The Volstead Act's attack on the ethnic social institution of the inner city saloon eternally linked prohibition with the large base of new immigrants within the urban slums, such as Manhattan's Lower East Side and Chicago's South Side. It was the promise of the American Dream that brought many of these "second wave" immigrants (mostly Southern and Eastern Europeans) to the United States in the early 1900s. Growing out of the poor city slums, the film gangsters became heroes to other people of the ethnic, urban working class in a country that, at times, didn't seem to want them.

The "first wave" of European immigration in the mid-nineteenth century consisted mostly of Northern Europeans from Ireland, Germany and Scandinavia, who, after experiencing tragic crop failures and political instability, found the
Ellis Island immigrants, c. 1910
United States provided an outlet from the devastation in their homeland. Toward the end of the nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries, Southern and Eastern Europeans migrated west. Italian, Russian and Polish immigrants (often of Jewish heritage) crowded into urban ghettoes and slums that previous immigrants called home. By 1910, seventy-five percent of New York City's inhabitants were first or second generation Americans (Rosow, 42-43). This majority of newcomers to America's cities threatened the cultural dominance held by Anglo-Saxons. The Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants carried with them a variety of native cultural traditions and societal customs that 'old stock' Americans thought would undermine the centuries old social order they considered the "real America". As a result, while these new ethnicities entered the United States, they became subject to Progressive and nativist methods of "Americanization."

Uncle Sam scowling at the
masses of arriving immigrants
Under assault from competing foreign cultures, "pure" American organizations such as the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) embarked on programs of assimilation in order to make sure that their notion of Americanness prevailed . In trying to fold these various foreign cultures into one, predefined, "authentic" American culture, the DAR published a Manual for Citizenship (1920), which they gave to Naturalization Courts for distribution to foreign-born natives searching for American citizenship (Munby, 26). The document called for these newcomers to,

Absolutely give up (your) own free will of citizenship in any other country and your allegiance to any foreign ruler whose subject you have beenů
You are not an Italian-American.
You are not a Spanish-American.
You are not a German-American, nor any other kind of hyphenated American. YOU ARE AN AMERICAN (their emphasis) (Munby, 29-30).

New national legislation politically legitimized these nativist attitudes when Congress passed two immigration acts in 1921 and 1924 to stem the tide of immigrants following WWI. The rise of the Klan and the first Red Scare helped perpetuate a xenophobic fear throughout "established" America for the new masses of "potential" Americans (Munby, 27). Such acts of exclusion served only to force the ethnic "other" to isolate themselves from the larger American society and become disaffected with the "true" American culture established by centuries of Anglo-Saxon dominance.

Congregating within inner city, ethnic enclaves, the new immigrants formed communities that fostered their native identities. Such neighborhoods as Little Italy, the Irish Hell's Kitchen and largely Jewish Lower East Side of
Hester St.
Lower East Side, NYC
New York City gave the many people a new home away from home. As a part of a community that shares culturally unique traditions, religions and even diets, these inner city neighborhoods served as a citadel for the ever increasing immigrant population. Institutions sprang up within these neighborhoods that further helped incorporate the ethnic immigrants. Social clubs, such as those that gave the film gangsters their start, helped young and old alike spend their free time away from the troubles that plagued the city. Such troubles included other, more nefarious clubs and institutions, like gangs. Famous real-life gangs like the Bowery Boys, Dead Rabbits and the famous Five Points Gang (of which the police in Scarface labeled Tony Camonte a member), fought each other for territory and for sport often serving as a gateway to organized crime.

More politically oriented social clubs ideally served to help the immigrants in pushing politicians into local, state and national office who had the inner-city ethnic needs in mind. The powerful Tammany Hall political machine, the most potent force in New York City politics for over a hundred years rose out of the Irish slums. Al Smith, the icon of national political shift away from prohibition, was a product of the Tammany Hall machine. Furthermore, labor unions found significant patronage in the ethnic inner-city neighborhoods. With the massive amount of workers available within the urban areas, labor unions became vital organizations for helping new immigrants get and keep jobs. The mass collection of unskilled, uneducated workers served the machines of industrialization.

Henry Ford's conception of mass production relied on a large supply of workers to reduce the necessity of expensive skilled workers (DeLong). Ford found out that keeping workers happy was an important part of reducing worker turnover. In raising the hourly wage from $2 to $5 in 1915, he contributed to a broad shift in the American social spectrum (ibid.). As other corporations followed suit, more and more of the "new" Americans in the working class who occupied such manufacturing jobs found themselves, along with more money, with an increased amount of leisure time than they previously had.

With more time for leisure, the working class engaged in the same activities they had for decades, but in greater scale. New York's Regent Theater, built in 1913. First American movie palace
New York's Regent Theater, 1913
Cinema, which had its roots in the lower classes, began to occupy a greater place in 1920s culture (ibid.). Little more than a fledgling, "low culture" institution before WWI, the motion picture business became one of the ten largest industries in the United States in the twenties (Schultz). This growth was possible due to the expanded free time awarded to the work class and the growth of the middle class.

