Kennington Bioscope at The Cinema Museum, Lambeth, London
18 October 2017
(Warning: Contains spoilers)
We were back at the Cinema Museum tonight for an intriguing contest, to determine who was responsible for the emergence of the gangster film as we know it today. In one corner was legendary film pioneer D W Griffith and in the other was master visual stylist Josef von Sternberg. But before the main cinematic bout of the evening there were a couple of interesting starters.
First up was a comedy short from the Hal Roach stable, Chasing the Chaser (1925). Directed by Stan Laurel in his pre-L&H days the film was intended as an effort to push Scottish born comedian James Finlayson into a starring role. In the film, Finlayson’s wife and neighbour engage a cross-dressing private detective to determine whether rumours of his philandering are correct. Although the film is amusing its quite clear that Finlayson was far better suited in the long suffering stooge role rather than the comedy lead and it was in this persona that he subsequently found his true niche, usually at the hands of Stan and Ollie. But the real star of the picture was the cross-dressing detective, played by Frederick Ko Vert (yes, really!). In particular, the scene where the secretary rips off her wig to reveal ‘herself’ as the detective is a real surprise (image top left). A female impersonator and dancer in vaudeville, Ko Vert (image left) made his film debut in An Adventuress (Dir. Fred J Balshofer, US, 1920) starring opposite the most famous female impersonator of the day, Julian Eltinge. He also not only appeared in The Wizaed of Oz (Dir. Larry Semon, US, 1925) but designed all the costumes as well. Ko Vert went on to become “Kovert of Hollywood,” a pioneer in male physique photography. But after several run-ins with the Los Angeles Police Department’s vice squad, Kovert shot and killed himself in 1949. Also making a brief early film appearance here as a nursemaid attracting Finlayson’s attention was a very young Fay Wray.
Greatly adding to enjoyment of the film was the live piano accompaniment provided by John Sweeney
( NB Chasing the Chasers is available on DVD in The Stan Laurel Collection Vol. 1 from Kino Video. No sign of it on You Tube. )
We then had the multi-coloured delights of The Red Specter (Dir. Segundo de Chomón and Ferdinand Zecca, Fr, 1907) a beautifully tinted and stencil coloured short. Spanish born co-director Segundo de Chomón was a less well known (but some would say more technically gifted) contemporary of France’s cinematic trickster Georges Melies. The Red Specter opens with the spectral skeleton, who may or may not be the devil (as the film may alternatively be titled Satan at Play), emerging from a coffin in his lair. He levitates two women, making them disappear and then imprisons three more in bottles until he is eventually defeated by what looks like a good fairy (apparently played by de Chomon’s wife Julienne Mathieu). But ignoring the vagaries of the plot, the film really is an excuse for a whole string of clever filmic tricks (from almost a century before the emergence of CGI). In addition, much of the film is lusciously stencil coloured.
De Chomon (image below right) got into film work through his wife who was an actress with the Pathé Frères studio. Working initially in Spain on animated and trick films his work soon attracted the attention of Charles Pathé who saw in him an opportunity to compete with the hugely successful Melies and he was invited to work in France. De Chomon turned his hand to a wide range of animation techniques including puppetry, multiple exposures, hand-drawn, matte shots, silhouette animation, miniatures, and claymation , often mixed with live action. He also became increasingly adept at weaving these animations into a cogent story, rather than just using them to demonstrate specific animation techniques. Moving to Italy in 1912, de Chomon undertook a lot of the special effects work for the Italian epic Cabiria (Dir. Giovanni Pastrone, It, 1914) and from then on was to concentrate mainly on special effects work for other directors rather than making films of his. Amongst films he worked on were Machiste in Hell (Dir. Guido Brignone, It, 1925) and Napoleon (Dir. Abel Gance, Fr, 1927). Although by the end of the 1920s, de Chomon was apparently planning to resume work on his own films he died suddenly in 1929, of a heart attack aged just 57.
The magic on screen was perfectly matched by the live playing of pianist Lillian Henley.
