In a 1933 publicity piece for the film Blondie Johnson, Warner Brothers declared that, “The value of [gangster] films now is entertainment. Their priceless ingredients for future historians is their truth” (Inventing the Public Enemy: The Gangster in American Culture, 1918-1934, Ruth, 1996: 5). Yet, as optimistically profound and as cognitively dissonant as this promotional spiel appears to be, “truth” can easily be as fluid and as readily interchangeable a concept as “entertainment” when considering the role of fictional gangsters and their effect on society and culture.
For example, when Howard Hawks was directingScarface (1932), he was allegedly approached by “gangland emissaries” from Al Capone who wished to ensure that the film didn’t blemish his reputation. One might understand any reluctance on Hawks’ part to continue, but the completed film still incorporated contemporary attitudes or truths that differed from those that the crime boss might want to have perpetuated; as the Police Chief states:
This fella Camonte [Scarface], he’s a colorful character? What color is a crawling louse? That’s the attitude of too many morons in this country, they think these big hoodlums are some kind of demi-gods. What do they do about a man like Camonte? They sentimentalize them, romance them, make jokes about them.
Irrespective of whether the events in the film were, to borrow a line from the preface to the film, “a reproduction of an actual occurrence” or not, the classic gangster, as he’s depicted within gangster movies of the ’30s, such as Scarface, Little Caesar (1931), and The Public Enemy (1931), in which he’s both culturally fascinating and repugnant is a fundamental part of the gangster archetype.
The gangster genre, however, didn’t just appear from some suitably dramatic, foggy back-street in Chicago. After all, Sherlock Holmes was fighting evildoers in celluloid as far back as 1900 (in the 45-second-long crime film Sherlock Holmes Baffled, released in 1903). To understand how this dynamic between history and fictional forms operates, it may prove useful to consider the following quote from semiotic theorist Roland Barthes:
The mythical signification […] is never arbitrary; it is always in part motivated, and unavoidably contains some analogy. [….] Motivation is unavoidable. It is none the less very fragmentary. To start with, it is not ‘natural’: it is history which supplies its analogies to the form. Then the analogy between the meaning and the concept is never anything but partial (Mythologies, Barthes, 1957. translated 1984)…
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