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Gangsterism and American Dream: Little Ceaser and the Godfather

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2487 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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From Hollywood cinema, one of the renowned genres had been the gangster drama. The gangster movies come much closer in time, whereas, the Western movies mostly represent the folklore of the past. This was influenced historically by two key socio-economic events: The Great Depression (1929-34) and Prohibition (1919-33). A significant role was played by the Prohibition in 1919 in bringing the underworld into the national picture. Charge of the illegal liquor trade was taken over by big city or regional gangs, most of which that belonged to the immigrant/ethnic groups. These gangs grew stronger quickly, first by acquiring a significant control on neighborhoods and then the entire cities. For domination, fights between opposing gangs also took place. Further, the popular imagination was captured and fictional accounts were fueled by the exploits of gangsters like “Pretty Boy” Floyd, “Baby Face” Nelson, John Dillinger, and Al Capone. Whereas, these gangsters were mostly a specific mixture of fiction and fact. Heroic proportions were grown when the first gangster appeared in newsreels and newspapers.

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Later in the early 20th century, more gangsters emerged in response to the corporate capitalism evolution. A hero of mythic proportions romanticized by the tales was also searched by the eager media. By committing their crimes with immense bravery, these real-life gangsters emerged from being ordinary criminals. Although the boundaries between evil and good were transgressed by them, people living in America became more fascinated towards these gangsters. They imagined them as a people who begin from a scratch and then end up having fancy cars and stylish attires, defying the boundaries that separate the social class. Sensational stories related to their lifestyles were also written by the media. Due to the rags to riches saga, they were adored by the public, whereas, were also considered as public enemies by the police. More interestingly, most of the journalists and reporters who wrote their autobiographies later became screenwriters.

The American myth about a classless and democratic society has mostly been displayed by gangster movies and novels. They have reflected upon the deep social division in American society. In a socio-cultural upheaval, a fundamental role has been played by the gangsters, resulting in a subversion of the period of the counterculture of the underworld and traditional values. It can be noted that the gangster as a hero represents the two opposing and fundamental ideologies in America. One is the vision of a democratic and classless society, whereas, the other is the contradiction in though between America perceived as the land of opportunity. Moreover, the classic gangster hero comes invariably from the proletarian class and acquire access to wealth by conducting robberies. Rules are not followed by him and the contradiction is embodied by him in American society. Therefore, his death is necessary ideologically. Some of the excellent gangster dramas in this period were written by some of the renowned screenwriters such as Little Caesar by WR Burnett in 1929 and The Godfather by Mario Puzo in 1969. Whereas, Warner Brother produced some of the early gangster movie mostly attractive to the working class people and associated with low budget films, such as Little Caesar in 1931. Later, two film sequels were also made in 1974 and 1990 on The Godfather.

A typical gangster movie and novel involves a good woman, who could be a sister, mother, or a love interest, the dangerous woman, a charismatic bad or good hero as far as the iconography had been concerned. One of the highest points of the movies and novels had been the relationship of a gangster with his mentors. Moreover, as the characters become more colorful and the stories become more hard-hitting and realistic, new vitality and vigor were brought by the new genre to the films. Whereas, the language of the streets was another hallmark found its way in the films. During the early 1930s and late 1920s, American movies and novels based on gangsters started representing some of the increasingly charismatic characters. Gangsters were portrayed often as degenerate by early movies and independence being lost in the new capitalist society by the overly feminized men. However, later they were re-casted by films as men who wielded power through guns and sexuality. A lasting association was established by movies like Little Caesar in 1931 in popular culture between the gangster and the specific ethnic groups such as Italian America, Asian, African American, Irish American, and Jewish. These groups were marginalized and stereotypes by the cinematic images of masculinity linked with these ethnicities. The gangster has been in film, theater, and literature and has been the product of Italian Americans. Some of the artists who have drawn to the figure of the gangster have been Anthony Valerio, Gay Talese, Martin Scorsese, Maria Puzo, and etc. The gangster became a cultural image of mythic proportions in their hands. In American folklore, the cowboy was opposed by the Mafioso hero as the chief figure in different aspects and as a source for popular entertainment, the old American frontier was opposed by the Mafia.

The “outside” (Italian or Jew American) often emerged from working class or poverty level of America in classic gangster. Whereas when he fails, another leader arises inevitably assuring to lead his predecessor or the old gangster is killed mostly or imprisoned by the legal authorities. Power is his reward outside and inside his ethnic community. Further, the post-Vietnam was unleashed by the next round of gangster cinema, specifically with ‘The Godfather’ the novel by Mario Puzo and three leading movies based on the novel. To communicate a personal story the gangster movie was used as a profitable and accepted public vehicle by the American-Italian artist at this stage. Some of the notable gangster movies of this period were Capone (1975), Boxcar Bertha (1972), Bloody Mama (1967), The St. Valentine Day’s Massacre (1967), and Bonnie and Clyde (1967). This was the time period when the gangster figure was used by Italian Americans as the vehicle for communicating and forwarding their own stories about being Italians in the United States.

