More thoughts on Gangsters Galore

More thoughts on Gangsters Galore

A couple of winters ago I wrote for Turner Classic Movies' Community Forum a set of three blogs on "Gangsters Galore," a highly informal survey of films and TV shows about movies dealing with the bad old days of 1920s and '30s criminals that developed into a multi-year fad with audiences. This period extended from late 1957 with the release of the independently-made BABY FACE NELSON to the last episode of THE UNTOUCHABLES in the spring of 1963. Its popularity was based in part on exposes of organized crime throughout the '50s that probed the historical roots of racketeering that came to form the back stories of AL CAPONE (1959) and MURDER INC. (1960), and a fascination with the outlaw element of the Dillinger-type crime sprees that terrorized the nation's southwest and mid-section during 1933-1934.

The latter inspired a series of biopics, such as Roger Corman's MACHINE GUN KELLY (1958) and PORTRAIT OF A MOBSTER (1961), the story of Arthur Flegenheimer (a.k.a. Dutch Schultz, enacted by Vic Morrow). All were eclipsed by the unexpected success of BONNIE AND CLYDE in 1967, which set a new tone of quirky humor mixed with overdone violence and served as the impetus for a new revival that finally sputtered out with CAPONE (Ben Gazzara) and LEPKE (Tony Curtis) in 1975. But during the fad's initial phase, audiences couldn't get enough of beer, blood and machine guns that came to symbolize the violent period.

The historical gangster movie came into play when contemporary crime movies like NEW YORK CONFIDENTIAL and WHEN GANGLAND STRIKES (both 1955), despite good qualities, stopped drawing patrons into theaters. That year saw one of the first re-enactments of crime and its element during the Roaring Twenties in almost a decade in M-G-M's LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME, a recounting of singer Ruth Etting (Doris Day) and her rocky relationship with small-time racketeer Marty "The Gimp" Snyder (James Cagney). But another '55 release, the Jack Webb production PETE KELLY'S BLUES, released by Warner Bros., served as another major feature introduction to the history of organized crime.

A personal valentine from Webb to classic American jazz of the post-World War I era (and based on a same-titled 1951 radio series), PETE KELLY'S BLUES also focused on the ever-present threat the title bandleader (played by Webb, the laconic TV star and creator of DRAGNET) faces from Kansas City bootlegger Fran McCarg (Edmond O'Brien), who buys up bands only to bleed musicians and speakeasy operators dry. Kelly confronts the crook and his henchmen in an empty dance hall. That sequence, like the rest of the film, demonstrated how Webb's directorial talent extended far beyond the limits of weekly TV production.

As film historian William K. Everson pointed out in his 1972 survey THE DETECTIVE IN FILM, PETE KELLY'S BLUES failed to match the success that greeted Webb's color and wide-screen version of DRAGNET in 1954, but stands alone among his movies as a work of art and evocation of an era. (Webb later turned the film into a 13-week video series in 1959 with William Reynolds in the lead).

Laying the groundwork for crime films set in the past was an impressive set of biopics dealing with celebrities from the '20s and '30s that might have been inspired by the response to Columbia's THE EDDY DUCHIN STORY (1956) that starred Tyrone Power as the beloved pianist and bandleader of the '30s and '40s. (Another Columbia release of the year, Blake Edwards' comedic HE LAUGHED LAST starring Frankie Laine and Lucy Marlow, can also be considered a precursor to the gangster craze for its '20s setting).

Although film biographies were common, a seeming flood of such films harking back to their subjects' heyday in the '20s and '30s hit theaters in 1957-1958, reflecting audience interest in public heroes of the time (James Stewart as Charles A. Lindbergh in THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS) to tragic notables such as Diana Barrymore, played by Dorothy Malone in TOO MUCH, TOO SOON.

My own quickie listing of biopics from this period in the first "Gangsters Galore" piece neglected one entry, Columbia's JEANNE EAGELS (1957), with Kim Novak and Jeff Chandler co-starring in a highly fictionalized account of the legendary stage actress who died under curious circumstances in 1929.

Late in the cycle came BABY FACE NELSON, featuring Mickey Rooney's intense portrayal of the title outlaw as a psychotic killer. It is not surprising that, given this film's unanticipated success despite a skimpy budget and resulting impoverished look, gangster bios became attractive to ambitious independent producers. Thus, the upstart independent American International Pictures, riding its self-created crest of youth, exploitation and horror/science fiction movies, mined gold when it released a May 1958 double feature of MACHINE GUN KELLY and THE BONNIE PARKER STORY, respectively starring Charles Bronson and Dorothy Provine (with Jack Hogan as her Clyde Barrow).

Roger Corman, then AIP's leading producer-director, revealed an affinity for crime films that extended past MACHINE GUN KELLY, a simple, direct and at-times stylish look at the tommy gun-toting stick-up artist, effectively brought to life by Bronson in measures of ease and barely-controlled rage. Its success yielded an offer from producer Edward Small for Corman to create a fictional crime bio, released later in the year as I, MOBSTER.

When Corman returned to the form with THE ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE (1967) for Fox, he'd lost none of the enthusiasm that marked MACHINE GUN KELLY. Released several weeks prior to the game-changing BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE is an entertaining history lesson about the notorious 1929 mass rub-out of Al Capone's Chicago rivals, highlighted by a veteran cast led by Jason Robards Jr. as Scarface Al. Corman's projects became more ambitious in the wake of his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for AIP between 1960 and 1965, and this film proved he was attracting notice from the majors.