( NB The Red Specter is available on DVD in The Genius of Segundo de Chomón from FilmoTeca de Catalunya. It can also be watched on YouTube in a number of differing versions and with a range of musical accompaniments. One of the best is scored by The Ubangis. )
It was then time to get down to business with the evening’s gangster face-off. Coming up first was D W Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (Dir. D W Griffith, US, 1912). In amongst the seventy (70!) films directed by Griffith in 1912 was this short 17 minute melodrama, written (uncredited) by Anita Loos, with what was her first film script, telling the story of New York hoodlum ‘the Snapper Kid’. In doing so, they created what was one of the first gangster stories put on film (as opposed to a number of earlier films which simply featured criminals), setting in motion (as well as providing many of the key themes for) a movie genre that was to remain a mainstay of cinema history for a century to come.
The film opens on New York’s ‘Other Side’, in reality the slums of the Lower East Side. A poor musician (Walter Miller) is about to leave town and his ‘Little Lady’ (Lillian Gish) in order to earn some money. Later, the Little Lady encounters The Snapper Kid (Elmer Booth), a local gangster. As he tries to kiss her she literally slaps him down. When the musician returns he is robbed of his money by the Snapper Kid. He sets out to track down the Kid and get his money back. A friend of the Little Lady’s takes her to a dance at which many gangsters are present, including the Kid. A rival gangster chats her up and tries to spike her drink but the Kid spots him and knocks the drink out of her hand. thus provoking a gang war. As the two gangs engage in a shoot out, the musician spots the Kid and manages to snatch his money back. As the police break up the fight, the Kid manages to escape to the Little Lady’s flat where he tells her about the spiked drink and asks her out. She refuses and says she’ll stay with the musician. The bemused gangster thinks she must be crazy to prefer the musician. But as he leaves he is caught by a policeman. The Kid tells him he has has an alibi, visiting his friends the Little Lady and the musician. They back up his story and the Kid is released. Left alone in the hallway, the Kid receives a gift of money from an unseen figure, with the inter-title “Links in the system”. Meanwhile the Little Lady and the musician embrace.
For just a 17 minute film, The Musketeers of Pig Alley really does pack a lot in. The central protagonists, particularly the Snapper Kid and the Little Lady are fully fleshed out and believable characters rather than mere one-dimensional cyphers. Although the build up to the shoot-out out, as the two gangs stalk each other, lasts perhaps only three minutes of screen time, it elicits a genuine tension and the gunfight when it comes is dramatic in both its physical compactness and its intensity. The outdoor scenes shot on the crowded side-walks marvelously capture the hustle and bustle of the district as well as the myriad of races and nationalities living there. The film is beautifully shot (by Billy Bitzer) and is rightly famed for the dramatic close up of the Snapper Kid as he creeps along a wall to stare out directly at the audience (image above right).
The performances of the two lead characters are excellent. Lillian Gish as the Little Lady ( in only her seventh role and barely a month since her first film appearance, as a sister in The Unseen (Dir. D W Griffith, US, 1912)) is first-class. Unlike many a subsequent screen gangster’s moll, she’s no shrinking violet, putting the Kid firmly in his place when he attempts to ‘get fresh’. And the look of affronted dignity she expresses as she leaves the building following her encounter with him is just priceless (image above left). It was already clear in this performance that Miss Gish was going to go on to far greater things.
But it was Elmer Booth as the Snapper Kid who really stole the film. In what could almost have been an instructional film for any number of Jimmy Cagney gangster roles in the 1930s, he’s the morally ambiguous villain. Violent, ruthless, quick-to-anger but with a streak of honour. He might try and steal a kiss from a girl but he’s not going to stand by while her drink is spiked by a rival. As played by Booth, the Snapper Kid exudes self confidence, brims with his own idea of style and is at times, and perhaps despite our better judgement, downright charming. Some of his scenes are just a delight His surprise at being rejected by the Little Lady is soon replaced by a look of “ Well this is the woman for me” as he puffs out his chest, tips his hat down over one eye and strides off (image right). And his disbelief that the Little lady could prefer her musician over him is just palpable. Even in the smallest scenes, Booth’s acting ability shines out. For example, as the two gangs are stalking each other, he is accidentally bumped by a Chinese character and jumps back in fright but then, oh so realistically, laughs at himself over his own nervousness. Great things might have been expected of Elmer Booth. He had already achieved considerable popular and critical acclaim on the stage and had been lined up by Griffith for a major part in Intolerance (Dir. D W Griffith, US, 1916) but Booth was killed before filming could begin, a passenger in a car driven by an intoxicated Tod Browning which collided with a freight train. A brief mention is also due to Harry Carey . In this early film role, long before he became a stalwart of the western genre, he’s excellent as the Kid’s side-kick, faithfully trailing after his ‘boss’ and always trying to emulate the antics and attitude of someone he clearly reveres.
