Warner Gangster Collection, Volume 3: Slick Operators, Gutter Messiahs, and Hate Groups
Reviewed by Martha P. Nochimson
Smart Money (1931)
Directed by Alfred E. Green; written by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright; produced by Alfred E. Green; cinematography Robert Kwirle; edited by Jack Killifer; Warner Home Video 2008; Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Margaret Livingston. Black and White, 81 mins.
Picture Snatcher (1933)
Directed by Lloyd Bacon; written by Allen Rivkin; cinematography Sol Polito; edited by William Holmes; Warner Home Video 2008; James Cagney, Ralph Bellamy, Robert Emmett O’Connor, Patricia Ellis, Alice White. Black and White, 77 mins.
Lady Killer (1933)
Directed by Roy Del Ruth; written by Ben Markson; cinematography Tony Gaudio; edited by George Amy; Warner Home Video 2008; James Cagney, Mae Clarke, Leslie Fenton, Margaret Lindsay. Black and White, 76 mins.
Brother Orchid (1940)
Directed by Lloyd Bacon; written by Earl Baldwin; cinematography Tony Gaudio; edited by William Holmes; produced by Mark Hellinger; Warner Home Video 2008; Edward G. Robinson, Ann Sothern; Ralph Bellamy; Humphrey Bogart. Black and White, 88 mins.
Black Legion (1937)
Directed by Archie Mayo; written by Abem Finkel; produced by Hal B. Wallis; cinematography George Barnes; edited by Owen Marks; Warner Home Video 2008; Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, Dick Foran. Black and White, 83 mins.
Mayor of Hell (1933)
Directed by Archie Mayo; written by Edward Chodorov; produced by Edward Chodorov; cinematography by Barney McGill; edited by Jack Killifer; Warner Home Video 2008; James Cagney, Frankie Darro, Madge Evans. Black and White, 90 mins.
In the minds of purists like me, this collection of Warner Bros. films is packaged as Volume 3 of a “gangster collection” only because of the twisted logic of marketing. Each of the films in this boxed set features one of the great Warner gangster icons—James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart or some combination thereof. But determining genre on this basis alone creates confusion, categorically speaking. The array of lesser known but often fascinating examples of the grit and sass of the old Warner’s production teams in the boxed set in question more properly comes under the much less sexy heading of social-problem films.
So, what’s in a name? Even to the many people who assume that any film containing a mobster is a “gangster film,” it is likely to be clear that there is a specific category of exceedingly hard-edged gangster films that differentiates itself from the larger group of movies in which something about “the mob” appears. In this more disturbing category of crime films, which I refer to in my most recent book, Dying to Belong: Gangster Movies in Hollywood and Hong Kong, as the one containing true gangster films, stories of violence and lawbreaking are provocatively told through the eyes of a mob protagonist whose greed and savagery is depicted as the logical extension of many familiar American wishes and desires. My examination of the true gangster film concentrates on the way it raises frightening questions, which it never answers, about the secret violence inherent in a free-market economy and the materialist’s terrible confrontation with nothingness. By contrast, if each of the films in the collection points toward serious social problems, they all are essentially meliorist. The stories are told from the perspective of wrong-way guys who are defined as different from us until they eventually learn to become the kinds of ego ideals Hollywood wishfully equates with the average American. Put simply, none of the films in this collection is as challenging to American values as what I call the true gangster film. Some of the films in this collection don’t even contain gangsters.
