These interests converged in 1927, according to movie historian Carlos Clarens, in Underworld (written by Ben Hecht, directed by Josef von Sternberg). Hecht had written for Chicago newspapers during the rise of organized crime, and von Sternberg was a German influenced by the Expressionist movement, who saw Chicago as "a great city in the dead of night." 2 Capitalizing on the Keystone tradition of disdain for police, Hecht wrote a sympathetic male lead named Bull Weed, and von Sternberg played up Weed's existential aloneness by light-and-shadow effects, halos of street-lights, and neon signs, all future traits of film noir. Sound movies – one of the great changes in narrative -- appeared in 1927 with The Jazz Singer. There were several crime movies in the late 1920s, but nothing like the huge success accorded Little Caesar (Dir. Mervyn LeRoy, 1930). Based on W. R. Burnett's novel and starring Edward G. Robinson, this movie convinced Hollywood that crime movies would pay off. Imitators raced to their studios. The most interesting were Public Enemy (1931), discussed below, and Scarface (1932), boldly modeled on Chicago gangster Al Capone. These movies appeared at a time of technological revolution. Sound required new cameras, new projectors, the sound-proofing of studios and re-wiring of theaters – all huge expenses. Warner Brothers, the pioneer of sound, was losing $300,000 a quarter when it brought out The Jazz Singer. 3 Then it went $5 million in debt betting on the new technology, but in 1929 its profits were an astonishing $14 million.
These films appeared at a time of technological revolution in film. Sound required new cameras, new projectors, the sound-proofing of studios and re-wiring of theaters - all huge expenses. Rivals had to invest huge sums to keep up; soon there were only five major American film producers making seventy percent of all Class A features and collecting seventy percent of all box office receipts.
In 1928 the “Mazda tests” set uniform lighting standards for the industry. These were used to guage film stock for development, like the ASA number on film today. Before the tests, lots of film shot on different days would have different values of light and dark, making it hard to give a consistent “look” to a film. After 1928 the exposure of interior and exterior sets, costumes, and make-up could be planned.
By William Marling
.... Al Capone, after a brief, violent career in Brooklyn, moved to Chicago in 1923. When his South Side gang took up arms against the North Side gang over bootlegging turf, he made organized crime into a national topic. The murders, which began in 1924 and peaked with the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, fascinated a national readership. Seven books on Capone appeared between 1929 and 1931. After Capone’s fall, the newspapers turned to John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde. As some of their names imply, these criminals were supposed to have a ‘style,’ and they redefined myths about individual upward mobility. Writers such as Jack Lait of the New York Daily Mirror, Damon Runyon of the New York American, and Ben Hecht and John Bright of the Chicago Daily News understood Capone and other gangsters as literary capital, and that they could give them a style attractive to Hollywood.
One aspect of this style was argot. Jack Lait (1883-1954) popularized gangster speech and even compiled glossaries. His Beef, Iron, and Wine (1916) introduced Americans to ‘yeggs’ who spoke with Brooklyn accents and called women ‘twists.’ Lait gave his gangsters a distinct patois and nonchalance; he was first to elevate the ‘gangster moll’ into a full-fledged character and first to debunk the pseudo-evil of ‘Chinatown’ in his ‘Confidential’ books on New York and Chicago. Better known was Damon Runyon (1880-1946), initially a sportswriter covering baseball and boxing for the New York American, a beat that led him to the circle of mobster Dutch Schultz. His collected stories of small-time hoodlums, in Guys and Dolls (1932), were told by an uninvolved first person narrator, entirely in the present tense, employing signature phrases such as ‘ever-lovin’ wife,’ ‘more than somewhat’ and ‘loathes and despises.’ Runyon never used contractions or the conditional voice, and as Adam Gopnik notes, ‘The Narrator has to be careful; he is telling stories, often, of what elaborate politesse it takes to keep from getting killed, and his care is the source of a lot of his comedy. A wise guy on the lower end of the totem pole is of necessity an expert in courtesy.’ Runyon’s column had a readership of 10 million, and he covered the famous Gray-Snyder Trial in 1927, a source of James M. Cain’s plot for The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Like Capone himself, the chroniclers of crime for the mass public moved west. Ben Hecht (1894-1964) began writing for the Chicago Journal when he was sixteen and in 1921 launched his column ‘1001 Afternoons in Chicago’ at the Chicago Daily News. Unlike Lait’s and Runyon’s, Hecht’s fictive world is not created by precise demography and geography but through print, theater and other media. A collection of his columns appeared in 1922, and Hecht went to Hollywood in 1926. Mining his Chicago material, he wrote the screenplay for Joseph Von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927) and collaborated with Charles McArthur in 1928 on The Front Page. Hecht and William R. Burnett, another Midwesterner, co-wrote the script of Scarface (1932), a film whose ‘all-but-suffocating vitality is a kind of cinematic version of tabloid prose at its best,’ writes Richard Corliss. To the argot of Lait and Runyon, Hecht added repartee and faster plotting with unexpected turns. Hecht never wrote for the pulps, instead spending two-to-twelve weeks a year in Hollywood (earning up to $100,000) before returning to New York to do his ‘serious’ writing. (read all of this essay in PDF form)