The economic downturns of the Great Depression contributed to the county’s fascination with gangster genres. As Americans lost their jobs or saw their farms foreclosed on by the once admired establishment or banking system; with public endorsement gangsters descended in spirit from America’s frontier outlaws such as the James Gang, and led by desperadoes like Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and Machine Gun Kelly rose up to assault the system. Because of Prohibition, the Great Depression and World War II, gangsters became the modern gunslingers and outlaws.
The gangster saga replaced the Western as the American myth. It told the story of modern America. Young Americans enjoyed watching gangster films during the 1930s. Before President Roosevelt’s New Deal, gangsters were without doubt the American cinema’s most striking heroes.
The film industry’s love affair with members of criminal gangs was only natural, they were colorful, violent, and charismatic men and women whose law-breaking activities were followed by millions of law abiding Americans. But when brought to the screen, gangster films more than any other Hollywood genre created problems not only for the usual censorship lobbies but also for judges, lawyers, teachers, policemen, mayors, newspapers, and local councilors.
Many respectable citizens believed that gangster films based on the lives and activities of Prohibition-era criminals, led to an increase in juvenile delinquency and accused Hollywood of delivering impressionable youth into a career of crime. The harmful effects of fast-moving and exciting gangster films on young cinema patrons thus became a prominent concern of those eager to control and censor this pervasive new mass medium.
After a series of sex scandals rocked the American film industry, in 1922 Hollywood’s Jewish moguls hired a midwestern Presbyterian gentleman and influential Republican William Harrison Hays, former Postmaster General in President Warren Harding’s cabinet, as their front man to clean up the image of the movies.
The industry’s self-monitoring Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America Inc. (MPPDA) or Hays office in Los Angeles tried a variety of ways to regulate films before adopting a formal code. Written in 1930 by two mid-western Catholics, a Jesuit professor of drama in St. Louis and a lay publisher of trade magazines; the new Motion Picture Code stipulated partly in reaction to the increasing popularity of gangster films, that movies stress proper behavior, respect for government, and Christian values.
The Hays Code was made mandatory in 1934, and began with an attack on what was seen as a general tone of lawlessness and on depicting specific criminal methods in recent gangster movies. Criminal acts were “never to be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with a desire for imitation.” Murder must be presented in a manner that “will not inspire imitation” and “revenge in modern times shall not be justified.” Methods of crime such as theft, robbery, arson, safecraking, smuggling, and dynamiting of trains should not be explicitly presented. If these strictures were not met, a film project would no longer receive the code’s seal of MPPDA approval (Springhall 137-138).
Organized protest against gangster movies reached its height with the publicity surrounding director Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932); in which the versatile Paul Muni overacted as Tony Camonte, another disguised Al Capone figure. This violent and fast paced film produced by millionaire Howard Hughes and scripted by former Chicago newspaperman Ben Hecht, reached the screen a year after Public Enemy but was actually made at the same time.
The delay of Scarface occurred because in an effort to appease the movie censors. A subtitle “Shame of the Nation” was added to Scarface, along with a scene in which civic reformers preached (“You can end it. Fight!”) directly to the camera (McCarty 68). In another new scene, the city’s chief of detectives denounces the glorification of gangsters, echoing the very cries of the censors who ordered the changes. A different ending was also filmed using a double in which Camonte is brought to trial and sentenced to be hanged by the state, rather than being shot down by the police on the sidewalk outside his hideout (McCarty 68).
New York and Chicago censorship boards rejected Scarface outright until Warner Brothers agreed to make these changes but Jason Joy, who enforce the Hays Code, still had to convince them to show it cut. Each state in America had its own board of censors, so the original ending could still be seen in some theaters when the film was finally released in the spring of 1932 (McCarty 69). Hay’s damage-limitation exercise did little to silence criticism of crime or gangster movies and there was evidence of growing state and municipal censorship; also while reformers wanted to go further and persuade the federal government to institute a national motion picture censorship office.
Rising concern about the harmful effects of cinema on youthful American minds had in 1928 led anti-Hollywood campaigner the Rev. William H. Short and his Motion Picture Research Council to commission a series of studies financed from the Payne Study and Experiment Fund, an organization based in Cleveland and headed by Professor W.W. Charters, who was the director of educational research at the Ohio State University. The Payne Fund Studies took four years to complete and was published from 1933 thru 1934.