For example, it’s true that Smart Money was written by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright, the same team that brought us the groundbreaking and profoundly unsettling gangster film The Public Enemy. But, in Smart Money, the only time that James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson ever appeared together onscreen, Nick (Robinson) and Jack (Cagney) are nothing more disturbing than savvy, good-natured “fly by the seat of your pants” con men, who wander just a couple of inches to the wrong side of the law. In other words, in Smart Money, Cagney and Robinson play a couple of gamblers who reflect a much less lurid American fantasy of beating the odds during the Depression than we find in their spectacular, searing, certified gangster portrayals. This doesn’t make it an uninteresting film—it isn’t—it just disqualifies it as a gangster film. Nick and Jack form the nucleus of a band of “little rascals” grown up, who live in Irontown (read anywhere U.S.A.), an assortment marked by the de rigeur stereotypical profiling of the time, which includes the obligatory slow-witted, loyal black comic foil, personified by Suntan (Spencer Bell) and Snake Eyes (John Larkin) who do the errands, as well as the broadly vaudevillian fat and happy “Italian buddy” who spouts mass-media versions of immigrant wisdom like, “Lucky in cards, un-a-lucky in love.” The film also features a healthy supply of blonde starlets from the Warner’s stable—Nick is a sucker for blondes—and an uncredited cameo by Boris Karloff, as a pimp and drug peddler called Sport Williams. You might want to watch this film just to see how early you can spot him onscreen.
But there are many attractions in Smart Money, including the great black-and- white cinematography and the terrific rapport between Robinson and Cagney. There is also an object lesson in “no small parts” acting. Cagney brilliantly wrings every bit of juice and spontaneity out of the supporting role in which Warner’s cast him just before he rocketed to mega stardom. The Public Enemy had not yet been released, so he wasn’t yet the major star he was soon to be, but his destiny is prefigured in his intense comic performance that almost confuses the issue about who is the top banana in this caper. Beyond that, Smart Money contains subversive moments to cherish. For example, it includes a darkly comic version of working-man solidarity, when the crew of two-bit gamblers who frequent the back room of Nick’s barbershop altruistically pool all their cash to stake Nick to a trip to the big city to try his illegal skills—against those of a well-known gambler (fictional) named Hickory Short.
The Production Code Administration knew the difference between films like Smart Money, which they easily gave the nod, and Public Enemy, Little Caesar, and Scarface, which threw them into a tizzy of apprehension. But they got it all backward. I would contend that there is much more seduction of the audience by the frisson of crime in Smart Money, where Hollywood takes a playful rather than puritanical attitude toward the big, naughty dreams of little men. Nick chomps on the cigars that are a familiar part of the Freudian vocabulary of virility, but he is a softy at heart. Clearly. Who else would take along as his companion on his journey toward high-stakes, big-city gambling a little caged canary named Blondie? At first, Nick’s good nature makes him the patsy of a devious blonde and several lightweight gamblers who pose as the infamous Hickory Short and several of his notorious buddies. Nick’s buoyant attitude, however, allows him to get all his money back from them—with interest, which the film permits us to admire in a surge of quasijustification of Nick’s dodgy means to success. Nick and Jack are simply lovable, a kind of urban Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, if we stretch the point a bit. Robinson’s Nick is remarkably gallant and considerate, especially to women, despite his flagrant disregard for the rule of law, and Cagney’s more cynical, free-wheeling Jack is a torrent of appealing energy. Cagney has about three of the funniest, most creative minutes of his career when he mimes for Nick the news that a gorgeous blonde is waiting to see him, without using a single word.
There is a timeliness to reintroducing America now to this recirculated film, full of the charm of working around the law with Nick and Jack. I at least was prompted to think of this endemic American taste for bad boy and bad girl heroes with reference to Karl Rove and the way too many people think of his style of managing public opinion by the most extreme form of lying as clever, which appears to prevent any meaningful public outcry for investigation. Then there is the approbation of too many Americans of Sarah Palin’s purportedly gutsy wallowing in self interest. Is our delight in the movie antics of mugs like Nick and Jack potentially a little more sinister and toxic than we would like to believe? Surely, the answer to this question depends on whether we can bring to our movie pleasure an ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality and a sense of proportion about when playing fast and loose is a prelude to disaster and when it is something much less worrisome.
