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TCM Greatest Gangster Film Collection: Prohibition Era

by Ed Tapper
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Tuesday Sep 21, 2010
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Once the initial shock of having great Hollywood classics tossed together into cheap compilations has subsided, Turner Classic Movies’ Greatest Films Collections - with their bargain prices and excellent film transfers - become ever more tempting. Certain past releases, which juxtaposed movies of widely, disparate genres, seemed crass. The studio’s new set, containing four powerhouse films that are thematically and chronologically linked, is an all-around winner.

Four, ruthless, cinematic criminals from Hollywood’s Golden Age have been confined to Turner’s neat little package, titled Greatest Gangster Films: Prohibition Era. Most of the movies included were produced from 1930-31, at the outset of the Depression, the end of the Prohibition Era, and the birth of talking films. Thus, the subjects of bootlegging illegal liquor, and the colorful criminals who profited from it, were most topical and ideal for treatment in the new film medium. In addition to chronicling the careers of some of the silver screen’s archetypal gangsters, the new set is also a homage to the remarkable actors that so vividly brought them to life: James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson.


Public Enemy

Tom Powers is the anti-hero of William Wellman’s 1931Public Enemy, a film which launched its star, Cagney, to super-stardom. Originally cast in the supporting role of the ethical brother, Cagney snagged the lead, and ran away with the part of Tom, giving his first of many tour-de-force screen performances. The film traces Tom’s early descent, and ultimate immersion, into the world of crime. Despite his playing a sociopathic bad guy, Cagney is so charismatic, that the viewer remains sympathetic throughout his many criminal escapades.

The film boasts a trio of top-notch female stars: Jean Harlow as a street-smart gun-moll, Joan Blondell, as a gold-hearted golddigger, and the underrated Mae Clark, who, as Tom’s frustrated girlfriend, receives the cinema’s first grapefruit facial. Wellman’s taut direction keeps the action consistently pulsating, and the brutal violence and pre-code morality is often eye-popping - even by our standards. The scene in which the drunken Tom is raped by a female innkeeper is still disturbing.


Little Caesar

Where Tom climbs to the top of the largely Irish-American bootlegging racket, Rico becomes the Little Caesar of the primarily Italian Mafia. The famed 1930 film is a chilling account of Rico’s driven ascent, from a trigger-happy hit-man, to the sadistic head of the mob. Handsome Douglas Fairbanks Jr. plays Rico’s former "brother in crime" who attempts to go straight with Glenda Farrell, in a supporting role as his girlfriend and professional dance partner. Rico’s one soft spot for his old buddy leads to his ultimate ruin, in this tough, little 1930 film which, though lacking the power of Public Enemy, has many wonderful things to recommend it. Robinson brings characteristic virtuosity to his portrayal of Rico, as he does to the character of Nick the Barber - the hero of the next film in the set, the 1931 Smart Money.


Smart Money

Already consigned to swarthy, ethnic roles, Edward G. is Nick, who uses his barbershop as a front for a successful, small-town, gambling racket. With the help of fellow Greek American backers, he infiltrates the "big city," finally gaining control of the illegal gaming business. As in Little Caesar, his sentimental streak proves his downfall. In this case it is his affection for an impoverished young girl who he rescues from a suicide attempt. He also has an unusually tender soft-spot for his right-hand man, and roommate, played by Cagney in his only film with Robinson.

The fascinating gay innuendo here is quite pronounced. In one scene, Cagney and Robinson, both wearing pajamas and robes, discuss the girl while at the breakfast table. Cagney expresses his mistrust of her, and insists she leave the apartment. In the next scene, Robinson assures Cagney that she will be gone soon, after which Cagney can, "go on being my sweetheart!" The real surprise of the set, Smart Money, though lighter in mood, and not as famous as its disc-mates, is enormously entertaining and well-crafted. As the boisterous barber, Robinson gives yet another memorable performance.


The Roaring Twenties

The final film is of the collection is the 1939 The Roaring Twenties, in which Cagney returns, as a similar, though more sympathetic, character to his Tom Powers of Public Enemy. Though The Roaring Twenties lacks the grit of its predecessor, it compensates with sheer gloss. Raoul Walsh directed this grand entertainment, which is laid out as a broad, chronological documentary. This time Cagney locks horns not only with the law, but with a malevolent Humphrey Bogart, an old WWI buddy with whom he forms an uneasy partnership. While running his bootlegging conglomerate, he carries a torch for nice kid, Priscilla Lane, who accepts his help with her singing career, but rejects his romantic advances. Cagney is altogether fabulous, particularly in his scenes with the inimitable Gladys George, of the manner born as speakeasy owner Panama Smith. The entire era of the 1920s is wonderfully evoked by nightclub scenes, musical numbers, and exciting shootouts, seasoned with bits of actual documentary footage.

All taken from their original DVD releases, the four films in the new TCM set are presented with valuable audio commentary, and special features collected in a video folder called "Warner Night at the Movies." These include vintage trailers, newsreels, comic shorts ( Don’t miss George Jessel and his "Russian Art Choir,)" and black and white cartoons. There are even a few original documentaries thrown in, making this set, obtainable at well under $20, a must-have bargain.


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