The Rise of Individualism and Materialism: The Modern Mafioso

By Iris Bull

American culture in the 1920s and 1970s concerned itself with the desires of the individual, but each era promoted individualism in characteristically different ways.

Individualism in the 1920s represented a lashing out against a restrictive society, an assertive form of self-expression, and a glorying in the absence of self-control or social controls. The dominant meaning of individualism was that of autonomy, or independence. By the 1970s, society has lost its constraining power and individualism becomes a matter of self0absorption and the quest for self-development. The dominant meaning of individualism is that of uniqueness, or cultivation of the inner self (Thomson, 30).

Visually, compare 1920s cabaret clubs to 1970s disco clubs; both illustrate two different expressions of individualism.

With this in mind, the popularity of Little Caesar (1931) can be understood as an artifact from society’s focus on self-expression and the absence of self-control. This is particularly incredible when we remember that during this era film studios were tasked with self-regulating their movies.

How were major studios able to capitalize on a cultural movement that carried with it negative moral implications?

In part, Little Caesar successfully birthed the gangster film genre for two reasons: first, the film individuated the mafioso/Italian away from mainstream society; second, audiences could readily identify with Rico’s desire for wealth and power.

The ethnically identifiable, stereotypical criminal in gangster films was distanced from mainstream audiences by his ethnic identity; the propagation of ethnic stereotypes was particularly effective during an age where eugenics and Social Darwinism were popularly believed. This distance allowed audiences to enjoy and appreciate gangster films, while providing them with justification for not being influenced by the film. So long as an audience member wasn’t Italian or Italian-American, he/she wasn’t in danger of identifying with criminal characters (Cavallero, 53). Certainly, other ethnic groups are represented in gangster films—specifically, the Irish, rural whites, and Jewish—but more often than others Italians receive the brunt of the stereotyping (Silver, 57). The idea around who could be a criminal was implicit, but very present in gangster films around this time; and, it manifest in other ways;

The ‘little’ of the title [of Little Caesar] is also central to an understanding of the gangster genre. It is ironic in Little Caesar because it points out the contrast between the tragic figure’s aspiration and the possibilities of the situation. …The two central gangster figures of the 1930s, Robinson and James Cagney, are extremely short. Consciously or unconsciously this emphasized the affinity between the cocky gangster and the ‘little’ man in the audience who identified with the gangster on the screen and was, at the same time, told to shun him (Silver, 49).

The short Italian stereotype was present in other genres, as well:

In essence, this form of stereotyping carried the genre of gangster films because it didn’t alienate a group of people that had any real influence over the movie industry. As this blog progresses, we’ll see this happen in other industries as well!

Gangster movies were also easy to market to large audiences; these films exploited the audience’s idea of individualism and desire for upward social mobility. On the surface, gangster films seem to glorify criminal behavior and civil disobedience, which resonated with the desires of audiences in the 1930s (what with the Great Depression, and all). By the end of most gangster films, however, the film’s narrative has penalized the gangster for railing against the capitalist system, and breaking the rule of law. Boiled down, gangster films establish that a gangster:

These messages were intended to suppress public dissent against capitalism, which, for studios, would ultimately trump over any concern for how the gangster narrative conforms to conservative protestant values.

So what happened in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s?

After the start of WWII Italians had to take a backseat as villains in popular films.

It was Mussolini, not the Italian people, the Hollywood directors averred, who forced the nation into an unholy alliance with Hitler. The real enemy was fascism, and for most Italians, siting in their outdoor cafes, sipping their morning espresso, this political concept was over their heads (Fyne, 99).

Culturally, it was a different era. Even in the wake of WWII, individualism had no place; instead, Americans clung to collectivist ideas around family and identity. As a consequence, the gangster genre was less culturally significant; the messages just didn’t resonate as well in cultural conversations.

Economically, movie studios didn’t quite have the right amount of incentive to push the genre. The national economy was the best it had ever been during the 40s and 50s, so there was little incentive for the American people to rise up against corporate institutions. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s when this would begin to change.

