Depression and Depravity: Gangsters in American Cinema

Paper by Kyle Shipe.

In the midst of the Great Depression in the early 1930’s, there was a massive nationwide struggle for average Americans to get by financially. With one quarter of the country unemployed, an unfortunate side-effect was that more and more, crime became a common means of income. With the rise of crime and its uneasy acceptance, celebrity criminals such as Al Capone and John Dillinger were made into public figures by the media – not just accepted but idolized by some for their ability to live outside of the law and social norms, and get away with it. Because of the loosely enforced rules set out by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributer of America (MPPDA) in 1930, studios were basically given free reign over their films with little to no consequences for breaking the rules. This gave directors a chance to make morally ambiguous films that could enthrall the audience’s imagination and take advantage of the economic and ethical question that everyone in the decade was asking: does crime pay? Although the gangster films of the pre-code era do not suggest that crime is good and that it is up to law-abiding citizens to make their own choice, the fact remains that hard times can made good men do bad things and the questionable messages these films were making raised a controversy amongst the members of the MPPDA, specifically the chief of the MPPDA, Will Hays. The rags to riches storylines, moral flexibility of the main characters and arbitrary ideologies of capitalism displayed in these films were directly responsible for the creation of the “Hays Code” and the subsequent censorship crackdown within the film industry by the Production Code Administration (PCA), heralding the end of the pre-code era.

In addition to the Great Depression, there was another major influence on filmmakers and the audience: Prohibition. With the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment and the prohibition of alcohol taking effect in 1920, the floodgates to criminal enterprise were flung wide open. Bootlegging became a major industry and films in this era became a direct reflection of it. The movie Scarface (1932) is loosely based on the life of Al Capone. The story follows Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), an Italian immigrant in Chicago. Tony starts as a low-level hood taking orders from his boss, Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), eventually making his way to the top of the criminal underworld. Exploiting the American Dream as the film’s main theme, director Howard Hawks uses the ambitious phrase “The World is Yours” as an ethos for the hungry young hustler Tony. Working with the philosophy of capitalism and the accumulation of wealth and power, Tony is ruthless, dangerous and corrupt in his rise to the top. After killing rival gang members at the behest of his boss, it becomes clear that Tony is a loose cannon and must be stopped. (If his boss ordered the killings, why does this prove that Tony is a loose cannon?) Furthering his bad reputation with his boss, he pursues Johnny’s wife, Poppy (Karen Morley). Once again following the theme of accumulation of power, Tony shows Poppy the “The World is Yours” sign outside of his window as justification and motivation for his violent actions. After Tony continuously ignores his boss, Johnny sends a hitman to kill him but he evades the attack and the assassin kills Johnny instead, leaving Tony as the boss of the city. Things soon go bad for Tony, though after he kills Guino (George Raft), his best friend, for falling in love with his sister and police are sent to arrest him. After a shootout, Tony is left dead while the camera goes to the “The World is Yours” sign once again.

This type of ruthless ambition is the subject of many gangster films throughout the early 1930’s. The main character rises to the top quickly, lives fast and dies hard. Their rise is as violent and quick as their ultimate fall. In Little Caesar (1930), often cited as “the godfather of gangster movies,” the main antagonist of the film, Rico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson), loses control of everything he has and sets his sights on greater power. Getting lost in an abyss of merciless and unparalleled greed, he too attempts, but ultimately fails, to kill his best friend when he finds out their aspirations are not the same. Rico is driven solely by power and wealth while his best friend, Joe (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), pursues a romantic relationship and wants to be a dancer. Once more, the antagonist finds his downfall in his own pursuit of money and power.

The same drive and cruelty is also predominant in the movie The Public Enemy (1931). Released just after Little Caesar, this film also centers on a young coldhearted criminal with ambitions of a career in crime. Similarly, there is a quick rise to the top of the film’s antihero, Tom Powers (James Cagney). Once more, the main character loses sight of his relationships and everything that had been meaningful to him in pursuit of mass expansion of power and capital. The bootlegging business he finds himself in becomes more and more lucrative and it becomes harder for him to escape the life of crime, the one thing that his straight-laced brother asks of him. He soon destroys relationships with his brother and mother. In a famous scene illustrating the complete manifestation of Tom’s downfall, he brutally dumps his long-time girlfriend by shoving a grapefruit in her face. After several of his partners in crime are murdered and he finds himself in the hospital, he finally submits to his brother’s will to quit crime, but it is too late. He is kidnapped, murdered and, in an iconic cinematic scene, his bloodies body is placed at the front door of his mother’s home.