So, if we accept The Musketeers of Pig Alley as one of the very first movie to feature gangsters, what key gangster motifs does it put in place for the future gangster film genre. Well, there is the gangster himself, the cocky, self confident hood, a James Cagney in the making. Yet the Kid in Pig Alley is not the head of a major ‘crime corporation’, he’s more just a street hoodlum trying to get by. But he is sympathetic, and the sympathetic gangster with a heart is a common feature in the genre, a bad boy but willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the common good before the closing credits. Then there is the ‘gangsters ball’, that one night when all grudges are forgotten and the criminals come together for an evening of revelry. Another defining trait of the genre is the final shoot-out and that is here too, as the Kid squares up to his rival. But the one key aspect in which The Musketeers of Pig Alley seriously bucks the traditional gangster genre (at least up until the 1990s and beyond) is the fact that the gangster doesn’t get his comeuppance in the final reel. The Kid may be a loveable rogue but he’s a rogue nevertheless who has robbed, shot and probably killed people….and he gets away with it! Clearly Musketeers was a film made long before Hays code days, after which ‘law defeated’ was a real no-no.
The thrills and excitement on screen during The Musketeers of Pig Alley were excellently complemented by the playing of John Sweeney on piano.
(NB The Musketeers of Pig Alley is available on DVD in The Birth of Motion Pictures: Rare Gems from the Earliest Days of Cinema (NTSC) (US Import) [Region 1]. It can also be viewed on-line on YouTube in a number of different versions including one from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) with nice accompaniment from Ben Model. )
We then jump forward fifteen years for a look at how the gangster genre had developed, with Underworld (Dir. Josef Von Sternberg, US, 1927), another film hailed as a key milestone in the evolution of the genre.
The film opens with jovial gang boss Bull Weed (George Bancroft) in the middle of his latest heist. Emerging from a bank with a suitcase full of swag, he is recognised by a passing drunk Wensel (Clive Brook). Throwing the money and the drunk into his car he heads off to his hideout. When the drunk promises that he is the ‘Rolls Royce’ of silence, Bull gets him a job at the Dreamland Club. When Bull and his girl ‘Feathers’ McCoy (Evelyn Brent) later visit the club, rival gangster Buck Mulligan (Fred Kohler) is present with his gang and his ‘moll’, Meg (Helen Lynch). Mulligan is attracted to ‘Feathers’ and attempts to impress her by humiliating Wensel, but when Bull comes to Wensel’s aid it is Mulligan who is humiliated and he swears revenge. Bull then gives Wensel money to get himself cleaned up and sober.
‘Feathers’, out with Bull one day, takes a liking to a bracelet in a jewelers Bull takes her to his old hideout where the newly sober and refined Wensel is living. Showing ‘Feathers’ around the hideout he reveals the secret escape route. Then, saying he has urgent business, he leaves Wensel and ‘Feathers’ together. Left alone, their apparent mutual diffidence can’t hide the attraction they feel for each other. Meanwhile, Bull is raiding the jewelers to get ‘Feathers’ her bracelet and incriminating Mulligan in the process. When he returns with the jewels any thoughts ‘Feathers’ has for Wensel are (somewhat guiltily) forgotten.
Later that evening, Bull, ‘Feathers’ and Wensel attend the annual ‘Gangster’s Ball’. Bull is busy buying votes to make ‘Feathers’ queen of the ball. But when Bull sees Wensel dancing with ‘his girl’ without permission he throws him out and Wensel goes back to drinking. With Bull unconscious through drink, Mulligan sees it as his chance with ‘Feathers’ and lures her in to a back room. But Mulligan’s girl, Meg, rouses Bull and he chases Mulligan out of the ball and shoots him dead.
