Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Al Capone: Icon (PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night PBS proclaimed itself to be “Gangster Night” and showed a couple of one-hour documentaries, one on Al Capone called Al Capone: Icon and a follow-up on the History Detectives: Special Investigations series about the murder of Jimmy Hoffa, boss of the Teamsters Union from 1957 to 1964 and father of the union’s current president (plus ça change, plus ça même chose). I suppose it was just schedule coincidence that PBS happened to be broadcasting a documentary on Capone just six days after TCM showed the 1932 Scarface (a film quite obviously inspired by Capone’s career) and its 1983 remake, but the Capone program (for which I have been unable to download a cast and credits list, either at or on PBS’s own Web site) was an unsatisfying hour-long mishmash that gave the basic facts of his career (an apprenticeship in petty crime in New York City — including the rather surprising fact that as a teenager he had been part of the Five Points Gang, which I had thought was exclusively Irish-American — before he was ordered out of town and to Chicago in 1919, his lucky break in that Prohibition was passed just as he got to Chicago, his mentorship by gangster Johnny Torrio, whose gang he took over when Torrio retired and left the country following an attempt on his life, his career as a crime boss and his downfall when the federal government managed to convict him of income tax evasion) but jumbled them into a presentation that also encompassed the rise of the gangster-film genre and its fall at the hands of the Production Code Administration and the Legion of Decency in 1934.

Needless to say, both Capone’s real story and the history of gangster films were considerably more complicated than they were presented here, and if the thesis of the film was that Capone was the first American criminal concerned about his public image, they were wrong; Jesse James had famously hired a newspaper reporter basically to be his P.R. person and present his robberies in the best possible light, as Robin Hood-like struggles for the poor and downtrodden. Capone also famously posed as a champion of the poor — he opened a soup kitchen in Chicago — though the makers of this film downplayed that, saying he only opened one soup kitchen and it didn’t stay open long. (The PBS Web site says that Capone also lobbied to have dairy companies required to put expiration dates on their products, but that’s oddly unmentioned in the movie itself.) The issues surrounding Capone’s life and the slow (much slower than it’s shown here) disintegration in the public support he once had are considerably more complex than they’re depicted here; the filmmakers argue that the February 14, 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was the game-changer that overnight turned Capone’s public image from lovable rogue to monster — even though they also make a case that Capone had nothing to do with the massacre: he was in Miami when it happened and there is apparently no solid evidence that the people who actually carried out the killings were part of his operation. (Indeed, there’s still some question as to whether the killers, who came to the garage wearing police uniforms, were gangsters or corrupt police officers carrying out the “hit” at the behest of one of Chicago’s warring gangs.) As Ken Burns’ documentary on Prohibition, another PBS production, made clear, the image of the gangsters had been on the downgrade for about two years before that, mainly due to the number of innocent civilians injured in the drive-by shootings the mobsters aimed at each other.

In my comments on the Scarface movies I noted that the depiction of gangsters in films mirrored the changing perceptions of them in real life; the gangster film cycle kicked off with a movie not mentioned here, Underworld (1927), a silent directed by Josef von Sternberg from a script by Ben Hecht (who wrote the first Scarface five years later), and in that and the follow-ups Sternberg and others made the gangsters were depicted as quasi-noble, offering the public a service and relatively harmless to everyone but each other. Then, as the movement to repeal Prohibition gained strength (a key factor in turning public opinion against the gangsters; once it looked like people would once again be able to buy alcoholic beverages legally, the gangsters and their baggage no longer seemed necessary evils — not that many people were going to partake of illegal gambling, loan sharking, prostitution and the gangs’ other services) and actions like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre made the gangsters look more bestial, gangster films changed from the relative nobility of Sternberg’s silents to the vicious characters of Rico in Little Caesar, Tom Powers in The Public Enemy and Tony Camonte in the 1932 Scarface — films that made instant stars of their male leads (Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Paul Muni, respectively). The Capone documentary doesn’t mention the even more cynical transformation the genre went through after 1934, when Jack Warner responded to the rise of the Legion of Decency and the strict enforcement of the Production Code by having Muni take over as star of Warners’ prestige biopics and casting Robinson and Cagney in crime films but on the right side of the law — Cagney as an FBI agent in G-Men and Robinson as an undercover cop infiltrating a gang in Bullets or Ballots. One good thing about Al Capone: Icon is how it showed just how weak the government’s case against Capone was, how Capone overreached by trying to bribe the jury, and the government double-crossed him by substituting a fresh jury panel for the tainted one at the last minute — a plot device I’ve seen in at least one movie without realizing it had a real-life basis in such a famous case. It also savors the irony that what ultimately laid Capone low wasn’t either a fellow gangster or his conviction (he got out in 1939 and lived seven more years) but an untreated case of syphilis he’d picked up in his early days in New York, and which manifested itself so drastically that by the time he got out of prison his mental age had disintegrated to about 12 and he spent the remaining years living in the lavish house in Palm Beach, Florida he’d bought during the glory years, increasingly out of it and mentally unable even to attempt a comeback in the world of crime. This Capone documentary is good enough to hint at part of the story but make one wish for a richer and more comprehensive treatment.