Before Robinson And Cagney: Gangster Films In The Silent Era

Long before James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson were making a splash in 1930s Hollywood, gangsters had been showing up on the American silent screen. While the “gangster genre” didn’t quite exist until the late 1920s, many of its familiar tropes–slangy dialogue, shootouts, brassy dames, nattily-dressed ring leaders–got their start earlier than the Roaring Twenties itself.

Still from The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912).

In the early 19th century, gangs in major U.S. cities started coming out in force, the result of tensions between large numbers of immigrants. Irish, Italian, and Chinese gangs were particularly well known (if you’ve ever seen silent films reference a “tong wars,” these were essentially battles between Chinese gangs). New York had the Forty Thieves, Bowery Boys, Plug Uglies and Dead Rabbits, Chicago had the Dukies and Shielders. The names may sound quaint today, but these groups’ violent struggles for power and territory were anything but quaint. Some gangs were also in the back pocket of corrupt politicians and police.

By the time the 20th century dawned people were flocking from the country to cities to find work and urban crime was a major issue. It’s thought that in the early 1910s there were more gangs in New York than there were any time before or since. And since public fascination with organized crime long predated “true crime” shows and podcasts, it was soon reflected in motion pictures.

Still from The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)

But first, films themselves had to evolve. In the early 1900s, the era when most people saw “moving pictures” via traveling shows, any film with an exciting chase scene was a crowd pleaser. Recreations of fast-paced criminal activity like stagecoach holdups, bank robberies and pursuits by police were popular, the most famous example being The Great Train Robbery (1903). Films like Edison’s A Desperate Encounter between Burglars and Police (1905) also tried their hand at action sequences.

Catalogues for these travelling motion picture shows had a “robbery” genre, listing films like the Selig’s The Hold-Up of the Leadville Stage (1905) and Biograph’s The River Pirates (1905), featuring criminals trying to make off with their loot until they’re inevitably foiled by the police. The clumsily-titled Edwin S. Porter film Capture of “Yegg” Bank Burglars (1904) is perhaps one of the earliest to incorporate a bit of slang (“yegg” meaning “burglar” or “safecracker”).

A wonderful souvenir postcard.

From 1908-1915 the nickelodeon was flourishing and films were tackling a wide range of subjects, from comedy to crime. Interestingly, we start seeing films with recognizable “gangster” tropes in the 1910s, a few years before the era of Prohibition and Al Capone. The description of the Lubin film The Samaritan of Coogan’s Tenement (1912) from Moving Picture News is a surprisingly concise summary of the popular gangster tropes in the Edwardian era:

The little house so dear to Billy and his mother is lost to them through foreclosure…Their straitened circumstances force them to take quarters in a tenement section inhabited by gangsters. During one of Billy’s trips from home in search of employment, the mother hears sounds of someone falling, and, rushing into the dingy hallways, arrives just in time to see two gangsters beating up another, Red Maguire. With the assistance of a young girl of the tenements, the little mother helps the injured man to her own apartments, where she bathes the blood from his face and bandages his wounds. The heart of the gangster is touched by the mother’s kindness to him and he vows never to forget her. Returning home one evening Billy falls in with the gangsters and goes to the docks, where drinking and gambling are indulged in. Through intimidation Billy is led to drink, and before he knows is helpless. Anxiety of the mother over Billy’s absence causes “Red” Maguire to go in search of him and he arrives just as Billy is being led away by a policeman to jail…Not forgetting her kindness to him and wanting to spare the mother knowledge of Billy’s arrest, “Red” Maguire sends her a message in Billy’s name…When Billy is released “Red” puts money in his hand saying, “Bill your mother is a good kid. She thinks you’ve been working. Here’s your wages for the time you’ve been away. Cut out the booze and get to work.”

MOVING PICTURE NEWS, November 23, 1912

Innocent boys being lead to a life of crime, gang rivalries in city slums, the vices of gambling and drink, slangy speech, the dangerous gangster with a soft side–these popped up often throughout the 1910s. (I didn’t even mention the mortgage trope–looming foreclosures and cruel landlords threatening to evict sweet old ladies popped up obsessively in silent films.) William K. Everson’s American Silent Film described these early gangster films as “more accurately underworld films, dealing with petty crime and small-time hoodlums. Nevertheless, there is an odd obsession with the word ‘gangster’ in the films themselves, not only in their narrative intertitles, but…in the title of the film itself.”

Trade ad from Moving Picture World, August 1913.

The first “official” gangster film actually used the word “musketeer”: The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), a Biograph short directed by D.W. Griffith. Set in crowded, claustrophobic tenements of “New York’s Other Side,” it follows a young couple whose lives are affected by gang rivalries. A cocky, very James Cagney-esque Elmer Booth plays the leader of one of the gangs. The highlight, still very effective today, is the tense shootout scene between the gangs where a tight closeup shows Booth and a fellow “musketeer” carefully creeping along a wall. The gun fights, the rundown neighborhoods, the tough dames, the charismatic crime leaders, even the “gangsters’ ball” reflected generations later in West Side Story–it’s all there, well over 100 years ago.

