The True Crime of Laura Weaver
June 30, 1929
The bank robber and celebrity gangster John Dillinger met his demise outside of a Chicago movie theater on July 22, 1934, but it would take Hollywood more than a decade to a depiction of his crime sprees on the silver screen.
The delay was due in large part to the orders of Will H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of American and author of the Hays Code. Hays, an elder of the Presbyterian Church, left his job as Postmaster General of the United under Warren G. Harding to clean up the motion picture industry in 1922.
Several states had already formed censorship boards after the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1915 that free speech did not extend to motion pictures, but there was a movement toward national standards.
In 1927, Hays convinced the heads of MGM, Fox and Paramount–the three largest studios–to form a censorship committee, which created a list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” based on the items most often challenged by local censor boards. After much negotiation and amendment, that list became the Motion Picture Production Code–Hays Code, for short–in 1929. It was largely ineffective until 1934, when an amendment to the code created the Production Code Administration which required films to obtain a certificate of approval before it could be released.
Making a gangster picture that adhered to the code’s restrictions on sexual content and violence, while not impossible, tempered the sort of content that made them popular, so the genre began losing its audience. To fill the void, the studios turned to police procedurals, which were more easily tamed and always justice always prevailed.
But if the Hays Code wasn’t enough to keep a film about John Dillinger from being made, Hays himself issued a statement on March 21, 1935 made it specific and final: “No motion picture on the life or exploits of John Dillinger will be produced, distributed, or exhibited by any member of the MPAA. This decision is based on the belief that the production of such a picture could be detrimental to the best public interest.”
A Hays spokesman told the press this meant that even if some company outside of the MPAA organization made a Dillinger film, they would have to place to show it.
Some characters seemed to be inspired by Dillinger–Humphrey Bogart in The Petrified Forest (1936) and High Sierra (1941)–but the decree was not challenged until the independent Monogram Pictures took the chance in 1945.
Although Monogram Pictures was not one of the major studios, it was still under some pressure from the Hays Code, which is perhaps why “Dillinger” skirts some of the more well-known facts of Dillinger’s life and escapades, downplaying the massacres and overplaying the prison breaks, for instance.
The studio had originally planned to make the movie focused on Ana Cumpanas, the “woman in red” whose tip to the FBI about Dillinger’s whereabouts led to his death to aid in that cause, but scriptwriter Philip Yordan, who won the film’s only Oscar nomination for the screenplay, convinced them to swing the narrative arc back toward Dillinger.
“When I first met them, they wouldn’t pay for a script,” Yordan said about the King brothers, Frank and Maurice, independent producers working for Monogram Studios. “I came into the office and they … weren’t gangsters, but they had [investments in] slot machines and they were probably running something [illegal] in town. Nobody questioned it. They had a few bucks, not rich, but they had a few bucks. They asked me to write them a gangster picture.”
Yordan said that he didn’t mind if they didn’t pay him for the script as gave him some leverage in other areas, like involvement in the casting and production. He struck a deal with them to work on the film for nothing, but receive a one-third share in the profits, which turned out to be a wise move. The picture cost $65,000 to make, and it earned $4 million.
Yordan took credit for giving the lead role to Lawrence Tierney, then 25 years old. He was under contract with RKO pictures but looking to get out of the bit parts they were giving him, so he had been hanging around the studios on “Poverty Row” looking for a better deal.
Yordan said, “Boy, he looked like Dillinger, and he was mean, and I wouldn’t sell the script until they agreed to put him in it.” The Kings worked out a deal with RKO, not only for Tierney, but also for actress Anne Jeffreys as an Americanized “woman in red” and much of the supporting cast.
Tierney was so nervous on the set that it made him sick and they had to bring a portable toilet on the set to minimize his time away.
The $65,000 budget was so low that director Max Nosseck used copious stock footage for establishing shots and still-frame backgrounds that gave the film an accidental avant garde feel at times. But there is also a bank robbery scene lifted frame-for-frame from Fritz Lang’s 1937 feature “You Only Live Once.”
Although Yordan and the King brothers steered clear of potentially offending material, the film raised many Hollywood hackles.
Yordan said, “Louis B. Mayer was so indignant, he called up Frank King and says, ‘Frank, you gotta destroy the negative for the good of the industry.’ Frank says, ‘Sure, what’ll you pay me?’ Louis B. Mayer says, ‘I’ll pay you nothing.’”