But a strong sense of reality and/or proportion is not a given in mass media audiences. True gangster films, films like Public Enemy, deal with the potential for crime fantasies to excite audiences in an unhealthy way by encouraging us to qualify the thrill of individual aggrandizement that is a standard element in crime films. The high that gangster protagonist Tommy Powers and his ilk get from crime is ugly and frightening as well as titillating, and there is a powerful suggestion of the way economic and social conditions can lead to twisted vision of what is right and wrong when an individual is faced with dire choices about survival. By contrast, in Smart Money the lack of any social contextualization of why Nick and Jack have turned to lives of hustling transforms breaking the law into a comparatively harmless prank by imaginative overaged adolescents. In this film (and most of the others in Vol. 3), lawbreaking is a form of unrestrained intoxication that comes from unleashing the distinctive energies of a Robinson or a Cagney, but Cagney particularly, for example in the Cagney social problem comedies Picture Snatcher and Lady Killer.
In Picture Snatcher, Cagney plays an ex-con named Danny who has just been released from prison and—through force of personality, persistence, and a total disregard for rules—wins the triple crown. He leaves the mob as easily as he might walk out of a convenience store, makes a big name for himself as a newspaper photographer, and wins the heart of the daughter of a crusty old police captain. In the context of the film it all seems natural. Cagney’s Danny is a total original. His acting choices are always unexpected, for example the way he sits stiffly in a cab with the first woman he has seen in three years on his first day out of jail, his only reaction to her perfumed proximity the way he throws back his head, takes a deep breath and rolls his eyes back until only the whites are visible. The writing choices are also fresh. Danny’s interest in the perfume the woman in the cab is wearing turns out to be that he wants it for himself; we see his friends pouring the scent into his bath in the next scene as he giggles with that demonic glee that was a part of the Cagney persona. The dubious part of the glitz and glitter of the Cagney energy is that it inoculates the audience against considering the implications of his success: that he gains fame and fortune of a sort working on a newspaper so disreputable that the other news organizations look into how it can be shut down and that his methods of getting stories no one else can get are reprehensible and sometimes cross the line beyond the law. Since we never know what crime sent him to jail, it’s not easy to tell whether he is more criminal as a reporter or as a gangster. Smart Money works overtime to prevent us from going there. Even the perversion of the media through its satisfaction of the public appetite for sensationalism is barely touched on.
Cagney is “just so cute” when he gets a story for The Graphic News that no one else can get by lying shamelessly to a distraught husband and stealing a photograph from him as he guards the rubble of his recently burned-to-the-ground home with a shotgun. Cagney’s Dan is quite sympathetic to the man on whom he perpetrates the fraud, but he nevertheless seriously violates his privacy, the actor’s energy and inventiveness forming a smoke screen over the larger issues involved. Other characters in the film are foils that encourage us to forget the ethical implications of Danny’s antic behavior. The owner of the paper praises his “enterprise.” An academic who raises the question of ethics in journalism is characterized as a pretentious idiot. Then Danny cements his reputation as a “star reporter” when he goes even further in compromising media standards by illegally taking a picture of a woman in the electric chair as she is about to be electrocuted. This plot twist is based on an actual scandal in 1927, when a reporter surreptitiously photographed the execution of Ruth Snyder for The Daily News. Ironically, as the film comes to its climax, Danny committing a crime in Sing Sing as a reporter on the other side of the bars from where he spent time as a criminal, and this crime really pays. Should we laugh or cry about success in America? As far as this film is concerned, all we need to know is that there is a happy ending.
In Lady Killer, Cagney plays Dan, a guy who also has an endearing compulsion to break the rules and defy authority that is attributed to his vitality not to any socio-economic pressure, even though the story is clearly set during the Depression. Dan isn’t a gangster; he operates in much more of a gray area of cons and capers. Dan begins the film by getting himself fired (in the most amusing way) from an oppressive job as a uniformed usher in an extravagantly opulent movie palace, which is satirically depicted as resembling a paramilitary operation. After he is taken advantage of by a crew of con-artists, he turns the tables on them, coopting them as his minions in some questionable deals that result in his success as an upscale nightclub owner. Not only does the film ask us to be as amused by his ethically and legally questionable antics as we were by his insubordination to an absurdly pompous movie theater manager (as if they were the same thing); it goes as far as soliciting laughs at his brutality to Myra, a con woman in the crew, played by Mae Clarke, the actress across whose face he had crushed a grapefruit in The Public Enemy. In Lady Killer, he literally drags Clarke across a (large) room by her hair. Very entertaining.
