Gangster Films Become Popular Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Emerging out of the depths of the Great Depression, the gangster film revealed much about Americans’ frustrations and proved one of the most popular and resilient of film genres.

Summary of Event

The years 1931 and 1932 launched Hollywood’s time of the gangster. Caught in the widening Great Depression, Great Depression;motion-picture industry[motion picture industry] the American people were disillusioned and angry. The national dream of economic opportunity had become a nightmare, and society’s institutions, especially the federal government under President Herbert Hoover, seemed unable to do anything except utter hollow, optimistic nostrums. The film industry, itself suffering from sagging attendance, discovered that tapping this mounting public discontent would bring people back to the theaters. In addition to normal escapist fare, the studios began offering productions dealing with corrupt politicians and businessmen, shady lawyers, dishonest journalists, and women driven to prostitution by economic necessity. These pictures showing the United States in a bleak, unsavory light were popular, but it was the gangster film that most caught the public’s interest and offered the deepest insights into the troubled national psyche. Few gangster films were produced before the Depression; now they would proliferate, and the screen mobster, especially as he appeared in Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932), would offer himself as a new, disturbing hero. [kw]Gangster Films Become Popular (1931-1932) [kw]Films Become Popular, Gangster (1931-1932) Little Caesar (film) Public Enemy, The (film) Scarface (film) Motion pictures;gangster genre Gangster films [g]United States;1931-1932: Gangster Films Become Popular[07740] [c]Motion pictures;1931-1932: Gangster Films Become Popular[07740] [c]Entertainment;1931-1932: Gangster Films Become Popular[07740] Robinson, Edward G. LeRoy, Mervyn Wellman, William Cagney, James Hawks, Howard Muni, Paul

Little Caesar, directed for Warner Bros. Warner Bros.;gangster films by Mervyn LeRoy in late 1930 and released in January, 1931, broke the ground. It is a simple tale of a small-time hoodlum, Rico (played by Edward G. Robinson), who joins a mob and quickly gains power by being tougher, more relentless, and more ferocious than anyone else. Eventually, he becomes the second most important boss in the city. Rico is extremely ruthless, although ultimately not ruthless enough. He falls because he cannot bring himself to kill an old friend who wants to leave the mob. Rico stays his hand, the friend betrays him to the authorities, and Rico’s organization crumbles. Alone, on the run, he is finally gunned down by the police in an unfair fight. The police kill Rico, yet they really have little to do with his actual destruction. His doom stems from his going soft over friendship.

Little Caesar was an instant hit. The film is not particularly well made or well plotted; its effectiveness comes from its violent action and the character of Rico as realized by Robinson. Rico is a compelling figure who, despite his murderous nature, emerges as a somewhat sympathetic protagonist.

Rico’s prime ambition is to get ahead, to make something of himself. He wants wealth and control; even more, he desires status. He seeks to be somebody. A few decades earlier, he might have aspired to be a robber baron. Totally devoted to his ambition and rather puritanical in his personal behavior, he does not drink, involve himself with the easy women of the underworld, or do anything else that he thinks might distract him from his goals. For most of the film, Rico is successful. Through Rico, Little Caesar suggests that, given the shambles of American society, crime is perhaps the only way left to secure at least some of the American Dream.

Warner Bros. quickly followed up Little Caesar with The Public Enemy. Made by veteran director William Wellman, the new picture surpassed Little Caesar in its realism and complexity of story and in its indictment of American society. The Public Enemy chronicles the career of Tommy Powers, a young man from a poor working-class district who savors the lifestyle of the wealthy mobster. Tommy, played with ebullient energy by James Cagney, takes up crime as a boy and then, with brutal efficiency, moves up the ranks of organized crime. He never obtains as much control or status as Rico, but he has more fun. Tommy likes alcohol, parties, and women. He is witty and engaging and, despite the fact that he also shoots people, he is presented as a hero. In The Public Enemy, those who have honest jobs and play by the legal rules fail. If you want to win, the film seems to say, be like Tommy Powers.

