Class and Organized Crime in the Era of the Production Code: An Analysis of the Portrayals of White vs. Blue Collar Crime in Gangster Films

In the 1930s, the gangster flick ruled the movie theaters of America – however, only thanks to the films’ strenuous journey through the Production Code review process. A set collection of rules and regulations concerning what could and could not be portrayed on screen or implied through the cinematography or writing scenes or characterization of characters, the Production Code greatly influenced the way that organized crime and violence were portrayed in films during its reign. For instance, murder was something the Code was designed to make studios approach the topic in a way that would not “inspire imitation,” or cause audience members to get the idea that might be capable of executing brutal killings as well.[1] This fear of portraying something on screen that viewers might imitate most likely stemmed in part from the Payne Fund Studies conducted in the late 1920s and early 1930s, looking into the impact of films on the behavior of children in juvenile-correction centers, male graduate students and their wives, and young college professors.[2] This study drove the Hays Office (also known as the Production Code Association) to enforce their regulations on films of the 1930s and into the mid-1940s in such a way that would not provoke viewers to imitate the behavior they had seen on screen.

I feel that in particular, two gangster films from the 1930s that best encapsulate the way the Code influenced these portrayals of organized crime and violence are the classic films Scarface (1932) and Bullets or Ballots (1936). In the scope of this essay, I plan to analyze the way that the Production Code portrayed crime onscreen during the height of its reign in Hollywood, and how this portrayal created an ideology for the public to believe that crime was only something that a small percentage of the population was capable of – or predetermined to – commit, by looking into the ways crime and violence were portrayed in the two films aforementioned above. In making the public believe that crime and violence are only things specific groups or niches of people are capable of committing, the Hays Office alleviate the fear of the notion that viewers might try and mimic behaviors seen on the movie-screens – the Code was enforced in just a way to specifically do so, and hence greatly influenced the portrayal of gangsters and organized criminal activity.

Bullets or Ballots, in particular, is a film that perfectly encapsulates the way in which the Production Code attempted to change the way viewers perceived violence on screen. The film follows ex-investigating detective Johnny Blake who goes undercover and infiltrates a ‘numbers’ crime ring in order to try and bust the gang leader, Al Kruger for the murder of an anti-crime advocate. Jonny acts as a gangster ‘numbers man’ trying to work his way up in Kruger’s organization and in the end, working together with the police force, busts the whole criminal circle. In the Production Code review files, most of the suggestions made to the filmmakers from the Hays office are requests to remove violence, reduce the amount of violence, or alter the way the actual acts of violence are shown on screen. In one of the early letters to J. L. Warner from Joseph Breen, Breen advises that many scenes be “handled carefully” so as not to show too much brutality.[3] On many occasions, the actual murders of certain characters by others were requested to be either removed or revised in a way that would not show the actual killing on screen. In the final letter between Warner and Breen during the Code review process, Breen goes so far as to say that although the film would finally be able to receive the Production Code Certificate of Approval, he expected that Warner would delete two scenes from the final print that depicted the character Fenner shooting and killing two people.[4] This in itself is clear evidence of the way that the Production Code was put in action to try and alter the way that the audience would perceive this violence. Especially after the Payne Fund Studies were released, the Hays office was extremely cautious about putting out films that were explicitly showing violence, as there was a great fear of viewers ‘mimicking’ the behavior exhibited on the big screen.[5] Should the ‘mimicking’ of the violence on screen be done by movie-goers, just everyday citizens of any age, sex, or class, there would be a mass outbreak of chaos and the distributors of the films would be the first to blame – this was the kind of logic that had originally help cause the code to be put in place.