So the film came out, and there was enough public interest in the subject matter that it was a hit–though not without its detractors–when it came out in March, 1945. The Chicago Censorship Board one of the remaining regional boards, banned the exhibition of Dillinger within city limits for two years.
Lawrence Tierney enjoyed a solid run of star vehicles as a result of Dillinger, mostly playing sociopaths in films such as “Born to Kill” (1947), “The Devil Thumbs a Ride” (1947) and the title character “The Hoodlum” (1951).
While he wasn’t a gangster, Tierney’s criminal activity eventually led to his downfall.
In 1948, he spent three months in jail for assault and within days of his release faced charges of kicking a cop while drunk and disorderly. In 1952, he got into a fist fight on the corner of Broadway and 53rd in New York. He got into fights with cops again in 1956 and 1958, with a couple of assault arrests in between. He was once charged with burglary for breaking into the home of a 25-year-old actress when he was 45. She told the papers she was surprised at the burglary charge. “He didn’t steal anything,” she said. “I just wanted him to leave me alone.”
In a 1999 article titled, “The Big Leak: An Uneasy Evening with a Noir Legend,” film writer Eddie Muller said that Tierney “was the only actor in Hollywood who stood for more mug shots than publicity photos.”
After 1960, he found it hard to get work and was relegated again to bit parts when he could get work at all. He moved back home to New York and took jobs in construction and driving a horse-drawn carriage around Central Park.
Tierney returned to Hollywood in 1983 and did guest star turns on shows like “Remington Steele,” “Hunter” and “L.A. Law.” He played Elaine’s father in “Seinfeld” and reprised his gangster persona in an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” He also made a number of appearances on “Hill Street Blues” as the night desk sergeant, uttering the last line of the series.
In 1991, Quentin Tarantino cast him as the crime lord Joe Cabot in “Reservoir Dogs,” a decision the up-and-coming director later regretted, according to a 2010 interview with the Guardian.
He said, “Tierney was a complete lunatic by that time – he just needed to be sedated. We had decided to shoot his scenes first, so my first week of directing was talking with this fucking lunatic.
“He was personally challenging to every aspect of film-making. By the end of the week everybody on set hated Tierney – it wasn’t just me. And in the last 20 minutes of the first week we had a blow out and got into a fist fight. I fired him, and the whole crew burst into applause.”
Harvey Keitel intervened to keep Tarantino from getting canned by the studio for the disruption, and went on to become Quentin Tarantino. Tierney went home, fired a shotgun at his nephew and wound up in prison again.
Lawrence Tierney’s last film role was an uncredited part in the 1998 movie Armageddon as Bruce Willis’s father.
After the 1945 release of “Dillinger,” it would be another 12 years before the iconic gangster would be portrayed again in film, played by Leo Gordon in “Baby Face Nelson” (1957). He would also be played by Nick Adams in “Young Dillinger” (1965), Warren Oates in “Dillinger” (1973), Robert Conrad in the “The Lady in Red” (1979), Mark Harmon in a TV film in 1991, Martin Sheen in “Dillinger and Capone” (1995), and by Johnny Depp in “Public Enemies” (2009).
None of them are known for making a true-to-live, historically accurate depiction of Dillinger’s life, in keeping with Hollywood’s long history of bending history to achieve its allegedly artistic goals. This version of “Dillinger” is a prime example of that.
John Dillinger was released on parole from the Michigan City Prison in May, 1933, and almost immediately assembled a gang based on his jailhouse education, then went on a bank robbing spree to raise money to finance a prison break for his mentor Pete Pierpont and others.
While it is believed that he helped get the guns inside the prison that enabled the largest jailbreak in Indiana history, he was arrested in Dayton before the escape could be executed, and he was sent to Lima to await extradition back to Indiana.
Pierpont and the others managed their escape without him on September 26 and after a stop in Indianapolis came to Hamilton on October 1, first to the homes of accomplices on South Second Street, where they planned the robbery of a St. Mary’s bank to raise money to get their pal Dillinger out of jail.
After that, they hid out in a fishing cabin near Venice (now Ross) where they hatched the plan to free Dillinger from the Lima jail.
