Tough Guys

Hell Really Exists

Hell Really Exists

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The gangster cycle of the 1930s wasted no time in turning the big-hearted crook silent films had considered ripe for redemption into a remorseless killer. Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932) were only the most notorious of a new cycle of tough gangster movies that included The Racket (1928), Alibi (1929), Doorway to Hell (1930), and Quick Millions (1931). The groundwork for this new brutality went back to the early 1920s, when high-speed presses and cheap wood-pulp paper stocks led to an explosion in mass-market publishing. At the same time newspapers battling for circulation made folk heroes of bootleggers like Al Capone, pulp magazines like Black Mask, founded in 1920 by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan to help support their highbrow magazine Smart Set, were chronicling the exploits of hard-edged detectives like Carroll John Daly's Race Williams and Dashiell Hammett's nameless operative of the Continental Detective Agency.9

The collapse of the stock market in 1929 lit the match to the tough-guy fuse by sparking a national depression marked by soaring unemployment and widespread despair over the value of public policy and the institutions of government, finance, and the law. When police officers appeared increasingly as enforcers of rich men's law, banks either foreclosed on delinquent mortgages or failed their depositors, and Washington seemed powerless to alleviate the nation's sufferings, audiences turned toward strong heroes who offered them the hope of taking charge of their own future: self-made entrepreneurs in direct sales (albeit the illegal sale of liquor) like Tom Powers in The Public Enemy and Tony Camonte in Scarface. At the same time, the arrival of synchronized sound, as Jonathan Munby has noted, turned the suddenly speaking gangster from a deracinated outlaw to a member of a specific marginal ethnic group whose "accent frames his desire for success within a history of struggle over national identity."10 Hence the gangster's inevitable death at the end of each film was not simply the necessary price for the hour and a half of upwardly mobile fantasy that preceded it but a site of the audience's sharp ambivalence toward the immigrant gangster hero [Fig. 4]. The pattern of the new gangster films, tracing the hero's gradual rise to fabulous power and his inevitable meteoric fall - which now substituted for the earlier romantic intrigues of Alias Jimmy Valentine and Underworld - allowed audiences to indulge both sides of their ambivalence toward an establishment that seemed less and less responsive to their needs: their fantasies of personal empowerment and their fears of defying institutional authority, their despair over the possibility of social justice and their belief in the rough justice of the movies.

In retrospect, it is remarkable how brief this vogue of the tough movie gangster, perhaps the most striking figure in the history of Hollywood crime, actually was. Studio heads were under such constant pressure from public-interest groups to tone down their portrayal of professional criminals that as early as 1931, at the height of the new cycle, Jack L. Warner announced that Warner Bros., whose preference for low-budget urban location shooting and proletarian milieus had made it the major studio most active in the gangster film, would stop producing such films, and that he had not allowed his fifteen-year-old son to watch any of them.11 In addition, the release of Scar-

4. Scarface (1932): The Depression-era audience's ambivalence toward an upwardly mobile fantasy. (Vince Barnett, Paul Muni, Karen Morley)

face, the most violent of the new movies, was delayed for over a year while producer Howard Hughes dickered with the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America's Production Code Office (or Hays Office, as it was popularly called for its first leader, former Postmaster General Will Hays) over the film's bloodletting and overtones of incest.

Eventually it was shorn of several repellent or suggestive shots; buttressed by a new sequence shot by Hughes in which a stolid newspaper editor, faced by a citizens' board, denounced the glorification of gangsters in the mass media and urged action on the part of the federal government and the American Legion; and given a new title for its 1932 release: Scarface: Shame of a Nation.

The promethean gangster was shackled by the election of Franklin Roosevelt as president in 1932 and the stricter enforcement of the Hays Office's 1930 Production Code, provoked in large measure by the founding of the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency in 1934. Roosevelt, an activist president who assiduously manipulated the newly dominant technology of radio to transform his public image from a New York patrician crippled by polio to a paternal man of the people in whom ordinary Americans could believe, launched a series of highprofile initiatives immediately on his inauguration in 1933: insuring deposits in Federal Reserve banks, mandating increased prices for farm products, and launching the largest public-works programs in American history to start putting the unemployed back to work. That same year, Joseph I. Breen of the Hays Office finally succeeded, with the inadvertent help of the outrageous Mae West and the gangster cycle, in pressing the major studios to abide by the provisions of the 1930 Production Code, which forbade, among other things, nudity, profanity, justified violent revenge, the defeat of the law, seduction or rape, and the ridicule of organized religion or the flag.12

Within a year the Hollywood crime film had undergone a seismic shift. Gone was the unquenchable ambition of Little Caesar, the cold-hearted brutality of The Public Enemy, the sexual explicitness of Scar-face. But although Roosevelt and the Hays Office could provide new models and regulations for Hollywood, they could do nothing to regulate audiences' desires to see onscreen violence or digs at the justice system. The new wave of crime films that began in 1934 simply channeled their toughness in subtler ways.

