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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Saint Valentine's Day, The Massacre and The Movie


The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre. Almost everyone is familiar with the name.  Yet, for the most part, they are not as familiar with the event itself.

Sure. The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre is on one of those great anti-Valentine's day go-to phrases. I've often heard it jokingly used to describe any Valentine's Day activities that go horribly wrong.  Or it's an anti-Valentine for those who have issues with the 14th of February: you're not celebrating a silly "Hallmark holiday" (which is a myth, BTW, check out last year's blog on the subject) you're celebrating the anniversary of the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre. Or I've sometimes seen as the theme of a dance or a party held by someone with a supposedly irreverent sense of humour.

Given the historical facts of the actual mob hit that went down at 10:30 AM on February 14, 1928, such references are, well, just a tad glib at best. The Saint Valentine Day Massacre was a vicious, bloody and brutal attack, even by today's organized crime violence standards. That the massacre is still referred to at all some 83 years later speaks to the brutal impression the killings made on the public consciousness.

The first newspaper headlines of The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre.

One of the strangest and most fascinating periods of American history is the Prohibition Era. It is also one of the most violent. In 1920, with the implementation of the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, alcohol was effectively outlawed in the United States of America. It was rather a stunning move, looking back on it now. I mean, think of it in the context of the current US election cycle debates on the role of  "big government" in people's lives.  As Ron Paul would tell you, a move like that should be, well, majorly out bounds in terms of government power.  The movement to outlaw alcohol in the US was motivated by religious morals, the desire to address a wide range of social problems and big business interests. Not so different than the motivation for legislation today, in other words.

As anyone who's been following the last two seasons of HBO's Boardwalk Empire can tell you, the outlawing of alcohol in the US, lead to a massive boon in, not surprisingly, the illegal alcohol trade. When booze is illegal than only outlaws will have booze, kinda thing. The era gave rise to the largest and most powerful system of organized crime the US had ever seen up to that time. Through a combination of intimidation, brute force, political corruption and bribery, organized crime controlled almost all of the alcohol flow in the US between 1920 and 1933, a period commonly know as The Prohibition Era.

Prohibition Era protests or just your average Saturday night?

Just as an aside, prohibition in the US was also a massive boon to Canadian distilleries and breweries like Seagram's and Molson....but that's another story.

The most infamous gangster of the era was a guy named Al Capone. You know, the guy who according to the British 70's flash-in-the-pan pop group, Paper Lace, "Tried to make that town his own". The town in question, of course, was Chicago. Capone was, it's safe to say, the most powerful and, yes, the most infamous gangster in that city at the time. One of the things that made Capone so infamous was The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre.

Chicago tourist stores sell Al Capone merchandise. Kinda sick, huh?
By 1929, Al Capone, at the age of 30, had risen to the top of the organized crime heap. He was in control of much of the booze, gambling, prostitution and just about any other illegal stuff going in Chicago. Capone had only one major rival, a gangster named George "Bugs" Moran.  The two gang leaders had been vying for control of Chicago and trying to kill each other off in the process for years by the late 20's. Capone, not a man generally known for his patience and understanding, is thought to have ordered the hit on Moran to eliminate the rivalry between the two gangs once and for all.

Contrary to popular belief, Capone's plan was not take over Moran's gang but to weaken his organization and its potential threat to Capone's operations by eliminating Moran along with some of his higher-ups. One of Capone's up and coming lieutenants, and the object a recent hit attempt himself, Jack McGurn, came up with a unique plan to take out Moran.

The idea was to lure Moran and his men into a garage on the North Side of Chicago. The garage, located at 2122 North Clark Street in the Lincoln Park neighbourhood, is where Moran allegedly did much of his business. He was to be lured there on the pretense of a supposedly big booze purchase. The booze was, of course, all part of ruse, set up by McGurn.

Gunmen, disguised as cops would then raid the place, disarm everyone and line them up against the wall. The idea was to lull Moran and his men into a sense of false security, thinking that they were in the midst of a routine raid that would later easily be ironed out by greasing all the right palms. Once Moran and his gang were up against the wall, as the cliche goes, the plan was to "fill 'em full of lead". The fake cops and some extra gunmen dressed in civilian garb were all hired killers brought in from outside of Chicago (some believe NYC) so that the hit could not be directly linked to Capone, should anything go terribly wrong and there were survivors or witnesses.

At 10:30 AM on February 14, 1929, the plan was executed flawlessly (pun intended). The timing of the hit on Valentine's Day is generally believed to be pure coincidence. More than likely, it was not motivated out of any sense of irony on Capone's part (ie: brutally murdering his enemies on a day dedicated to love).

