The Warner Mob

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JACK WARNER RAN HIS organization the same way Al Capone ran his: ruthlessly. The problem was that, unlike Capone, he couldn’t simply wipe out the competition. In 1930 Jack and his two older brothers, Sam and Harry, owned one-quarter of all the movie houses in the United States, plus the Warner Brothers studio and fifty-one subsidiary companies. But their theaters were now frighteningly empty. Millions were out of work, and the novelty of talking pictures, which had started with Warner’s Vitaphone process, had lost its drawing power. Warner’s profits came crashing down along with the stock market—$14 million in 1929, $7 million in 1930, and losses of $8 million anticipated for 1931.

Jack could not be consoled by the knowledge that other Hollywood studios were in trouble too. MGM was the exception, but MGM’s movies had opulent sets, high-key lighting, lush scores, large casts. The Warner assembly line was not equipped to turn out that sort of luxury product. Something else was called for, something fast—and cheap.

The man who would supply it was Darryl F. Zanuck. He had come to Warner’s in 1924 to write screenplays for the canine star Rin Tin Tin (the only actor for whom Jack Warner had a good word) but soon graduated to more ambitious projects. In his first six years he turned out so many scripts that he had to adopt various pseudonyms. By 1930 Zanuck was head of production for the entire studio. He was then twenty-eight years old and convinced he knew the formula for bringing Depression audiences back into the movie theater: crime.

There was nothing new about gangster films. They had been around ever since D. W. Griffith made The Musketeers of Pig Alley in 1912, but few in recent years had shown strength at the box office. Jack Warner was not enthusiastic about the idea. Yet Zanuck insisted that newspaper stories about bootleggers and gang wars provided better raw material for moving pictures than the static Broadway plays that Warner was fond of buying. Armed with an item from the Reader’s Digest stating that 486 gangland killings had taken place in Chicago in a single year, Zanuck convinced Warner to let him go ahead with two crime films: Doorway to Hell and Little Caesar.

 
 
 

Doorway to Hell was a low-budget affair, with the gentle actor Lew Ayres absurdly miscast as a Chicago gangster boss. It opened in November 1930, advertised as “the picture gangdom dared Hollywood to make.” The Warner publicity department further misrepresented the film by proclaiming it the “life story of Lou ‘Legs’ Ricano” in an attempt to con the public into thinking that the hero was actually the gangster Legs Diamond, who had been gunned down a few weeks earlier. In the years to come, it would become commonplace for gangster films to be introduced with a note that read: “Every event shown in this film is based on an actual occurrence. All characters are portraits of actual persons, living or dead.” Clearly it was a successful formula— Doorway to Hell became a runaway hit. In January Little Caesar opened.

Little Caesar was the usual story of the rise and fall of a gangster, but this time the protagonist was ruthless, morose, and a loner—the first real antihero in American film. Zanuck realized this when he bought the screen rights to W. R. Burnett’s novel: “Every other underworld picture has had a thug with a little bit of good in him. He reforms before the fade-out. This guy is no good at all. It’ll go over big.” That it did so was due almost entirely to the short, swarthy Broadway actor who played the lead. Edward G. Robinson performed with uncompromising harshness, giving this somewhat awkward film its true distinction as the first major gangster movie of the sound era. His portrayal of a nobody determined to get to the top—more, it would seem, for social status than for money—struck a responsive chord with Depression audiences, who themselves hungered for self-esteem.

At thirty-seven Robinson had become a star and the first member of what would become the Warner Mob. James Cagney, John Garfield, and Humphrey Bogart were soon to join him, and they too would alter Hollywood’s preconceived notions of what a leading man should look and sound like. All four were from New York, and their speech exuded the pace and grit of the city; it gave their films an authentic flavor of the streets even when the sets and dialogue did not. Together they succeeded in urbanizing the American screen. As one observer wrote, the films of this era showed “a certain section of America to itself against a background of pool-rooms, stale beer, cigarette smoke, alleys, bare electric-light bulbs, cities at night. There was never any doubt that the setting was an American city of the Prohibition period.”