The most obvious of these ways was to make law enforcers as glamorous and charismatic as criminals. Since real-life enforcers were by definition organization men and women, the challenge of bringing them to melodramatic life was considerable, and it is not surprising that the first police hero to achieve widespread popularity emerged from the funny pages. Chester Gould's Dick Tracy, the comic strip that debuted in 1931, worked by setting its hero - whose creator had originally planned to emphasize his anonymity by calling him Plainclothes

Tracy13 - against a galaxy of such criminal gargoyles as Flattop, B. B. Eyes, Pruneface, Mumbles, the Brow, and the Mole. Although Tracy, with his trademark square jaw and yellow raincoat, was invariably upstaged by the grotesque villain in each story, he developed a loyal following as the continuing hero of case after case.14

As Dick Tracy's readership was expanding among a Depression audience hungry for heroes, a new publicity campaign for real-life detective heroes was under way. Inspired by the activist example of Roosevelt, J. Edgar Hoover, director since 1924 of the Bureau of Investigation (renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935), promoted bigger budgets and wider press for his organization and himself through a well-publicized crusade against such gangsters as Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and John Dillinger - the last pulling off a brilliantly reciprocal publicity coup when he was shot to death by FBI agents as he emerged from a Chicago screening of the gangster film Manhattan Melodrama (1934). Hoover's fictionalized exploits were glorified in "G" Men (1935) through the sublimely simple tactic of recasting James Cagney, famous as the gangster Tom Powers of Public Enemy, as the equally violent and mercurial, but now officially sanctioned, FBI hero. Although the film was as brutal and fast-paced as the gangster films from which it borrowed everything but its moral loyalties, it had no trouble earning a seal of approval from the Hays Office and the semiofficial blessing of Hoover in a prologue for its rerelease in 1949.

The other key crime film of the period, which could not have been more different from "G" Men, took a completely different approach to the challenge of Hollywood self-censorship. The Thin Man, shot in sixteen days in 1934, was a knockabout comedy of crime whose detective hero Nick Charles (William Powell) and his improbable socialite wife Nora (Myrna Loy) were persuaded by Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O'Sullivan) to investigate a series of murders implicating her father, a vanished inventor. Nick and Nora, aided by their terrier Asta, were the model of Hays Office primness. Despite Nick's amusingly extensive underworld connections, they consorted with criminals only reluctantly and fastidiously; their bickering was marked by elaborate courtesy; and each night, after a full day of detecting, they retired to their chaste twin beds. At the same time, their nonstop drinking, sanctioned by the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, and their frankly carnal interest in each other despite the bonds of holy matrimony, proved, like Cagney's lively incarnation of a fledgling FBI agent, that Hollywood could sell the desire for violence, thrills, and mystery in the most respectable forms.

The Thin Man and its five sequels, from After the Thin Man (1936) through Song of the Thin Man (1947), were only the most popular of the detective serials that sprouted on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the thirties. Spurred in England by protectionist laws mandating a minimal percentage of British-made films to be shown in each theater, even if these British products were "quota quickies," and in America by the rise of the double feature, which demanded a constant release of "programmers" to fill the bottom of double bills, studios rushed to release detective B films that traded on their heroes' and heroines' preexistent following. Dozens of literary detectives enjoyed active screen careers during the 1930s. At the end of the decade Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, played by the inspired casting choices of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, made a triumphant return to the screen in The Hound of the Baskervilles [Fig. 5] and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (both 1939). Most active of all was Earl Derr Biggers's soft-spoken Charlie Chan, played by Warner Oland until his death in 1938, and then by Sidney Toler, who starred in a total of twenty-seven Fox features between 1931 and 1942. The smiling, self-deprecating, epigrammatic Chan, the globe-trotting Honolulu police detective who seemed eternally to be drawn into crimes outside his jurisdiction, appeared the final blow to the tough-guy milieu of the gangster.

One last source of detective films, however, suggested that America's appetite for tough heroes had still not been sated. Although the half-hour time slots of radio demanded brief, action-filled stories whose leading characters would not need to be established each week if they were already well-known, the radio detectives who made the most successful transitions to Hollywood tended to be tough guys themselves. Among the many crime-fighting heroes of radio, pulp writer Walter Gibson's mysterious character the Shadow, alias Lamont Cranston,15 bolstered by the sinister associations with the criminal mind crystallized by his radio tag line ("Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows"), made perhaps the smoothest transition to Hollywood in a string of features and serials from 1937 through 1946. But Fran Striker and George W. Trendle's Green Hornet and the A-1 Detective Agency, created by Carleton E. Morse for I Love a Mystery, were not far behind. America's love affair with the detective hero continued, for better or worse, to be marked by its fascination with the dark side of human nature.

5. The Hound of the Baskervilles: Nigel Bruce and Basil Rathbone as the best-loved Watson and Holmes of all.

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