Tommy enjoys his life immensely; nevertheless, he too dies, murdered by rival hoodlums while lying helpless, recovering from wounds. The gangsters of these films meet violent ends because Hollywood was unwilling to risk the wrath of censors by letting screen criminals get away with their crimes completely. Significantly, however, the film gangster’s death usually does not illustrate a crime-does-not-pay moral or occur in order that justice be upheld. Rarely does a protagonist’s demise have much to do with the nature of his crimes. He succumbs because of a personal weakness—in Rico’s case, affection for an old buddy—or, like Tommy, as a result of power struggles within the underworld. In facing death, the film gangster is often given stature and nobility; he becomes a tragic hero.

The primary focus of the gangster film, however, is on these men’s lives, not their deaths, and their lives are sagas of achievement. In the midst of the economic chaos and spiritual malaise of the Great Depression, they make money in adventurous ways and enjoy great material comfort. They are common men, men of the city, men often of immigrant roots. In other words, they are men with whom millions can identify. They advance by their own talents and without hypocrisy. In a society in which the stock market crash of 1929 had revealed many business, professional, and political leaders as frauds, the screen gangsters do not cover up what they are. Although they break the law, the law as presented in these films is either corrupt or irrelevant. In Little Caesar, the top criminal in the city, the only man more powerful than Rico, is clearly an established member of the upper-class governing elite. There are no courts in the gangster film, and the police, when they appear, are ineffectual at best. The police may show up at the end of a film to kill the gangster, as they do in Little Caesar; however, such an ending is usually a tacked-on resolution that has little to do with the logic of a film’s plot. By the time the police appear, the protagonist is already finished. In The Public Enemy, neither law nor government exists. The society belongs to those who seize control.

The box-office triumphs of Little Caesar and The Public Enemy generated a host of similar films. From Little Caesar’s release through 1932, the film industry produced dozens of gangster films. Americans wanted to see gangster pictures; the individualistic criminal as a culture hero and the savage portrayal of American society struck responsive chords. There were other reasons, too, for the outlaw’s fascination. Gangsters were part of the daily scene, not simply creations of Hollywood’s imagination. Every major city had its colorful mobsters, and their contemporary notoriety must have enhanced the genre’s attraction. Moreover, Prohibition was still the law. Gangsters provided alcohol for the average citizen, and many Americans were willing to accept them as long as they only killed one another and kept the booze flowing. The gangster films, by the nature of their subject matter, also included a good deal of sex and violence, which have always been popular with audiences. During the Depression, such escapist elements seemed especially popular.

Although the gangster film helped to revive Hollywood’s fortunes, many in American society were outraged by the new genre. Religious and other groups that sought to monitor community standards complained loudly about the films’ level of sex and violence, glorification of criminals, and disparaging view of law and order. That the mobsters were killed off in the end did not satisfy them. As protests mounted, independent producer Howard Hughes released Scarface in March, 1932.

Directed by Howard Hawks, who, like Wellman, was an established filmmaker, Scarface purportedly deals with Al Capone, the best-known gangster in 1930’s America. Capone, whose nickname was “Scarface,” supposedly was the model for Tony Camonte, the film’s protagonist. Actually, little of Capone’s career or personality is portrayed in the film. Capone was an ugly, bestial, thug of a man. Tony Camonte, as played by Paul Muni, is good-looking, somewhat boyish, and occasionally naïve. Hardly a brute, although certainly murderous, Tony is almost a composite of Rico and Tommy Powers. Determined to get to the top and merciless in his methods, Tony does take over the city. As he does so, however, he indulges himself with women and spends his ill-gotten gains along the way. Muni’s Tony is a man with a gun in his hand and a twinkle in his eye, a likable killer.

Although the film’s story is the familiar one of a hood’s progress, Hawks’s direction makes Scarface special. Hawks utilizes a fast pace, goes well beyond the normal gangster film in both body count and sexual suggestiveness, and wraps the whole film in an absorbing, impressionistic visual style. Tony, of course, dies at the end; he is one of those with a weakness. Hawks, however, makes Tony’s flaw singularly different: Tony has incestuous feelings for his sister. When he discovers his best friend has gone off with his sister, he kills the man. The sister informs on Tony, and the police, who have spent the film doing little besides occasionally bemoaning their powerlessness, show up at the end to kill Tony. It takes large numbers of them, and a huge shootout scene, to get Tony Camonte, who goes down with almost operatic grandeur.


