Prohibition Era



Prohibition: What is it?
With the enacting of prohibition in 1920s America came a new age of cinema. Prohibition in the United States was brought about in order to reduce the amount of alcohol being consumed, and to fix social dilemmas (Thornton 1). Although the overall consumption of alcohol decreased, the illegal importation of alcohol became an easy way to make money. Less alcohol was available, which made the price of it skyrocket. Organized crime syndicates took advantage of this, increasing the amount of illegal mob activity during prohibition (Priestley). While there was a surge of gang activity in major cities, the amount of films depicting such activity also increased; the crime/gangster genre of film was born. Crime and drama captivates people, and when it is romanticized and presented on a large movie screen, audiences flock to theatres (Dirks 1)

What Are They About?
Gangster films and TV shows about this era are generally about the lawless lives of criminals and outlaws. Directors and Producers glorify the careers of criminals of the day. The storylines of gangster movies are generally cookie cutter plots about a big heist, or being on the lam, or a conflict between two warring gangs. Robert Warshow, an American critic and author, argued that “gangster movie is a story of enterprise and success ending in precipitate failure” and that “that success belongs in the city, and is of course, evil” (Grieveson, Sonnet, Stanfield 1) Warshow is explaining how the 1920s gangsters movie follows a simple plotline of success vs. failure, and the means by which the gangsters achieves one or the other, is primarily evil. The gangsters in question have an archetype which can be classified dishonest and self destructive, but smart and clever and charismatic, thus earning more of an outlaw label, rather than criminal, which has negative connotations such as cowardice (Dirks). They rise to power through violent ambition and cruelty, but show emotion on the other side of the spectrum as well, such as compassion; gangsters are deep, multi-faceted characters when portrayed in Film and TV (Dirks). While speaking about his Character Enoch Thompson, Steve Buscemi said "It's so much fun to play a character that complex who is a leader. That doesn't often come my way" (Chozick). The setting is almost always an urban center, which is parallel to real gang activity in large cities, such as Chicago or New York (Organized Crime: The American Shakedown); this helps the viewer see the underground lifestyle of the gangster protagonist: night clubs, alcohol, drugs, etc. They are also generally portrayed as victims of circumstance, because films from this era were told through the perspective of the gangster (Dirks). This image of gangsters was helped by Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, who were two of the most famous actors to play gangsters in film (Springhall 4). Gangsters and Criminals are rebels against regular society (Baxter 29)

Manipulation of the Audience:
The glamorization of stories like Al Capone’s, Enoch Johnson’s, and Bugs Moran’s (who was Al Capone’s biggest rival) make for incredible TV drama; during the 1920s when Prohibition was put into effect, there were movies being made about it, and the increase in gang activity it created. The appeal of these dangerous criminals comes from the romanticizing that occurs in TV and Film of people, such as the aforementioned Enoch “Nucky” Johnson. Even though this man is a ruthless demagogue and considered evil, he is viewed as a likeable character, because Martin Scorcese and Sopranos writer Terrance Winter know how to play on the emotions of the audience, and portray him as an outlaw who is respected.

Humble Beginnings:
Before Prohibition, organized crime syndicates stuck mainly to gambling and theft; however they saw prohibition as a golden opportunity to make huge amounts of money in a very short amount of time. The idea of gangsters using violence and extortion and the like to make large sums of money is very appealing to the general populace, if only to escape into a fantasy lifestyle for a short 2 hours. The prohibition era gangster’s pursuit of wealth through illegal activities is parallel to that of the American idea of success, or, the American Dream; it’s just achieved outside the boundaries of the law.
The gangster film era “officially” began in 1912 with short, silent films about gangsters, The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), and It was the first movie that was truly about organized crime (Grieveson, Sonnet, Stanfield 3). The crime/gangster didn’t have much popularity until the era of the “talkie”. When sound came to movies and the true nature of organized crime could more easily be portrayed, the screeching tires in a car chase, the clatter of machine gun fire; things that silent films couldn’t do. The late 1920s, early 1930s is when gangster films became an entertaining, popular way to attract people to the movies, people who were interested in the violence and illegal activities of organized crime mobs. Gang activity in this time period advanced the crime genre: the illegal activity that surrounded prohibition and events such as The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The ability to move cameras and the development of sound technology of the era also helped gangster films come to life (Dirks).The first all talking gangster film was The Lights of New York (1928). Other significant gangster films from this time period include City Streets (1931) which is known as Al Capone’s favorite film (Dirks), and Bad Company (1931) which was the first film to address the events of The St Valentine’s Day Massacre (Dirks), in which 7 people were murdered as a result of a struggle between Al Capone’s and Bugs Moran’s respective gangs (Eig).