Yet Corman, who always cherished his independence, returned to the simpler approach of MACHINE GUN KELLY when he helmed BLOODY MAMA (1970), a take on the criminal career of Katherine Clark "Ma" Barker (Shelley Winters) and the sons who constituted her gang, one of them portrayed by a young Robert DeNiro. The film helped fuel the resurgence of historical and psychological gang flicks inspired by BONNIE AND CLYDE, which Corman kept going with BOXCAR BERTHA (1972), produced by Corman and directed by Martin Scorsese in what became the filmmaker/historian's first widely-distributed (by AIP) endeavor.

By then, the busy Corman had split with AIP and formed his own production and distribution outfit, New World Pictures, which issued Steve Carver's BIG BAD MAMA in 1974. A frenetic reminder of the classic period of American outlaw films, BIG BAD MAMA lent star Angie Dickinson some latter-day notoriety as a sexy Ma Barker-type whose daughters (Robbie Lee and Susan Sennett) join her in a wild '30s crime spree. Its success yielded the inevitable follow-up, CRAZY MAMA (1975), directed by Corman protogee Jonathan Demme and with Cloris Leachman in the lead, as the revival ground to a halt.

With the '60s dawning, lower-case items such as PRETTY BOY FLOYD and MA BARKER'S KILLER BROOD (both 1960), fed audience need for thrills until the majors began paying attention with THE RISE AND FALL OF LEGS DIAMOND and MURDER INC., both issued the same year. Shot in New York, Herbert J. Leder's PRETTY BOY FLOYD is a gritty bio whose impoverished look lends a sense of doom to the proceedings as the title outlaw (John Ericson) struggles against the law, the Mafia and his own desires before meeting his end. MA BARKER'S KILLER BROOD was more sensational in covering the criminal career of the woman who led her four sons into a life of crime in concert with some of the era's more notable proponents, such as Machine Gun Kelly (Vic Lundin) and Alvin Karpis (Paul Dubov).

The film makes for an interesting comparison with THE UNTOUCHABLES' second episode of its first season, which erroneously had the Chicago-based federal enforcement team led by Eliot Ness (Robert Stack) eventually running down Ma and what's left of her boys. Ma was capably played on the TV show by Claire Trevor, while former radio actress Lurene Tuttle lent force to the part in the movie produced by William J. Faris and directed by Bill Karn.

MA BARKER'S KILLER BROOD was not the first time the story had been dramatized by this team. It made up a portion of GUNS DON'T ARGUE, a 1957 feature strung together from episodes of the GANGBUSTERS video series of 1952 directed by Karn and Richard C. Kahn that initially focused on famous lawbreakers of the '30s. Faris was co-producer and editor of the show, making a single film out of the some archival episodes with new connecting footage directed by Karn. In GUNS DON'T ARGUE, Ma was portrayed in a quietly sinister manner by Jean Harvey.

Karn (1913-1966), who directed all 39 episodes of Brian Donlevy's syndicated DANGEROUS ASSIGNMENT television series of 1952, helmed one more film after MA BARKER'S KILLER BROOD, 1961's FIVE MINUTES TO LIVE (a.k.a. DOOR-TO-DOOR MANIAC). It introduced Johnny Cash to audiences not as a singer but as an off-his-rocker killer in a mode similar to Karn's work on GANGBUSTERS.

In many of these "fact-based" gangster bios, history is shred to ribbons in exchange for exciting storytelling. Pretty Boy Floyd's involvement in the 1933 Kansas City Massacre -- a botched attempt to free a bank robber that left four law enforcers dead -- remains in dispute today, although in the Leder film it gets Floyd in dutch with La Cosa Nostra, an interesting plot peg even if it isn't necessarily true. Actually, THE UNTOUCHABLES came in for the most criticism from historians by setting Eliot Ness and his U.S. Treasury team against the era's more colorful criminals, as seen above in the show's enactment of the Ma Barker story.

The two-part UNTOUCHABLES episode that formed THE GUNS OF ZANGARA (1960) had Ness & Co. attempting to prevent the Miami assassination attempt by mentally-challenged bricklayer Guiseppe Zangara on President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt less than three weeks prior to his 1933 inauguration. But by then, Ness's team that brought about Al Capone's 1931 federal conviction had broken up and Ness himself was made an alcohol tax agent for the southern U.S. (More outrageous examples of what passed for the truth about the turbulent period can be found in the historical episodes of GANGBUSTERS).

Saturation brought about the close of the first revival of history-based crime films. Except for the Rat Pack spoof ROBIN AND THE SEVEN HOODS (1964) and the Nick Adams vehicle YOUNG DILLINGER (1965), the form appeared to have reached the end of the road by Hollywood standards, despite the excellence of Corman's THE ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE. It remained for the offbeat approach of BONNIE AND CLYDE to inspire another go at the gangster/outlaw genre, with relaxed censorship allowing for more blood and guts, but also more patronage until this branch of product burned itself out by the mid-'70s. And by then, with two GODFATHER entries making waves with audiences, interest began lying more with the Corleones than in the Dillingers of the past.

A final thought: The second revival brought about some noteworthy entries from filmmakers not discussed here, among them Robert Aldrich's THE GRISSOM GANG (1971) and DILLINGER (1973), with Warren Oates starring in John Milius' blazing account of the gang leader's career. And covering the period of the 1930s through the '50s when organized crime took hold in the country, Terence Young's THE VALACHI PAPERS (1972) is a worthy contender in the classics sweepstakes, featuring an outstanding star performance by Charles Bronson.


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