Gangster mythology in Howard Hawks' "Scarface - Shame of the nation"

Term Paper, 2003

21 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. The gangster in America’s urban history

3. The development of the gangster myth
3.1. Class distinctions and ethnicity
3.2. Dressed to kill

4. The American gangster-movie

5.1. The depiction of historical events
5.2. Gangster iconography
5.3. The role of the media

6. Conclusion

7. Works cited

8. Transcript

9. Stills

1. Introduction

Wenn es stimmt, was der Filmsoziologe Siegfried Kracauer gesagt hat, daß nämlich Filme „Spiegel des kollektiven Unbewußten“ eines Volkes seien, dann bildet sich in SCARFACE wie in dem Genre des Gangsterfilms überhaupt ein regelrechter Schock dieses kollektiven Unbewußten ab. Mit dem „Schwarzen Freitag“ der New Yorker Börse am 24. Oktober 1929 brach nicht nur der US-amerikanische Kredit- und Börsenmarkt zusammen, sondern die sich anschließende Wirtschaftskrise erschütterte auch zutiefst den ideologischen Konsens über den Erfolg der amerikanischen Nation (Rodenberg 163).

Worse than the economic impact of the Depression were its psychological effects on the people: unemployment and hunger lead to moral depression, distrust, and the downfall of traditional legal norms. Consequently, criminality became a major problem which politicians did not seem to be able to stop. It was an open secret that gangsters such as Al Capone made a lot of money by trading with alcoholic beverages during Prohibition and gained a lot of political influence by this.

Chicago is commonly seen as the place where gangdom first developed. Its gangster image still clings to the city today. The most prominent events and people related to the gangs of Chicago were Al Capone and the ‘War of Sicilian Succession’ which resulted in the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, leaving seven gang leaders killed and Capone as the new czar of the underworld. For the public, the adventurous and fancy life of the gang world became the symbol for the new mass culture that evolved from urbanization. The stereotype of the new criminal helped to overcome the traditional social boundaries that seemed no longer apt for the urbanized society.

The gangster-movie genre, along with the press reinforced the gangster myth. SCARFACE –SHAME OF THE NATION by Howard Hawks (1930/1932) fits in with this concept. However, the movie also shows the influence the press takes in the creation of the media gangster. For this reason, it gives an ambivalent picture of the gang world in the 1930s. So is it a critique or part of the gangster myth creation? How are the historical events depicted, and how much is the representation of the gangsters in the movie predisposed by the media image of the gangster?

In order to answer these questions, I will first give a short historical overview of Chicago’s ganglife at the turn of the 19th century. Second, I will explain the development of the gangster myth and the role of class, ethnicity, and style. Then I will describe the characteristics of the gangster movie in the 1930s. Finally, I will analyze Howard Hawks’ SCARFACE – SHAME OF THE NATION with regard to the depiction of historical events, gangster iconography, and the role of the media.

2. The gangster in America’s urban history

While the era of the gangster in Chicago is often attributed to Prohibition, the genesis of gangsters’ power can be traced back long before the enactment of the Volstead Act[1]. […] It was political corruption that allowed crime to grow, and it was political expediency that allowed it to continue (Lombardo).

It is commonly believed that Chicago gangster mobs developed because of the Prohibition era, but as Lombardo[2] puts it, there has always been a strong criminal underworld in the city, mostly due to the fact that Chicago was, and still is, the major railroad center of the United States. However, the most prominent gangs ruled Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s, and that is why the evolvement of gangdom is always related to the Prohibition.

Chicago’s geographical position as the gate to the unsettled West has contributed to its involvement in crime: saloons and brothels were all over the city in order “to make the pioneers’ last night in ‘civilization’ memorable (Lombardo)” and as pleasant as possible. A popular place was The Barracks which was run by Roger Plant, one of the first crime czars of Chicago. The Barracks was a gambling den and brothel, and, like most of downtown Chicago, was built upon the wetlands that surrounded the Chicago River’s opening into Lake Michigan. The streets surrounding The Barracks were always muddy, therefore, the City decided to raise the street level, which also made it necessary to raise the foundations of the buildings along the new roadways. Consequently, a lot of underground passages and rooms evolved. This subterranean area was controlled by Roger Plant, and it became home to many thieves, pickpockets, and muggers who were the guests of Plant’s bar. The many underground rooms beneath The Barracks hence gave rise to the term ‘underworld’ as a description for that part of society that engaged in organized criminal activity.

After the great fire in Chicago in 1871, people in the city were so demoralized that public drunkenness became a major problem. As the conditions got worse, a group of clergymen formed the Committee of Seventy to fight crime and the liquor industry. Another group, the Committee of Twenty-Five, was formed to improve the moral foundation of the city. The groups’ efforts were supported by the mayor. These efforts to reform, for example, closing laws for taverns, are said to have set the stage for the development of organized crime in Chicago.

