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.
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)
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.