Gangster Films in the 1930’s

The 1930’s was a time of great change for American society. With prohibition lasting from 1920 to 1933. The Great Depression beginning in 1929 and the great recession of 1937, people turned to theaters as an escape from the difficult times they were facing. Gangster films, in particular, were among one of the most popular genres of the decade. With the help of sound technology, audiences began getting more drawn into the violent, law defying criminals being portrayed on the big screen.

Grapefruit Scene

Mob films started out glorifying gangsters who stole alcohol to illegally distribute it among the masses of the U.S. as well as gambled and ran prostitution rings.Films spawned from newspaper headlines and were based off of real life gangsters. The most popularized criminal of the time was Al Capone due to his infamy from the media’s coverage of his law breaking actions.

Popular actors and films

Edward G. Robinson: Little Caesar 1930 (Al Capone characterization)

James Cagney: The Public Enemy 1931

Humphrey Bogart: The Roaring Twenties 1939

Paul Muni: Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (Main character Tony Camonte was loosely based on Al Capone)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3qx6DhjaAP8

The Motion Picture Production Code, popularly known as the Hays Code due to chief Hollywood censor William H. Hays, was a set of movie industry censorship guidelines adopted in 1930, but wasn’t enforced until 1934. The code was abandoned in 1968 in favor of the MPAA film rating system.

Over the course of the decade, films began switching to different story lines and focused on the opposite side of crime. FBI agents began being portrayed as the hero that audiences were routing for. Eventually, towards the end of the decade, gangster films became more accepted due to their glamorization of law enforcement agents. Films began writing more meaning into the character development of the protagonist and started posing metaphorical questions that allowed audiences to start theorizing about the “real” meaning behind the ending of a movie as opposed to the more action and sex packed films that were released earlier in the decade. Some people felt that gangster films lost their spark after 1933 because the censorship was taking away the power that spawned from all the sex and violent scenes.


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2 comments

  1. jhwinter27

    Before reading your blog and listening to your presentation in class, I really didn’t have a sense of just how prolific gangster films have been in the history of American cinema. You mention in your blog that Americans used film as a form of escapism during difficult times, especially during the depression. This was something discussed and agreed upon in class when it was brought up that cinema was one of the few industries that wasn’t affected by the recent economic disaster. Additionally, I think there is a special appeal inherent in gangster movies. The rag to riches story, or the self-made man narrative is something embedded in the American psyche. There is also something extremely provocative when the characters are gangsters whose moral status is often ambiguous . What results is a guarded admiration and real sense of excitement watching the rise and ultimate fall of gangster characters. From the original Scarface showcased in your blog, to the God Father and now Boardwalk Empire, the American public continues to absorb the gangster genre. I for one am guilty and can’t wait for the next episode of Boardwalk Empire!

  2. I have always been a fan of these gangster movies. It has always been interesting to me how people would see these men constantly breaking the law by selling drugs, alcohol, extorting people, and even killing people, and still idolize them. These men were criminals, either in real life or simply in the movies, yet they were among the biggest celebrities of their time. By this I mean someone like John Dillenger who was clearly a criminal as Public Enemy number one, was front cover of the paper almost weekly during his reign, and someone like Marlon Brando who was seen for the rest of his life as The Godfather. Both were criminals, and both were seen as the working mans hero, doing what they needed to do to better their lives, and their family’s lives. Having a criminal with a cult status may be a thing of the past, but I always wondered if it would be possible for a criminal to have such a following in modern times.

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