Silents are Golden: The Rise Of The “Underworld”– 5 Gangster Films From The 1910s
Long before James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson starting making a splash in Hollywood, gangsters had been showing up on the American silent screen. While the “gangster” genre wasn’t as well defined as it would be in the 1930s, many of its familiar tropes – slangy dialogue, shootouts, brassy dames, nattily-dressed ring leaders – got their start even earlier than the Roaring Twenties itself.
The chase sequences that livened up so many early silents were key. In the 1900s, the era when most people saw “moving pictures” via traveling shows, any film with an exciting chase scene was bound to be a crowd pleaser. Comedies of course abounded with comic chases, but recreations of fast-paced criminal activity like stagecoach holdups, bank robberies and pursuits by police were also popular–the most famous example probably being The Great Train Robbery (1903). Many of these films were basically Westerns – a wildly popular genre, and certainly the forerunner (or perhaps we can say wellspring) for the Depression-era gangster picture.
Interestingly, we start seeing films with recognizable “gangster” tropes in the 1910s, a few years before the era of Prohibition and Capone. At the time people were flocking from the country to cities to find work, and the problem of urban crime was a common topic. Organized gangs in New York City had been well known since the 19th century, especially the ones formed by Irish, Italian, and Chinese immigrants. Public fascination with these gangs’ power struggles was soon reflected in the movies. Let’s consider the following films:
5. The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)
Recognized today as the great-grandaddy of the gangster film, The Musketeers of Pig Alley was a gritty two-reeler directed by D.W. Griffith. The four words of its first title card, “New York’s Other Side,” set the stage not only for its setting in the city’s crowded tenements, but arguably for the 1930s crime dramas to come. The plot even has hints of film noir, too – quite an achievement for an 18-minute film.
Set in the slums of New York, it concerns a young couple (played by Lillian Gish and Walter Miller) whose lives are affected by the rival gangs in their neighborhood. The highlight of the film is the tense shootout scene between the gangs, where a tight closeup shows two gangsters carefully creeping along a wall. A cocky, very Cagney-esque Elmer Booth plays the leader of one of the gangs. The gun fights, the rundown neighborhoods, the tough dames, the charismatic crime leaders, even the “gangsters’ ball” – it’s all there, over 100 years ago.
4. The Gangsters and the Girl (1914)
Very much in the category of “crime drama,” this Selig three-reeler starred Betty Burbridge and future star Charles Ray. “The Girl,” Molly Ashley, is framed for a shoplifting crime she didn’t commit and is sentenced to jail, but sympathetic crook Jim Tracy captures her to save her from the penitentiary. She lives with the gang at their hideout as they try to steal funds to help her and her father, but they’re infiltrated by the police detective John Stone in disguise. As Molly gets to the know the detective and learns his true identity, she begins to struggle with whom she should turn in, John or Jim.
Filmed in Los Angeles but with several rooftop shots carefully angled to suggest New York City, The Girl and the Gangsters has the kind of plot that’s pretty familiar to us today. Interestingly, the crooks are shown in a more sympathetic light than their mid- to late-1930s counterparts, when the production code was enforced.
3. The Making of Crooks (1915)
Starring a young Jack Pickford in one of his bigger early roles, this film is a cautionary tale about the dangers of billiard rooms for impressionable youth, especially ones frequented by unsavory characters. A druggist Walton, accused of selling dope-laced candy to children, is freed from prison after the mob boss Lee O’Neill intervenes. Walton opens a seedy billiard room, and the young Italian Tony becomes one of his pool sharks. Tony soon becomes acquainted with Hazel, O’Neill’s daughter, and soon tragedy ensues.
Much less lenient to the underworld than films like The Girl and the Gangsters, The Making of Crooks delivers a dark ending and a strong moral message. It’s not far removed from classics like Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), with its similar – if more subtle – message.
2. Reggie Mixes In (1916)
A minor Douglas Fairbanks film, it has his familiar mix of drama and comedy within the setting of New York’s Bowery neighborhood. When Reggie drives a lost little girl home, he meets an impoverished young woman named Agnes. He begins to court Agnes, but unfortunately his romantic rival is the local gang leader Tony Bernard. Eventually Reggie is attacked by Bernard’s gang, and soon must face a hand-to-hand fight with Bernard.
While lesser known than many of his other 1910s features and saddled with a rather routine gangster plot, Reggie Mixes In does feature a fairly intense fight scene between Reggie and Bernard. It’s more realistically choreographed than some movie fights, being more of a tight grapple than a showy flinging of fists.
1.The Mother and the Law (1919)
This gritty drama was originally filmed by D.W. Griffith in 1914, and it was eventually expanded and incorporated into his mighty epic Intolerance (1916). Following this, it was tinkered with a little more before being released in 1919 as a stand-alone drama.
Starring Mae Marsh and Bobby Harron in two of their finest performances, The Mother and the Law had more of a definite “underworld” theme and shared some similarities with The Musketeers of Pig Alley –a gang leader is even referred to as “the Musketeer.”Marsh and Harron play a young couple whose lives are torn apart after “the Boy,” attempting to leave his old life in a gang, is accused of murder. When he’s sentenced to be hung, his young wife searches for a way to save his life. Tragic and touching in turns, it illustrates both the hopelessness that leads some to take up a criminal life as well as how difficult it is to escape it.
Films like these remind us that many movie tropes stretch back much further than we imagined. They also show us something unexpected: that certain “gangster” tropes not only predated the Roaring Twenties, but in a sense evolved along with the era itself, making these films fascinating and unique time capsules.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.