Movies before and during Prohibition were very influential. Interestingly, the movies changed their position and stand on issues during this time period. In the years before Prohibition they were generally seen as supportive of the temperance cause. However, by the end of the 1920s they were seen as supportive of the “wet” values in the society.
During the early years, the movies were viewed as an alternative to the saloon. In Chicago it was estimated that movies cut in half the business going to saloons. A British committee gathered information that supported the movies as an alternative attraction to drinking in pubs. A conclusion from this study indicated that many men preferred the movies over the pubs.
In 1916 there were 21,000 movie theatres in the United States. The number of people who attended movies doubled in the last half of the 1920’s. Movies in the 1920’s and 1930’s were seen to be as influential as television is today. In 1928 a series of 12 studies were made on the impact of movies on children. These studies noted the “influence of the screen upon manners, dress, codes and matters of romance”. Movies definitely had the potential and did influence and affect the way people acted and thought.
Temperance groups put pressure on the movie industry. In 1926, Will Hays, the President of the film industry’s office of self-regulation announced an industry policy forbidding shots of “drinking scenes, manufacture or sale of liquor or undue effects of liquor which are not necessary part of the story or an essential element in the building up of the plot.” These policies were not very effective. An analysis of 115 films released in 1929-1931 found that 43% of the heroes were shown drinking, while only 13% of the villains drank. A different review of 33 films from 1932 found that drinking was portrayed positively 3 times as often as negatively. Finally, “wet” stories outnumbered “dry” stories by at least 4:1 in newsreel stories in 1931-32.
There were many messages in the movies during this time. On the negative side, drinking and drunkenness “implied moral dissolution, ill-health and despair.” However, there were positive messages about drinking, too. In films, drinking was often associated with luxury, sophistication, and being the life of the party. Drinking by college students at the time was viewed as breaking away from the moral codes of the times.
A discussion of movies during Prohibition would not be complete without discussing gangster films during this time. These new crime films were different in that they showed ethnic characters pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, although through illegal activities.
Many people were disturbed by the popularity of the gangster films and the violence they showed. The Hays code stated “crime will be shown to be wrong and that the criminal life will be loathed and that the law will at all times prevail.” “Villains could not be protagonists, and at the end, they had to be dead or in jail.” The “Hays Code” did not approve of films that supported crimes committed by gangsters and it also did not support extreme violence or revenge in films. It also forbid showing the detailed steps in committing a crime. The “Hays Code” was supported by the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and all producers agreed to not distribute a film without the MPPDA’s approval rating.
One popular gangster film was Little Caesar in 1930 staring Edward G. Robinson. “The movie was so successful that Hollywood made more than 50 gangster movies the following year.” In 1931, The Public Enemy was introduced staring James Cagney as the gangster Tommy Powers. The movie had a controversial ending in which Powers is killed by rival gangsters not the police. Some viewed this as “the deterioration of law enforcement and the government.” Warner Brothers was concerned about the ending and included this message at the end of the movie: “The end of Tom Powers is the end of every hoodlum. The Public Enemy is not a man, it is not a character, it is a problem we must all face.” Both of these films from Warner Brothers also included a similar disclaimer at the beginning of the movie:
IT IS THE AMBITION OF THE AUTHORS OF “THE PUBLIC ENEMY” TO HONESTLY DEPICT AN ENVIRONMENT THAT EXISTS TODAY IN A CERTAIN STRATA OF AMERICAN LIFE. RATHER THAN TO GLORIFY THE HOODLUM OR THE CRIMINAL
WHILE THE STORY OF “THE PUBLIC ENEMY” IS ESSENTIALLY A TRUE STORY, ALL NAMES AND CHARACTERS APPEARING HEREIN, ARE PURELY FICTIONAL.
In 1932 one of the most violent films was introduced, Scarface starring Paul Muni as Tony Camonte. The movie depicted 43 murders the Motion Picture Production Code did not give its seal of approval. With some minor changes, it was released anyway.
In 1935 the movie G-men the first film about the FBI staring James Cagney as Special Agent Brick Davis. Previously Cagney had starred as a gangster in “Public Enemy”. This time Cagney was working on the side of the government to combat against organized crime. The film was so successful that 6 more films like this were created. However, these films were just as violent as the gangster films and with some pressure from the British Board of Censors in late 1935, Hollywood stopped making films with gangster characters for the next couple of years.
This site was last updated 04/14/05