Although these films can be interpreted as glorifying the life of crime, they can also be seen as a metaphor for capitalism, especially in the United States — themes that remain prevalent in contemporary society. The struggle for power and material wealth is the cornerstone of the capitalist ideology and does not pertain solely to legal means of acquisition. The need to be on top and have all the clichés and trappings of wealth and fame is something that drives both sides of the legal spectrum, often blurring the line between right and wrong. The usage of the femme fatale character in pre-code gangster films is portrayed as a reward for the antihero; a way of flaunting all that he has gained. She serves as the motivation to succeed and reason to take risks. She becomes just one more notch on the antagonist’s belt in his pursuit of the American Dream and, just like the “The World is Yours” sign, is a metaphor for the criminal’s personal view of what success is. An event that takes place in all three films as well as many other gangster films occurs when the antagonist comes face to face with his actions, showing once and for all that he is not immortal. In no other film is this more apparent than in the iconic scene in The Public Enemy when Tommy proclaims before falling down in a gutter, “I ain’t so tough.” This particular scene starts with Tommy surreptitiously following his rival gang to their headquarters, the Western Chemical Company, on a dark and stormy night. He watches them arrive and sports a sudden wide, devious smile clearly signaling his deadly intentions. The use of thunder, rain and darkness mixed with his devilish grin perfectly illustrate the uncontrollably deadly determination of the antagonist. Tommy slowly walks into his enemies’ lair and even before the shootout begins, it is clear what he came to do. Casually and somewhat recklessly, he opens the door and walks in, coldly displaying his visage of personal invincibility. With no concern for his own welfare, he opens fire, forcing a shootout. Remarkably Tommy comes out alone and alive, but badly wounded. Screams of the dying are heard inside the building while Tommy stumbles around the street, pistols still in hand. Then, using the last of his energy, Tommy throws the two stolen pistols through the window of the building. This symbolic gesture shows his hard-earned contempt for the underworld as well as his readiness to get out. He then falls to his knees and murmurs, “I ain’t so tough,” before falling exhausted in the rain-spattered gutter. Tommy’s wounded but sociopathic personality is beautifully exhibited in this scene. Showing no understanding of his own mortality or remorse for murdering others, he believes himself invincible in the eye of almost certain death. Only after being badly wounded does he come to terms with this. He accepts that he is “not so tough” and, matching the weather, gloomily falls down in the gutter, itself dirty and battered. This is a clear allegory of the criminal paying for his sins. Falling down face first in a gutter with the epiphany of his own mortality is a symbol that his murdering, entitled, greedy ways have finally caught up with him.

The depravity and corruption so pervasive during the Great Depression served to reinforce Tommy’s misguided views of capitalism and the American Dream, driving him to be a villain and somehow a hero at the same time. He lives and dies driven solely by the desire for money and power, showing no regard for the actions he takes to achieve them. Violence goes hand in hand with his ambitions and he lives and dies within its grip. Violence is the one consistent in his life, present during his times of poverty, power and eventual death. The film seems to leave the question open to interpretation: does crime pay, or is it, like any other overwhelming desire, merely a means to an end? Tommy came from nothing and found himself on top but, as is usually the case when a good man goes wrong, finds his demise at the wrong end of a barrage of bullets. His wealth and power are gone and he dies as he lived – at the wrong end of the gun’s barrel. His eagerness to succeed by accumulating wealth, power and fame by any means become his undoing and directly address the social issues created by the Great Depression and the availability of black market goods such as alcohol during Prohibition. His immoral and ruthless personality shows that crime does pay, but only in the short term. The question then becomes, “Is it better to live in high in the short term, or exist in righteousness for the long term.” Tommy got his answer, but did the movie-goers, hungry for a hero, get theirs?

The answer is simple, albeit disturbing as the violent images depicted in these films did not deter audiences from devouring gangster-style movies in great numbers. Captured by the gangster’s ability to do and say as he pleased, these films spoke directly to a mass of people down on their luck during the Great Depression. The romanticized version of sociopathic criminals created a need for action by the MPPDA. The use of crime to secure greater profits for the studios did not sit well with the MPPDA and pressure was put on Hays to confront the film makers that were glorifying these social issues. Out of justifiable fear that such films would influence the perceived “less intelligent” audiences to commit crime, Hays moved for further censorship in the film industry. Ironically, this stance was vastly different from his approach towards free speech in other media — plays and novels — because he thought those audiences “knew better. With this in mind, Hays set a stringent code of rules that were to be enforced just as strictly. No longer would defiance of the list of “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls” be overlooked by Hollywood producers and a new agency, the PCA, was tasked with enforcing the censoring. Due to this new code of moral enforcement, the romanticized villain so popularized by gangster flicks was not as widely accepted in all films. Possibly due to the filmmaker Howard Hughes’s prescient knowledge of the MPPDA’s intent to crack down on maliciousness in film or perhaps due to the increasing public admiration of violence and freedom from society’s shackles, the film Scarface was pulled from theaters and a disclaimer proclaiming that “gangsters are evil and it is up to us to do something about them” was placed in the movie’sopening credits before it could be distributed and shown in theaters again.

Perhaps because many Americans were unable to provide for their families, hundreds of thousands of unhappy citizens were being introduced to the disturbing notion that crime does pay, even if only for a short period of time. This desperation was the foundation for many of the pre-code films’ success, while the exploitation of it eventually led to the genre’s eventual demise, just like the villains they glorified. With many groups lobbying for the censorship of these films and the film studios’ professed fear of federal regulations on film content being put in place, the MPPDA was forced to enforce stricter rules in order to self-regulate. In 1934, the PCA was put into action due to this increasing defiance from film producers and directors. For the first twenty years of its inception, Joseph Breen headed the PCA and was a stern censor, thus ending the pre-code era. What followed was the rise of more wholesome and cookie-cutter films as well as a temporary cease to “ethically questionable” content in films.

Gangster films and the idolization of criminal characters in American cinema was a direct response to the hardships of the Great Depression, just as the PCA and strict enforcement of the subsequent code on cinema was a direct response to gangster films. The real life gangsters of the 1930’s became more of the everyman’s hero rather than the Howard Hughes’s of the era that were making money legally. The national acceptance of criminal characters of the pre-code era amidst growing concern amongst lobbyist groups and federal government forced the MPPDA’s hand on stricter censorship. The criminals’ apathy towards social norms ironically led to empathy from audiences that were collectively down on their luck. The violent and immoral view towards capitalism captivated audiences enough for there to be widespread concern amongst religious groups and government that trickled down to the filmmaking community to radically reform what could and could not be placed in films. The pre-code gangster films mirrored their antihero’s lives unintentionally. They were brief, triumphant, idolized and came to a screeching halt long before they were supposed to.

Work Cited

Lewis, Jon. American Film: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.
Doherty, T. Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934. Columbia: U, 1999. Print.
Vieira, Mark A. Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-code Hollywood. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999. Print.


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