawks, who certainly knew how to make dynamic, no-holds-barred movies. I may be in the minority, but I find Muni's performance the least interesting of the three. It's less good than the movie it's in, while Robinson and Cagney are both better than the movies they're in. "Little Caesar" and "Public Enemy" have their moments--the gas station robbery and the finale in "Caesar," the Grapefruit scene, Tom's fierce revenge march, and his return from the hospital as a "special delivery" package in "Enemy--but for me they don't hold together as well or sustain their energy the way "Scarface" does. They function more as vehicles for star-making knockout performances. Can't wait to read your follow-up posts.

  7. Becky, I have to say this is an Awesome Mobsters, Pals and Skirts, post. Please, do not send out the "wise guys" out to get me....
    Because, I have not seen one of these "Gangsta" films.

  8. Doc, you are quite right - Hughes did have to tack that part of the name on -- all 3 were released with similar prologues about how the movies were intended to be lessons, the public needs to know, etc. Scarface had an alternate ending that you can find on Youtube, really awful, righteous..

    FlickChick, LOL! I never thought about the accents! Maybe Cesca went to a good diction teacher!

    Page, I loved your spoof on Scarface! I love the movie, but your spoof had me rolling on the floor!

    Rick, you make a good point about not all of the gangsters being like today's. I have always made a very distinctive line in my own head between the Chicago mobsters and the rural depression-era bank robbers like Dillinger. the mobsters were organized murderers for money -- the rural bank robbers were more understandable, desperate men, although they also killed people.

    R.D., interesting take on the 3 performances... I personally like Muni very much, but I agree that Cagney and Robinson were better than the films -- I would say Muni was great in a great film.

    Dawn, you HAVE to see some of these films! They are so important in the history of movies.

    Thank you all for you compliments -- I hope you like next week's installment!

  9. Just leaving this note for those who have already commented and may see it -- a friend of mine just sent me a great pic of Cagney in a behind-the-scenes shot! So I added it -- and while I was at it, I added a couple more!

  10. Hi Becky, I really enjoyed this thorough post on the big three films that kicked off this genre. While Scarface is your favorite, I think it's often overlooked because of the Al Pacino remake (which doesn't compare to the original in my book). For me, Robinson's Rico towers over the others. While I love Cagney, his distictive and often-imitated style sometimes feels more Hollywood that real. Muni is menacing, but Robinson rips through Little Caesar with such intense fury that it translates the best for modern audiences. While there are a few early sound movies depicting gangsters (check out "Alibi"), Warners defined the genre and used this formula for maximum impact.

  11. Excellent look at three important films.

    The unsung hero of the gangster genre is author W.R. Burnett who wrote the novel "Little Caesar" and contributed dialogue to Hawks' "Scarface".

    While it's true that Rico didn't have any use for the dames, he was awfully chummy with Otero played by George E. Stone.

  12. Muni is great in "Scarface"; the year it came out, he also excelled in the chilling "I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang."

    As far as Cagney and the grapefruit, check out a wonderful 1933 comedy of his, "Hard To Handle," which has an array of grapefruit in-jokes.

  13. Becky, I'm glad you feel better! Your gangster series is off to a magnificent start with the trio of James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Paul Muni! I'm a sucker for classic Warner Bros. movies, and you pay tribute to them so well. It's clear that you've not only done your homework, but loved every minute of it. Having seen and enjoyed many of the films starring these gents, I'm always particularly impressed when I see them in non-criminal roles; it's further proof of how talented and versatile they are. Heck, Cagney won his Oscar for a musical biopic! :-) Great job, Becky; I look forward to reading your next gangster installment, especially since I know they'll involve one of our family's faves, Humphrey Bogart! :-)

  14. CFB, you are so right about the original Scarface and the remake. I actually thought it was OK in itself, but the continual use of the F-bomb was so distracting! Even Michelle Pfeiffer's character said, "Can't you stop saying F--- all the time?!" When I was in the theatre, everybody clapped! As far as Rico and Tony, I do think Robinson made this character unbelievably frightening. Somehow I felt Tony scared me a little more, maybe because he was explosive and emotional-you never knew with him.

    Caftan Woman, great point about writer Burnett. And, gosh, Rico and Otero? Hmmmm..... LOL.

    VP, "..Fugitive.." was a superb movie. I'm going to have to check out Hard to Handle. I've never seen it!

    Dorian, you'll love next week for Bogart! If I do justice to him, that is! And you are right. I LOVE these movies and writing about them!

  15. Oh, Becky - now that you have added Miss Sheridan, your post is complete! And I totally agree that Ann Dvorak should have had a bigger career! I just love her. I did a post a while ago about her and I could just hear people sating "who?" when they read about her.

  16. Becky, you have given us an excellent start to the series with fascinating insights on the characters, the films and the genre. I agree with you on the raw nature of these early gangster films, and the choices made by each of the actors in creating a new genre. I think you know how I feel about Doug Fairbanks, Jr. in anything, and even though Edward Woods had leading man good looks, he clearly lacked the confidence necessary for the lead character. I agree the roles of women in these films are often just so much set decoration, but the difference is made in talented actresses such as Glenda Farrell and Ann Dvorak. There is something unsettling about the scenes between Jean Harlow and James Cagney; I almost find them more disturbing than Cagney’s “final delivery”. I think William Wellman’s experience during WWI added to the authenticity of a vet’s concern, after risking their lives they returned to a country controlled by men who (somehow) avoided the war. I would also echo Classicfilmboy’s observation that Paul Muni’s outstanding performance in SCARFACE is tainted by the Al Pacino version, which I have never seen but the film’s reputation is larger than life.

