This week’s Pre-Code focus is on the rise of the Hollywood gangster film and crime films in general. Gangsters had been in films since D. W. Griffith’s 1912 film The Musketeers of Pig Alley. But with the rise of the celebrity criminal, such as Al Capone and John Dillinger, Hollywood started glorifying and cautiously condemning them at the same time.
Little Caesar (1931) The first big hit was the 1931 movie Little Caesar which starred Edward G. Robinson (and made him a star) as a small time criminal known as Rico. The film followed his rise and fall as a criminal with the usual crime doesn’t pay ending. Other films quickly launched the careers of other actors such as James Cagney and Paul Muni.
The Public Enemy (1931) was Cagney’s first film. It followed a similar story as Little Caesar but it had Cagney shoving a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face.
Howard Hawk’s Scarface (1932) was an unauthorized biography of Al Capone. It starred Paul Muni as Tony Camonte, a low level thug who muscles his way to the top. This classic film was remade by Brian De Palma in 1983 with Al Pacino and while entertaining, extremely entertaining, it doesn’t come close to this film.
Manhattan Melodrama (1934) The gangster film Dillinger was watching when he was gunned down.
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1931) Social problems became the main topic for many films. Problems like poverty and the increasing frustration of corruption. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) starred Paul Muni as real life ex-con Robert Burns (renamed in the film to James Allen) who was wrongly convicted for robbery and sentenced to prison. Forced to endure extremely harsh conditions, Muni eventually escapes and eventually becomes a respectable business man except his past keeps catching up with him. The ending is awesome.
The Mayor of Hell (1933) saw James Cagney as deputy commissioner of reform school. Cagney plays the good guy this time as the kids in the school face harsh abuse at the hands of a cruel warden.
And finally for those who feel that old movies were seldom violent I give youThe Beast of the City (1932) dealt with a crooked law system with the cops going vigilante in order for there to be justice. The ending is vicious.