December 1983 | Volume 35, Issue 1
With the Depression pushing the studio toward bankruptcy, Warner Brothers had to resort to crime—and crime paid so well that the company was able to recruit the toughest guys that ever shot up a sound stage.
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.”
The Warner Mob brought a new side of the American character to film, with a claim to realism that earned Warner’s the reputation of being the “workingman’s studio.” They were all “tough guys,” but each projected a different city type: Robinson was “Mr. Big”; Cagney, the cocky go-getter; Garfield, the born loser; and Bogart, until he became a romantic hero in the 1940s, the cold-blooded killer. Together with George Raft, and the supporting actors Barton MacLane and Alien Jenkins, they became America’s most wanted criminals. Warner’s called them “Murderer’s Row.”
These practitioners of menace were not yet a gang in 1931, but Little Caesar’s critical success had already bolstered the image of Warner Brothers, and Zanuck was now thought nothing less than clairvoyant in predicting public taste. Although Zanuck himself thought privately that the gangster film had probably run its course with Little Caesar, the film’s commercial success made it inevitable that the studio would produce more tough, urban melodramas. For the next decade Warner Brothers, which proudly publicized the gun and explosion experts they had permanently on staff—Jack Warner boasted that even the U.S. Army came to him for advice—would be synonymous with gangster movies.
But the life most changed by Little Caesar was, of course, Robinson’s. Instant celebrity and star status did much to soften the actor’s contempt for the bastard art form practiced on the West Coast. His seventeen years on the Broadway stage had, after all, included a fair share of flops and the pain of missing out on roles because of his squat, five-foot-five frame. His set speech to producers in those early years was, “I know I’m not much on face value, but when it comes to stage value, I’ll deliver for you.” Now there was no need to apologize. Emanuel Goldenberg, the son of impoverished Rumanian Jews, had become Edward G. Robinson, movie star.
In years to come Robinson would bemoan his public identification with Little Caesar. Upset at being typecast, he kept badgering Jack Warner for more prestigious roles. But even on the rare occasion when Robinson-was allowed to play a historical figure like Dr. Paul Ehrlich, in Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, the studio was careful to select a title with bullet in it to remind everyone of the actor’s more famous—and more profitable—identity. Like it or not, he would be acting variations on Little Caesar well into the 1950s. Even after his death in 1973, nightclub comics would continue to do their Robinson/Caesar impersonations.
As Cagney recalled it, “Sinner’s Holiday, which was my first film, was originally a play that lasted only five weeks. Al Jolson bought it on spec and sold it to Warner Brothers and they shipped the body with it.”
Cagney’s performance was singled out by The New York Times as the most impressive acting in the film. His contract was extended to include Doorway to Hell, in which he played sidekick to the miscast Lew Ayres’s Chicago mobster. His work here caught the attention of the director Lewis Milestone, who wanted him for the role of Hildy Johnson in The Front Page, but Howard Hughes, the producer, dismissed him as a “little runt.” Pat O’Brien, Cagney’s buddy and future costar in eight films, got to play Hildy, leaving Cagney free for the role of Tom Powers in The Public Enemy.
Years later the film’s director, William Wellman, remembered how Cagney unintentionally usurped that role: “We hire a guy named Eddie Woods to play the lead. We get a relatively unknown guy named Jimmy Cagney who has a tough little way, and he is playing the second part. … When I looked at the rushes, I said [to Zanuck], ‘Look, there is a horrible mistake. We have the wrong guy in here. Cagney should be the lead.’ Zanuck said, ‘Well, you know who Eddie Woods is, don’t you?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t. Who is he?’ ‘He’s engaged to marry Louella Parsons’ daughter.’ I said, ‘Well, for Christ’s sake, are you going to let some newspaperwoman run your business?’ He said, ‘Change them.’”
The Public Enemy was, of course, the movie in which Cagney, as Tom Powers, spits beer into the face of a cowering bartender, Mae Clarke gets a grapefruit in the face, and Jean Harlow tries hard to act sophisticated. It is also the movie with one of the most chilling climaxes ever—the corpse of Tom Powers, bound like a mummy, crashes through his mother’s front door while the phonograph plays “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.” After The Public Enemy, screenwriters wrote specifically for Cagney’s personality. Kubec Glasmon and John Bright, who wrote the screenplay for The Public Enemy, were instructed by Zanuck to study Cagney’s mannerisms and make use of them in future films that would transcend the gangster genre. Like prospectors panning for gold, they sifted Cagney’s traits for useful nuggets. When it was discovered that this Irishman could speak Yiddish, they promptly wrote a scene into Taxi! (1932) to show off his linguistic abilities. Cagney’s dancing skills (acquired in vaudeville) were also exhibited: as the lead in Footlight Parade (1933), he showed that his hoofing was as expert and as idiosyncratic as his acting.