Still, the Code could not possibly bar all violence from all of their films, like Bullets or Ballots – gangster films were extremely popular and putting out popular films meant the studios were getting money, so the Production Code had to find a way to accommodate the work the studios were submitting to them. Many of the “underworld themes” portrayed in these gangster films were blatantly breaking Production Code regulations, like “material dealing with criminal gangs and their connections with the shadier reaches of business and politics–” these were all things that the Hays Office was trying not to (more or less) advertise to the general public.[6]  After analyzing the PCA review files for Bullets or Ballots, I came to realize that the Code (while still limiting the actual acts of violence on screen) was portraying violence in a way that made it appear as though only a minute group of people was even capable of the kind of behavior that they did not want viewers to mimic. That way, there would be a clear divide to the viewers between who was capable of committing crimes and who was not – the fewer and more specified the group of people who were committing crimes in films were, the less likely the general public will be able to identify with them and gain the notion that they may be capable of the same things.

Specifically, in Bullets or Ballots, the crime in the film is portrayed as what one could consider “white-collar crime.” All of the criminals in the film are “suave, well dressed, well-spoken crooks,” meaning that they were more or less upper class “numbers” men – this being in the upper class and having a certain type of intelligence sets them apart from the general public and makes their ranks much more exclusive than the typical American man who might go to see this film.[7] The fact that these criminals are firmly rooted in the upper class and are in a crime game that is centered around “knowing the numbers” and being able to navigate the ins and outs of the upper class and charming one’s way to the top greatly glorifies the idea of this kind of crime – it is surely the fantasy of many middle to lower class movie-goers to be as cool and rich and law-evasive as the criminals portrayed in Bullets or Ballots, but this is exactly why they are portrayed that way: they are a viewer’s fantasy – something that is not real and thus not possible for them (the viewers) to achieve or even attempt to do. This ‘white-collar crime’ is glorified as the smart, rich man’s crime but the Code allows this because the Hays office knew that because it would be perceived as something more of a fantasy to viewers than a reality, perceived as something only super-rich, smart elites of the social upper class could do, no movie-goers would think to try to do what the criminals in Bullets or Ballots were doing simply because they were not the average American; if the viewers were watching people of their own class/intelligence behave that way they might get the notion that they could too, but because of this class divide, the group of people that could potentially walk away after watching this film thinking they might also be capable of involvement with criminal activity is marginally smaller.

Not only did the Hays Office use the portrayal of white-collar crime to deter viewers from potentially believing that they too could be criminals, but it also allowed the portrayal of blue-collar crime in order to do the same – minimize the number of viewers who would walk away from the film with the idea that the average American could become successful criminals. This is most prevalent in the 1932 gangster film Scarface, directed by Howard Hawks. The film follows Tony Camonte, an Italian immigrant who works as a deadly hitman for the gang leader Johnny Lovo, killing whomever he is instructed to in order to gain control of Chicago’s South Side so that the gang can sell illegal alcohol to different speakeasies. As the film goes on, Tony works (more like, kills) his way to the top and eventually takes Johnny’s place at the top of the pecking order, but eventually meets his downfall after murdering his best friend Guino and is apprehended by a legion of police – Tony is shot and dies in the gutter of the street.

Scarface is one of the most iconic gangster films to emerge from the 1930s but in the scope of this analysis, it is the way that crime was portrayed in the film that makes it so significant. Tony is not the average American man: he is a lower-class immigrant who is uneducated and comes from nothing in terms of wealth. The violent crimes he commits are dirty, gritty, and unpleasant – this is blue-collar crime, having to go out and do morbid, horrible tasks to get to where one wants to be. This emphasis on his class puts him in a smaller grouping of people who might relate him, which makes the number of viewers who might potentially relate marginally smaller. In part because the background he comes from denotes that his only option was to go into crime to make money, and because the blue-collar crime is not an attractive concept, the Code portrayed the criminal activity and violence on screen in a way that alleviated the fear of movie-goers “mimicking” the behavior exhibited in the film, at least more so than had it been portrayed differently.