You need only to look at photos taken after the massacre to know that the incident was was indeed both brutal and bloody. Seven people were killed in that garage that day. They were Peter Gusenberg (Moran's main enforcer), Frank Gusenberg (Peter's brother, also an enforcer), Albert Kalchellek (Moran's #2 man, though he was retired at the time),  Adam Heyer, (a bookkeeper), Reinhart Schwimmer (a gambler and associate of Moran's gang), Albert Weinshank (who managed the cleaning and dyeing operations for Moran) and John May (a mechanic who was not a member of the gang). All were shot upwards of fourteen times each by at least two Thompson sub machine guns or "Tommy Guns".

The gruesome photos of the aftermath were, amazingly, run by many of the newspapers of the day totally uncensored. It was also the newspapers who immediately dubbed the incident with the moniker it is known by today, The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre. The sensationalistic coverage of the hit made Capone a national celebrity, both in the media and with federal law enforcement.

The massacre was the beginning of the end of Capone's career. Previously celebrated as an amusing colourful, if somewhat unsavory character, in the media, the story turned public opinion against Capone.  Consequently, the heat on Capone was turned up by both the FBI and an fresh new young US Treasury agent named Eliot Ness.

On top of everything else, Capone never succeeded in killing Moran.

See what I mean?

Moran, as it turns out, was running late on the morning of the 14th. Seeing the cop car outside the garage, he suddenly decided to literally go grab a coffee. One of Moran's men, Albert Weinshank, had a similar enough build to Moran that Capone's lookouts positively identified him as the gang leader from a distance. It just goes to show you that  there are times when being a disorganized mobster really can pay off.

Frank Gusenberg was the only survivor of the massacre. Well,  for about three hours he was anyway. Chicago police attempted to question Gusenberg during those few scant hours that he clung to life in the hospital. However, even then, the Code of the Mobster was firmly in place.  All Gusenberg would say to the cops was "Nobody shot me.". He had fourteen bullet holes in his body at the time.

Sounds like a scene from a movie, huh?

Surprisingly, though, there is only one movie about The St.Valentine's Day Massacre.

Allusions and fictional versions of the massacre turn up in many different movies like the classic Billy Wilder comedy Some Like it Hot (1959) and the original 1931 version of Scarface (for the record, "Scarface" was originally Al Capone's nickname).  Most famously, of course, there is an episode of The Golden Girls where the character of Sofia claims to have been present at the massacre.There are no existing historical records that can effectively refute that claim.

The only movie that directly depicts the actual events of the mass murder itself is the 1967 film, The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, directed by Hollywood's indie low budget B-movie master, Roger Corman. Ironically, one of the least memorable scenes in Corman's film takes place in the hospital when Gusenberg says, "Nobody shot me".

The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre was based on Seven Against The Wall, a live TV play that was broadcast on CBS Playhouse 90 in December of 1958. Harold Browne, the playwright of the TV piece, also wrote the screenplay for the '67 film. The film also featured several cast members from the TV broadcast reprising their roles.

Despite Corman's reputation as an outsider to the Hollywood establishment, The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, was one of the rare instances in which he worked directly for a major studio (Fox, in this case).  It is also one of his few films in which he worked as a director rather than just as a producer. Well, actually, in this case "rare" is a relative term.

According to IMDB, Corman is credited with producing 399 movies but only directing 56 times.  Among Corman's better known films as director and/or producer are the original non-musical version of Little Shop of Horrors, The Man with the X-Ray eyes and Death Race 2000 (both the original '75 version and the 2008 remake).

The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre is a pre-Godfather depiction of the mob. There is no sympathetic portrayal of the mobsters as tragic figures to be seen here. That interpretation would become de rigueur after Francis Ford Coppola's 1970 mafia masterpiece and would continue to dominate the genre from then on right through to as recently as The Sopranos.

Back in '67, though, these gangsters were portrayed as larger-than-life caricatures, almost comical in their egotistical disregard for human life.  There are times in the film that the performances are so over-the-top that it almost feels like watching a 20's gangster sketch from the Carol Burnett Show or A Piece of the Action, the campy Star Trek episode where the crew of the Enterprise encounters a planet that is amazingly similar to Chicago in the 1920's (irresistible trivia note: both the episode and the film were shot on the same backlot).



We are lead to laugh at these supposedly real life underworld figures from history more than we are lead to sympathize or identify with them. The only thing close to a truly sympathetic portrayal in the film is that of a very young Bruce Dern, in the role of mechanic John May. Despite the fact that May worked for Moran, he was attempting to lead an honest life. He just needed the work to support his wife and seven children. He's the guy who was tragically in the wrong place and the wrong time when the shooting started. Therefore, the audience is allowed to like him.