Pierpont and two others went to the door of the jail on October 12, and identified themselves as Indiana law enforcement come to transfer Dillinger. When the Sheriff asked them for their credentials, they flashed their guns and Pierpont shot Allen County Sheriff Jess Sarber in the stomach, killing him.
A few days later, 7 a.m. October 16, more than 100 police–federal, Indiana state, Lima, and local–stormed and searched several homes in on South Second Street in Hamilton, including the home of Leroy and Naomi Hooten, who had been known to assist the gang in securing food and supplies, even cars. Naomi Hooten, according to the FBI, was an “intimate friend” of gang member Harry Copeland. Leroy Hooten had been a bootlegger, a trade not of much use after Prohibition ended. Neighbors had told the FBI that the Hootens had been in bad financial condition until the Michigan City escape, but were suddenly flashing cash around town.
It was later reported that Dillinger and some or all of the others had gotten word of the impending raid and narrowly made their escape.
After searching those and other Hamilton homes, the posse scoured the banks of the Great Miami River from Hamilton to Ross until they discovered the lodge where the gang had previously stayed and spoke to the owner, who was seemingly unaware that he had been an accomplice.
Toward the end of 1933, the Hootens and another Hamilton couple, Walter and Edna Clark, took a trip to Arizona and returned with a brand new car and even more money. The feds suspected the Hootens and Clarks were doing advance work for the gang, scouting locations and perhaps even looking into Mexico for them, so they intercepted their mail and found letters from Dillinger postmarked from Phoenix and so had Arizona agents on alert, but it was a fire in Tuscon, closer to the Mexican border, where the Dillinger-Pierpont gang were undone by a hotel fire.
In looking into the 1945 reactions to the movie “Dillinger”, no one seemed madder than the Tuscon police in regard to the way the film portrays the capture of Dillinger in their city. The bit about the dentist is pure fabrication.
The Dillinger gang was indeed holed up in Tucson, presumably as a staging area for a flight to Mexico, should the need arise. Their stay was interrupted by a grease fire in the basement of the Hotel Congress, where several of his gang members were staying. The hotel was quickly evacuated, but three gang members were trying to collect their bags and missed their chance for escape when the flames went roaring up the elevator shaft. So the Tucson Fire Department rescued them with an aerial ladder. Gang member Charles Makley tipped a pair of firemen $12 to climb back up and retrieve his bags, which happened to be loaded with guns and cash.
A couple of days later, the two firemen were thumbing through a copy of True Detective magazine and saw photos of two men they had rescued from the Hotel Congress. They called the police, who found out the men had left a Tuscon forwarding address, 327 N. Second Avenue, and set up stake-outs.
They grabbed Makley at an electronics store where he was looking for a radio that monitored police calls. They arrested Russell “Art” Clark and his girlfriend arrested at the Second Avenue address.
Gang member Harry Pierpont and his girlfriend, Mary Kinder, unwittingly drove themselves to the police station.
When officers spotted Pierpont’s car, they stopped him to explain that because he had out-of-state license plates, he needed to pick up a “visitor sticker.” An officer actually rode with him to show the way, pretending not to notice the machine guns under the back seat. Pierpont didn’t realized he’d been duped until they got to the police station and he saw some of the gang’s confiscated equipment lying about. He reached for his gun, but to no avail.
Then on January 24, 1934, three detectives had the plan to enter the home and wait for Dillinger to arrive. Two of them got out of the car and went inside while the other went to move the car to put it in a more advantageous position should they have to embark on a car chase. He moved the car a little down the street and as he was walking back, Dillinger and a woman pulled up and parked right in front of the house and got out of the car. The detective suddenly found himself standing right behind the famous fugitive, who had clearly let his guard down.
According to the Tuscon Daily Citizen, the detective “shoved his gun in Dillinger’s ribs, told him the jig was up and suggested that he raise his hands high in the air. Dillinger instead of complying went for his gun [in a shoulder holster, according to the detective]. He got for his trouble a slap alongside of the head with the heavy Colt [the cop] was carrying.”
The two other officers emerged from the house with sawed-off shotguns and Dillinger went along willingly.
Arizona Highways, January 8, 2006
McGilligan, Patrick. Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1991. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft0z09n7m0/
Quentin Tarantino, The Guardian, January 12, 2010
Tucson (Arizona) Daily Citizen: Local Police Recall Taking of Dillinger, May 1, 1945.
Hamilton Evening Journal, July 29, 1973.