Showing posts with label 1931. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 1931. Show all posts

23 December 2017

Gangsters move to the Big Screen II

The Public Enemy  - Starring James Cagney and Edward Burns. Released May 15, 1931

This gangster pic was released four months after Little Caesar and like the latter the story takes place in Chicago. Whereas Little Caesar dealt with the Italian underworld, the former deals with Irish hoodlums.

Like its predecessor, The Public Enemy also bases some of its characters and scenes on reality. The model for Paddy Ryan’s gang was Chicago’s North Side gang. One of the main gangsters with the mob is a big shot named Nails Nathan who is a guiding force of Tom Powers (James Cagney) and his friend Matt Doyle (Edward Burns). In the movie Nails Nathan gets thrown from a horse and is accidentally killed. Upset with the death of their friend and mentor, Powers and Doyle go to the stables and shoot the horse that Nathan was riding when killed. Sounds like pure Hollywood invention right? Nope. Actually happened. The Nails Nathan character is based on an actual Chicago gangster named Samuel “Nails” Morton, a top member of the North Side gang who was popular with his associates. Just like in the film, Morton was thrown from a horse and killed while out pleasure riding and his friends really did go to the stable and kill the horse. 

Nails Morton Chicago gangster rubbed out by a horse
The main foe of the Paddy Ryan mob is the gang headed by “Schemer” Burns. Cute nickname, anyone in Chicago with that moniker? Yup, but it was a North Sider, Schemer Drucci.

In the movie, a gang war breaks out  and there is a scene where Powers and Doyle are walking along the street and rival gangsters, who have been staking out their hideout from a machine gun nest in a second story apartment window, open fire and kill Doyle. This scene is inspired by the murder of North Side gangster Earl “Hymie” Weiss who was taken out by a machine gun nest while approaching the gang’s headquarters.

The film ends with the rival gang kidnapping a wounded Powers from the hospital and taking him for a one way ride. Gangsters wouldn't actually invade a hospital to finish a job would they? Well, turns out that idea may have been snatched from gangdom as well. Though not kidnapped, a year or so before the movie was released, a Newark, New Jersey gangster by the name of John "The Ape" Passelli was bumped off in the hospital while recuperating from a botched hit. 

Any other scenes or characters that are familiar to you?

17 December 2017

Gangsters Move to the Big Screen

The old adage, art reflects life, was never more true than with the rise of the gangster film in the 1930s.  Thanks to years of Prohibition, crime, corruption and gangland violence were at an all-time high and this was reflected in the gangster pictures released by Warner Brothers. Though a Hollywood cliche now, guys in fedoras blasting away at each other and men being mowed down by Tommy-guns was very real for the movie goer of the time.

What modern film fans might not realize is that plenty of the characters and events in these early gangster films were inspired by real gangsters and events from the era. Let’s take a look at some of the most famous of the films. We'll start the series with:

Little Caesar  Starring Edward G. Robinson and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. - released January 25, 1931.


There's not a lot that was ripped from the headlines for Little Caesar but there are a few things that seem familiar to anyone who has immersed him or herself into the gangsters of old. Perhaps it's reaching but, what the hell, it's the movies lets reach.

Little Caesar was first a book loosely based on a Chicago hoodlum named Sam Cardinella, who headed a gang of bandits and extortionists during the years just prior to Prohibition. It was written in Chicago, in the late Twenties and so shadows of Al Capone, who was at the height of his career when the book was published and the film  released, can also be seen.

Robinson plays the title character Caesar Enrico “Rico” Bandetto aka Little Caesar. Rico is a small time hood with big ambitions to move to Chicago and become that City's top gangster. To this end, he and his partner in crime, Joe Massara, played by Fairbanks Jr., move to the Windy City where Rico begins his underworld ascent.  First he takes over the small gang from Sam Vettori, next he moves up another notch by displacing Diamond Pete Montana. Along the way he kills Crime Commissioner Alvin McClure.

Like the cinematic Rico, Capone was an out-of-towner who showed up in Chicago as a low level hood and had a meteoric rise to the top. Within five years of his arrival in the Windy City, Capone was running the town’s largest criminal enterprise. Unlike Rico, Capone wasn’t a small town hold-up man, he came from Brooklyn, New York where he was already involved with the Italian underworld. 

Rico or Capone?
Another incident in the film that mirrors Capone’s career is the murder of the Crime Commissioner Alvin McClure. In the film McClure shows up at a night club and, when he learns that it is owned by gangsters, he starts to leave just as Rico and his gang show up to rob it. The commissioner ends up getting killed by Rico. In real life an Assistant District Attorney William McSwiggin was bumped off in Chicago while exiting a tavern with some hoodlum pals and it is believed that Capone was one of the machine gunners who did him in.

The stuff movies are made of.
Regarding Rico’s pal Joe Massara, it may simply be a coincidence but at the time of the film’s release the most powerful Mafia kingpin in New York  was a Capone ally named Joe “the Boss” Masseria. Unlike Massara in the film, Joe the Boss would not have a happy ending. About four months after the release of Little Caesar Masseria was gunned down in a Coney Island restaurant. 

Joe Massara- Movie gangster
Joe Masseria- Real Gangster

One of Rico's early bosses is the rich and successful Diamond Pete Montana, Rico at first admires  and then surpasses him. In 1928 wealthy Chicago gangster/politician Diamond Joe Esposito  said to have been a Capone nemesis, was bumped off.

With the popularity of Little Caesar at the box office, Warner Brothers went into high-gear and mined Chicago and New York's underworlds for box office gold. 

Have you seen Little Caesar? Did you notice any other scenes or characters that the writers "borrowed" from the underworld?

