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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

HISTORY LESSON: Movie Stars and the Mob

Hollywood's favorite Gangster: James Cagney

There is something intoxicating about the element of danger, isn't there? All of our favorite actors possess it. Who is Brando without it? For that matter, who is Davis without it? Just as different celebrities hypnotize us through their various characters, so too were they mesmerized by a certain breed of the male animal that was even more intoxicating than themselves-- the gangster. Brutal, violent, merciless, not to mention unlawful, the birth of the thug came with the death of alcohol. In protecting human beings by taking away their booze, prohibition ironically unearthed an even more foul, yet even more tempting, villain. Iconically remembered with Tommy guns, cigars, and sometimes baseball bats (thanks to Robert De Niro's turn in The Untouchables), these tough guys emerged from a world of hard knocks and ruthlessness with no other agenda than to make a buck off other men's weaknesses. Businessmen and bruisers, they became rich and powerful through drugs, gambling, white slavery... You name it. Their legacy is a strange and dark mutation of the American dream. Living as the Royalty of the Underworld, it wasn't long before live villains started rubbing elbows with screen heroes. Elbows... and then some.

Why do good girls always want the bad boys? You'd think a lady would know to run far and fast when a man with a more-than-disreputable reputation came into view, yet the opposite effect more popularly occurs. Even some of our most beloved starlets have been hoodwinked by the charms of a devious gangster. Be it the allure of being that close to danger, the attraction of power, the money and spoils the "hood" is able to provide (however his means of obtaining them), certain women have temporarily muted their common sense for a forbidden adrenaline rush. One such lady was Lucille Ball (looking very much the gangster's moll in her role for Dance Girl Dance, left). As a fourteen year-old youngster, her first major boyfriend was a local hood named Johnny DeVita, whose resume included "chauffeuring" for his sketchy father-- aka transporting whiskey. Johnny was tough, which Lucille found a turn-on, and the fact that he carried a gun around made her even more enamored. However, not long after his dad was shot and killed, Johnny would find himself in Jail for his own transgressions. Lucy's taste didn't change much when she became a struggling model in NY. Working for Hattie Carnegie, she often came across gang members looking for good-looking dames to show a swell time. Lucy struck up friendships with many of these fellows, which helped her get a free meal or two, not to mention a false sense of protection. After a neighborhood shootout, she earned the nickname "two-gun." Just why remains a mystery.

Another tough guy Lucy would date and befriend was George Raft. Raft (right) had a lot of mobster ties dating all the way back to his boyhood. He had no ambitions to rise in the ranks of that type of "business," but he ingratiated himself to a number of wise guys who would later call on him for favors when he became a movie star. Mae West would recall meeting Raft for the first time when he was a mere chauffeur for Owney Madden. They had a brief fling, which left Mae reminiscing in later years that George was "all man." Mae, like Lucy, had a taste for the bad boys, but was too smart a business woman to get involved too deeply with them. Emotions remained out of the equation. Strangely, she tried to coerce Raft into appearing in her latest stage production, "Sex," but George had no ambitions toward being an actor either. He had no ambitions at all it seemed, other than to just live as comfortably as possible. It was thus a shock to Mae when, later, George made it to Hollywood before she did and secured a role for her in what would be her film debut: Night After Night. It was a welcome reunion. Despite this, Raft was known by some as hot-tempered and threatening. He still carried around a gun, cozied up to thugs, and had no qualms about slapping someone around. He would even testify on behalf of Bugsy Siegel when the latter was brought up on bookmaking charges. Yet, George seemed to have a soft spot for certain ladies. In addition to Mae, he was helpful to Lucy when he loaned her the money to rent her first bungalow in Hollywood. It was a touching move, for it allowed her to move her entire family from Jamestown to L.A. It would take her more than six years to pay him back, but her pal said that there was no rush.

Pat DiCicco also had mob connections. Publicly an acting agent, privately he was good friends with the likes of Lucky Luciano. Luckily, whatever fling Lucy Ball had with Pat was brief, but Carole Landis was too suckered by his deceptive charms. Initially turned on by his confidence and swagger, she soon found that her Prince Charming had some major rage issues. Their affair would quickly come to an end after a mysterious hospital visit: she was reported to be undergoing cosmetic surgery on her nose, though it is commonly believed that she was repairing the physical damage of a brutal beating. The girl was perfect, after all; she didn't need plastic surgery. Whatever the source of her visit, it marked the end of their relationship. Most notoriously, it was comedienne Thelma Todd who was all too seriously involved with Pat. The two were married in the 1930s (see newlyweds left). Like the others, Thelma fell for what she mistook as Pat's strength, only to find herself constantly on the receiving end of his anger and jealousy. A common error, most women sought these men in hopes of finding protection but put themselves in the line of fire instead... literally. As their marriage was ending, Pat introduced Thelma to Lucky Luciano aka Charles Lucifer, and the two began their own affair. But, as Lucky put the pressure on Thelma to give him space in her Sidewalk Cafe to use as a gambling center, Thelma adamantly refused. Consequently, she was found dead in her garage on December 16, 1935. Though Lucky was certainly the mastermind behind her "accidental" demise, many believed Pat too played an intricate part in ending his ex-wife's life. Since all of Tinsel Town knew this, it makes it strange that any other woman would give Pat a second glance, but in addition to winning over Lucy and Carole, Pat too would tac Joan Blondell, Gloria Vanderbilt, Virginia Bruce, and Elizabeth Taylor onto his roster.