After Dan’s disreputable colleagues betray him; down on his luck and unshaven, he is suddenly rescued from a life of poverty by a Hollywood talent scout who is cruising a bar to find extras for a gangster film. When a bit part as a criminal leads Dan to major stardom, the film wittily suggests that Hollywood has a lot in common with the twilight world of hustling. This double joke on Cagney’s star persona and Dan’s success through imitating his life outside the law onscreen is Hollywood at its reflexive best, laughing at its own fakery. Cagney is fresh and improvisational as always, as we watch him promote his career at the studio by sending hundreds of “fan” letters to himself and hilariously speaking Yiddish from time to time. As a star, Dan challenges the appearances of glamor in tinseltown with a vengeance. He behaves outrageously at the birthday party of his girlfriend, costar Lois Underwood (Margaret Lindsay) when, just for fun, he lets loose a cage of monkeys that nearly destroy her stately home. He brutally forces a newspaper columnist who writes unflattering copy about Lois to literally eat his words and throws him into a toilet in a men’s bathroom. Did anyone on the production team of Lady Killer notice that Dan’s terrible behavior is echoed by obvious mistreatment of the monkeys used in the scene? Doubtful. But there will be many in today’s audiences who are sensitive to the irony that in order to shoot scenes depicting Danny’s wild ways, the poor creatures were brutally thrown into punchbowls, onto cakes, and at people. Even if there weren’t multiple takes to achieve the effect, there was considerable cruelty on this set.
In Lady Killer, Hollywood success is explicitly invoked as interchangeable with indecent, quasicriminal behavior and the inability to deal with limits or take “no” for an answer, but it’s all meant as more or less mindless fun. Brother Orchid, the best known of the films in this boxed set, comes a bit closer to transforming crime comedy into substantial social satire. This film does feature a gangster protagonist. Robinson is a mob boss at the beginning of this film, but “Little” Johnny Sarto (Robinson), but in name only. He is barely onscreen, when he announces to his goons that he is taking a time out from mob life. He’s heading for Europe, where he’s determined to acquire “class.” Sarto is, of course, a hopeless moron about art and manner and fails miserably in his quest. However, the film affirms that his European trip is the beginning of what turns out to be a real journey into spirituality.
Sarto is rendered sadder but wiser not only by the fakery of snobbish European art dealers, but also by the treachery of his gangster cronies. Mob power is a pot au feu that must be closely watched. While Sarto is across the pond, Jack Buck (Humphrey Bogart at his heartless best) takes over the mob, and when Sarto returns he has to run for his life. A version of the “fortunate fall,” as luck would have it, when Sarto, almost mortally wounded, evades the coup de grâce his former friends have in mind for him, he collapses at the door of a monastery, where his long recuperation among monks dedicated to horticulture exposes him to a life of cooperation rather than good old- fashioned American competition, and the value of work that produces values rather than just accumulating abstract status points.
When Sarto regains his health, although he is temporarily seduced into trying to reclaim his old position, neither the charms of his devoted, much mistreated mistress (wonderfully acted by Ann Sothern), nor the rush of “the life” hold the appeal they once did. He returns to the monastery voluntarily to live out the rest of his days as Brother Orchid. Sarto’s story makes a quietly harsh point about American life when it suggests that, in order to become a part of an ethical community, Little Johnny must not only leave the mob; he must leave ordinary life as Americans know it. Many may find Sarto’s back-to-nature journey, albeit in a celibate style, captivating. Others like me will find this stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off comedy lacking because, due principally to the pressures of the times, it was forced to avoid even subtextual reference to the homoerotic implications of Little Johnny’s attraction to a blissful all-male community founded on brotherly love. Some feminists may take offense at the notion that only in a homosocial setting can a cooperative form of life be possible.
