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Discuss the reasons for the popularity of gangster films in the early 1930s. Indicate to what actual social context they responded, and why these films became increasingly controversial.

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Discuss the reasons for the popularity of gangster films in the early 1930s. Indicate to what actual social context they responded, and why these films became increasingly controversial. The late 1920s in America was a particularly tumultuous period of time for the country. The Wall Street Crash in 1929 had led to high levels of unemployment and dissatisfaction within the country. The Depression (1929-1934), which was a direct result of The Wall Street Crash, led to a breakdown of industry and commerce within the country and weakened its global position as a superpower. People began to realise that the ideal which had been frequently promoted by governmental propaganda of The American Dream which suggested that "success, in the democratic and classless society guaranteed by the American Constitution, was within the reach of everyone"1 was perhaps not as realistic as they had been led to believe and many supposed that it was in fact a myth. This loss of ideology led to widespread disapproval throughout the country and increased and highlighted the widening divisions in America's social and class system. Public dissent was further heightened by the period of Prohibition which spanned 1919-1933 during which "the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcoholic drinks was forbidden"2 throughout the United States. Prohibition was very hard to implement and even harder to enforce due to the fact that illegal "speakeasies" were opened by mobsters and gangsters such as Al Capone. Within these "speakeasies" people could drink freely as the groups of mobsters produced and sold contraband liquor. ...read more.


Such symbolism associated with gangsters did perhaps diminish public opinion, gangsters lost the publics respect and were not considered to be heroes anymore, however interest in the activities they pursued did not dwindle. Andrew Tudor stated "The fame of Capone and the notorious St. Valentines Day Massacre of 1929 created a storm of publicity. Quick to see the possibilities, the studios reacted, and on the crest of this wave came Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar"11 "Little Caesar" was the first film within a classic cycle of gangster films. Film studios were quick to seize the opportunity that the public interest in the gangster underworld had caused. People were keen to find out more about the lives of the indistinct figure of the gangster and therefore film studios produced a series of such films in order to quench societies thirst. "Little Caesar" (1931) had great box office success and was followed by a series of "some fifty gang films"12 which came to the screen in 1931. "Little Caesar" was followed by Warner's "The Public Enemy" (1931) and UA's "Scarface" (1932), these films traced the rise and "precipitous fall of the urban, often immigrant gangster involved in heavy racketeering and bootlegging during Prohibition"13. "Little Caesar" was indisputably the most successful of the gangster films so far as box office takings were concerned. Variety reported that it whetted "the public appetite for underworld stories at its height"14. Many of the gangster films of the era were based on the lives and actions of real-life gangsters and mobs within America during the period. ...read more.


By 1931 the film market had become saturated by gangland pictures and thereafter the number of these films dropped. This is reflected by Richard Maltby who commented upon the fickle nature of the film industry during this period and reflects upon the difficulties of the period of the time and considers the impact that the social climate had upon the films produced, he stated "the year 1931 was the best of times and the worst of times to release films about gangsters"25. Robert Warshow attributes the small length of production of gangster films to the fact that "America, as a social and political organization, is committed to a cheerful view of life"26 and the gangster genre does not promote this ideology. Due to the actions taken by censorship committees it seems as though even when in truth there are troubles within a society these issues are not allowed to be projected into the countries culture, this is reflected by Warshow's sentiments that "every production of mass culture is a public act and must conform with accepted notions of public good"27. Had the gangster genre become popular at a period when there was not such a great deal of civil unrest then perhaps there would not have been such a public outcry in result of the material included, but because of the social effects of and the admiration given to the gangsters within such films the government tried to abolish. This conclusion is supported by Warshow's suggestion that "At a time when the normal condition of the citizen is a state of anxiety, euphoria spreads over our culture like the broad smile of an idiot"28. ...read more.

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