  17. Becky, I feel like you've been reading my blog!!! I really enjoyed reading the first installment of your series and look forward to reading more. I'm a fan of all 3 films you've profiled here, and it was refreshing to get your take on each gangsters' relationship with women.

  18. Hi Becky,

    Great, great post. I agree with SCARFACE being the best of the three. The film is more violent that the other two and the sexual innuendo, especially Tony's interest in his sister is strangely perverse. Overall, the female characters here are a bit more developed that in the other two films. LITTLE CAESAR, for me, does not hold up despite a good performance from Robinson and a few classic scenes. Overall, the film moves slowly and I think is poorly paced, still a must see.

    Did you or anyone notice the X factor in SCARFACE? An X shows up in the film just about every time someone is going to be killed, and the scar on Tony's face resembles an X. This bit of symbolism adds another element to an already great film. I talk about this in my own review, I did a few years ago at 24frames. Looking forward to the rest...

  19. Gypsy, I meant to get back here sooner -- I sure do know about you and Fairbanks. He was one of the few sons of a great actor who could hold his own. And what a gorgeous guy! You have a great point about William Wellman and the influences that drove him.

    Kim, I have loved these gangster films since I was a kid. I swear I know them all by heart.

    John, good to see you here! Scarface did indeed have a depth of character and oddly outspoken story of perversity way ahead of its time. And, I thought the whole X symbolism was just great. It's everywhere, even in camera angles of streetsigns -- X marks the spot! It's difficult to focus on a particular aspect of these movies, in this case the gangster's personalities and relationships, because there is so much to the movies. But I had to draw the line somewhere to do a whole series with 3 movies in each post. Otherwise I would fill 2-3 blog pages for each movie! LOL. I'm going to come your way and see your post!

  20. Great post, Becky. I think the reason that so many of these cinematic gangsters were memorable and admired is that the actors were talented and brought some charm to the roles, violence notwithstanding. As mentioned in your post and some of the comments, Robinson, Cagney and Muni played different types of roles. They were all three versatile performers, and their skills were prevalent in their portrayals of gangsters. Cagney made a great gangster, but he's equally good in the comedy, ONE, TWO, THREE. Perhaps a better example is a comparison of SCARFACE with De Palma's remake. Fans of the original criticize it, but it's important to note that viewers who appreciate the '83 version tend to favor the bloody denouement, almost an acknowledgment that Al Pacino deserves his fate. I think Muni's gangster is charismatic, whereas Pacino's is, quite intentionally, revolting.

    But as you stated in your opening, these men, sans "a drop of blood," are much easier to like than gangsters of more recent films. Ray Liotta is terrific in GOODFELLAS, but the charm and style associated with gangsters takes a backseat to trying not to get whacked.

    Looking forward to Parts 2-50. Or however many you do.

  21. Hi Sark -- it's about time you got your bad self over here! LOL! Thank you for your kind words about my efforts. I loved all 3 of the Big Three actors in their roles -- for a while, Cagney and Robinson were being typecast by the studios, but both broke out of it and showed their versatility. Muni could never be typecast as any one thing. You know, I did like Pacino's Scarface, all but the incessant F bomb, and despite the incredible gore. Of course, Pacino is so great it is hard not to like his films. It is too bad, though, that the original got lost for most people because of it. Ray Liotta was terrific, but you are quite right about the emphasis on getting whacked. I promise not to do more than 3 parts to my series. I'll be ready to do something else by then!

  22. Coming late to the party here, but I really enjoyed that post and look forward to reading the rest.

    I remember reading somewhere that Cagney used mannerisms he picked up from people he saw in his New York neighborhoods. Meanwhile the real-life gangsters were being influenced by what they saw on the screen and dressed, and acted, according to what they saw at the movies. Its one of those instances with life imitating art, and vice versa.

  23. What an interesting and well-written comparison of "the big three," Becky.

    I've seen "Public Enemy" more times than either "Little Caesar" or "Scarface" - I wouldn't say that it is necessarily my favorite or the best of the three, but credit Cagney's incredibly charismatic performance. As for Robinson, your comments about the cold-bloodedness of his Rico in "Little Caesar" reminded me of another vicious killer of his - Rocco in "Key Largo." Robinson could play a very nasty and chilling sociopath.

    I'd just read a piece by Robert Warshow from 1948 about gangster films at the same time I saw your post. His was a look at gangster films as an expression of the modern sense of tragedy. Interestingly, the films he referenced in his article were "Little Caesar" and "Scarface." Between the two of you, I felt like I'd taken a wonderful immersion course. Looking forward to the rest of your series, Becky.

  24. Kevin, late or not, I'm so glad you came over. It is interesting, isn't it, about Cagney's influences and the real-life gangsters' interest in lookin like movie bad guys!

    Eve, what a coincidence that you had just read that piece. There are so many facets to these movies, and that's why I decided on the main focus for my piece. Thank you for your compliments - you know how nice that is to hear. I agree with you about Rocco in Key Largo, and you will see him in my Part 3!

  25. Do you really live in Australia? The internet is so amazing that way. From down under to the American midwest in a few key strokes... Thanks very much -- researching this series was as satisfying as exploring my opinions!

  26. Hi Becky!! I'm so glad that we finally connected! I've been following your blog for some time now, made a few comments, but we never really got to know each other until now! Congratulations on your award for this article, it is SO well-deserved. Amazing insights and so in-depth. Thank you for your compliments on mine as well, and I'm looking forward to being "blog buddies!" Keep up the great work, and talk to you soon!

  27. Rachel, I am so looking forward to getting to know you! I'm so honored that you liked my article. Let's keep in touch...

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