Gangster Films: “*@#% Being Poor”

by Iris Bull

During the Great Depression, Hollywood was tasked with tirelessly presenting escapist fantasies. Films were structured to “…[focus] on the endless possibilities for individual success;” scapegoat individuals for their own “social dislocation;” and, “keep alive the myth and wonderful fantasy of a mobile and classless society…”

What does this have to do with Italians? 

Deconstructing the Italian fantasy begins with dissecting some of the first images of Italians and Italian-Americans in mass media—those on the silver screen. These films would lay the framework for porting racist stereotypes of Italians to other media, and equivocating criminality with a minority ethnic group.

Many scholars assert that Little Caesar (1931), a First National Pictures film, was the first widely successful gangster-themed “talkie” ever produced.

Little Caesar tells the romantic story of Italian-American men rising through the ranks of organized crime, and inevitable falling from grace. Based on a novel by W.R. Burnett, the film was a life raft to Hollywood studios during the Great Depression, and it’s fiscal success ultimately encouraged the production of some 50 gang-themed films in 1931 (Bergman, 3).

Audiences in the 1930s were attracted to Hollywood gangsters (regardless of whether or not they died in the film) because they created their own opportunities for upward social mobility; gangsters pursued the essence of the American dream. In this way, the gangster film presents reality from an anti-capitalist perspective: that the American dream is a farce, and that the working class could only experience extravagance was through criminal activity.

Achieving (legitimate) upward social mobility for working class Italian and Italian-American communities for decades after the start of the 20th century was a struggle. Upon arrival in America, most Italians were faced with racist attitudes, and the presence of Italian bodies on movie screens further distanced them from other ethnic communities.

For Italians and Italian Americans, the 1930s were a time characterized by the rise of Italian American heroes and the continued denigration of Italians at large.

Although socially conservative groups were morally opposed to explicit displays of violence, the denigration of Italians wasn’t of their concern. The time Italians spent on the silver screen inextricably stigmatized them ethnic communities; pejorative stereotypes cast them as criminals, mafiosi or otherwise incompatible with American society (Bergman, 4). That isn’t to say that there is one definable stereotype that defines Italian identity during this time period; rather, Italian identity was used as a placeholder for other ethnic groups to explore socially-nebulous ideas.

In Hollywood films, these societal prejudices toward Italians became an effective tool that allowed filmmakers and audience members to distance themselves from the subversive challenges that films such as Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1930) posed to the myths of the Protestant Success Ethic and the American Dream.

Here, Tony’s moral and ethical dilemma appears to tear him into two people: an Italian and an American. His Italian identity has been exposed vis-à-vis criminal behavior, but his American sense of self longs to be saved. Without taking into account Rico’s reaction to Tony’s “defection” to America’s flagship moral institution, this scene contributes to the villainization of Italian identity within American ideology. The economic effects of this were considerable; outside of Hollywood the malformation of Italian identity opened the doors to labor exploitation for Italians.

Italians,  “toiled at humble jobs for pitifully low wages and lived in crowded, unhealthy tenements.” Within a society that generally accepted pointed ideas of Social Darwinism and Eugenics, ethnic stereotyping helped capitalist businessmen establish and maintain an inexpensive and responsive labor force during clashes with labor unions (LaGumina, 14). Economically, this ensured that social society would accepted the exploitation of Italians as an acceptable means to control business costs.

Mamma Mia!

This all provides a context for understanding the role of Italian identity in contemporary media. After the beginning of WWII, Italians and Italian-Americans rarely assumed the role of Hollywood villain; that was to be taken up by Germans and the Nazis. In the years leading up to The Godfather (1971) American society experienced significant social and economic change that would affect the focus of that film’s reception. This structure exists in the background of all media industry; and, through the “study of ownership and control, political economists [can] analyze relations of power and confirm a class system and structural inequalities.” In dissecting who sits to gain from the continued stereotyping of Italian identity, its possible to reveal the social and political importance of film, and how it synergistically relates to other media companies.


  • Bergman, Andrew. We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films. New York: New York University Press, 1971. Print.
  • Cavallero, J J. “Gangsters, Fessos, Tricksters, and Sopranos: the Historical Roots of Italian American Stereotype Anxiety.” The Journal of Popular Film and Television : Jpf & T. 32.2 (2004): 50-63. Print.
  • LaGumina, Salvatore J. Wop: A Documentary History of Anti-Italian Discrimination in the United States. San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books; distributed by Quick Fox Inc., New York, 1973. Print.
  • “Little Caesar (1931).” IMDb: The Internet Movie Database.,1990-2011. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. <;.
  • Lourdeaux, Lee. Italian and Irish Filmmakers in America: Ford, Capra, Coppola, and Scorsese. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990. Print.
  • Wasko, Janet. “Critiquing Hollywood: The Political Economy of Motion Pictures.” A Concise Handbook of Movie Industry Economics. Ed. Moul, Charles C. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.

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