However, little political and intellectual attention was received by the writings of Italian Americans. One of the prime examples of it was The Godfather. Although it reflected upon the complexities of history and culture of Italian American, it received a huge amount of critics. In contrast to this, it was greeted by various Italian American organizations and readers as occasions for cries of discrimination and for lament. This novel accompanied inevitably the concept of discrimination. Moreover, The Godfather had been both ill and good work of art. It is also important to note that one of the myths of the Italian American colonial condition is the mafia. The message is that cultural equality cannot be accomplished by Italian Americans. They can never escape as they had their origins and belonging to Little Italy. Moreover, becoming rich also brings no significant help to them. It is more about reinstating Italian America in its colonial condition. This situation was well-represented in part 3 of The Godfather when Michael Corleone complains “they pull me back in”. This line also shows that in the old neighborhoods, there were only little amount of loyalties present for Italian Americans. Even after they send their children to Ivy League Schools or even after they move to the suburbs, they still had their operations outside the rules of the dominant culture. It can be summed up well that the truth of belonging of Italian Americans still confined to the order of prestige created by Roman aristocrats thousands of years ago has been dramatized by the Mafia fable and all this time it never got distributed seriously.

Moreover, many commonalities can be found between The Godfather and Little Caser. For example, in the environment of a modern urban city, the fall and rise narrative pattern of a gangster has been represented by these movies. This also lays the foundation of the American dream where the desire for the American dream of success is pursued by an immigrant protagonist. Whereas, an epigraph that has several quotes from the Bible is also included in Little Caesar. Moreover, these movies also represented how a strong homo-social tie was established by the protagonist gangster that appears with his friend and then later they engage in business together. Although individual heterosexual partner is found by the friend, whereas, the friend is considered by the hero as his sole confidant. However, it is shown differently in Little Caesar, as Joe Massara with the help of Olga who was his life and dancing partner succeeds in escaping from the gang and becomes a professional dancer.

Whereas, in these movies, the heroes who were gangsters died alone and remained single, unlike their friends which represented the magnitude of their punishment. Along with this the consumption culture in America was also represented by these movies. For example, a humble origin of the gangster is shown first later he emerges in the gang and then he materially prospers and shows off the similar items, such as prostitutes (molls), gaudy jewelry fast cars, expensive cigarettes, flashy clothes (hat, tie, and tailored suit), and bundles of notes. These mainly are the status symbols of the gangster in the movie. Further, the gangster purchases a fancy mansion and spent his life lavishly there. Whereas the women are not considered as human beings, instead, they are perceived as acquisitions or collectibles. Female characters appear to be feared by the gangster protagonists. For example, the case of Caesar Enrico (Rico) Bandelo from Little Caesar. Whereas, this aspect was referred by William Burnett – the author in the original novel as, “the capability of women of relaxing a man was one of the biggest fears from women, for instance, making them slack and soft such as Joe Massara. Whereas, no deep involvement was maintained with a woman by Rico.”In comparison to Rico, Tony Camonte and Tome Powers were portrayed more as womanizers, as they chased women and followed their passion. Yet no man developed a domestic relationship with any female besides his mother. No matter how much prodigal both Camonte and Powers are, they still used to go home to enjoy dishes made by their mothers.

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Further, the bootlegging business has also been represented in these movies with prohibition as the background. The existence of Al Capone was reflected by Little Caesar. This reminded the viewers about the prohibition era. Moreover, powerful fighting scenes were presented by the movies to reflect upon the real gangster wars. They depicted the gangsters bombing stores and restaurants from fast-moving cars and shooting machine guns. The movies also involve funeral scenes repeatedly such as the long procession in Little Caesar.

The above analysis also represents the archetypical factors of the classic gangster movies. However, significant and subtle differences can also be revealed despite these similarities and the general potential of grouping these two movies as one. It is important to note that even way before the release of The Godfather, a particular ethnic group has been associated with Little Caesar. Moreover, a social critique of the American dream has also been represented by these movies. For example, the personal background of Rico has not been delineated in Little Caesar, but it does represent how a male immigrant emerges from trash and becomes a gangster. This more represents the mentality of America about the way of life defined in the criminal world. Similarly, a strong desire to reach the top position and a pioneering spirit have been expressed by Tony Camonte. For example, when Tony Camonte said, “Do it yourself, do it fast, and keep on doing it!”. The ethos and values of America have not only embodied by these characters but they also have revealed the fact that they had been deprived and specifically socially handicapped of equal and fair opportunities for succeeding in Anglo-Saxon corporate America, leaving them with no other option of acquiring their dreams and desires besides adopting the criminal world.

In addition, unspeakable messages that are repressed by individuals in their subconscious are also conveyed by these movies. For example, a type of misogyny and a homo-social world has been depicted in Little Caesar. For example, near to success in reaching the top is acquired in Little Caesar by Rico Bandello. However, his obsession with Joe Massara – his former crime partner baffles him. Rico in the movie emerges in the criminal world and acquire almost everything he desired of, except for Joe, who despite Rico’s request refused to rejoin the gang. Even though attempts of killing Joe are made by Rico as he perceives Joe as the betrayer, still Rico failed to short him.

 Last but not least, it can be concluded that the issue with the classic American gangster is not the representation of the key characters as the gangsters, but the attempt of the movies of subverting of things taken for granted about that particular era by the audiences, that is, everyone had the opportunity of realizing the American dream. Whereas, for most of them particularly the underprivileged immigrants, the critical path to success was quite thorny and long. Even if the dream was realized by anyone, there was no significant time of experiencing it as it never lasted for long in the competitive world. Furthermore, the bustling gangsters disturbed the narrative order as tentative peace was represented by the deaths of the key characters. Moreover, in the vivid comparison between evil and good, the basic structure of these gangster movies have been different from other movies, as it was difficult to figure the good character. Just like in Little Caesar, where Rico Bandello is arrested in the final scene, despite he was outnumbered by the police. He still was shot by the machine gun for a longer period by Sergeant Flaherty.

Works Cited

  • Burnett, William Riley. Little Caesar. Rosetta Books, 2010.
  • Puzo, Mario. The godfather. Penguin, 2005.


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