Are gangster films slapstick or not?
It’s not as far-fetched as one might think, especially when considering the slippery slope of connotation in three closely related terms: “gangster”, “crookster” and “huckster”. This provides a spectrum of silliness. On one end, “gangster” designates a dramatic (not quite tragic) criminality where various illegal activities are organized in such a way that produces not only material wealth but also a compromised level of political clout in the everyday operations of city life. At the opposite end, a “huckster” implies a petty man who thinks he can outsmart everyone despite obvious evidence they’re not smart enough not to be in their situation of needing to habitually con other people to scrape by. So a “crookster” is simply the mid-ground and as such never appears as a central protagonist but only as henchmen, black sheep, bullies, jerks, or they just litter the background for a little color and edge. Here’s a typical “crookster”:
Crooksters are all the different character variants that exist somewhere between the gangster’s dramatic struggle not to be predetermined by existing social forces of legitimacy and power from which they are excluded, and the huckster, whose painfully comic existence makes everyone around them enraged, confused or appalled thus reinforcing the former’s fantasy of being intellectually superior to everyone around them.
But what if the archetypal “gangster” identity, just like the crookster above (and both made iconic in the 1930’s at Warner Brother’s studio), never really extracted itself from the dominant slapstick era that preceded its own popularity? What if Cagney and Robinson are nothing more than Chaplin and Fields stuck in a world full of flying bullets, loose women, bare knuckles and speakeasies?
Take as a for-instance these two clips of the same gag:
The top clip is from Roy Del Ruth’s Taxi! (1932) and, while hardly seen in the context of great Warner gangster films, is nevertheless completely typical of the formula: racketeering, corruption, murder, chips on shoulders driving traditional neighborhood allegiances to contest with a main character’s extra-neighborly ambitions, a street brawl or three and finally some less-than-deep philosophical fadoodling on the nature of right and wrong. In the scene, one of the film’s openers, Cagney’s character is caged in by two rival taxis and moments later cleans their clocks in a impromptu fist match, all of it egged on by onlookers and passersby. [Note: Roy Del Ruth, like another WB mainstay, Lloyd Bacon (discussed below), was brought up in slapstick and directed films staring Harry Langdon, Mack Sennett and Ben Turpin.] This scene from Taxi! is violent, quick as a newspaper catching fire, and depicts clear adversarial interests.
The second clip, from The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935), W.C. Fields is caged in by two cars and and this slowly instigates a mob-like sapping of the old man’s simplest, stupidest, most private wishes from his tired, ever-shrinking soul. The scene is not explicitly violent, but it is absolutely brutal and painful insofar as public humiliation and arbitrary bullying is a kind of bloodletting even doctor’s can’t stop. But the scene is not quick at all; it’s slow as molasses, agonizing, cruelly drawing in the audience to watch a man with a raincloud over his head get yelled at for being wet by people with the sun on their shoulders.
It’s the same story told through two different aesthetics, a through-the-looking-glass moment.
Let’s not leave out all of the slapstick elements in the first Taxi! clip. The fight is a wide shot, not a chopped up P.O.V. Like a prat fall, the audience is invited into the fun of the fight, rather than any of the hurt or desperation. Also, we have stock characters: the loose cannon, the blockhead, the confused immigrant, and a couple of jerk-faced crooksters. These are all comical archetypes of physicality and sociology, but they all lack the aspect of psychology necessary for a fully-formed dramatic character. They are flat, which means they are better served in sight gags. Not to say that there aren’t humorless gangster films like Public Enemy or The Roaring Twenties, only that a clip like this bridges a gap between gangster films and slapstick in meaningful ways:
So speed is a feature of the gangster film. Warner’s two-week-wonder-tron, Lloyd Bacon, was given his first job in the teens (not his teens but the century’s) by then Human Resource Director at Mutual Films, Charlie Chaplin. They worked together often, for instance here as the Tramp’s double in 1916’s The Floorwalker:
But when is this speed not used to comedic effect in WB gangster flicks? When they want to be dramatic, they simply stop the break-neck speed and pace scenes differently. Speed – and this goes for a lot of entertaining 75 min features of the Pre-Code era – is a lingering effect of the breathtakingly quick gag work happening in slapstick pre and post sound. Here’s a prefect example of speed having a punch-line effect in the reform-angled gangster piece, Picture Snatcher (1933), directed by Chaplin’s protege-of-sorts, Bacon:
More on this questionable parallel in the coming weeks.