Quickly arrested, Bull is sentenced to hang. Although Wensel and ‘Feathers’ consider leaving together, both feel they owe Bull too much to double-cross him and Wensel comes up with an escape plan. But in his cell, Bull is consumed with jealousy over thoughts of Wensel and ‘Feathers’ together. When the escape plan fails Bull still manages to get out on his own and makes his way to the hideout. As the police follow ‘Feathers’ back to the hideout, Bull is surrounded and the police open fire. Thinking that Wensel double-crossed him and that ‘Feathers’ deliberately led the police to him Bull plans to leave her in the hideout to die and escape via the secret escape route, but suddenly realises that Wensel holds the keys. Wensel has the same realisation and manages to evade the police cordon and get into the hideout via the secret route. Realising that he has been wrong and that Wensel and ‘Feathers’ genuinely love each other Bull ushers them out of the escape route before closing the door and surrendering himself to the police.
In the decade and a half that separates The Musketeers of Pig Alley and Underworld, silent cinema had obviously moved on a pace, from the early, somewhat crude fumblings of narrative story-telling in 1912 to what was almost the peak of its artistry and sophistication by 1927 and Underworld certainly ranks right up there with other US classics of the era, such as Sunrise (1927), Seventh Heaven (1927) and The Wind (1928). The film also marks a further progression in defining the gangster film genre. Bull Weed is much more clearly defined as leader of a powerful criminal gang in comparison to local hoodlum the Snapper Kid in Musketeers, although Bull’s gang were rarely visible in the film and he did seem to do most of the gang’s work (bank robbery, jewel heist and ‘hits’) on his own. While the Snapper Kid was the cocky, restive youngster, Bull was more mature, ebullient, jovial even. Yet as with the Kid, his attitude could change in an instant from cheery to murderous although he too was also shown in a sympathetic light, further cementing the ‘crook with a heart’ motif. When he catches a boy trying to steal an apple from a street seller he gives the kid a talking to and sends him on his way with a dollar (but then steals the apple himself!) and at the height of the final siege he stops to feed a stray kitten. As with Musketeers, the plot of Underworld revolves around a ‘gangsters ball’, in which “everyone with a criminal record will be there”. The film also ends with the obligatory gunfight, but this time against the law. However, in a significant difference from Musketeers, and presumably reflecting the growing influence of the Hays Code, Underworld ends with law prevailing as Bull sees the error of his ways and gets his comeuppance.
But in von Sternberg’s hands Underworld is much more than simply a gangster film, albeit a very good one. Rather, its a beautifully paced and cleverly thought out psychological melodrama. To begin with, the focus is on Bull’s rivalry with Mulligan and the latter’s lusting after Feathers. The scene in which Mulligan throws money into the spittoon in an effort to humiliate exudes a sense of menace. Parallels have been drawn with a similar scene in Rio Bravo (Dir. Howard Hawks, US, 1959) but a more more apposite comparison is in Goodfellas (Dir. Martin Scorsese, US, 1990) when Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito has the tables turned and is humiliated by the young waiter Spider until, unable to stomach the mocking from his friends, ends up killing him. The film then focuses upon the growing relationship between Wensal and Feathers, in particular a marvelous scene in the hideout as they slowly realise a mutual attraction for each other. The screen just exudes a sexual desire that, for example, the chess game between McQueen and Dunaway in The Thomas Crown Affair (Dir. Norman Jewison, US, 1968) doesn’t even come close in capturing . Then, with Bull in jail, Wensel and Feathers see the option for escape together from a life that neither relish. But on the point of flight, both realise that they owe a debt to Bull and it is out of loyalty to him that they embark on the rescue plan. Bull, meanwhile, isolated in his cell conjures up a mistaken picture of disloyalty and sets out to extract revenge.
Based upon a short story by Ben Hecht, much of the credit for Underworld‘s storyline, look and feel is down von Sternberg, so much so in fact that on first seeing the completed film Hecht wanted his name removed from the credits in anticipation of it being a flop. Sternberg himself claimed that on seeing the film Hecht responded “I must rush home at once, I think its mal de mer”. But when the crowds began to flock in he thought better of this and ended up with an Academy award for best original story. Significant praise is also due to screenwriter George Marion for some great inter-title dialogue.
The playing of all three central characters was excellent. Although George Bancroft.s overly jovial Bull Weed could be annoying at times he nicely captured the tone of a villain supremely confident of his own invincibility, happy to help out the less fortunate but only the blink of an eye away from murderous rage. Bancroft went on to star in another von Sternberg gangster film, The Docks of New York (1928) before gradually slipping back to supporting roles in 1930s talkies.
