Showing posts with label Patrick Downey. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Patrick Downey. 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?

19 July 2017

Robbing Zukor's Wife

After having been reported missing about a week earlier, the bodies of Chicago hoodlums Paul “Needle Nose”  Labriola, 37, and his partner James Weinberg, 53, were found in the trunk of a gold Pontiac on March 15, 1954. The two men had been selling protection insurance to tavern owners. Police felt that they had the Syndicate backing in their venture but then something went awry. Both men had been strangled inside somewhere and then their bodies crammed in the trunk. Both corpses were frozen so the police had a bit of trouble removing them from rear of the car.

Police find Labriola and Weinberg

It shouldn’t have been a surprise that either man ended up in that trunk. Both were lifelong criminals. Labriola’s father was killed in a 19th Ward political feud back in 1921. His step father, Capone hoodlum, Lawrence (Dago Lawrence) Mangano was also bumped off, in 1944.

Needle Nose and Weinberg

So, what does this have to do with the Golden Age of Hollywood? Glad you asked. For that answer we must go back another twenty years and return to 1934 when the  great American Crime Wave was in effect and the exploits of desperadoes like John Dillinger, “Pretty Boy” Floyd and “Baby Face” Nelson filled the headlines. Though the Depression years are synonymous with bank robberies and kidnappings, Hollywood elites were also targeted by hoodlums looking to make a quick buck.

Of the two men pried out of the Pontiac, we are interested in James Weinberg. Back in ’34, he was running a small café in the Windy City but was already enmeshed in the Chicago underworld. On June 9, Lottie Zukor, wife of Paramount Pictures president Adolph Zukor, arrived in Chicago by train and checked into the Blackstone Hotel. She and her maid were going to spend a week in the city before being joined by her husband and son and heading out to Hollywood. They took a four room suite on the eighteenth floor. Not wanting to use the room adjoining her bedroom as an entrance, Mrs. Zukor left the key in the inside lock so that nobody could enter from the hallway. On June 11, the maid noticed the key was missing but failed to report it.

Lottie and Adolph Zukor

The evening of June 13, found Mrs. Zukor attending a dinner party which would be followed by a trip to the World’s Fair. For the occasion Mrs. Zukor-who, as a young girl employed by a department store, worked at the World’s Fair in 1893 and would now be returning a millionaire-adorned herself with numerous articles of jewelry valued at about a million and half bucks in today’s dollars.

At around midnight, Mrs. Zukor called for her limousine. She returned to the Blackstone and, after stopping at the front desk to retrieve her key, headed up to her four room suite on the eighteenth floor. Once in her room she removed her jewelry and, too tired to return to the lobby to place her gems in the hotel safe as she did each previous evening, she simply placed them on the spare bed across from her own and went to sleep. [Most likely it was Mrs. Zukor’s maid who ran the jewels down each night, but on this occasion, the maid had the night off and Mrs. Zukor did not want to wake her.]

At about four-thirty that morning Mrs. Zukor awoke sensing something wasn’t right. She noticed the light on in the next room and called out to her maid but received no answer. She reached for her watch to check the time but couldn’t find it. Glancing to the bed across from her, she saw that her jewelry was gone.

The police dusted the room for fingerprints but found nothing. In fact no clue of any sort was uncovered. All Blackstone employees on duty were questioned but nobody admitted to seeing anything out of the ordinary. Afraid that the publicity might hurt attendance for the World’s Fair, the case was given high priority. Sergeant Thomas Alcock, a fifteen year veteran, was put in charge and was assigned a team of five detectives. Three of the men were assigned to the hotel lobby, each taking an eight hour shift with orders to pick up any suspicious characters or known hoodlums who might pass through. The other two detectives were sent to the World’s Fair to mingle with crowds and look for known jewel thieves. Alcock, in the meantime, visited the local pawn shops giving the proprietors both a description of the jewelry and a warning against trying to sell the stuff.

As the days passed, hundreds of local underworld sorts were brought in for questioning but nothing was learned. The Zukors had had the gems insured for $65,000 and, through the Chicago police, the insurance company offered a large reward for the return of the items. Descriptions of the pieces and mention of the reward were circulated throughout the nation. Still nothing happened.

Finally, on June 29, Alcock received a call from a lawyer stating that a man had contacted him regarding the reward for the jewels. It was decided to tap the lawyer’s found in hopes that the man called back. As this was happening, a U.S. Treasury Agent, working on different case, informed Alcock that he overheard a discussion regarding the Zukor jewelry during a tapped phone call with a notorious Chicago fence he was investigating. During the conversation the fence told the caller that the jewelry was too hot and that he should settle with the insurance company. After this, the lawyer received another call but when it was suggested that they meet in person the caller hung up. The caller was James Weinberg who was already under indictment in the case that the Treasury agent was working on.

Detectives began to shadow Weinberg and a tap was placed on his phone. On July 16, two squad cars pulled up in front of Weinberg’s apartment and Alcock lead the raiding party inside. Within a few minutes they retrieved the jewelry. Weinberg, his wife and another couple were arrested.  Though his wife actually had a record in St. Louis and Kansas City for hotel burglary, in the end Weinberg was the only one that would go to prison for the theft. He said that two young women left the jewelry in his café and he held it for a few days to see if they would return for it. When they didn’t he tried to claim the reward from the insurance company. No one believed him and he was shipped off to prison. If Weinberg told the truth about how the jewelry was stolen, it never made it to the press.

Detective Alcock, left, inspects Mrs. Zukor's jewelry

Weinberg was released in 1940 and headed back to the Chicago underworld. As was mentioned his career culminated with his being garroted and shoved in a car trunk like a spare tire. Lottie Zukor fared much better. After Weinberg’s trial, she got her jewelry back and continued with her life as the wife of a Hollywood mogul; traveling with her husband both in America and abroad. As a member of over thirty philanthropic organizations, she dedicated a lot of her time to charity work. She died on April 7, 1956 at the age of eighty leaving behind her husband, two kids, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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.


16 May 2017

Gone Fishin'

Police had been searching the Cincinnati area for all around bad man Jack Parker. Parker, 35, operated out of the city of Hamilton, Ohio, and was known as a bank robber, gunman and killer. Police wanted him in connection with the murder of a man in a Kentucky roadhouse.

Since the murder, Parker had been hiding out in a fishing camp. On this day in 1928 some visitors picked him up at his hideout and took him for a ride, literally. The following day his body was found in a shallow pool of water at the bottom of an embankment. Police reasoned that he had been riding in the back seat of the car when the person in the front  passenger seat turned, and shot him in the face four times. He was then dragged from the car and rolled down the embankment. Cincinnati gunman Robert Zwick was subsequently credited with the killing.

15 May 2017

Perhaps he should have knocked first

On this date in 1932, two Detroit gangsters, Sam and Andrew Farrera. were doing some business in Toledo, Ohio when some local gangsters decided that they didn’t need any Motor City hoodlums muscling in. The Farreras, and another guy, were parked in their cousin's driveway when a car load of rivals pulled up and opened fire. The windshield of the Ferraras’ car shattered, sending glass into Sam’s eyes. His vision impaired, Sam managed to slip from the car and dive through a basement window. His brother caught a bullet in the hand.

After the first barrage, the attackers pulled around the corner and one of them, John Incorvaia, alias Engoria, 33, jumped from the auto and returned to the house with an automatic pistol. Not bothering to knock, Incorvaia rushed into the house and opened fire. Moments later he dropped dead with two bullet wounds, one of which pierced his head. Mabel Candela, a cousin of the Ferreras, confessed to the shooting saying that she fired in self-defense.