The Pre-Code Gangster Films.

Of all the excessive Pre-Code films, perhaps the most ‘normal’ of these when you see them today are the gangster flicks. They don’t seem all that violent or salacious today and are actually pretty entertaining. However, back in the early 30s, much of the outcry against the Pre-Code films was directed specifically against gangster films. Some felt at the time that the gangsters were over-glamorized and the films were much too realistic in their depictions of violence. I would not agree that they were over-glamorized, as the villains ALL were punished for their sins by the end of the film. As far as the realism and vividness of the violence goes, it’s not quite as clear. While the films were certainly more violent than gangster films immediately post-1934, compared to modern films they are amazingly tame…and are also quite entertaining. I’d like to briefly review the three most famous of these films–films that went on to make these three leading men major Hollywood stars.

Little Caesar–A

This isn’t the best film Edward G. Robinson ever made, but from a historical point of view, it is THE film to see considering it made him a well-known and A-level actor. This is pretty much what also happened with Jimmy Cagney’s The Public Enemy–which also came out the same year. Both films are Pre-Code in style, as they show a higher level of violence than gangster films of the late 30s–though both pale in sleaziness and violence to Paul Muni’s Scarface!

The film begins with friends Robinson and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as small-time hoods. They both decide they’ve had enough of this life so they move to “the big city” (though WHICH one is never said in the film). Robinson wants to move up and eventually control organized crime, while Fairbanks wants to be, believe it or not, a professional dancer! Both become very successful, but their lives are also inextricably intertwined. Exactly what occurs and how it all ends is really something you should see for yourself. It’s an excellent ganger film–much better than average. My only complaint, and hence my giving it an A and not an A+ is because Robinson’s performance is a bit over-the-top. By contrast, Cagney’s in The Public Enemy is more believable and convincing.

The Public Enemy–A+

This is the film that made Jimmy Cagney a star and, along with Little Caesar, made Warner Brothers THE studio for gangster flicks in the 1930s. And, while there were so many more similar films after it, very, very few came close to it in style, impact and story. In fact, it’s Cagney’s best gangster film other than White Heat (his tour-de-force and Film Noir classic from 1949).

A lot of the reason it’s such a great film is that since it was a new style of film, it doesn’t seem clich├ęd or derivative. Plus, it takes a strong and unflinching tone that NEVER would have been possible under the stricter guidelines of the Production Code only a few short years later. Instead of just telling you that Cagney is a heartless jerk or showing him do some rather sanitized violence, he is a cruel man and you see that cruelty repeatedly. He is so vile that early in the film he slams a half a grapefruit into his girlfriend’s face–just because he’s bored with their relationship. And, he soon becomes a top gangster by becoming an enforcer–slugging, stealing and killing his way up the pecking order in organized crime. And, in the very end, the film ends with the best final scene in gangster history (except, once again for White Heat and its amazing finale).

You can see why this film made Cagney a star–a great film in every way with great acting, a great script and all you could ever want in a gangster movie.


This movie is a thinly veiled biography of Al Capone and should not be confused with the more recent film starring Al Pacino. Some names and incidents were changed, but many were left intact (such as the nickname ‘Scarface’ and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre). The biggest difference between this Scarface and the real-life one was the ending. In the film, Scarface died in an expectedly melodramatic way, whereas in reality, Capone slowly wasted away due to the ravages of syphilis. Neither one is very nice, now that I think about it.

For the most part, the film is what you’d expect from a film about gangsters, but it was a little more crude in its execution. In contrast, Warner’s other two big gangster hits from the year before (mentioned above) seemed more polished and with better, less shrill acting (particularly bad in Scarface were Muni’s and Dvorak’s performances). I definitely prefer these other two films and, although not subtle, sure seem so when you compare them to Scarface.

About the only really unusual and unexpected thing about the film was its psychological undercurrent. There is a strongly implied incestuous relationship between Scarface and his trampy sister. While the film never exactly says they slept together, their relationship was very, very unnatural and the audience was left to wonder and draw their own sordid conclusions–which many did! The addition of this plot element and liberal sprinkling of violence and sexual innuendo isn’t all that surprising, really, as Howard Hughes produced this film and he became famous for pushing the limits of censorship and morality (his later film The Outlaw is legendary for this).

So we have three important and memorable films that are relatively easy to find today on television or DVD. Give them a look and let me know what you think.

So you have three suggestions for excellent Pre-Code gangster films. If you have a suggestion of your own, please drop me a line. And remember, to qualify as a Pre-Code film, it must have debuted before July, 1934–this is when the new Production Code was finally enforced and resulted in much tamer and much fewer gangster films…for the time being.

By Martin Hafer