By contrast, Black Legion (1937), a courageous film about “know nothing” hate groups that persecute people because of their ethnicity and religion can still speak to America today. This disturbing film, which contains no gangsters of any stripe, is a pure form of the Hollywood social-problem story. Black Legion allows us to see through the eyes of its protagonist, Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart), how postwar America became fertile ground for the seduction by hate groups of American working men, whose heads were filled by advertising with visions of luxury but whose economic prospects were basic at best.
Warner Bros. is at the top of its socially conscious form in this tale about an ordinary Joe, uneducated, not particularly talented, but hard working, whose frustrations at not being able to give the wife he loves the “best of everything”—read washing machine, vacuum cleaner, and new car—find release when a local hate group, the Black Legion, preys on his understandable resistance to accepting the fact that his failure to gain promotion is based on the superior qualifications of others. Frank would rather believe the Black Legion’s charges that “foreigners” (read clever, devious Jews) are taking away American jobs. The anti-Semitism that gets churned up in Frank is not as overtly dramatized as it would be today, but, for its time, it is unusually palpable in the characterization of Dumbrowski, whom Frank eventually helps to run out of town, as an intellectual with his nose in a book “and a big one at that.” And for those who do not get the exact allusion, the message is still delivered. The Legion targets anyone who is different.
Bogart’s edgy Frank borrows from his already established star persona as a mobster, and the internal oppression Frank feels from a troubled society that ultimately drives him to ruin prefigures the tightly wound onscreen loner that Bogart would become. Committed to neither of his two main stereotypes, the great Bogey gives an unusually modulated performance. He is neither the steely-eyed mobster nor the haunted outsider, but rather a guy who might wander in from next door on a slow Saturday night with a deck of cards and a six-pack of beer. As such, Frank is both likely and unlikely as a candidate for the toxic propaganda of the highly secret Legion and so Frank’s conversion is complex. There is a reassuring, sunny normality to the simple, human emotional dynamics of the relationship between Frank and his wife, Ruth (Erin O’Brien Moore) and their son Buddy (Dickie Jones), and between the Taylors and their next door neighbors, the Grogans, and between Betty Grogan (Ann Sheridan) and Frank’s best friend Ed Jackson (Dick Foran). The sexual politics of the film also project an aura of essentially good feeling through a retro vision of strong women who run stable homes with good humor and complete control over nurturing domestic arrangements (only bad women—prostitutes of course—venture into the outside world). In this America, how could Frank turn into a black-hooded vigilante who joins in terrorizing the innocent, hard-working Dumbrowski family? Ultimately, Frank no longer recognizes himself either and becomes increasingly nervous about being part of the Black Legion. But part of the deal is that all members are in for life, and Frank is forced unwillingly toward a point of no return that strips him of everything he joined the Legion to protect. He realizes the error of his ways much too late.
Strikingly, this Pre-World War II America has numerous points of resemblance to the America we know today, tantalized by the allure of materialism, and saturated with media-projected grandiose fantasies of heroism, represented by the super-hero radio show that Frank listens to with Buddy that finds a sinister reflection in the wild flagwaving and gun toting; the lurid, infantile rituals; and the flamboyant black costumes of the Legion. This long ago America is permeated, as is today’s America, with hate-filled media messages broadcasts that disseminate unchecked propaganda directed toward “100 % Americans.” Moreover, the America of this film is afflicted by an upper class that uses phony patriotism to manipulate working people against their own interests for the benefit of the super rich, and a whore who collaborates with the Legion attempts to escape the law by lying through her teeth. Sound familiar? The bad news is that Black Legion makes it clear that the dilemma in which America now finds itself is nothing new. We have not gotten past it.