The Godfather (1972)

There’s no quick way to summarize the political, social, and economic circumstances surrounding the creation of The Godfather, but sufficed to say the American economy was still weathering a period of extreme economic volatility brought on by the 1960s. Collectivist attitudes were quickly associated with socialism, and socialism was just as quickly demonized by wealthy pubic figures.

Individualism had made a comeback, as did public dissent against America’s capitalistic system.

The public was primed for a story around money, corruption, power and control. The 1960s was rife with public killings and  assassinations, and the exposure of underground crime syndicates with the testimony of Joseph Valachi (Dick, 135). The ’60s were also a tumultuous and political period for Paramount Pictures, which experienced both economic decline and the formation of a new executive board. Chairman of Gulf + Western Charles G. Bluhdorn’s addition to the executive board of Paramount Pictures in 1966 marked a change in Paramount’s business strategy around filmmaking: the movie-making executives became more interested in making money through movies than actually making movies (Dick, 100). Bluhdorn’s arrival to Paramount at the studio’s poorest hour resulted in a happy accident that would give rise to one of the most influential gangster movies ever made. In 1970, Gulf + Western freed Paramount’s film production headquarters from studio real estate in preparation to sell it, and inadvertently allowed fellow executives Peter Bart and Robert Evans more creative control over movie production (Dick, 122). In the years following this decision, Bart and Evans would take many creative risks with the production studio; the first of which was:

Unlike gangster films in decades past that played on the desire for upward social mobility, The Godfather was “a musing on the dynamics of a free, unfettered market.” The Mafia has ascended to the upper class, and the criminality now revolves around business relationships (which inevitably become tied to ethnic identity). The film portrays economic interests as a dominate force over public markets, and disparages liaisons of the State as corrupt puppets for Mafia control. The capitalist system, rather than inhibiting upward social mobility of mobsters, infiltrates the Mafia; capitalism institutionalizes the criminal organization.

Francis Coppola, director of The Godfather, intentionally crafted the narrative around economics; he wrote in 1972:

I feel that the Mafia is an incredible metaphor for this country. Both the Mafia and America have roots in Europe. America is a European phenomenon. Basically, both the Mafia and America feel that they are benevolent organizations. Both the Mafia and America have their hands stained with blood from what it is necessary to do to protect their power and interests. Both are totally capitalistic phenomena and basically have a profit motive. (Lourdeaux, 186)

Coppola’s narrative, though, intrinsically linked Italian ethnicity to the Mafia, just as other directors before him. He disparaged Italians in a new way by creating a more complex stereotype of Italian identity, and by drafting characters with amiable intentions;

Filmgoers clearly liked the beleaguered Michael…they savored the justifiable violence of a man defending his family and achieving success in a brutal business world (Lourdeaux, 186)

While ethnically Italian-American, Coppola was ultimately chosen by Bart to work on the film because his knowledge of the Mafia was from secondary sources (Dick, 135). Coppola crafted a contemporary stereotype for the film by integrating his ethnic experiences with the stereotype audiences expected. The mafioso is materialistic, wealthy, familial, violent, and unsettled:

Italian-American directors filtered out the facts of social history and well-known church symbols in order to look all-American, and of course to sell more tickets. …[the Mafia gangsters] who have strode across American screens for decades mostly reflect the desires of WASP movie audiences (Lourdeaux, 9-10).

The mafioso demonstrates that, ultimately, within a capitalist institution money cannot buy him happiness.

Warner Bros. would take this theme to a new level with the production of Goodfellas (1990), a film that would go on to share 27 cast members with television hit show The Sopranos (1999) (produced by HBO, which shares parent company Time Warner with Warner Bros.).

Ancillary Sources:

  • 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.
  • Dick, Bernard F. Engulfed: The Death of Paramount Pictures and the Birth of Corporate Hollywood. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. Print.
  • Fyne, Robert. The Hollywood Propaganda of World War Ii. Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press, 1994. Print.
  • Lourdeaux, Lee. Italian and Irish Filmmakers in America: Ford, Capra, Coppola, and Scorsese. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990. Print.
  • Silver, Alain, and James Ursini. The Gangster Film Reader. Pompton Plains, N.J: Limelight, 2007. Print.
  • Thomson, Irene T. In Conflict No Longer: Self and Society in Contemporary America. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. Print.
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