It's all very confusing, that's what it is. Time was when a girl knew a hero when she saw him. He wore his shirt open at the throat and he had wavy hair and one of those profiles. You know - Greek. He was the big outdoor type and he usually wore a cowboy hat and chaps. Maybe he had one of those little mustaches….But now everything is different. You can't tell the hero from the heavy, to save you….they get riddled with machine gun bullets or hanged or electrocuted or taken for a ride - all the nice ones….what Hollywood needs desperately at this moment is a good up to date fir class improved, 1931 model hero. Our old heroes have grown sadly shopworn and we haven't as yet, any very satisfactory substitutes.
-Helen Louise Walker, "Hunting for a Hero," Motion Picture Magazine, July 1931
When Motion Picture Magazine published this article, America was already well into the heart of the Depression. Millions of formerly prosperous citizens were plunged into lives of degradation and despair. Official reports put unemployment at 15 percent; a realistic yet conservative estimate shot that figure up to over a third. (born to, p. 155) Wherever Americans turned, they saw the jobless, the starving, the homeless. It seemed as if Americans had lost their spirit - it was impossible to make one's own way when bewildering forces beyond one's control thwarted one at every turn.
Meanwhile, the familiar institutions seemed to have their heads stuck firmly in the sand. President Herbert Hoover told the country that, in fact, some people were benefiting from the Depression: "The hobos, for example, are better fed than they have ever been." (born to, p. 155) Radio programming and newspaper stories followed suit, blaring promises of false economic hope while stashing real-life stories of failure in the last minutes or the back pages.
Into this hypocrisy strode the figure of the screenland gangster. Brash and loud, he made it to the top the old-fashioned way, eliminating weaker leaders (viewers could insert Hoover, the church, the Congress, or any other "failed" institution) and grabbing everything, including the girl, for himself. When "the national mood was characterized by apathy, defeat, disorientation, and insecurity, movie gangsters were active," fulfilling a fantasy of usefulness for viewers with little productive to do in their own lives. (born to, p. 163) These screen heroes made no attempt to camoflauge their greedy motives, and viewers loved them for what they saw as honesty. A fan wrote that "the gangster makes no hypocritical 'bones' about what he wants and acts…This practicality appeals to the common sense of the audience." (born to, 164) In the figure of the gangster, the audience saw a man who was able to do what they could only dream about - make it to the gilded paradise using only his or her wits.