Issue 2

“Bullets or Ballots”: The Gangster as the Antithesis of the American Dream

The American Dream is that mythical idea that every American citizen wants to a achieve: a house, a picket fence, two cars in the garage, and 2.5 kids to play on the perfectly manicured green lawn out front. But this dream was proved as nothing more than a dream with the coming of The Great Depression. Bullets or Ballots, released in 1936 by Warner Brothers  and directed by William Keighley stars Edward G. Robinson as Johnny Blake. Bullets or Ballots tells the story of a police investigation into a racketeering ring, and follows Johnny Blake, a retired detective who is pulled back into the force in order to infiltrate the racketeering ring and find out who is responsible for it. Bullets or Ballots, according to its original script, was poised to be another entry into Robinson’s long line of gangster films, alongside work like Little Caesar (LeRoy 1931) and Kid Galahad (Curtiz 1937). Once the Production Code Administration realized this, they refused to approve the film unless heavy changes were made to the script. The Production Code Administration (PCA), was the precursor to the MPAA, and their job was to monitor film content and make sure that all films adhered to their strict rules and regulations regarding script and screenplay content. With gangster films like Bullets or Ballots, they truly had their work cut out for them. The portrayal of easy wealth achieved through petty crime labeled Bullets or Ballots as a gangster film, which the PCA refused to approve. Before Bullets or Ballots, the PCA had heavily restricted and modified gangster films like Scarface (Hawkes, Rosson 1932),[i] setting a precedent for later films of the same genre. The PCA’s focus on the ‘gangsterism’ present in early drafts for Bullets or Ballots reflects a necessity to keep the American Dream a reality that could only be attainable through legal means. This essay will investigate how the ‘gangster’ image affected the production code review process for Bullets or Ballots in 1935. Special consideration will be given to the efforts made by the PCA to indirectly protect the American dream from being depicted as a criminally accessible goal, especially when linked to gangster related criminal activity, and the changes Bullets or Ballots’ story went through in order to please the PCA.

When comparing the restrictions set forth by the PCA against the common tropes of gangster films, the two lists become remarkably similar. For one thing, gangster films commonly feature explicit violence, open depictions of female sexuality through the femme fatale character, and heavy drinking on screen. By genre trope alone, gangster films are defined by their violence. In fact, the image most associated with gangsters is that of a pinstripe suited man hanging out the window of a speeding car and firing off a tommy gun into a crowd of civilians. More often than not, gangster films reward these criminals with material wealth. They can kill anyone they choose to, and they will be rewarded with great material wealth. Despite this, gangsters are never allowed to fully succeed on screen. By the time Bullets or Ballots was released, the PCA had made its stance clear on gangster films; they were immoral, and represented all of the most despicable ways of reaching the American Dream. The PCA took it upon itself to protect the American public from the depravity of the acts committed by gangsters on screen.[ii] Their need to eliminate the ‘gangsterism’[iii] present in Bullets Or Ballots early on is meant to communicate to the audience that the American Dream could only be reached within the bounds of the law.

Before going any further into this analysis, it is important to fully define the American dream as it was understood in the mid 1930s. The drive towards material wealth and the perceived freedom to attain it has almost always been a driving force behind America’s success. Practically every American living in the decades preceding the Great Depression worked tirelessly to acquire this material wealth, and their hopes reached a fever pitch in the twenties. As Hearn describes, “[…] the American dream means, above all else, the accumulation of money and the indulgence in pleasure.”[iv] In no time period is this more apparent than in 1920s America. This decade was largely characterized by its emphasis on gaudy wealth, the idea that those with money should flaunt it.[v] American businessmen came to represent the idea that any American could, through sheer determination and hard work, achieve this same level of success so many businessmen enjoyed. However, with the onset of the Great Depression, this dream was shattered.

It became clear to the general public that not only was the American Dream unattainable, it was also easier to achieve through criminal means. Beforehand, it was largely understood that one had to stay within the bounds of the law in order to achieve material success. The public used to believe that the law was on their side; anyone could become successful and rich in America if they only worked hard enough and stayed within the bounds of the law. When the Depression disproved this belief, the American public began looking for other ways to get rich quick. As a result gangsters were seen as the new heroes of the American people. Gangsters on screen reached the goal that many Americans dreamed of: material wealth. But they achieved this through criminal acts. However, the American public was happy to ignore this in the face of easy access to liquor during prohibition. Meanwhile the movie industry took great advantage of the popularity of gangsters in film, and began glamorizing these criminals in gangster films. Therefore, the gangster came to symbolize a kind of perversion of the American Dream. Yes, gangsters did achieve the lavish material wealth that so many Americans craved during the Depression, but at what cost? These criminals would often lose the trust of their loved ones, their friends, and more often than not, their lives. The code review process made one thing clear: all crime had to go punished.

So while audiences could enjoy and entertain the idea of disrupting the system that was stopping them from achieving material wealth, they could not see this crime to its end. Gangsters and their allies would often meet violent, drawn out deaths; but being gunned down by rival criminals or even the police is not enough. Instead, the PCA preferred ending gangster films with longer scenes that emphasized the depravity of the gangsters’ actions. Some of the most notable films of this era, Scarface and The Public Enemy (Wellman 1931) feature two endings that drastically change the tone of the films. In the case of Scarface, ending one gives its main character the true end for a gangster: gunned down in the street while attempting to escape from the police. However, the Studio Relations Committee called for an ending that explicitly stated the evils this character committed directly to the audience. In The Public Enemy, ending one features a similar end that Scarface does, with the titular gangster dying after a violent shoot out with another gang. But in the PCA approved ending, the gangster is instead visited by his family in the hospital following the shootout. He promises to change his ways once he leaves the hospital, vowing a life away from crime. But he is recaptured by the rival gang and killed anyway, only to be dropped off on his family’s doorstep.

