Outlaws and Gangsters
As I hinted at earlier in the section on the role of music in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, one of the most enduring and malleable archetypes to emerge in American culture from the 1930s is the figure of the outlaw-gangster. Arthur Penn chose to use Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in his 1967 film. Conceivably, John Dillinger or Pretty Boy Floyd would have made decent substitutes. Dillinger and Floyd are particularly appealing characters, since Dillinger embodied the kind of "charming rogue" sensibility that the pulps and the newspapers ate up, and Floyd was perceived by many (including Woody Guthrie, who wrote a song about him) as being a kind of modern-day Robin Hood. It is interesting then that the filmmakers chose to use George "Babyface" Nelson as their outlaw-gangster in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Below is a clip of the trio of protagonists' encounter with Mr. "Babyface":
George Nelson is perhaps the least likely subject of a romanticization of a 1930s outlaw. Unlike Bonnie & Clyde, Dillinger, or Pretty Boy Floyd, "Babyface" Nelson had little redeeming or appealing characteristics. He was a sadistic, probably psychotic murderer. Furthermore, it is unlikely that he was ever anywhere near Mississippi. But there he is. In many ways, the inclusion of George Nelson in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a parody of the representational schema laid out by Penn's Bonnie & Clyde in the 1960s. All of the accoutrements of the 1930s outlaw-gangster are there: Thompson sub-machine gun (or "tommy gun"), closed top car, the suits, the robberies, and the devil-may-care attitude. This character is immediate recognizable. But without the metaphoric qualities that his cohorts offer up, what is "Babyface" Nelson doing in this film?
The total disjunction between fact and fiction that places Nelson in the South in the mid-1930s (after he had, in fact, died) is part and parcel with the creation in the filmic text of an imaginary space-a plane of representation-in which the mythologized elements of American culture interact in historically impossible ways. Gangsters and outlaws were lauded even in their own time for the flash and romance that they brought to their antagonism against the bleak economic and
cultural climate of the era. But though Nelson is presented as a "live wire" his homely features and propensity for depressions mark him as neither the stuff of a good dime novel nor a suitable subject for a "rebel" metaphor in the 1960s sense. To perceive the character "George Nelson" as such would be contrary to what is presented onscreen. But because of the sedimented layers of audience expectations of 1930s outlaw-gangster characters, that is precisely what the initial reaction to "George Nelson" could hope to be. The irony and dissonance between these expectations and the character presented in the film are clear; however, it is not at all clear what this break is meant to signify.
Arthur Penn's Bonnie & Clyde ignored so many seminal facets of the real Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow that to say the film is "based upon" any persons living or dead would be a slight overstatement. This goes right on down the line to casting Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway (who are wildly more attractive than their historical counterparts) in the title roles. Similarly, the actual character of Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger is obscured beneath the Woody Guthrie ballad and the story about the "lady in red" and the Biograph theater in Chicago. Perhaps then the purposeful usage of the least appealing of all 1930s outlaw-gangsters is in highlighting that same disjunction between the romanticized figure and the historical reality and to do nothing more than render to former idealization increasingly improbable.