The reports showed that 30 percent of the American cinema audience was made up of children and adolescents (Jarvis 131). One early volume of the Payne Studies offered self-reporting by juveniles in which they blamed gangster films for aspects of their delinquent social behavior; but the report went no further than arguing that movies only indirectly encouraged criminal activities by stimulating fantasies and day-dreaming. Another volume concluded that the influence of movies on children was strong but was “specific for a given child and a given movie” (Jarvis 132).
But the Payne Fund’s research was distorted to support the kind of statements about the effects of movies on young audiences that moral reformers had been As more Hollywood gangster movies were released–nine in 1930, 26 in 1931,and 28 in 1932, film cuts relating to violation of the law imposed by state and municipal censorship boards also increased. Half of the censorship material ordered by the Chicago censorship board in 1930-31 pertained to glorifying the gangster and showing disrespect for law enforcement. In New York, state censors slashed over 2,200 crime scenes during 1930-32 (Springhall 141).
But gangster films were too far popular for film studios to pay much attention to the Hays Code. Evidently, the 1930 Production Code was not being enforced and was not legally enforceable. So in 1934, the Committee of Catholic Bishops formed the Legion of Decency. The Legion claimed it was dismayed by the movie industry’s sex and crime films of the early 1930s, and at a time of falling box-office receipts, had organized a campaign to boycott “vile and unwholesome” motion pictures.
Catholics were asked to sign a pledge in regard to gangster films, swearing to “do all that I can to arouse public opinion against the portrayal of vice as a normal condition of affairs and against depicting criminals of any class as heroes and heroines, presenting their filthy philosophy of life as something acceptable to decent men and women” (Springhall 144).
A boycott campaign, utilizing other like-minded groups was launched thorough the media. Lists of condemned films were circulated and some movie theaters Film producers broke rank in the middle of 1934, even before the anti-crime film propaganda picked up full steam. They agreed not to release or distribute a film that did not have an MPPDA certificate of approval which were to be issued according to the 1930 Code and administered by a Hays Office promising to be more earnest about censorship. This agreement among the film industry was a step forward to take self-regulation seriously.
A $25,000 penalty was to be charged for producing, distributing, or exhibiting a picture without the certificate of approval, but there is no record of it ever having been imposed. In order to force Hays and Hollywood to censor movies more vigorously, the Legion had also engineered the appointment of Joseph Breen, a hard-line Catholic as head of the Production Code Administration. In the future, gangster films would have to be made with more care for the censors’ point of view. Nonetheless, Hollywood managed to avoid federal government regulation and even after 1934 continued to also evade the Code.
As the decade continued on, Hollywood studios discovered that the best way to exploit the crime genre’s immense popularity and to satisfy the censors at the same time was to turn the gangster character into a law enforcement officer. The time was right for the reappearance of the gangster icon as a federal government man drafted into the war on crime, which was one of the worst effects of the Depression. By the mid-thirties, Warner Brothers started to offer idealized portraits of policemen and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, rather than gangsters or criminals. This was portrayed in patriotic films like William Keighley’s G-Men (1935) and Special Agent (1935), starring James Cagney and George Brent.
The transformation of the movie gangster star into a policeman or FBI agent was in part a response to criticism from censorship lobbies like the Legion of Decency. Warner Brothers was also making a contribution to propaganda for a strong New Deal administration by launching this new cycle of films. For example, G-Men used the resources of a popular film form and one of it’s star names to advocate the arming of the FBI because “federal power depends ultimately on firepower” (McCarty 97).
Breen, Hays, and the Legion of Decency virtually controlled the content of all Hollywood films. The Hays Code itself remained in force until 1967 when it was replaced by a system of certificated categories of the Motion Picture Association of Today, gangster genre remains very much alive because of the barrios, ghettos, and boardrooms of America’s cities to the drug strongholds of Miami, New York, and Los Angeles.
The genre continues and the audiences’ love affair with mob movies will continue on. The themes, characters, landscapes, and mythologies of the gangster movie has proven resilient enough to be updated, reshaped, and expanded upon to continue connecting with teenagers, and young adults for whom movies these days are made.
- Jarvis, Arthur R., Jr. “The Payne Fund Reports: A Discussion of their Content, Public Reaction, and Affect on the Motion Picture Industry, 1930-1940.” Journal of Popular Culture 19.3 (1991): 127-140
- McCarty, John. Hollywood Gangland: The Movies’ Love Affair with the Mob. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
- Springhall, John. “Censoring Hollywood: Youth, Moral Panic and Crime/Gangster Movies of the 1930s” Journal of Popular Culture 32.3 (1998): 135-154