Censorship Issues:
The crime/gangster genre, more than any other, caused problems for not just the censorship agencies, but also with police and politicians (Springhall 2); Newspapers of the 1920s and 30s exaggerated the effect that these violent crime films had on America’s youth, stating that the movies encouraged children and teenagers to steal and commit crimes (Springhall 1). The same is true about violent video games and the lyrics of rap songs in modern America. People believed that portraying the lives of criminals would increase the amount of juvenile crimes and accused Hollywood for it (Springhall 3). The director of the New York State censorship board even received many complaints about Little Caesar (1930) from parents, when children “applauded the gang leader as a hero” (Springhall 5).
In order to combat the violence and harsh content of the gangster crime genre, the Motion Picture Production Code was created in 1930 by William Hays. The gangster genre was forced to change a great deal because of it. The Motion Picture Production Code (commonly called the Hays Code) helped eliminate the romanticizing of gangsters by forcing studios to follow more strict guidelines when it came to censorship of violence and the depiction of organized crime. The code had many restrictions: acts of crime were not allowed to be directly depicted, the showing of illegal drug use was forbidden, as well as nudity, a number of "bad words" were also banned. The studios in Hollywood were forced to cope. They introduced 2 new subgenres as a way of getting around the strict guidelines, and to abate the protest of the audiences throughout the nation. The "good guy as a bad guy" genre was particularly successful after the enforcement of the Hays Code began in 1934. This genre showed detectives, police officers, FBI agents, people who society considers "good guys" on the other side of the law, generally working undercover. However the cops almost always acted as amorally and as evil as the gangsters they were trying to bring down (Dirks). This was a way for studios to present to the audience a character who is likeable and who has folk hero status, while still being considered the good guy. The second, less impactful genre was a "Cain and Abel, which had an extreme emphasis on the idea that crime is bad. Generally, this genre showed children who grew up and began following different paths in life; Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) was about just that. Two young friends who grow up together, one becomes a crime lord, the other becomes a priest - two drastically different paths (Dirks).

1920s Gangster VS. 21st Century Gangster:
There is a discrepancy between the portrayal of gangsters in the 20s and 30s and the image of gangsters in today’s culture, and it’s mainly based on race. The majority of gangs in today’s society are made up of nonwhite young adults, while the gangs of prohibition era America are mainly white men. The social construction that surrounds race has been in place since the founding of America as a British Colony. The idea of Manifest Destiny, or the belief that America was destined to expand across America, no matter who they had to displace, and the fact that whites have been in positions of power for centuries, only supports the idea that non-white people are to be considered “less than” white people. This translates into every aspect of our lives today through the media representation of race and ethnicity. Although gangsters of today and prohibition era gangsters generally commit the same crimes, such as murder, extortion, theft, etc. People like Al Capone and John Dillinger were and are romanticized and portrayed as the likeable, sophisticated protagonist, whereas the common nonwhite gangster is portrayed as violent and mindless. Non-whites with low socioeconomic status are the gangsters of today’s culture, whereas successful white men were the gangsters of the 20s and 30s. Gangs today are made up of non-whites; such as the Bloods which is primarily an African-American gang, or MS13 which is an El Salvadorian gang; they are most often shown as ruthless and violent, whereas Al Capone was viewed as a folk hero whom people respected.

Works Cited:

Dirks, Tim. “Crime and Gangster Films”. 2010. Web. 12 Nov. 2010

Thornton, Mark. “Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure”. Cato Institute. 17 July 1991. Web. 12 Nov.

Von Drehle, David. “The Demon Drink“. Time Magazine, 24 May 2010. Web. 12 Nov. 2010,9171,1989146,00.html

Priestly, Brenton. “Prohibition – A Foundation of Organized Crime”. 2004.
Web. 12 Nov 2010.

Eig, Jonathan. “The St. Valentine's Day Massacre—Excerpt from "Get Capone," Chicago
Magazine. May 2010. 12 Nov. 2010.

Thomas, W. V. “Organized crime: the American shakedown”. In Editorial research reports
1981 (Vol. I). Washington: CQ Press. Retrieved December 2, 2010, from CQ Press Electronic
Library, CQ Researcher Online,

“The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (Hays Code)” 16 April 2006. Web. 12 Nov.

Warshow, Robert. “The Gangster as a Tragic Hero” Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics,
Theatre, and Other Aspects of Popular Culture. 1948. Web. 23 Nov. 2010

Springhall, John. "Censorying Hollywood: Youth, Moral Panic and Crime/Gangster Movies of the
1930s" The Journal of Popular Culture. Vol 32 Issue 3. Blackwell Publishing LTD. 135-154. 1998.

Baxter, John. "The Gangster Film” The Gangster Film Reader. Silver, Alain. Ursini, James.
Prompton Plains, NJ. Limelight Editions 2007. 29-39. Print.