erik lundegaard

Thursday April 08, 2021

Movie Review: The Last Gangster (1937)

WARNING: SPOILERS 

Did Al Capone get a story credit on this? Or a cut of the dough? Because the first half of the movie is basically his story.

Joe Krozac (Edward G. Robinson) is a Prohibition-era gangster who is as charming with the press as he is ruthless with his rivals. When the cops can’t tie him to a Saint Valentine’s Day-like massacre of the three Kyle brothers, they bring in the feds to bust him on tax evasion charges. Capone got 11 years for that, Krozac 10. Capone was sent to Atlanta U.S. Penitentiary and then Alcatraz shortly after it opened in 1934; Krozac is sent straight to Alcatraz (anachronistically: it wasn’t open in 1927). In prison, Capone was bullied(!) and wound up being protected by a former associate; Krozac is bullied (by John Carradine, good in a small role), and protected by a former associate. Capone suffered cocaine withdrawal and cognitive difficulties from neurosyphilis; Krozac suffers because his wife, Tayla (Rose Stradner), takes their newborn son and leaves him.

After that, “The Last Gangster” diverges from Capone’s story simply because Capone was still in prison when the movie was made in 1937. Screenwriters had to make up the rest. They had to work for a living.

Jimmy Stewart, ass
This is MGM, by the way, not Warner Bros., and I’m curious if the moralists there wanted to play up the “crime don’t pay” angle; because they make Krozac suffer. Like really, really suffer. After he does time, he’s met by his right-hand man Curly (Lionel Stander), who convinces him to get back in the rackets before going after his wife and kid. Except it’s a trap. At the hideout, the gang wants to know where he stashed the extra loot from back in the day. First they disrespect him, then they beat him, then they torture him. They make him walk back and forth in a small room for 10 hours. They dangle a glass of water before him and then drop it. They take out rubber truncheons. None of this works. So they kidnap his now 10-year-old son, Junior (Douglas Scott), and threaten to torture him. And that’s what finally does it.

Here’s the thing: if they were trying to show that “crime doesn’t pay,” and “Hey, don’t be like this guy,” it kind of backfired. At the least, it makes us sympathize with Krozac. He becomes our guy.

Plus the upstanding citizens are the usual dull assholes. 

The wife is OK. She’s from the same Eastern European city Krozac is, doesn’t speak much English, doesn’t know he’s a gangster until too late. She’s an innocent. But the second lead? Paul North, a reporter, played by MGM’s then-rising star Jimmy Stewart? What an asshole. When Tayla and her baby are hounded by the press outside Alcatraz, North is the worst of them: He places a toy gun on top of the swaddled baby for a tabloid photo-op accompanied by the headline PUBLIC ENEMY JR. And when she goes to the newspaper to complain, his editor continues to condemn her and the child—"sins of the father” stuff—while North gleefully takes down her words. It’s only when she begins to cry that he gets that Jimmy Stewart look of guilt and solicitousness and becomes the Jimmy Stewart we all know and love. Then he quits his job, takes her away, marries her and raises the kid as his own. He becomes an editor himself and grows one of those William Powell moustaches. But for me he never recovers from the original sin of being an asshole.

Krozac’s post-prison plan was to kill his ex and take the boy. But after the kidnapping, on their long trek back in the rain and the cold, the boy demonstrates such scouting skills and toughness, learned from the step-dad, that Krozac decides the kid’s better off with them. So delivers the kid and walks away. His reward? The fourth Kyle brother, Frankie (Alan Baxter), who’s shown up periodically promising revenge, shows up outside the North house, leads him into a back alley, and shoots him dead. And sure, Krozac manages to get the gun and kill Frankie before dying himself, and meanwhile the old Krozac gang get theirs off-stage in a shootout with the cops, so all the crooks are taken care of. But that’s still some cold-blooded shit to play on our guy, MGM.

How sad that a studio makes a movie basically about Al Capone and they come off as the villains.

Mother of mercy
The woman who plays Krozac’s wife, Rose Stradner, is a sad story. Born in Austria, she was signed by MGM to be another of their exotic beauties like Hedy Lamarr, but she wasn’t that beautiful, her career didn’t take off, and then she married Joseph Mankiewicz, younger brother of “Mank,” and writer-director of such great films as “All About Eve.” While he rose, she stayed home, became depressed, drank. In 1958, she killed herself. She was 45.

The best MGM touch is the title credits. This is a ‘ripped from the headlines” story so that’s what the credits are: newspaper headlines. They look good. The movie was directed by Edward Ludwig, whom I only know from John Wayne’s HUAC-friendly “Big Jim McLain.” I’m sure he’s done better. (He has. His highest-rated via IMDb is “Let’s Be Ritzy” from 1934. This one is his fifth-best, supposedly; “Big Jim” is near the bottom.)

Robinson became a star a few months before James Cagney, both with Warner Bros. gangster flicks, but Robinson kept returning to the genre way more than Cagney. Because he didn’t object to it the way Cagney did? He wasn’t hard to handle like Cagney? Robinson did all the iterations. He played the gangster as Greek gambler (“Smart Money”), as Chinese assassin (“Hatchet Man”), as condemned man (“Two Seconds”), as intellectual (“The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse”) and as monk (“Brother Orchid”). He played a dual role: meek accountant and murderer (“The Whole Town’s Talking”). Twice he played a ’20s gangster comically adapting to the post-Prohibition era (“The Little Giant” and “A Slight Case of Murder”). That’s just up to 1940. They call this one “The Last Gangster” but we know that's a lie. As long as gangsters sell tickets, it’ll never be the end of Rico.

Posted at 07:07 AM on Thursday April 08, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s  
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Twitter: @ErikLundegaard

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