Michael Cassius McDonald, the owner of the largest liquor and gambling house in downtown Chicago, organized the first criminal syndicate in Chicago, which was composed of gamblers and submissive politicians. McDonald was active in politics, as well: in order to overcome the reform activities of the mayor, he organized Chicago’s saloon and gambling interests. The group was called Mike McDonald’s Democrats. This alliance between gambling interests and politicians proved to be very powerful.

James Colosimo built the first truly Italian syndicate in Chicago. He was the owner of Colosimo’s Café and husband of an operator of three brothels in the Levee - the red-light district of Chicago. As a successful Italian he was, like many others, target of Black Hand extortion. The Black Hand (‘La Mano Nera’) was not an organization as such, but a practice by which businessmen and other wealthy Italians were extorted for money. Victims were sent a letter that told them that they would come to violence if they did not pay a particular sum. The term ‘black hand’ was coined because of the fact that the letters usually contained a drawing of a black hand, or other evil drawings, such as the skull and crossbones. Many of the Black Hand gangs had their tradition in Sicily and Southern Italy, thus, the extortions were linked to Mafia practice. In order to deal with the Black Hand threat, Colosimo sent for his New York relative Johnny Torrio, who himself had been involved in extortions and thus was a useful protector for Colosimo. Along with Colosimo and his associates, Torrio then built crime syndicate; Colosimo, however, soon lost interest and did not want to organize a liquor syndicate after the onset of the Prohibition. In May 1920, Colosimo was shot at his café, the suspect in the killing was Al Capone, the recently arrived Brooklyn assistant of Johnny Torrio. With the murder of Colosimo, Torrio became the new lord of the underworld.

The National Prohibition Enforcement Act ended the sale of alcohol in 1920. A strong demand for illegal goods and services evolved, which the Torrio syndicate and other similar groups in Chicago were ready to supply. The groups that arranged the supply of alcoholic drinks were all well organized and had connections to politicians and the police. The gangs usually operated in immigrant areas where they served corrupt politicians at election time: in exchange for delivering the vote, gang members were allowed to continue their criminal activities.

The chief enemies of the Torrio/Capone syndicate were Dion O’Banion and the Genna brothers. During the Prohibition, O’Banion and his gang quickly gained control over most of the illegal liquor distribution - except in the Little Sicily area. The Genna brothers were in direct competition with O’Banion for control of this bootlegging territory. Furthermore, they organized large numbers of Italian immigrants in the home production of alcohol. Moreover, they were active in the Unione Siciliana.

The Unione Siciliana was a fraternal society which was founded in 1895 in order to advance the interests of Sicilian immigrants. The Unione provided for life insurance and was active in Italian-American civic affairs. Moreover, it acted as an agent in feuds that often involved kidnapping and extortion, which, of course, Chicago Sicilians were hiding from the attention of the police. Therefore, the Unione was a major supporter of the White Hand, an organization established to fight Black Hand extortions. The White Hand hired private investigators and attorneys to assist police in prosecuting Black Hand activities.

Eventually, the Genna brothers, O’Banion and Torrio clashed. O’Banion was shot by the Genna brothers, who worked at the direction of Torrio and Capone. With the disintegration of the Torrio coalition, however, Capone faced war with many of Chicago’s gangs. Under Angelo Genna, the Unione Siciliana had placed its authority over the home production of alcohol which placed the Unione in direct competition with the Capone syndicate. Capone therefore managed to get one of his followers, Antonio Lombardo, elected to the presidency of the Unione, but Lombardo was soon killed. The struggle for the control over the Unione began, it became known as “The War of Sicilian Succession.” The war came to an end on February 14, 1929, when Capone’s enemies were murdered by loyal forces. Seven men, including Torrio and O’Banion, were gunned to death in what has become known as the St. Valentine’s Massacre. The St. Valentine’s Massacre marked the end of the O’Banion gang and thus made the Capone the leader of the underworld. However, the end of the Prohibition in 1933 marked the end of the importance of the Unione to organize crime in Chicago. Though Al Capone was in jail when Prohibition ended, his organization continued its activities. Mostly, they branched out into new forms of business such as dealing with narcotics and racketeering. During the years that followed the Prohibition organized crime in Chicago was dominated by Italians, other ethnic gangs, as for example, Irish gangs, simply disappeared.


[1] The Volstead Act is an amendment to the constitution that started Prohibition.

[2] The historical overview is based on Richard Lombardo’s article “The genesis of organized crime in Chicago”.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Gangster mythology in Howard Hawks' "Scarface - Shame of the nation"
Technical University of Braunschweig
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ISBN (Book)
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Gangster, Howard, Hawks, Scarface, Shame
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Nadine Klemens (Author), 2003, Gangster mythology in Howard Hawks' "Scarface - Shame of the nation", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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