Introduction to ‘Dillinger’

Last night, we finished up the “Hollywood Hoods” film series, sponsored by the Colligan History Project, as part of its semester-long exploration into the Prohibition and gangster era. Here are my notes for “Dillinger” (1945). While of not much use as a historical document in regard to the real John Dillinger, the film illustrates how the American public glamorized the gangster culture of the 1920s and ’30s.

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.

2015 0318 DillingerThe 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.

2015 0318 Dillinger tierneyIn 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.

2015 0318 Dillinger clipA 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.

Sources:

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.

Introduction to “The Roaring Twenties”

The second installment of the “Hollywood Hoods” film series sponsored by the Colligan History Project was a screening of “The Roaring Twenties.” Here are the notes from my introduction…

rt2Those of you who were here last week for the screening of “The Public Enemy” may recall that in 1931, when that film was released, many critics were predicting the end of the gangster pictures, suggesting that the public may have had its fill of the formulaic plots and the cheesy shoot-outs and car chases.

As it would turn out, the genre still had a few good years left in it. “The Roaring Twenties”, released in 1939, may have been the swan song of the great era of gangster films. By the time it was released, memories of Prohibition–the great failed social experiment–were disappearing into the past and what romance the public may have seen in the gangster ideal had been ravaged by the hard times of the Depression era.

So with “The Roaring Twenties” we have what some critics have called the eulogy of the Jazz Age. I thought this would be a good film for the series for that very reason: The story follows the rise and fall of a trio of bootleggers that coincides with the rise and fall of Prohibition. The film has the scope of an epic, beginning in the trenches of World War I and ends with the repeal of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.

And like “The Public Enemy,” “The Roaring Twenties” is known for its insider look at the bootlegging trade and the glamor of the speakeasies and flappers that gave the decade its glitter and romance. Director Raoul Walsh tried to make a hard-hitting action film that still had strong realistic elements, thus his use of mock newsreel footage and a semi-documentary style in portions of the film. There were several newspaper articles in the day that discussed how his crew tried to recreate the look and feel of the speakeasies and duplicate the outlandish fashions of the day. One article said that they had to reel that in a little, fearing that people wouldn’t believe it got that weird if they were too realistic.

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The story’s foot in the real world comes from the pen of the popular syndicated columnist Mark Hellinger and his screenplay treatment, originally titled “The World Moves On,” based on his experiences as a New York news reporter during the 1920s.

hellingerIn 1923, Hellinger went to work for the New York Daily News, and in 1925 was assigned to do a Sunday column titled “About Town,” which was supposed to be a gossip column about the Broadway theater scene. Instead, he wrote short stories in the style of O. Henry about the people of Broadway, often without even giving their names. It wasn’t what his editors ordered, but his columns became so popular that they allowed him to continue, and Hellinger’s popularity grew. Although his name rings few bells today, at his peak Hellinger was syndicated to nearly 150 newspapers and had an audience of 15 million readers. It’s estimated that he wrote 4,500 stories.

And as part of the Broadway in-crowd, he was also a New York celebrity. He married one of Ziegfield’s most popular show girls, Gladys Glad, and was often seen carousing in the company of his colleague and best friend Walter Winchell. He also counted among his friends the New York mobsters Dutch Schultz and Legs Diamond and frequented some of Gotham’s trendiest speakeasies with names like the Hotsy-Totsy, Club Dizzy, and the Blackbottom.

You will see some of Hellinger’s words in the introduction to the film, which reads in part: “In this film, the characters are composites of people I knew, and the situations are those that actually occurred. Bitter or sweet, most memories become precious as the years move on. This film is a memory–and I am grateful for it.”

“The Roaring Twenties” was not Hellinger’s first involvement with a Hollywood film, but it was his first success, and he later turned producer for several film noir classics, his biggest hit being 1947’s “The Killers,” Burt Lancaster’s debut. It was based on an Ernest Hemingway short story, and it’s said Hellinger bought the rights to it because he couldn’t afford a Hemingway novel. In “The Naked City,” which includes the iconic narration that Hellinger himself provided with the classic line, “There are eight million stories in the Naked City…”

So we were in Chicago for “The Public Enemy,” and now we get to see Prohibition in New York City. Like “The Public Enemy,” we can point to real people who were the inspiration for some of the central figures in “The Roaring Twenties.”

Eddie Bartlett, the role played by James Cagney, is said to be a thinly-disguised and humanized version of the New York racketeer Larry Fay, and the character Panama Smith, played by Gladys George, a fictionalized version of the brassy speakeasy hostess Texas Guinan.