Kinda doesn't work
Jason Robards as Capone delivers what, for my money, is the most over-the-top portrayal in the film. He manages to pull off a massively big performance without ever letting Capone seem in any way likeable. Robards is, to put it simply, totally miscast in the role. Don't get me wrong, the guy is a great actor who has delivered some incredible performances in films Like All The President's Men (1976), Magnolia (1999) and, my personal obscure fave, as US President Ulysses S. Grant in an awful reboot attempt known as The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981).  Nonetheless, Robards as Al Capone is a bizarre choice for the role at best. He is the wrong physical type (tall and thin vs short and plump) and the wrong age (Capone was about 30 during the events depicted in the film while Robards was 44 when the film was shot) for the role.

Al Capone has been played by no less than 16 actors in the history of film and TV. The best on-screen Capone in recent memory has got to be Robert Deniro in Brian DePalma's 1987 film, The Untouchables. Deniro's performance as Capone in that film ushered in a new stage in the actor's career in which Deniro shifted from playing leads and meaty character roles to playing smaller yet prestigious "And Robert Deniro as..." parts in big movies. Perhaps the most interesting Capone, from an obscure trivia angle, is actor Nicholas Turtruro (brother of John and star of, among other things, NYPD Blue) who played Capone in a 1993 episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.  Special note should also be made of English actor Stephen Graham who plays Capone on the current HBO historical series, Boardwalk Empire. Capone experts believe that Graham's is the most realistic on-screen Capone yet.

Apparently, Corman's first choice for the role was Orson Welles. Welles was reportedly vetoed by the studio as they thought he'd be far too much of a mavericky pain in the ass. They were probably right, though it woulda been better for the movie. Corman would return to the Capone story as a producer of the 1975 film simply titled Capone. Ben Gazarra played Capone in this biographical film that only briefly touched on The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre.

In The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, there are many other fine actors cast and miscast as the major gangsters. George Segal plays Peter Gusenberg. Ralph Meeker, who played Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer in the seminal 1955 noire film, Kiss Me Deadly, plays Moran. All of these accomplished actors have been directed to play the gangsters so big that any sense of humanity has been systemically removed from the characters. Meeker is the only actor amongst the impressive cast who is able to rise to the occasion of delivering a highly stylized performance while still keeping his role emotionally grounded.

The film is made in a supposed docudrama style.  It's got that voice of authority style narration that was very familiar in crime dramas and police procedurals back in the day.  It was the kinda thing that turned up on TV in shows like Dragnet and The FBI.  Interestingly, every character/historical figure gets their own voice over bio, including (if they were not one of the people killed in the massacre), when and how they would later die (in some cases, that's more than thirty years after the events depicted in the film).

The film is more or less historically accurate. Though, artistic license is taken with some events and characters. The two out-of-town hitmen dressed as cops, for instance, are both named in the film. Though in reality, nobody to this day is sure who those guys actually were.  In some cases, historical research on the massacre since 1967 has made some parts of the story and other details inaccurate. For instance, it was thought, at the time the movie was made, that Capone was born in Italy in 1899 but it has since been learned that he was, in fact, born to Italian immigrant parents in Brooklyn, NY, in 1899.

The larger problem with the film, though, is that it's hard to tell why Corman wanted to tell this story. His direction avoids both deifying or crucifying the mobsters at the same time. They are neither heroes, nor antiheroes or even villains. Nor are they the classic tragic figures of Hollywood's cautionary morality tales like Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931) and The Roaring Twenties (1939).

The narration, by legendary voice actor Paul Frees, effectively keeps the film from displaying any kind of sentiment, even a nihilistic one. The scenes of massacre itself are strongly reminiscent of scene in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (released in the same year so probably not an influence), in which the two eponymous antihero outlaws are gunned down by police in a brutally violent bloodbath. The massacre in Corman's film, while similarly gory, simply does not have the same emotional impact.

Despite numerous ongoing investigations, no one was ever arrested or charged in connection with The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre. Capone, famously, was only ever arrested for tax evasion, never for his role in the massacre or for any of his other infamous crimes. Technically speaking, it remains an open case.

So it seems somehow fitting, then, nobody's ever made a really good definitive movie of the The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre either. And, you know, the 85th anniversary is coming up. Just sayin.

A 100% completely historically accurate reenactment of the brutal event

Happy Saint Valentine's Day Massacre Anniversary Everybody!

(see what I did there with the irony there?)

10 comments:

  1. are the actual photos used in this blog in the public domain?

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    Replies
    1. To the best of my knowledge, yes.

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    2. can anyone tell me what the importance of the massacre or Bugs moran is on the 1920s..trying to type a paper for college. it would be a big help!!

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  2. basically bugs Capone and all other mobsters that were illegally selling alcohol got the amendment revoked and it is legal again years later.

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  3. BTW, Jack Nicholson is a minor thug in the movie, and can be seen is several scenes.

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