Other examples of Edwardian gangster-themed films include the Selig three-reeler The Gangsters and the Girl (1914) featured another sympathetic portrayal of a criminal. When Molly Ashley is framed for a shoplifting crime she didn’t commit, sympathetic crook Jim Tracy captures her to save her from going to jail. His gang is infiltrated by the police detective John Stone, who’s in disguise. As Molly gets to know the detective and learns his true identity, she begins to struggle with whom she should turn in, John or Jim. Filmed in Los Angeles with several rooftop shots carefully angled to suggest New York City, The Gangsters and the Girl showed gangsters in a more sympathetic light than would be possible in the production code era to come.

Another example is The Making of Crooks (1915), starring a young Jack Pickford in a cautionary tale about the dangers of billiard rooms for impressionable youth. Walton the druggist, accused of selling dope-laced candy to children, is freed from prison after the mob boss Lee O’Neill intervenes. Walton opens a seedy billiard room and the young Italian Tony becomes one of his pool sharks. Much less lenient to the underworld than films like The Girl and the Gangsters, The Making of Crooks delivered a dark ending and a strong moral message, much in the vein of the subtler Angels With Dirty Faces (1938). 

Starring Mae Marsh and Bobby Harron in two of their finest performances, Griffith’s The Mother and the Law (1919) had more of a definite “underworld” theme and shared some similarities with his The Musketeers of Pig Alley–a gang leader is even referred to as “the Musketeer.” Originally filmed in 1914, then edited and folded into the massive epic Intolerance (1916), and finally re-edited and released as a stand-alone film in 1919, it followed an impoverished young couple whose lives are torn apart after “the Boy,” attempting to leave his old life in a gang, is accused of murder. When he’s sentenced to be hung, his young wife desperately searches for a way to save him. Tragic and touching in turns, it illustrates both the hopelessness that leads some to take up a criminal life as well as how difficult it is to escape it. 

Crime serials were another major factor in the evolution of the gangster genre, with their stories ending on a cliffhanger each week. One example is The Purple Mask (1916), starring Grace Cunard as a gang leader. The popularity of these “sensational” stories lead the head of the Pennsylvania state censorship board to write:

The “crime serial” is perhaps the most astounding development in the history of the motion picture…It is meant for the most ignorant classes of the population with the grossest tastes, and it principally flourishes in the picture halls in mill villages and in the thickly settled tenement house and low foreign-speaking neighborhoods in the big cities…The criminologist would find the picture serial a fruitful field of study.

The Morals of the movie, 1922.

Underworld films grew familiar enough to attract major names like Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks’s Reggie Mixes In (1916) shows his pampered, wealthy character exploring rough neighborhoods for kicks until he runs afoul of a crime leader. (It’s also contains a good early example of the “flamboyantly dressed gangster” trope.) Charlie Chaplin becomes a cop and cleans up a thug-dominated neighborhood in Easy Street (1917), and Buster Keaton accidentally gets mixed up with a gang that uses a ludicrous secret “high sign” gesture in The High Sign (1920).

Perhaps few directors were better suited to exploring the criminal mind than Tod Browning, in his films like The Wicked Darling (1919), about a girl of the slums forced into a life of thievery; Outside the Law (1921), about the daughter of a former mob boss who must deal with a ruthless new crime lord; and The Unholy Three (1925), where three circus sideshow performers decide to start their own gang of thieves. All starred the talented Lon Chaney, whose tough guy features were uniquely suited to criminal roles.

While The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) was perhaps the earliest example of a recognizable gangster film, with all the necessary puzzle pieces in place, the 1920s feature that really helped launch the genre was Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927). The magnificently-filmed Underworld, with its charismatic crime boss, feather boa-wearing floozie, gang rivalries, and big shootout with police, is now considered a classic. Sternberg himself claimed he wasn’t terribly interested in gangsters per se, insisting: “On the contrary, the illusion of reality is what I look for, not reality itself.” Perhaps this was actually fitting for a genre that would be strongly defined by its tropes in the decades to come, since the reality of gangster culture could often be less than photogenic.

Films like The Gangsters and the Girl, Reggie Mixes In, The Mother and the Law and so forth are an eye-opening reminder that many movie clichés stretch back much further than we imagined. They also show us something unexpected: that certain “gangster” tropes not only predated the Roaring Twenties, but in a sense evolved along with the era itself, making these films fascinating and unique time capsules.

Note: This article is partly based on my column “The Rise Of The ‘Underworld’–5 Gangster Films From The 1910s” for Classic Movie Hub.


Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade’s Gone By. New York: Knopf, 1990.

Everson, William K. American Silent Film. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.

Koszarski, Richard. The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990.

Nemeth, Darren. 1907 Chicago Projecting Co’s Entertainer’s Supplies Catalog No. 122. Waterford, Michigan: Giant Squid Audio Lab Company, 2015. First published 1907.

9 thoughts on “Before Robinson And Cagney: Gangster Films In The Silent Era

  1. A fascinating article. I learned a lot, also. Musketeers of Pig Alley is one of my favorites. Love that Gangster Month banner, by the way. 🙂

    Another classic feature film that came to mind while I was reading this is Regeneration (1915)—really an amazing film, though at times depressingly dark and gritty—not the least of which is because it was shot on the Lower East Side and has actual gangsters as extras! Have you seen it?

  2. I always thought Elmer Booth’s death was such a loss for cinema. His performance in MUSKETEERS is phenomenal.

    Also, cannot wait for your REGENERATION review. It’s probably my favorite film of 1915.

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