This was a student publication created in 2003 by Chuck Holmgren for the American Studies MA program at UVA.
The advent of a motion picture with sound in 1927's The Jazz Singer opened a whole new world of cinema to the masses. Lights of New York (1928), the first all-talking film, accentuated the city's role in the modernization of America. Sounds of the city, such as cars, buses, factories and the murmur of crowds dramatized the city in a way that the silent film was unable to do (Munby, 34). With the talking gangster film, the usage of street slang and ethnic accents further developed city life and ethnicity into something that had become an intrinsic part of Americanness. Largely because of the use of common street vernacular does the gangster film begin to "debase" established American cultural traditions (Munby 35).
Ralph L. Henry, a reformer-educator, questioned what result the talking motion picture would have on small towns, the epitome of "true" American culture.
What is going to happen to the English-speaking language and to American culture generally once every small-town movie house is equipped to reproduce night after night the language which the current cult of realismů will demand of successful screenplays? (in Munby, 34)
As the temperance movement and Progressives tried to rein in the corrupting influences of alcohol on American society, Ralph Henry expressed his similar fears of the same influence of the talking film on "true" American values. Already recognizing the effect industrialization and mass immigration had on the city, he voiced the further worry Protestant reformers had towards how the talking film would propagate the same decay on the greater American society. Though their voices would be heard later, the talking movie also had an impact on those within these urban areas.
The talking gangster made the cinema even more accessible than it had ever been to the illiterate immigrant denizens of urban areas like the Lower East Side. For the first time many of the uneducated working class could visit a movie house and listen, instead of read, the dialogue of the actor. Instead of a character in a film, his words written alongside his speech, the actor spoke; and he talked like them. The distinct urban slang, often accented with non-Anglo enunciation, gave the ethnic city dwellers a sense of formal bond with the cultural forms of the United States. A reflection of their heritage on film reflected their right to live in America. The gangster, in speaking with the authentic accent of his ethnic, working class background, further enhanced his status as an "outspoken representative of the vox populi" (Munby, 43).
Talking films prior to 1931's Little Caesar all had their dialogue come from a distinct place. Novels and screenplays all had literary dialogue based on a preformatted narrative structure based on nativist forms. W.R. Burnett, the writer of the novel Little Caesar and dialogue consultant for Scarface, turned towards the authenticity of the streets. He stressed the importance of developing "a style of writing based on the way American people spoke - not literary English. Of course that the Chicago slang was all around me made it easy to pick up" (Munby, 47). This notion of slang comes across in the gangster films.
Rico's hastily delivered speech at the opening of Little Caesar to sidekick Joe Massara shows the influence of sound in a movie: "Money's alright, but it ain't everything. Nah. Be somebody. Look hard at a buncha guys and know that they'll do anything you tell 'em. Have your own way or nothing. Be somebody. Yeah." The ability of sound to catch the dream-like nuances in his voice when he imagines himself as a leader of men and the emphasis he makes on the words "be somebody" projects Rico's powerful ambition to work his way to the top, yet set it far away in an intangible, ethereal future. The popularity of these talking gangster films couldn't be denied.
The potency of the gangster movie in the talking era was significant. The "hard-hitting, gritty realism" of Little Caesar spawned many succeeding crime films that capitalized on tough talking, ethnic gangster "heroes" and their rise and fall in the ruthless business of organized crime, bootlegging and/or racketeering (filmsite.org). Cagney and Robinson were joined by the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy in finding their first taste of fame in early 30's gangster films. The growth and increasing popularity of these talking gangster films in the American cultural landscape posed some problems for the nativist arbiters of "authentic, American" culture. Unfortunately for these Anglo-Saxon reform organizations, events towards the end of the "Roaring Twenties" placed them in a weakened moral state, increasingly unable to police the cultural practices of the "other".
Though virtually unstoppable throughout the twenties, the Republican political juggernaut and the Anglo-Saxon Protestants that gave them their unfailing support found themselves severely weakened both in moral power and economic/political authority. The damage inflicted by the Harding Administration's Teapot Dome scandal in the late twenties eroded the moral high ground many native elites had taken in the Prohibition Era. Teapot Dome, the name of oil fields in Wyoming that Harding's Secretary of State granted secret leases for two of his friends (each hoping to make $100 million off of), exposed tales of corruption and graft
|Public Enemy Little Caesar Scarface|
Prohibition - The Self-Made Man - The Business of Crime
The Ethnic, Urban, Working Class - Sound and the Gangster
Censorship and the Hays Code - Conclusion