When analyzing the way that blue-collar crime was portrayed in Scarface and the way that white-collar crime was portrayed in Bullets or Ballots, it is easy to see exactly how the Production Code was put in place to show crime and violence on screen in such a way that would discourage viewers from mimicking the behaviors they had seen. By making the criminals in both films part of the high end of the upper class and the low end of the lower class, the viewers that might have seen either of the films would understand early on that the criminals on screen were not the average men – they were super intelligent “numbers” men, or they were dirt poor uneducated immigrants with a nasty killing streak. In portraying the crime and violence by being committed by a nearly unrelatable group of people (at least to the common audience in the theaters, who were mainly middle class citizens), the Production Code was put into place exactly so that there would be little or no risk of movie-goes imitating or “mimicking” the criminal activity and violence they had seen in the films.

While some might argue that the portrayal of crime and violence were not so heavily influenced by the Code at least in terms of social class, I would refute with the point that both films had some form of opening or closing “calls to action” that would literally read on the screen that the criminal activities performed both films were potentially based on real events and that the criminals in them were the most deplorable and terrible of people in the country. In including this within both films, the audience already is beginning to watch the film or leaving the theater with a set notion that the criminals in both of them are anomalies and that it is the viewers’ responsibility to keep their communities from dealing with the trauma and chaos those terrible men would cause. This explicit alienation of the criminals as American people – when paired with the intense differences in social class in comparison to the average movie-goer – made for the perfect solution to the Hays Office fear of viewers mimicking the criminal behavior in their gangster films.

In a way, I cannot help but wonder if these portrayals of white and blue-collar crime had any effect on the tensions resting among America’s social classes at the time of these films’ releases – or if it contributed to any of the tensions between the social classes today. When there is a clear stigma placed on certain groups of people (usually it is the lower class that is marginalized much more often than the upper class – this is basically always the case) especially when it is in the popular media and culture, it can be extremely harmful to that group and can cause them to be alienated by the rest of the population. Just by looking at the way that crime was portrayed on screen gives insight on the stigmas placed on both the white and blue collar communities respectively. In Bullets or Ballots, white collar crime is portrayed as some kind of high-end criminal activity, where the men must be educated and intelligent in order to navigate the confusing “numbers” game. In Scarface, blue collar crime is portrayed as gritty, dirty, and only done by those who are more or less predetermined to be criminals by their background. From this I feel we can see the clear associations the portrays would have with people in those classes, although the films are about criminals and not every person in either class is necessarily a criminal at all – I think there could be a correlation between the way they were seen on screen and the way the classes are viewed in reality. Perhaps we underestimate the impact of the way classes are portrayed on screen, and the way that it affects the real world, and even our world today. Hopefully, in the future, we can find a balance between portrayals of violence and crime that do not incite imitation, without placing a stigma on the backs of the social classes.

[1] Richard Maltby, Documents on the Genesis of the Production Code, PDF, Harwood Academic Publishers GmbH, 1995, Pg.53.

[2] Toby Miller, “Cosmic Ambivalence: Academia’s Relationship to the Popular,” Palabra – Clave 20, no. 2, June 1, 2017, 312–315. http://search.proquest.com/docview/1904702895/.

[3] Joseph I. Breen, Letter to J. L. Warner, February 5, 1936, MPAA Production Code Administration Files, Reel 11, Microfilm Collection, History of Cinema, Series 1: Hollywood and the Production Code, Oakland University, Michigan.

[4] Joseph I. Breen, Letter to J. L. Warner, May 6, 1936, MPAA Production Code Administration Files, Reel 11, Microfilm Collection, History of Cinema, Series 1: Hollywood and the Production Code, Oakland University, Michigan.

[5] Toby Miller, “Cosmic Ambivalence: Academia’s Relationship to the Popular,” Palabra – Clave 20, no. 2, June 1, 2017, 312–315. http://search.proquest.com/docview/1904702895/.

[6] Nick Heffernan, “Slum Plays, Salvation Stories, and Crook Pictures: The Gangster Regeneration Cycle and the Prehistory of the Gangster Genre,” Film History: An International Journal 29, no. 2, 2017, 32–65, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/665383.

[7] Synopsis of Bullets or Ballots, Memorandum to Warner Bros, January 8, 1936, MPAA Production Code Administration Files, Reel 11, Microfilm Collection, History of Cinema, Series 1: Hollywood and the Production Code, Oakland University, Michigan.