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.
If you’d never seen a photo of Tod Browning and I showed you a couple portraits of him, you might be forgiven for thinking he was an average 1920s Joe, maybe someone who worked as an accountant or a store manager. Would you have ever guessed he was one of the legends of horror film whose name was practically synonymous with “grotesque”? That the gothic Dracula (1931) and the shocking Freaks (1932) were concocted by this somber man, who probably looked fifty ever since he was 25?
Yet a legend of horror he was, and given his attraction to mysterious themes it might be fitting that his conventional appearance was also bit of a head-scratcher. Lest you think his early life was equally conventional, his background was actually one of the most colorful in the business–indeed, the kind that he’d often give to characters in his own films. In Browning’s case, art was very much drawn from life.
Hello all, hope you’re doing well! I took a little break earlier this month because…well…I figured folks might be a bit distracted. *wink* What to do while we’re getting back to somewhat normal? Cover one of the least normal films of all time, of course!!
So if you haven’t seen The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, I…really don’t know how to prepare you for The Mystery of the Leaping Fish. Gently, with a rose? With a joke-filled monologue? With a solemn discussion of its historical background? With a parental advisory label? This, after all, is a short that manages to be adult-themed, in bad taste, shocking and weirdly innocent all at the same time. I may need to ponder this on a remote mountaintop for a few weeks.
Or I could just hurl you right into the plot and hope for the best. Problem solved!
Per a reader’s request, here is a piece on one of the greatest and most respected silent film legends–Lon Chaney. As you read this, I am currently at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival–and yes, I’ll be recapping every moment of it!
There was a popular, widespread joke back in the 1920s–“Don’t step on that spider, it might be Lon Chaney!” A joke which, of course, referred to his remarkable use of makeup and acting skills to create bizarre characters who stick in the popular imagination. Indeed, Chaney was one of the rare actors who was so skilled that he became a legend in his own time, graced with the title “The Man of a Thousand Faces”–a title which is linked with his name to this very day.