Another infamous Hollywood death that has been tied to in some respect to gang warfare is that of The Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short. Though many would attest that the macabre nature of her death and the precision with which she was brutally sawed in half suggested the work of a calculating psychopath or serial killer, there were also clues attached to her body that pointed to none other than Bugsy Siegel (right). One theory postulates that newspaper magnate Norman Chandler paid Siegel, along with the aid of a couple of other thugs and a doctor, to kill Bettie after she became pregnant with Norman's child. He feared the threat of a scandal and the tarnishing of his illustrious family's name. If so, this would explain the brutality with which Bettie was beaten across the head and face-- the sadistic Bugsy had a penchant for "pistol whipping." Because her uterus was removed, this too lends to the speculation that her murder was used to cover up an abortion/pregnancy. Also, her body was dumped not far from Bugsy foe Jack Dragna's house, and-- something the police did not let the press in on-- a "D" was carved into her skin, which many attribute to an antagonistic Sicilian "Eff you" from Bugsy to Dragna. With Bugsy's schedule, flying back and forth non-stop while finalizing his precious Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, it is possible that he was present to have just enough time to take part in the murder and, knowing him, enjoy it.

Whether or not he did play a role in Bettie's end, Bugsy had a very prominent role in Hollywood-- with both the women and the men. Whatever his sickening and reprehensible behavior in fact, he was able to at least concoct enough fiction to make him fascinating to all of the glitterati. He could be seen on the town at various shindigs, rubbing elbows with Clark Gable and Gary Cooper-- and George Raft, of course. Naturally, the man known as the handsomest thug too partnered up with several actresses, including Marie McDonald and Wendy Barrie. He was also in tight with Jean Harlow's abysmal step-father, Marino Bello, which put him in contact with Jean as well. (Harlow, of course, is also rumored to have had a relationship with Abner "Longie" Zwillman, who helped her secure her first acting contract. He too was said to carry around a locket containing hair from her... uh... nether-regions). Whether these actors truly liked Bugsy or merely tolerated him out of fear is uncertain. One would at least hope that they had their guards up. Most notoriously, Bugsy had a violent and torrential relationship with wannabe actress Virginia "Sugar" Hill (left), who was supposedly just as venomous and abusive as her lover. It would be at Virginia's home in Beverly Hills, 810 N. Linden Drive, where Bugsy would finally meet his maker and face the music for all of his worldly crimes. He was shot clean through the eye. His murder was believed to be payback for all of the money he owed his Flamingo investors.

But all of these names were floating around Hollywood for a reason. The Mob was moving West-- away from the Metropolises of New York and Chicago-- to do big business in show business. Names like Siegel, Luciano, Mickey Cohen, Meyer Lansky, and Frank Nitti are attached to Movieland for very specific reasons. One is now known as "The Great Hollywood Shakedown." Two lesser known names involved are those most responsible for what was to become an enormous extortion racket- Willie Bioff (right) and George Brown. Their scheme started in Chicago, where after dabbling in prostitution, they set their sights on the Stagehands Union. Step one, membership. The slogan was simple: join us you little, underpaid children... or be beaten within an inch of your life. Step Two, after Increasing dues, B&B threatened theater owners with "strikes" if they didn't pay up monthly fees for the use of the union members. Theater owners Sam Katz and Barney Balaban were some of the first hit with the new, raw deal. To keep their theaters running, they played the game, and business continued smoothly. Frank Nitti, Al Capone's heir, soon partnered up (or rather took over), and the venture moved West. Capone had already laid the ground work, and Nitti wanted to finish the job. With the corrupt Buron Fitts running things as the District Attorney in Los Angeles, a complete goon-takeover wouldn't be difficult.

