19 January 2011

Movie Adaptations: St. Valentine's Day Massacre

By Delia DeLeest

My original impulse to watch this movie had nothing to do with an interest in the 1920s. I didn't know a thing about the decade besides a passing acquaintance with Betty Boop (who, it turns out, didn't come onto the scene until 1930, but I didn't know that then either). The St. Valentine's Day Massacre of 1967 topped my wanna see list because the late 1960s version of David Canary is just about the sexiest thing to walk the earth. Yep, interest in the jazz age took far off second place to delicious man-candy.

After watching it (and rewinding the David Canary parts so often I almost wore the tape out), I got to thinking about gangsters, those men who openly flouted the law, and the women who loved them. I became interested in all things criminal that happened in Chicago during the 1920s.

I learned a lot of things, one of which is that the movie is incredibly inaccurate. Like Carrie mentioned in an earlier post, Hollywood tends to put older men in the roles that in reality were lived by much younger men. This phenomenon was particularly apparent in the (mis)casting of 47-year-old Jason Robards as Al Capone, who, at the time of the massacre had just turned thirty. Ironically, one of the oldest players of the real life massacre, Frank Gusenberg, was played by one of the youngest actors (Canary) in the movie. This gives the impression that Chicago's underworld was being run by a bunch of middle-aged men, when, in reality, most were in their twenties and early thirties when they took over the town. The life span of a Chicago gangster was really short in those days, so when one young man was gunned down, another one would quickly take his place.

But enough of what this movie wasn't. Let's get on to what it was and did. Though some of the people and events weren't very accurate, many other things were. Many quotes made by the movie characters were really said. Things like Frank Gusenberg's last words to the police as he was dying of multiple gunshot wounds: "Nobody shot me. Leave me alone," were Frank's true last words. It gives the viewer a taste of the bizarre code of honor held by these blood thirsty men. Moran's reaction to the massacre, "Only Al Capone kills like that," was also taken directly from reports of the day.

It gives you the feel of what it was like in Chicago during the Roaring Twenties, which brings us into speakeasies, dark streets, mansions and dingy rented rooms. I loved those scenes that took us into the characters homes. From the child-filled one room tenement of Johnny May to the gaudy apartment of Pete Gusenberg and the old-world elegance of the home of Patsy Lalardo, the movie gives you a peek at the lifestyles of the many different kinds of people living and trying to survive in Chicago at the time.

But, in my opinion, the best part of the movie (besides the shirtless David Canary scene) is the wonderful, sometimes dark humored, voice-overs that set up the key scenes and introduce the characters. The movie was shot as a docudrama, and the narrator tells us a little about each of the characters as they come into the movie. We get to hear about Pete Gusenberg's childhood, his brother Frank's two wives, Jack McGurn's father's murder and Jack's revenge on the killers.

This introduction to their background makes us feel closer to men we'd otherwise feel animosity toward. The movie continues to make them more human by showing them with their wives, mothers and lovers, as well as their interaction with each other. One part that never fails to make me laugh is when Moran's men are told that the Northsiders (Moran's gang) made a deal with one of the despised Italians. Despite being corrected numerous times, the Moran lackeys can't seem to pronounce his name correctly and continue to refer to Joe Aiello as Joe A Yellow. These were regular, blue collar men, whose job just happened to involve machine guns, killing and illegal booze.

Though shocking at the time, today's viewers are probably immune to the relatively mild (according to today's standards) violence found in the movie. The scene near the end, portraying the massacre itself is breathtaking though, not because of the blood and gore, but because of the sheer cinematic genius and odd beauty of showing the men dying and falling to the floor in slow motion. I've read that the director had the actors study the police photos of the actual murder scene and had the men land exactly the way their real life counterparts did. It's incredibly realistic.

The thing about the movie that especially endears it to me is its shout-out to Hollywood's most famous movie gangster and one of my favorite actors, James Cagney. The opening scene in St. Valentine's Day is a copy, almost word for word, of one of Cagney's best in The Public Enemy. Later on, a fight Pete Gusenberg has with his moll features him shoving food in her face, much like Cagney's famous scene, also in The Public Enemy, where he shoves half a grapefruit into Mae Murray's face. In fact, the whole film feels more like a 1930s gangster flick than something filmed in 1967.

You probably haven't seen this movie; most people haven't. In fact, it's listed at number seven on the list of the "Top Ten Best Gangster Movies You've (Probably) Never Seen." But, if you ever get the chance, give it a watch. Maybe it'll turn you into a Roaring Twenties addict like it did me.

Delia DeLeest is fascinated by all things 1920s. She suspects she was once a flapper or, more probably, a bootlegger in a previous life. Her third 1920s era book, NOT LOOKING FOR TROUBLE, is being released from The Wild Rose Press at the end of October.