The PCA wanted to label gangster activity and organized crime as “evil” but in the most childish way possible. Changing the endings of gangster films create a clear demarcation from reality for the PCA, and it was one of the many methods they used to distance the audience from the characters on screen. One of the easiest ways to do this was to present the characters on screen as fundamentally different in both action and station from the audience. This was done by giving the characters as radical moral opposites from what the audience believed. While most modern audiences can easily decipher this, the PCA seemed to believe that the general public was too impressionable for its own good. To them, the only logical course of action was to regulate and control as much movie content as possible, lest it negatively influence the American people.

Oddly enough, the PCA makes it a very specific point to ask the filmmakers to make the racketeers as similar to bankers as possible. Throughout the film, the racketeers that Blake is investigating are consistently portrayed in more business-like environments. They often take their meetings in an office setting, giving them an air of professionalism not commonly found within the genre.[vi] Gangsters are kind of like businessmen, but they are rarely presented with the kind of professionalism that they are in Bullets or Ballots. The pinstripe suit has always been a staple of the gangster genre. In Bullets or Ballots, however, the pinstripes are traded in for a professional suit, and the gangsters appear as businessman. To the PCA, this is a much better portrayal than the rough and tumble criminals seen in films like Scarface and The Public Enemy. Here, organized crime and its criminals are reimagined as a fully functional business. While the PCA, and the SRC before it, have always had a clear stance on how crime is presented on screen, it seems strange that the PCA would prefer to show criminals as bankers. Portraying gangsters as suave businessmen should backfire and make them more admirable to audiences.

It is important to remember that Bullets or Ballots was released in 1936, and while the Depression was far from over, Americans could not deny the effects it had had on their perception of bankers. While bankers and businessmen might have been viewed as the pinnacle of material wealth that so many Americans were trying to achieve, by the time Bullets or Ballots was released, that view had flipped drastically. Bankers caused the Depression, and were now villains to the average American citizen. So it would make sense for the PCA to show the gangsters in Bullets or Ballots as bankers rather than criminals.[vii] By showing them as the new antagonists of the Great Depression, the PCA effectively turns the audience against them.

Now the PCA turned its focus back onto the on screen violence.[viii] With the PCA placing such strict limits on what could not be shown on screen, many directors had to find more subtle and artistically imaginative ways to portray the deaths of characters on screen.

Scarface, though it precedes the code, is a fine example of this, considering the long struggle it faced in being released.[ix] A historical retelling of Al Capone rise and fall was sure to hit a few roadblocks with censors on the way to the screen. In response, the filmmakers carefully manipulated the lighting to imply violence where none was allowed to be shown. Even without explicitly depicting the gore on screen, Scarface maintains a grim seriousness throughout, all without showing any blood.[x]

But in Bullets or Ballots, the camerawork is not as creative or evasive as Scarface’s is. Keighley manages to communicate several character deaths throughout the film purely through dialogue. This would lend Bullets or Ballots the seriousness it needs, but perhaps the most damaging change the PCA makes is the removal of visible gunshot wounds.

Minimizing violence in films, specifically that of the gangster film pushes all of the seriousness out of the films and lands them in the realm of cartoonish fantasy. Nowhere in Bullets or Ballots is this more apparent than in the films’ climax. Robinson’s character is fatally shot, but proceeds to stumble his way across the city.[xi] This extended sequence robs the film of whatever believability it might have had up until that point.

This only demonstrates the PCA’s blind spot when it comes censoring violence: the lack of consequence. By not showing the audience what the consequences of shooting someone are, it creates a sense of disbelief in the audience. Revealing a death through dialogue does appease the censors, but it does not have the same impact on the audience. Especially not when the onscreen deaths are played so cartoonishly.

By the time Bullets or Ballots was released, America had been plunged into a terrible economic depression. The dismantling of the American Dream in the face of such hopelessness helped the gangster captivate audiences, drawing viewers in with the material wealth that these criminals always achieved. The perversion of the American Dream in gangster films motivated the PCA to drastically alter Bullets or Ballots. One of the major changes includes portraying the racketeers as businessmen and bankers, the real-life antagonists of the Great Depression. Even though the removal of violence fulfills the PCA’s wishes, it ultimately harms Bullets or Ballots by making the film cartoonish. The link between the American Dream and the censorship of gangster films can link to America’s continued negative view of bankers, especially in light of the recent recession that America experienced.

[i] Susan Hayward, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts (New York, Routledge, 2013), 201.

[ii] John Springhall. “Censoring Hollywood: Youth, Moral Panic and Crime/Gangster Movies of the 1930s.” Journal Of Popular Culture 32, no. 3 (Winter 98 1998): 135. International Bibliography of Theatre & Dance with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed December 13, 2015).

[iii] Joseph I. Breen, Letter to Jack L. Warner, Nov. 30 1935. Bullets or Ballots file. MPAA Production Code Administration Files. Reel 11, Microfilm Collection, History of Cinema, Series 1: Hollywood and the Production Code, Oakland University, Michigan.

[iv] Charles R. Hearn, The American Dream in the Great Depression (Connecticut, Greenwood Press, Inc., 1977), pg 29

[v] Hearn, 1977

[vi] Hayward, 2013

[vii] Joseph I. Breen, Letter to Jack L. Warner, Dec. 20 1935. Bullets or Ballots file. MPAA Production Code Administration Files. Reel 11, Microfilm Collection, History of Cinema, Series 1: Hollywood and the Production Code, Oakland University, Michigan.

[viii]Hayward, 2013

[ix] Springhall, 1998

[x]  Springhall, 1998

[xi] Bullets or Ballots, directed by William Keighley (1936; Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2006), DVD.