Little Caesar, Mervyn LeRoy, Edward G. Robinson, Warner Bros., 1931 The Public Enemy, William Wellman, James Gagney, Warner Bros., 1931 Scarface: Shame of the Nation, Howard Hawks, Paul Muni, Universal, 1932
This purpose of this paper will be to explore and define the gangster genre in American film history from the years of 1930-1932. These gangster films center on the criminal actions of bank robbers, hoodlums, and the bootlegging of alcohol during the period of prohibition. The gangsters who are depicted in these films operate outside the law without regard to the safety of human life. Gangster films are about gangsters who seek out power and wealth. The true to life gangsters of the 20’s and 30’s were a big influence in American cinema gangster mythology. The Hollywood gangster is usually driven until they reach the top of the world, which is where they ironically meet their doom. Throughout this research paper three films in particular will be discussed. Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface: Shame of the Nation are three of the most widely watched and critically discussed of the early gangster films. All three films, Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface: Shame of the Nation epitomize the gangster genre. According to Thomas Leitch, gangster genre films are especially concerned with the social order its gang parodies. (Leitch 103) Leitch goes on to state that this concern begins with the gangster film’s obsession with rules. There are some rules, Leitch argues that are so fundamental that they are universal throughout gangster films such as, the authority of the leader, junior gangsters respecting the original or elder gangsters, forbidden contact with the police, and no matter how dishonest a gangster is to the law, gangsters must honor their debt to each other. (Leitch 103) To summarize what Leitch observed, the gang is the supreme social authority and expects unquestioned loyalty. This was apparent in the film Scarface, where Tony Camonte lived by his own code, “Do it first, do it yourself and keep on doing it” and refused to relinquish his authority. Throughout the genre of gangster films there is a variety of ways each gang establishes their personal social organization. (Leitch 106) The Public Enemy depicts an Irish gang whose ties among gang members are forged through childhood friendships. According to Leitch, gangs like those in The Public Enemy functioned as labor unions, forming a protective shield around weaker members ho would otherwise be vulnerable. In Howard Hawk’s Scarface an emphasis is placed on the gradual withdrawal of the gang leader from the day-to-day operations. (Leitch 107) In Thomas Leitch’s book, Crime Films, he explains that no matter what social model a gang adopts it will not protect them from Hollywood’s moral imperative that crime doesn’t pay. (Leitch 107) Due to this, gangster films of the 1930’s had to come up with explanations for why the gangsters were committing these crimes. This ranged from moral deviance, where Tony Camonte willingly embraced a life of crime to being a product of their environment, where the bad kids of The Public Enemy grow up to become bad adults. Leitch also explains the racial, sociological determinism in these three films, where the gangsters in The Public Enemy are stereotypically Irish and the gangsters in Scarface and Little Caesar are Italian. The gangster film genre flourished in the 1930’s for three specific reasons, theorized by Leitch. (Leitch 110) The first reason for these films success was due to the addition of synchronized sounds with the genre’s dramatic sound effects, which substituted the traditional non-diegetic music. The second reason the genre flourished was the opportunity that the synchronized sounds allowed the gangsters to define themselves through aggressive quips. For example, Rico in Little Caesar insults a rival gangster saying, “He can dish it out, but he’s got so he can’t take it any more” and Tom Powers’...
Cited: Garlen, Jennifer. "Classic Films in Focus." Examiner.com. Examiner.com, 26 Aug. 2011.
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Leitch, Thomas M. Crime Films. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.
Munby, Jonathan. Public Enemies, Public Heroes: Screening the Gangster from Little
Caesar to Touch of Evil. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1999. Print.
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