British born Clive Brook had already carved out a successful career in Hollywood in the early 1920s before appearing as Wensal in Underworld. In the film, he’s as convincing as the suave and sophisticated Wensal as he is as the down-and-out alcoholic character he starts out as, with a nice line in knowing and understated gestures. With the coming of the talkies, Brook’s accent made him a natural playing the refined Englishman and he went on to sustained success in the 1930s, starring alongside such big names as Claudette Colbert in The Man From Yesterday (Dir. Berthold Viertel, US, 1932) and Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (Dir. Josef von Sternberg, US, 1932). He also played Sherlock Holmes in three films.
But to my mind the real star of the film was Evelyn Brent as ‘Feathers’. Right from her first appearance she lights up the screen, as she adjusts her stockings upon entering the gangster’s club and, in a lovely touch, a feather from her boa drifts down to Wensal, beautifully linking the two character’s futures. There followed a nice line in emotive glances and some of the most seductive eyebrow raising ever put on film. Clearly von Sternberg was also taken by her ability as she appeared in his next film, The Last Command (1928) where she was equally impressive as the revolutionary, Natalie Dabrova. Right at the tail-end of the silent era she also starred in The Mating Call (Dir. James Cruze, US, 1928)and, although female co-star Renee Adore got most of the plaudits (nothing at all to do with the fleeting nude scene, of course!), Brent thoroughly acted her off the screen as the hard bitten Rose Henderson. It is just such a tragedy when you see the enormous list of films in which Evelyn Brent starred in which are now lost.
As for director Von Sternberg, he came to Underworld hot on the heels of plaudits gained for coming in at the last minute to salvage Children of Divorce (Dir. Frank Lloyd/Josef Von Sternberg, US, 1927) from being a near-certain flop and turning it into a big hit. Plain old Jonas Sternberg had emigrated from Austria to America aged 14. By the time he was 20 he was working as a projectionist and editor before getting a job with a studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey where he began to learn the film making trade. His name gradually morphed to Von Sternberg which he felt gave him greater gravitas, particularly as it inspired comparisons with the better known Von Stroheim. Von Sternberg directed his first film in 1925, The Salvation Hunters. Its success resulted in him being contracted by Charles Chaplin to direct Woman of the Sea (1926). Although future documentary filmmaker John Grierson apparently called this “the most beautiful picture ever produced in Hollywood”, Chaplin was dissatisfied and destroyed the finished film. Yet this was not to halt Von Sternberg’s rise. After Underworld he continued his gangster themed films with The Dragnet (1928, now considered a lost film), The Docks of New York (1928) and his first talkie, Thunderbolt (1929). Then Von Sternberg was off to Germany where he teamed up with Marlene Dietrich and the rest is, as they say, history with The Blue Angel (1930), Morocco (1930), Shanghai Express (1932) and The Devil Is A Woman (1935).
Piano accompaniment for the film came from Meg Morley who nicely captured both the action and the drama of the film.
(NB Underworld is available on DVD from Coleccion CineMudo and can be watched on line (YouTube) )
So, just how influential were these two films, The Musketeers of Pig Alley and Underworld, in the development of the gangster genre. Although focused more upon the street hoodlum than the powerful mob leader, Musketeers, made at a very early stage in cinema history has many of the tenets of the gangster film (the cocky, self confident hood; the gangster’s ball; the final shoot out etc). But did Underworld move the genre forward that much further, well not really. It largely reinforced aspects of the genre which were already there. Its only significant addition was in emphasising that the gangster had to get his comeuppance by the final reel. In essence therefore, Griffith’s earlier film would seem to be far more influential in development of the genre.
Aside from these two works, a number of other films also contributed significantly to the gangster genre. Raoul Walsh’s first feature film, The Regeneration (1915) has been championed as the first feature-length gangster film, although it was also focused more at the street hoodlum level. In some ways, Underworld’s biggest failing for a film made in 1927 was its avoidance of the most significant focus of gangster activity at that time, bootlegging and associated corruption. Probably the first film which brought this aspect into focus was Lewis Milestone’s The Racket (1928). Taken together, therefore, Musketeers, Regeneration, Underworld and The Racket largely set the pattern for Little Caesar (Dir. Mervyn LeRoy, US, 1931), Public Enemy (Dir. William A Wellman, US, 1931) and Scarface (Dir. Howard Hawks, US, 1932) with Booth and Bancroft influential role models for Jimmy Cagney and Paul Muni.