Cagney was a big money-maker for Warner, and he knew it. By staging a series of unprecedented walkouts, the star kept increasing his salary. By 1936 he was making $4,500 a week. That year, fed up with formula scripts and exhausted by the assembly-line pace, he found a loophole in his contract and left the studio—adding insult to injury, it is said, by cursing out Jack Warner in Yiddish. The former Jack Eichelbaum would not have been amused. Two years later the movie mogul chose to forget their differences and offered Cagney a mind-boggling $150,000 per picture to come back.
Cagney’s success at squeezing money out of Jack Warner may be attributed to his general nonchalance about his acting career. As he often reminded interviewers, it was just another job: “Acting is not the beginning and the end of everything.” That assertion placed him in marked contrast to John Garfield, for whom acting was the beginning and the end. Garfield saw himself as a stage actor and would never have joined the Warner Mob if he hadn’t been betrayed by his old gang in New York.
The studio removed the last shred of ethnicity from his name: Julius Garfinkle of the Bronx, who had been Jules Garfield on Broadway, now metamorphosed into John Garfield. He was promptly cast as Mickey Borden in Four Daughters. The character of Mickey might well have been Garfield himself: “His dress is shabby, but he is fortunate that his carelessness adds to his attractiveness. His manner is indolent, his expression wry, almost surly. His humor is ironic. When he smiles (which is seldom) his demeanor is sardonic. Mickey Borden doesn’t think well of himself or the world. Poverty has done the trick.” Garfield, who was always superb at playing Garfield, gave a stunning performance. The New York Times said his delivery was “so eloquent that we still aren’t sure whether it’s the dialogue or Mr. Garfield who is so bitterly brilliant.”
Garfield became a star with his first film. He had planned, he said, to return to the stage, but this sudden success was hard to throw aside. In an attempt to unite celebrity and integrity, Garfield inserted a clause into his new seven-year contract that allowed him to return to Broadway every other year. That clause (used only once) may have reassured him that he was still a serious actor, but to Jack Warner he was just a new commodity to be profitably exploited.
In the next two years Garfield starred in such second-rate gangster films as They Made Me a Criminal (directed for some reason by the choreographer Busby Berkeley), Castle on the Hudson (a carbon-copy remake of 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, which was produced a few years earlier), and East of the River. Garfield provided these trite melodramas with the color and drive they would otherwise have lacked, but he recognized their worthlessness—as did the critics.
The actor warred with the studio for better parts, subjecting himself to over a dozen suspensions for refusing assigned roles. In interview after interview he insisted that he was really a stage actor and would never “go Hollywood.”
What Garfield seems never to have appreciated was the importance his image on the screen held for millions of Americans. For the urban poor, for the jobless, for the alienated, he was a symbol. He seemed to be one of them—tough and cynical on the surface but underneath bewildered and lost. It was rare for an ethnic to play romantic leads, and millions saw themselves as heroes on the screen for the first time. Boys from the slums would hear Garfield’s heavy Bronx accent and feel that the film’s happy ending might also be possible for them.
Garfield served out his seven-year sentence at Warner Brothers and then formed his own production company, scoring a tremendous critical and commercial success with Body and Soul (1947). Shortly afterward attacks on leftists and liberal entertainers by private and government groups began. Blacklisted in Hollywood, Garfield returned to Broadway to play the lead in Golden Boy fifteen years after the role had been denied him. That was 1952. With Broadway the only place he was permitted to act, he found his exclusion from Hollywood unbearable. He was trying desperately to clear his name with congressional committees when he died, suddenly, at the age of thirty-nine.
George Raft did not have the career conflicts of Garfield. He wasn’t a stage actor. He wasn’t even a movie actor. What he was, with his Valentino looks, was a movie star, and he collected a quarter of a million dollars a year from Paramount. But Raft never knew when he was well off. He terminated his contract because he objected to being confined solely to roles as an unsympathetic criminal, and signed up with Warner’s.
Raft didn’t want to play the bad guy anymore, because such roles were too close to the truth. His New York past included jobs as a gigolo, taxi dancer, and a runner for the gangster Owney Madden, and he had close ties to Bugsy Siegel. (W. R. Burnett based the gangster-turned-dancer character in Little Caesar on Raft.) Jack Warner, aware of Raft’s background, assured him that while he might be handed a criminal role now and then, the character would always have redeeming personality traits.
His first film on the Warner lot, Each Dawn I Die, offered just such a role: Raft was cast as an imprisoned underworld figure who dies to clear the name of his friend, a reporter, played by Cagney, who was an acquaintance of Raft’s from vaudeville days. Raft and Cagney both received good notices, and the picture was a box-office success.
