Reviews and notes
The first gangster film, THE MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY
established several basic characteristics of the genre. Like the films of the twenties and thirties, it sprang from newspaper stories. Lillian Gish recalled that D.W. Griffith got the idea for MUSKETEERS
from a newspaper article. In 1912, there was a series of gangster killings and vice scandals that implicated the police. The newspapers headlined these events, and the climax came with the shooting of a gambler named Herman Rosenthal. The social realism of stories and situations based on newspaper reports that we have come to associate with the gangster genre began when the Biograph Company capitalised on these headlines and the subsequent cries for reform.
Griffith shot the film on location and cast actual gangsters like 'Kid' Brood and 'Harlem Tom' Evans to play in the rival gangs. According to the Biograph Bulletin of October 31, 1912: "This picture production, which does not run very strong as to plot, is simply intended to show vividly the doings of the gangster type of people."
The episodic plot begins in "New York's other side ", "where a poor musician goes off to improve his fortune." On the way home, he shows his earnings to a friend in the street. The Snapper Kid, Chief of the Musketeers, sees the full wallet, follows the musician, hits him over the head, and takes the money. After recovering, the musician goes out to find his money, leaving the little lady, his girlfriend, worrying about his safety and the rent. A friend comes to cheer up the little lady and takes her to a dance - the gangster's ball. A respectable-looking gangster invites the little lady for a drink and slips a drug into it. The Snapper Kid watches the scene and stops the little lady before she downs the drink, thus provoking a gang war. During the shootout, the musician sees the gangster and grabs his money back during the confusion of the battle. The police break up the fight and arrest everyone but the Snapper Kid. He escapes to the little lady's flat, reminds her that he saved her from being drugged and invites her out. She refuses and says she'll stay with her husband. The gangster shrugs it off, thinking she must be crazy to prefer the musician, and leaves. A cop nabs him and begins to arrest him for taking part in the gun battle, but the Snapper Kid says he has an alibi - he was visiting his friends. The little lady and the musician back up the Kid's story because, as the title card reads, "One good turn deserves another". The Kid makes a gesture of friendship with his hands and goes out. After a title, "Links in the system", a mysterious hand slides into the picture from out of frame and gives the Snapper Kid some money. The couple embrace, and the film ends.
Griffith pictured the Snapper Kid sympathetically. Elmer Booth portrays a likeable, tough, coarse thief and killer. Lillian Gish has said that Elmer Booth was a distinct precursor of James Cagney. Like gangsters played by Cagney, the Snapper Kid is short, powerful, explosive, and expressive with his body, face and gestures. He is violent and quick to act in movements that snap out like his name. He is good-natured about the little lady's rejection, sly enough to avoid going to jail, wise enough not to fight in the Big Boss's place, and constantly putting plans into action to get what he wants. He exudes a healthy self-confidence and is proud of the snappy way he dresses. Griffith's mixing of a firm sense of realistic detail and a romantic bias have shaded the Chief of the Musketeers as more chivalrous than the movie gangsters who followed, but the Snapper Kid launched the central character of the genre - a sympathetic gangster - and the movie gangsters who followed shared many of his traits.
The Lower East Side locations in Musketeers provide an appropriate setting for the birth of the genre. "New York's other side", as a title describes the setting, is comprised of dingy rooms and hallways, saloons, narrow streets teeming with immigrants, and underworld alleyways filled with garbage cans, dust, and debris. City textures and dark places predominate. The action takes place around the bottoms of buildings, and we never see the sky. There are no country or uptown alternatives for the Snapper Kid - no penthouse aspirations. The gangster genre began in the slums, and the people who lived there appreciated the film. Billy Bitzer, who was Griffith's cameraman regularly and who shot MUSKETEERS
, recalled an early preview of the film: "Another way we learned was through tryouts. Tryouts were usually in remote theatres, and it was to our advantage to be there. One memorable tryout was held in a converted store in the Lower East Side Jewish section of Manhattan. It was in 1912 for The Musketeers of Pig Alley, an early gangster film with Elmer Booth, much of which was filmed in that locale. We got very strong and favourable reactions - it was one of the first realistic films, one of our best."