Larry Fay had the distinction of a police rap sheet with 49 arrests and no convictions. He made his fortune by bringing Canadian whiskey across the border and into New York City. He used the money he made to open a night club, El Fey, on Manhattan’s West 47th Street in 1924 that was famous for its floor show and hostess/emcee, Texas Guinan. He also became a partner in the club Casa Blanca, and it was there he was gunned down during a 1932 New Years Eve party by the club’s doorman, disgruntled because his pay had been cut.

texasMary Louise Guinan picked up the nickname “Texas” when she began her singing career in Chicago, more popular for her Wild West patter between songs than for her singing. She moved to New York City in 1906 and became a chorus girl on vaudeville and in touring productions. In 1917, she made a silent movie “The Wildcat,” which earned her the title of “The Queen of the West” as Hollywood’s first cowgirl.

Cagney, James (Roaring Twenties, The)_02When Prohibition came around Guinan opened her own speakeasy, the 300 Club, on West 54th Street, which became a hangout for the New York elite, a place where George Gerswin could easily be persuaded to sit at the piano for an impromptu set. Guinan greeted her patrons with one of her catch phrases, “Hello, suckers,” which was toned down in a paraphrase for this film, made during the years of the Hays code. See if you can catch it.

Texas Guinan played versions of herself in a couple of films, including “Queen of the Night Clubs” in 1929, was fictionalized by Damon Runyon as “Miss Missouri Martin” in several of his Prohibiton-era short stories, and portrayed in film by Betty Hutton, Phyllis Diller and Diane Lane, among several others. For his 1932 film “Night After Night,” George Raft wanted Texas Guinan to play herself, believing that it would make her a big star. By that time, she was nearly 40 years old, so the studio opted instead for an up and coming vaudeville performer Mae West, whose wise-cracking stage persona had a lot in common with and may have been inspired by Guinan, but she was a decade younger. West was allowed to rewrite some of the dialog, prompting George Raft to remark, “She stole everything but the cameras,” and his prediction about the role creating a star came true, but for the wrong gal.

roaring-1feature“The Roaring Twenties” marks the third and final time James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart would appear in the same film, though most of the reviews of the day lamented that Bogart wasn’t on-screen enough. Their previous works together were the gangster movie “Angels with Dirty Faces” in 1938 and a Western, believe it or not, “The Oklahoma Kid,” released the same year as “The Roaring Twenties.” It didn’t do as well, probably because the urban actors seemed terribly out of place in the Old West.

Bogart and Cagney had somewhat parallel careers. They were the same age, born within six months of each other in 1899 in New York City, but Cagney grew up in the tenements and tough streets of the Lower West Side while Bogart was raised on the Upper West Side and went to posh private schools. His father was a surgeon and his mother an illustrator who made even more money than her husband. Cagney and Bogart both got their start on Broadway before moving to Hollywood.

While they both made their marks playing tough guys, they had distinctive styles. Cagney was the brash extrovert and Bogart the sulking introvert. Cagney bristled with intensity and talked fast. Bogart was more laconic, speaking as if to put great emphasis on his words.

Cagney’s career was already in full bloom by the time they made “The Roaring Twenties,” while Bogart was still a rising star, transitioning from the cheesy upper-crust “Tennis, anyone?” shallow sophisticate roles that he was first being cast in–parts he called “White Pants Willies”– to the tough guy roles that made him famous. He once quipped that critics hated him in his early roles, and they were right. He had some success as the star of “The Petrified Forest” in 1936, reprising his Broadway role in the film version at the insistence of Leslie Howard, but Warner Bros. didn’t seem to want to invest in him as a star–maybe because he refused to change his name even though Jack Warner insisted. Instead they switched his “type” from the fraternity boy to the tough guy, giving him roles refused by Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Paul Muni. In fact, his first leading man role in “High Sierra”, 1941, also directed by Raoul Walsh, had been turned down by both Robinson and Muni.

Both actors were involved in monumental, highly-publicized clashes with studio executives over both their typecasting, and both received three Academy Award nominations but earned their only Oscars for playing parts against that type: Cagney as the song-and-dance man George M. Cohen in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and Bogart as the lovable lush Charlie Allnut in “The African Queen,” so clearly both had acting chops that went beyond their gangster fame.

Bogart worked hard and made many, many important films before he died of cancer of the esophagus in 1957. Three years after that, Cagney retired from Hollywood and made only one other film, a small role in “Ragtime” in 1981, before his death in 1986.

Annex - Bogart, Humphrey (Roaring Twenties, The)_NRFPT_01