18 May 2017

Another King falls

Thirty-eight year old Bill Kirkillis was a former Chicago hoodlum who had moved to Massillon, Ohio, and had become known as the "King of Columbia Heights," a section of that city. On this date back in 1931, Kirkillis was exiting an apartment and heading for his car when a gunman opened fire on him. One of the four shots plowed into his right side and made it to his hear, killing him.

Kirkillis had been recently released from the workhouse where he did a stint for stabbing a man. He had also been picked up on suspicion of killing another. However, police believe that Kirkillis was  bumped off for tipping off Federal Prohibition agents about speakeasies belonging to his rivals.


12 May 2017

Sam Hunt Loses a Friend

Harry Hyter was a gangland sort dating back to at least the early 1920s when he was involved with a bootleg gang operating out of Gary, Indiana. His record also consisted of a handful of arrests for robbery. By the early Thirties he was known as a “hanger-on” of the Capone gang and was a pal of ranking Capone gunman, Sam Hunt.

 Harry Hyter

On this date back in 1931, somebody(ies), for some reason, fired  bullets into Hyter’s head and chest. His body was then driven out to an area called “Jaranowski’s woods” and dumped. While searching his body, police found a number of cards listing amounts of gallons so figured that Hyter was still actively engaged in bootlegging.

10 May 2017

There is a First Time for Everything

A little after midnight on this date back in 1931, Luigi Piazza pulled into a gas station near Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Greensburg is a small town in western PA outside of the city of Jeanette. At this time Jeanette, located in Westmoreland County, was home to numerous glass factories and a large portion of it's fifteen thousand inhabitants supplied much of America with it's glass. It was Piazza's job to supply these inhabitants with alcohol.

As Piazza sat in his car listening to the gas pump ding, I like to imagine him thinking to himself, "Gee wiz, there has never been a gangster bumped off with a Tommy gun in all of Westmoreland County. Being a bootlegger here sure beats doing it in Chicago."

Obviously we don't know what Piazza was thinking at the time but while he was thinking whatever it was that he thought, a large touring sedan pulled into the station and parked next to him with the back window curtains closed. After it came to a stop the curtains parted and the muzzle of a Thompson machine-gun, said to be the first ever used in Westmoreland County, came forth. As the station attendant continued to pump petrol into Piazza's car,the gunman pumped a number of rounds into Piazza. 

Mission completed, the sedan pulled away as Piazza slumped to the floor of his car. An ambulance was called and the bootlegger was rushed to the hospital where he died later in the day.

08 May 2017

It's the Big Sleep for the Leader of the Pillow Gang

Carmelo Fresina was a St. Louis gang leader involved in bootlegging and extortion. He was looking at some bootlegging trials and told his wife, prior to leaving their house at 9 p.m. on the night of May 7, 1931, that he was going away for a few days to “fix those liquor cases against me.” Thirteen hours later an Illinois State Highway patrolman found him reposing in the tonneau of his car. 

At some point during the night of May 7 or the early morning of May 8, Fresina was sitting in the front seat of his car when somebody in the rear fired two bullets into his head. In no condition to drive himself to his final resting spot, Fresina was removed to the floor of the back seat and his assassin(s) drove the car to Edwardsville, Illinois and left it on the side of a road.

Carmelo Fresina

A few years previously he and a few cohorts were involved in a bit of underworld chicanery that resulted in shooting. One of the bullets pierced Fresina’s posterior (though painful, he fared better than his confederates who ended up dead) and since that time, it was said, that wherever he went he carried a pillow with him to sit on. As a result, the local police referred to his mob as the Pillow Gang.

The Pillow Gang, which operated out of St. Louis and was headed by Fresina, should not be confused with the “My Pillow Gang” currently operating out of Minnesota headed by this guy:

Not Carmelo Fresina

02 February 2017

La Smootch Mort IV

On June 7, 1930, a tugboat chugging through a drainage canal outside of Chicago churned up a body that had been weighted down with seventy-five pounds of iron. Inside the dead man’s suit was a photo of pretty girl with the inscription, “Gene, I’ll be loving you always, Maria.” Could Maria have been Mary Collins? According to one writer; yes. As the body sat on the slab waiting for identification, somebody called Tom McLaughlin, the president of the Checker Cab Company, and asked him if his younger brother, Eugene “Red” McLaughlin—the very same gangster who was arrested for the murder of  victim number two, Irv Schlig— was missing. Tom said that Red hadn’t been seen in two weeks. The caller then told him about what the police dragged out of the drainage canal and Tom raced over to the morgue. There he officially identified the corpse as his younger brother. Shown the photo Tom reportedly said, “Yes, that’s Mary all right. I told him she was poison and he would get his, if he went around with that skirt.” Apparently Red laughed off the curse, not realizing he was victim number six.

The seventh and final gangster to succumb to the Kiss of Death girl was Sam Katz, an extortionist who specialized in kidnapping gamblers and holding them for ransom. One day, Katz and Mary were picked up and taken in for questioning. In regards to the Kiss of Death curse, one of the detectives told Mary, “Why don’t you quit this bird. Give him a break—Let him alone.” Both the Kiss of Death girl and Katz laughed it off. Two months later on July 16, 1932, Katz and two accomplices showed up to a gambler's office to shake him down. The trio had already kidnapped his brother once, and they threatened to kidnap him if he didn’t come up with a payoff. The gambler called the police and a trap was set. When the gangsters showed up to collect their loot, the gambler gave them a hundred bucks. They told him to go get more, so he left his office and the police ran in. The gangsters were told to put up their hands but Katz went for his gun and received a fatal blast from a shotgun for doing so. His confederates too, were killed.
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