The criminal world depicted in MUSKETEERS
is one of rival gangs, armed robbery, dodging the police, saloons, drugs, dances and alleyways peopled with underworld milieu, a gangster protagonist and a pictorially realistic urban setting, MUSKETEERS
contributed several other basic elements to the genre.
The gang, of course, is an essential element of gangster films. The Snapper Kid's gang includes seven armed henchmen, sporting scars, derby hats, broken noses, and a cocky willingness to mix it up. And, as in most gangster films that followed, there is one gang member who is the protagonist's sidekick, played by Harry Carey in MUSKETEERS
. He is the main character's constant companion until the end of the film; his function is to back up the gangster in times of trouble and generally to amplify the protagonist's personality and actions. When the Snapper Kid swaggers, Harry Carey hitches up his pants and echoes the gesture... Another of the gangster's defining characteristics is that he takes what he wants, whether it's money, an occupied chair at the Gangster's Ball, or a woman. In MUSKETEERS
, after a title that reads, "The Little Lady meets the Snapper Kid", the gangster sees the girl come out of her room and grabs her by the arm to demand a kiss. But the little lady is tougher than most of her sisters who followed in the genre. She energetically slaps him hard in the face, thereby winning the first round in the battle of interpersonal violence that was to characterise relations between men and women in the genre. This fiery outburst further intrigues the Kid, who pursues the little lady throughout the film until she tells him she already has a man...
Griffith also established the iconographic tradition of the Gangster's Ball in MUSKETEERS
. The sign outside reads: "Great Dance of the Jolly Three. Admission 25cts." Inside, the hall is filled with animated couples dancing to some lively music. The dancers project a happy and comfortable sensuality that is infectious, and the friend who brought the little lady is swept into the dancing crowd as soon as they arrive. The dance hall has an adjoining saloon where other dancers are refreshing themselves, and both rooms are ruled over by a gangster known as 'the Big Boss', who is feared by the other gangsters, including the Snapper Kid. The scene typically ends in a fight over a woman. This scene appropriately entitled "The Little Lady at the Gangster's Ball", has appeared in nearly every gangster film to follow MUSKETEERS
. Although the nightclubs or speakeasies were to become gaudier, the dancers more drunk and lustful, and the music characteristic of the Roaring Twenties - so that we usually associate this scene with the Jazz Age - the basic elements are present in the first gangster film. The Gangster's Ball lightens the violent, competitive, and hostile tones that dominate gangster dramas, and it defines the gangster milieu in terms of city night life.
Another essential iconographic scene that appears in MUSKETEERS
, one that is shared with other action genres, is the shootout. Titled "the Gangsters' Feudal War", the first gangster shootout begins with the Snapper Kid and his gangster rival rounding up their gangs. The Snapper Kid spins the barrel of his revolver to make sure that its fully loaded, shoves it into his pocket, and leads his gang to the fight. The gangs stalk each other through saloons and alleyways ducking around corners and fences and hiding behind garbage cans. The not-so-innocent bystanders who realise what is going to happen run for cover. When the gangs run into each other in a litter-strewn alleyway, there is a short and explosive gunfight. Billows of gunsmoke obscure the fighting gangsters, parting occasionally to reveal some wounded gunman staggering and falling or others aggressively moving forward and blasting away with their revolvers. This deafening battle ends when squads of police come rushing in to haul the survivors off to jail. The ritualistic weapons check, the deadly certain stalking, the explosive gun battle recur again and again, with a number of variations in the gangster films that followed. As in MUSKETEERS
the shootout scene has usually been presented as the climax of the movie, and audiences expect it ot be the most violent and terrible moment of the film.
THE MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY
launched the genre with an episodic slice of pictorial realism, characteristic of the social realism of the Progressive era, muckraking, instead of a strong melodramatic plot. Griffith began the genre with a sympathetic gangster and several characteristics that were to become basic to gangster films. By 1912 the gangster film was securely rooted in American film history.
- Eugene Rosow, Born to Lose: The Gangster Film in America, OUP New York, 1978.
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