Scarface was the last of the seminal gangster films of the 1930’s. By 1933, the cycle was ending. The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt was a major factor; as Roosevelt’s New Deal took hold, Americans felt that the government was finally doing something to help them. The angry national mood that had sustained the gangster films’ appeal diminished considerably. Roosevelt also ended Prohibition, eliminating any need for most people to feel grateful to organized crime. Most important, outcries against films depicting the United States as sick, films with too much sex and killing—especially mobster films—became deafening. Church and civic groups threatened boycotts, censors raged at state and local levels, and possible federal intervention loomed. Hollywood panicked. After Scarface’s release, the studios began curtailing gangster film production and moved to a self-censoring system to ensure that they would maintain control of their films. Theoretically, Hollywood had regulated itself since the 1920’s, but the program was feeble. In 1933 and 1934, the studios accepted a tougher production code that was to keep sex, excessive violence, severe disrespect for society, and glorification of such nasty people as gangsters out of films for decades.

The new code at first kept the mobster off the screen, but soon he began a slow comeback. He had been so popular, had made the studios so much money, that they were loath to part with him. By 1935, Hollywood decided to make gangster films again, although with differences. There would be less violence and no sex. The moral message of the films must be clear: Crime does not pay. Government and the law, particularly the federal government in the person of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent, or “G-man”—and not the criminals—must be presented as admirable.

With these changes, the gangster returned. His hard edge gone, he was no longer the gutsy protagonist making his way in a lawless world. The spirits of Rico, Tommy Powers, and Tony Camonte, however, were hard to bury. As the years went by, the gangster subtly and incrementally took control of films. Although law-and-order themes prevailed through the World War II years (1939-1945), the screen gangster emerged increasingly as a more potent, attractive character, and in postwar America, he once more came into his own. The once-tough production code atrophied, and the crime film again became popular at the box office. Many of the same themes seen in the early 1930’s reappeared: sex, violence, a corrupt and lawless society, and the mobster as success story. Shaken by such issues as the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, urban problems, and economic stagnation, Americans remained troubled, and the film gangster continued to serve as a representative of people disillusioned by the distance between the American Dream and its actuality. Many of the numerous films noirs of the late 1940’s and the 1950’s, as well as films of later decades such as The Godfather (1972) and its sequels, GoodFellas (1990), and Bugsy (1991), are heirs of the early 1930’s, and their protagonists are often similar to those of Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface. Little Caesar (film) Public Enemy, The (film) Scarface (film) Motion pictures;gangster genre Gangster films

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bergman, Andrew. We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films. 1971. Reprint. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992. Excellent study of the Depression through its films provides an analysis of the gangster genre and also looks at other film types that reveal discontent with American society. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clarens, Carlos. Crime Movies: From Griffith to “The Godfather” and Beyond. New York: W. W. Norton, 1980. Comprehensive history of the crime film is accessible to both film buff and serious cinema scholar. Examines most of the major crime films and provides full and insightful discussion of the gangster genre. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCarty, John. Bullets over Hollywood: The American Gangster Picture from the Silents to the “The Sopranos.” New York: Da Capo Press, 2004. Comprehensive history of gangster films addresses the various elements that make up the genre and analyzes the films’ appeal. Includes select bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mast, Gerald. Howard Hawks, Storyteller. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. Biography and study of Hawks’s films is a valuable source of information on the making of Scarface and the film’s multiple layers of meaning. Includes bibliography, filmography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roffman, Peter, and Jim Purdy. The Hollywood Social Problem Film: Madness, Despair, and Politics from the Depression to the Fifties. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981. Scholarly study of pivotal Depression-era films includes brief discussion of the gangster film. Features select bibliography, filmography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Warshow, Robert. The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre, and Other Aspects of Popular Culture. Enlarged ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. Collection of essays on popular culture includes “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” which is generally considered one of the most important and original analyses of the meaning of the early gangster films.

Sennett Defines Slapstick Comedy

Warner Bros. Introduces Talking Motion Pictures

First Academy Awards Honor Film Achievement

Hollywood Enters Its Golden Age

Studio System Dominates Hollywood Filmmaking

Karloff and Lugosi Become Kings of Horror

Categories: History