The good news is that the dilemma in which America now finds itself is nothing new. We did survive that period. But Black Legion sports an idealism that I’m not sure our current movies can muster. Although the film’s protagonist is destroyed, the closing speech of the film made by the judge who puts the members of the Black Legion in jail, after they have been given due process, is an ode to the enduring strength of the Constitution and the rule of law. With much evidence that many members of the Bush Administration are in violation of the Constitution and no due process in sight, Black Legion cannot be taken as a reassurance that the old American ideals are still viable; it is nothing more—and nothing less—than a salutary spur to the collective memory.
Finally, a good deal less hard-edged but with a heart of similarly socially conscious gold is the exuberant Cagney vehicle, The Mayor of Hell, which takes on with gusto the need for reform of an American system of justice that has failed to deal humanely and intelligently with the at risk children of immigrants. There is a modicum of déjà vu here too. The film focuses on the fortunes of a multiethnic, multiracial group of children at a state reformatory. It has an interesting narrative structure in that before Cagney appears as the boys’ unexpected knight in shining armor, it provides about a half an hour of exposition about the social backgrounds of the children, which have led to the decision of the court to send them to a reform school.
Oddly, with all that backstory, the film provides no such background for Patsy. All we know when he arrives is that he is now a ward heeler expected to use his position only for his own advantage. But despite his tough talk and self-interest, he soon becomes the lovable eyes and ears of the film. Unlike the daring point of view structure of Legion in which we see through the eyes of a man whose actions are carefully explored in terms of the social pressures on him, in Mayor we see American social problems clearly enough, but not how they made Patsy the criminal he originally was. Instead, Patsy is romanticized. Somehow, coming up from the gutter may have led him to bad companions but has not tarnished his heart of gold; Patsy has a sense of street sense of justice that turns out to be more human that anything dished out by the Superintendent of the Reformatory, a Dickensian villain named Thompson (Dudley Digges). Patsy begins as a greedy mobster, but before he is on the screen for five minutes he begins to grow and mature until he is almost the equal in compassion of the “angel-in-the-house” reformatory nurse Dorothy Griffith (Madge Evans) who fights a losing battle against Thompson until Patsy becomes her ally.
The mob elements in this film are pro forma, since Patsy’s position as a mob boss only functions as the catalyst for the plot to begin, a backstory to explain his sympathetic interest in the boys at the reformatory, and an obstacle for him to overcome in his quest to help the boys and to win the heart of fair Dorothy. Moreover, the crux of the story has nothing to do with the gangster milieu. Rather it is structured around a debate between an authoritarian concept of education and child-centered education. Yes, in 1933 there were serious tracts written about the need to give children some decision making powers in their learning process. For that reason, Mayor of Hell is a misnomer, a mere marketing device, like the title of this collection. It purportedly refers to the election of Jimmy Smith (Frankie Darro), the troubled boy who is a focus of Patsy’s efforts to help, but by the time Jimmy is elected mayor of the school, Patsy’s child-centered reforms have been put in place and the school is anything but Hell.
Hooray for Patsy, except for one thing. Patsy gets the reforms he’s after by using some of the means that made him a successful gangster: force of will and intimidation. These are, in fact, the same tactics used by the awful Thompson, but the film disguises the similarity between the two by administering a large dose of the Cagney charm and by excusing Patsy, since he is a bully who is willing to throw his weight around for humane reasons. As the story is constructed, fighting fire with fire seems harmless, particularly since Patsy is what puts Dorothy’s soft humanism into practice.
This may be the greatest social problem in the film, albeit one that is unacknowledged. The only real condemnation of force in this film comes when it is used for unpopular ends, as for example by Thompson. Even the happy ending of Mayor is brought about, not by legal means, but through the aggressive charisma of Patsy’s personality. The orgy of violence that erupts in response when Thompson succeeds in ousting Patsy and returning to the school is only abated when Patsy slaps the boys into shape. And, all the open ended legal issues at the end of the story are swept under the rug in time for the final kiss between Patsy and Dorothy.
