By Heather Babcock
THREE DETROIT GANGSTERS MASSACRED: DEAD VICTIMS STILL HOLD CIGARS THEY SMOKED WHEN GUNS SPOKE, screamed a rather poetic real life Globe newspaper headline on September 17th, 1931.
Prohibition, now over a decade old, had transformed ordinary citizens into lawbreakers and everyday hoodlums into wealthy, bloodthirsty demigods. 1931 could arguably be summed up as “the year of the gangster”: the newspapers were full of ‘em – stories of “bloody bootleg rackets” and “bootlegger bandit death trysts” dominated the headlines and, thanks to the Warner Brothers studio, the silver screen as well. The studio, which only a few years earlier had revolutionized the industry by ushering in sound (or “talkies”) with 1927’s The Jazz Singer, began 1931 with a bang when they released Little Caesar.
“Be somebody,” Rico, Little Caesar’s ambitious thug, played by the incomparable Edward G. Robinson, enthuses at the start of the film. To “be somebody” is to be rich but as Rico warns “Money’s all right but it ain’t everything. Be somebody. Look hard at a bunch of guys and know that they’ll do anything you tell ‘em. Have your own way or nothin’.”
In other words, to “be somebody” is to live the American Dream and in an America caught in the double-fisted grip of Prohibition and the Great Depression, it was a dream gone dangerously delirious – a dream fueled by buckets of bathtub gin; a dream which could be poisonous if taken straight.
Little Caesar was a massive hit – so much so that theatres had to keep it running twenty-four hours a day just to satisfy audience demand; they had done the same thing almost four years earlier with Underworld, Josef von Sternberg’s 1927 gangland epic for Paramount Pictures. Underworld, a film dripping with both beauty and brutality, is considered by many to be the first successful gangster picture – the Grand Daddy of all gangster movies if you will – but it was a silent film; it wasn’t until the gangsters began to talk when the genre truly secured its choke hold on the public’s imagination. It is a testament to the power and influence of the movies that when we picture Prohibition-era gangsters today it is not the real-life criminals, such as Al Capone or Jack “Legs” Diamond, who immediately come to mind but rather Edward G. Robinson, a cigar anchored between his lips, or James Cagney, shooting his words out quicker than bullets from a Tommy gun.
Riding the wave of gunfire, Warner Brothers followed Little Caesar with The Public Enemy, released in April of that same year. In The Public Enemy, James Cagney stars as the nasty break-your-word-and-I’ll-break-your-face bootlegger Tom Powers. One wonders if we would still be discussing this film eighty-seven years later if it were not for Cagney. I say that not to lessen the talent of the movie’s other stars, but there has never been any question that The Public Enemy is Cagney’s picture. Originally Edward Woods was signed on to play Tom Powers, with Cagney as his side-kick Matt. However when director William “Wild Bill” Wellman was viewing the early footage he realized that it was Cagney, and not the handsome but reticent Woods, who crackled with an almost frightening intensity. Wellman switched the actors’ roles and both a classic movie and a star were born.
(Excerpt from my 2018 essay “Beer and Blood: The Birth of the Public Enemy (1931))