Next, New York's Lucky Luciano (left) was brought into the loop in a temporary or at least feigned truce, and the two branches would work together to take over Tinsel Town. Adding the projectionists' unions and IATSE to the scheme, they could return to men like Balaban, now in Hollywood running Paramount, and demand huge payments to keep their theaters running and their studios filming. The film-businessmen would be forced to pay or suffer the consequences: the loss of their livelihoods or worse, the loss of their lives. All of the major studios were hit: Paramount, Warners, Twentieth-Century, MGM... Game, Set, Match. In a way, it worked for everyone. Under mob control, the studios ran more efficiently than ever, as long as they payed up, and moguls actually saved money paying the bad guys instead of paying the Unions directly. Needless to say, the union members were the ones getting truly and financially screwed. As hot-shot gang members became commonplace at Hollywood parties, corruption whipped into full swing. Producer Joe Schenck even got in on the action via a Dupont Film monopoly, for which he paid ol' Bioff off with a Ranch. The feds caught up with him, however, ironically from a tip from Montgomery Clift, then the SAG President, whose informants alerted the IRS to the fishy financial goings-on. Schenck served five years in prison as a result. By the end of the '40s, with the cat out of the bag, the whole troupe of accomplices was led into court both for participation in the extortion plot and tax evasion. Most would get off due to their connections, but some did not fare as well, including Nitti, who blew his own brains out when the prospect of facing jail time became too daunting. The only one who escaped completely was Lucky, who (after killing Thelma Todd), had left the whole racket, or rather was kicked out by his own partners, to return to New York. He was later deported back to his native Sicily where he would die in 1962 at the ripe old age of 69. One hopes his soul did not fare as well.

Frank Sinatra (right) was the man most notoriously associated with the Mafia in the latter days of Hollywood's golden age. It is common knowledge by now that it was through Old Blue Eyes's influence and mob connections that the Kennedys were able to buy their way into the White House. Of course, after they got what they wanted, the Prez quickly disappeared from Frank's life so that his pristine public image wouldn't be maligned. Frank was... ticked. (There are continuing theories that many members of the mafia, who had connections with the Kennedy family, were outraged by the political family's inability to "do business" properly. While many in America were shocked when JFK was shot dead, those in the underworld were not). Frank often overcompensated for his diminutive stature by surrounding himself by powerful people. His big voice and even bigger ego were all the guy needed, but his need to appear tough and throw his weight around was enhanced by his relationships with gangsters. Sam Giancana and Mickey Cohen were co-owners of Frank's Cal Neva Lodge. Skinny D'Amato was the manager. Frank was also throughout his life associated with Joe and Rocco Fischetti and John Formosa. While this made him somewhat of a moral and political threat, it equally boosted his fan appeal and public image. His male fans particularly were more intrigued when they learned that little Frankie was more than just a singing heartthrob for the ladies. He was a bad-ass mother-f*cker! Say what you will, no one messed with Frank. Well, almost. Frank got a little miffed at Lucille's beloved Desi Arnaz after he started producing "The Untouchables." He felt it was insulting to both Italians and "his friends." Yet, even after he tried to persuade his Cuban comrade to pull the plug, Desi sweet-talked him out of his anger. As Frank himself would say, "I just can't stay mad at the guy."

Edward G. Robinson takes a bullet and makes a hit in Little Caesar.

"The Untouchables" turned out to be a huge hit for Desilu Studios, and one of many Hollywood products that contributed to our understanding of gang warfare. The show would make Robert Stack a star, though his role was that of Det. Eliot Ness (a character reprised by Kevin Kostner in the film version). The show was, however, more about the triumph of good over evil, whereas earlier Hollywood films made in the gangster infiltration hey-day-- specifically those produced during the pre-code era-- had a tendency to glorify the thugs, the goons, and the hoods. It's funny that, aside from Sinatra and Raft, some of the actors most famous for playing these guys were very far from their screen selves. Edward G. Robinson, the infamous pug-faced actor who rose to fame in Little Caesar, was in life an educated aesthete who collected fine art, had a wide knowledge of music and culture, and could speak seven languages fluently. And Cagney, the mad hero of Public Enemy and White Heat? His portrayals of gangsters were convincing, because he observed them while growing up in the Lower East Side of NY. But, while he studied them, he did not assimilate, despite the fact that many of his friends did. He put his passions and angst into his art, becoming a song and dance man instead. His true self would come to the forefront in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Though admitted facades that could never possess the brutality of the real truth, the classic reel tales of booze, violence, and "bidness," are still offers we can't refuse. I guess the flesh and blood (and I do mean blood) realities were just as enticing for some celebs, though dancing with the Devil too often left then burned.


  1. Meredith , I love how you can segue from Lucy into mob movies. Films about the underworld are a wonderful genre. Cagney as Cody Jarrett (White Heat) or Tom Powers (The Public Enemy) are some of my favorite performances. What a talented guy. Also how the rackets influenced how actors got their starts and power over the studios . Thanks

  2. Hahaha, yes I have a very rare train of thought!!! I agree. Cagney is amazing. And as for the rackets... Geez, I have a hard enough time figuring out business in general, but when you add those guys into it... Whoo hoo! Scary!!!

  3. Lucy got the nickname two guns because when she first started out she told people she was from Montana. Montana, cowboys, two guns... its just something people started calling her. she stated this in an interview with Joan Rivers.