As it grew to encompass a more diverse foundation, the middle class began to accept more of the culture of the lower classes. As Jonathan Munby suggests in his work Public Enemies, Public Heroes, "both at the level of leisure practices and at the level of cultural politics there was a growing public recognition of the need to include the ethnic working class in the definition of Americanness" (32). Yet, he concludes, this was done with great caution. If the Anglo Saxon hegemony wasn't vigilant of the "subaltern desires" of the lower classes the incorporation of such a culture into 'proper' American culture would both popularize and sanction their inferior culture (ibid.). Another such aspect of ethnic culture that had proliferated into the twenties was drinking.

With the onset of prohibition, the Anglo-Saxon "guardians" of Americanness thought they had eliminated the saloon and lower class drunkenness; two of the social blights they saw coming out of the ethnic, urban centers.
Tom and his gang drinking
in Public Enemy
However, with the rise in leisure time and with more income, drinking acquired a new image to the ethnic wage earner. Instead of the riotous drunkenness of the saloons, contemporary films portrayed drinking as a cultivated pastime of the wealthy elites. Often depicted on film in swanky ballrooms or in lush apartments, drinking took on an air of sophistication. Drinking certainly didn't increase during prohibition (the cost of alcohol alone rose significantly from anywhere between 400% to several thousand percent), but those that could afford it, did engage in one of their native countries' oldest customs (Lender, 145-146). In visiting speakeasies or making their own bathtub gin, many of these ethnic Americans staged a simple revolt against a dominating American culture that sought to stigmatize their leisure time and their status as 'hyphenated Americans'.

Out of this new world of leisure time, the most rapidly expanding part American life, rose the most feared representative of the ethnic, urban working class; the gangster. He was the one individual who "had the tenacity to buck the system" and become a new cultural hero for the fellow members of his class (Munby, 33). America's 'old guard,' in stigmatizing the ethnic urban people's leisure time as the realm of the "other," the gangster, the inner city icon of leisure, became the nativist's nemesis. As the boss of America's urban nightlife, bootlegger, fashion plate
Rico admiring his tuxedo
and unfettered capitalist he embodied everything the "authentic" Americans feared about the "potential" Americans, and everything the immigrants despised about the nativists (ibid.).

The promise of inclusion into a classless society attracted many immigrants to make the long journey across the Atlantic. Yet after settling in American, the dream of inclusion became the reality of exclusion. The traditional Anglo arbiters of culture sought to exercise their social dominance over the new Americans. The restrictive "top-down" laws and regulations that denied immigrants the right to engage in many of their native customs (such as what prohibition did) drove a distinct line between these disparate notions of "American". In refusing to conform and leading the fight in opposition of these restrictive, unpopular laws, the gangster became a champion of the under-/non-represented members of the ethnic, urban working class. Instead of respecting prohibition as the law of the land, the gangster emphasized prohibition as a fight between two distinct parts of society. He made prohibition a struggle of "us vs. them" for the working class (Munby, 37).

As the gangster continued to succeed in his business endeavors of bootlegging and racketeering, it became much more clear who would emerge victorious. The gangster's wealth, compounded by the law's inability (and oftentimes refusal) to take active measures to stop this criminality altered the perception of prohibition's top-down influence. The nativist assault of prohibition on the new Americans developed into a "bottom-up" rebellion against the oppression of forced Americanization (Munby, 48). This bottom-up reprisal had its best popular exhibition in the gangster film, with true sons of the ethnic, urban, working class in the lead roles.

Cagney, Robinson, and Muni all came out of New York's bastion of ethnicity, the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Swollen with European immigrants following successive waves of ships sailing west, the tenements
New York Tenements
of the Lower East Side and other such ethnic areas provided housing for these poor, generally uneducated newcomers to the United States. Their amenities, "generally defective in size, arrangement, supplies of water, warmth, and ventilation," highlighted the negativity many "true" Americans felt towards the city, and provided a common history for these actors and the characters they played in gangster films (Dolkart and Limmer).

Three stars definitely not of Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage (Cagney was Irish-Catholic, Muni and Robinson's last names were Weisenfreund and Goldenberg, respectively, both of Polish-Jewish heritage), these men rose to glorify the "social realist dimensions" of the new polyglot American society (Munby, 39-40). As cinema grew with the expansion of leisure time towards the thirties, these men embodied the gangster's they played on film in their rise to wealth and fame from the ethnic "other" of the inner city. Their broad popularity heightened nativist fears of the "pluralization" of their American culture into one incorporating more than simply the traditions of Anglo-Saxons.

Casting these three actors into mainstream American films depicting a strong ethnic hero brought ethnicity closer to the "authentic" American society, and began to strip it from its distinction as the "taboo of the other" (Munby, 26). The undeniable star power of Cagney, Robinson and Muni (all three would eventually go on to be recognized with an Academy Award nomination or an Oscar) within a cultural form as increasingly influential as film underscored the expanding role of previously marginalized people within the greater American society. The growth of film forced much more of American society to realize the powerful presence of the ethnic, urban, working class individual and his existence as society's "other". The most obvious trait of his life on society's perimeter came with the advent of the "talkie" and the gangster's ethnic identity through his voice on film.



synopses
Public Enemy   Little Caesar   Scarface  
  Previous Introduction
Prohibition - The Self-Made Man - The Business of Crime
The Ethnic, Urban, Working Class - Sound and the Gangster
Censorship and the Hays Code - Conclusion
Works Cited
Next