Better late than never, here’s the last post of Gangster Month! And the best film was saved for last, she declared. I always enjoy doing these theme months, and I hope you’ve enjoyed following along!
The sophisticated, moodily-lit crime drama Underworld (1927) is recognized by many as the “official” launching point of the gangster genre. But even if you removed it from that context, it would easily be considered a masterpiece all on its own. Funnily enough, director Josef von Sternberg himself would’ve probably appreciated it that way. “When I made Underworld I was not a gangster, nor did I know anything about gangsters,” he stated in Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By. “I do not value the fetish for authenticity. I have no regard for it. On the contrary, the illusion of reality is what I look for, not reality itself.”
But while Von Sternberg may have crafted his film first and foremost as a compelling story, that story melds perfectly with the dark setting of Roaring Twenties gangster culture–dark in both a figurative and literal sense. The opening title card establishes the mood: “A great city in the dead of night…streets lonely…moon clouded…buildings as empty as the cave dwellings of a forgotten age.” Many of Underworld‘s scenes take place at night, often hours after regular folks would’ve gone to bed. This alone helps the viewer sense the subversive nature of the criminal world.
In film history books the year 1915 practically goes hand-in-hand with The Birth of the Nation—not surprising, considering its mega-blockbuster status. But it was also a banner year for many amazingly sophisticated, ground-breaking films, from scandalous dramas like The Cheat to period pieces like The Coward to realistic crime films like Regeneration. The latter was famed director Raoul Walsh’s first feature-length film, and today it’s also considered the first feature-length gangster film. It has those touches of sentiment so common at the time, but also has a surprisingly unflinching portrayal of the grittier side of city life. Somehow, it makes me think of an Edwardian Valentine’s Day postcard plucked gingerly out of a mud puddle.
Actors living during the dividing line of “before” and “after” the emergence of cinema were given a unique gift. Unlike the generations of actors just before them, their performances could be enjoyed years, if not decades, after their deaths–provided their films survived, of course.
While many of these silent film actors have fallen into obscurity, there’s a few who had the good luck to end up in iconic films. One such actor was Elmer Booth, whose tragic early death left us with a comparatively brief filmography, but at least one performance that prophesied dozens of gangster films to come.
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.
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.