There were, moreover, the undertones of a love triangle that pervaded the film both on and off the set. In Manpower Raft and Robinson play high-voltage installation and maintenance men who love the same woman—played, of course, by Dietrich. Raft actually was strongly attracted to Dietrich and believed himself to be in competition with Robinson. Although there was little evidence to support Raft’s jealousy, the studio capitalized on the possibility by putting out such attention-getting advertisements as: “Robinson’s mad about Dietrich. Dietrich’s mad about Raft. Raft is mad about the whole thing”—and insinuating that the script was inspired by a real-life situation. Raft’s romantic pursuit coupled with his professional differences with Robinson contributed to considerable tension on the set, tension that culminated several times in an actual exchange of blows. At one point both men refused to go on with the movie, and representatives from the Screen Actors Guild were brought in to make peace.
Raft’s problems in Manpower were not limited to Robinson; he also had a set-to with Warner himself. Raft insisted on wearing the same long-point shirt collars in his role as high-voltage lineman that he had made fashionable in his private life. When Warner saw the early rushes, he felt the style was inappropriate to the character and sent him a memo to that effect. Raft complied but took the directive personally and felt deeply humiliated. He subsequently turned down three projects—All Through the Night, High Sierra, and The Maltese Falcon, perhaps as revenge.
In each of these films the role offered Raft was filled by the studio’s jack-of-all-villainy, Humphrey Bogart. Bogart, whose genteel background had suited him to his initial roles as the romantic juvenile of Broadway, had come to Warner’s in 1932 after doing small parts at Columbia and Fox. In his first Warner film he was tenth in the billing; in his second he was little more than a walk-on. Discouraged, he returned to Broadway, where, over the objections of the playwright Robert Sherwood, he was given the role of Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest. Undoubtedly Sherwood thought that a short, slight man with a lisp was ill-suited to play the brutish killer, but Bogart’s performance convinced both Sherwood and the play’s star, Leslie Howard. When Warner bought the screen rights, he wanted Howard to repeat his role of the disillusioned intellectual but preferred Edward G. Robinson for the Duke. Howard, however, refused to sign unless Bogart came along, and Warner finally agreed.
Thus began Bogart’s career as a Warner tough guy. From 1936 to 1941 he played a variety of antisocial types: a racketeer killer in Bullets or Ballots, a gangster fight manager in Kid Galahad, and a jewel thief in The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse. His nemesis in all these films was Edward G. Robinson, now graduated to good-guy roles, who consistently eliminated Bogart ten minutes before the final fade-out.
Bogart also played the heavy in a number of Cagney films—Angels With Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties, and The Oklahoma Kid. This last was a western with Cagney and Bogart as out of place as a couple of Checker cabs in the middle of Monument Valley. Bogart seemed doomed to a career of early deaths until Raft’s intransigence spared him.
The role of “Mad Dog” Roy Earle in High Sierra (1941) had been turned down not only by Raft but also by Paul Muni, Cagney, and Robinson. But for Bogart, who had recently completed Virginia City with Errol Flynn and Randolph Scott (two actors whom he detested), to costar with Ida Lupino in a gangster yarn was a plum. His only starring roles up to that point had been in grade-B quickies like The Return of Doctor X, in which he played a mad scientist who survived on the blood of young girls. High Sierra was clearly a step up.
Directed by Raoul Walsh and written by W. R. Burnett and the young John Huston, High Sierra provided Bogart with his first three-dimensional role. The warmth and compassion of this gangster on the run became an integral part of his screen mystique. Henceforth he would always play the loner who rebelled against the existing order but adhered to a private sense of honor and loyalty.
Bogart was now Warner’s top star and, after Casablanca (1943), the highest paid actor in Hollywood. Now it was he to whom the good roles were offered first (Raft had tried in vain for the role of Rick in Casablanca), and it was Bogart who did the bumping off in the last reel, an about-face he would perform on Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo (1948). Robinson would soon be bumped in another way—the same zealots who had effectively ended the film career of John Garfield would set their traps for him, and although he continued to appear in minor roles, he and Bogart never acted together again.
By this time the Warner Mob had broken up. Although such films as Key Largo and Cagney’s White Heat were still being made at the end of the decade, the Warner Mob was knocked down to size when bigger gangsters made domestic hoodlums seem trivial to American audiences. After Pearl Harbor, Jack Warner called the mobsters to active duty to fight the Axis on film. Except for USO tours, it was the only action any of them ever saw: they were all too old for the armed forces. During the war they outfoxed the Nazis and eliminated the Japs with the same bravado they had shown toward rival bootleggers, gang leaders, and prison blockheads. And after the war it was a different world.