In sum, once we ignore the inaccurately applied word “gangster” on the box, we are free to see that juxtaposition of the six films in this boxed set, made between 1931 and 1940, reveals mid-twentieth -entury American mass entertainment ill equipped to face the complexity of the issues they invoke. The generally entertaining comedy of these social problem films is overeager in its embrace of the individualism of the hustler, and unwilling to balance the pleasures of screwing the system with an effective comic acknowledgement of the limitations of forgetting about rules. Black Legion, the one dark social problem film in the collection, is courageous in its confrontation of the banality of evil that threatens our democracy, but unable to reflect on the possibility that our legal system is limited in its ability to deal with the situation it has been exposed. It is for each individual reader to judge how and whether any part of the American media are any better equipped today. As a start, I would recommend a close examination of two recent television series, The Sopranos and The Wire.
A pleasant feature of the collection is that each film is accompanied by a generally informative, if never particularly provocative, commentary track. The commentary for Smart Money featuring Alain Silver and James Ursini is more intermittent than that on the other tracks; although Silver and Ursini are knowledgeable, they are spare in their discussion. The other tracks are more energetic in their dissemination of facts about film history, their production stories, and their interesting discussions of the decade in which the films were made. The commentary track for Picture Snatcher by Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta is organized as a substantive celebration of James Cagney. The commentary track for Lady Killer by distinguished film scholar Drew Caspar projects a contagious enthusiasm as he draws upon his considerable stockpile of information about the visual language of the film, its interesting studio history, and its interesting thematic content. On the commentary track for Brother Orchid, Alan L. Gansberg and Eric Lax explore the way this toothless, supposed gangster film is a conflation of studio responses to the demands of the Production Code and the desire of Warner Bros. to tap into Robinson’s notoriety as a screen gangster. Gansberg and Lax are particularly interested in drawing our attention to the star (and second banana) personas at work in the film. In their commentary track for Black Legion, the only track to feature the voice of a woman, Patricia King Hansen and Anthony Slide maintain a lively, insightful dialog about the documentary feel of this melodrama, articulating both the ways in which it is indeed realistic and the often absurd ways that the production capitulates to the Hollywood demand for an idealized mise-en-scène. The commentary track for Mayor of Hell by Greg Mank is spot on with his focus on the film as a Depression era melodrama shot through with the intensity of a “passion play,” featuring a Cagney that is, in the words of The New York Times, a “gutter messiah.” Mank is excellent at cross referencing Mayor with other films of the period—including Frankenstein—and I’m going to let you discover for yourself what he has to say about his comparison of this Cagney vehicle to the Karloff vehicle.
Other extras on each of the discs are assembled under the heading “Warner Night at the Movies,” a feature that includes period cartoons, shorts, newsreels, and trailers of other films of the period. Some of them come with disclaimers that they contain racist images that are not endorsed by Warner Bros. We are told that these particular short films have been included to allow us a clear historical perspective on the American media, for example a “Merrie Melodies” cartoon called The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives, on the Lady Killer disc. Shanty is an interesting artifact of the mid-twentieth century, but the disclaimer is predictably silent about the real problems it poses. Yes, this “Merrie Melodie” does contain a brief glimpse of a mechanical “Sambo Jazz Band” in Santy’s workshop, but it is far more offensive in its main narrative premise, about which the disclaimer is silent. The cartoon tells the tale of how an abject, abandoned little waif freezing from the cold is miraculously rescued by a jovial old St. Nick and has an idealized Christmas despite his grinding poverty. The disclaimer is in the spirit of the sunny, genial attitude toward our socio-economic woes in the comedies discussed above in that there is no reference to the way this cartoon disguises the problems endemic to poverty in America with stories of magical success and rescue. Lacking the guts of the 1937 Warner Bros. decision to make Black Legion, today’s Time Warner raises a tired, perfunctory salute to social consciousness.
Martha P. Nochimson is the author of Dying to Belong: Gangster Movies in Hollywood and Hong Kong; her website is www.marthapnochimson.com
Copyright © 2008 by Cineaste Magazine, Inc.