HOLLYWOOD’S GOLDEN AGE: THE “BAD” ACTORS

“The gangster film has always been one of the staples of the American cinema. Though the record shows that there were several motion pictures with a gangster theme as far back as the silent era, the genre did not really begin to flourish as a popular form until the thirties. Depression-era audiences responded strongly to all the action, violence and romance that these films contained, and were more than willing to get caught up in the colorful on-screen exploits of Edward G. Robinson,, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. In a sense, the movie gangster, with the rebellious breaking of society’s rules and regulations, and his aggressive drive to “get somewhere” regardless of consequences, became something of a hero to filmgoers of the period.”
“Robinson, Cagney and Bogart are, even today, the three actors most associated with films of this type, which isn’t surprising, since all three achieved their initial fame in a Warner Brothers [the king-of-the-hill gangster film studio] crime drama.”

–Robert Bookbinder, author of CLASSIC GANGSTER FILMS

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There were a lot of “bad actors” in Hollywood in those days. Robinson, Cagney and Bogart weren’t the only famous names to have become famous names playing bad guys in 1930s gangster films, but most (e.g. Peter Lorre) remained typecast as character actors. We will take a look at the “bad character actors” in our next post; this post will look to the stars.

Quoting further from Robert Bookbinder’s excellent book CLASSIC GANGSTER FILMS, “Little Caesar [1931] was the first of the great gangster films. It made a star of Edward G. Robinson, who had been working in films since 1923, and it laid the groundwork for all the fine Warner Brothers gangster movies that followed.” Here’s a clip from the film:

How tough was Edward G. Robinson? Tough enough to get Doris Day and Jack Carson out of a pickle:

Just as Little Caesar made a star of Robinson, Warner Brothers’ second gangster film (later the same year), The Public Enemy, made a star of James Cagney. In this scene, after Cagney’s friend is shot to death by a gang, he vows revenge and arms himself with two 38s:

By 1942, Cagney had made a clean break from the “gangs” — here he is in scenes from his Oscar-winning performance as showman George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy:

As for Humphrey Bogart, he was the last of the three to attain stardom after years of supporting roles in gangster films. In The Roaring Twenties (1939), he is third-billed (Cagney stars):

All three, as we know, went on to bigger (if not badder) things in such films as Double Indemnity (Robinson), Mister Roberts (Cagney), and, of course, Casablanca (Bogart), among many other memorable performances. Who says crime doesn’t pay?

 

14 comments on “HOLLYWOOD’S GOLDEN AGE: THE “BAD” ACTORS

  1. calmkate says:

    violence and crime … not a good mix! But thanks for the trip down memory lane 😎
    John Wayne is the same in every movie … these three could act 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Rivergirl says:

    Growing up I had a life size Bogie poster on my bedroom door. My Godfather grew up and was childhood friends with Jimmy Cagney. Wish he had lived long enough to tell me some stories…
    And did you know tough Edward G was actually an art connoisseur? He amassed an amazing collection in his lifetime recognizing talent before anyone else.

    Liked by 3 people

    • mistermuse says:

      Thank you for that fascinating comment, Rg. I’m guessing your Bogie poster was from a scene in one of his most famous films, like CASABLANCA, MALTESE FALCON, or AFRICAN QUEEN.

      I too would’ve loved to hear your Godfather tell some Cagney stories. As for Edward G., I’ve read his extremely interesting autobiography titled ALL MY YESTERDAYS, so I did know about his art collection. Despite this tough guy image, he was actually “a man of wit, of dignity, and of great sensitivity” (so described by movie producer Hal Wallis, who knew Robinson well).

      Liked by 2 people

      • Rivergirl says:

        Not sure what movie the poster was from. Trench coat, slouched hat, cigarette. Could have been any of them.
        My godfather grew up in a tough section of NYC, I bet the stories were colorful.
        And yes Edward G was the antithesis of his rough and tumble characters. Odd, that.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. masercot says:

    With Bogart as with Lorre, you always felt a little menace from them, even when they were playing benign roles…

    Liked by 3 people

  4. literaryeyes says:

    I loved Peter Lorre. Even when he was at his baddest I couldn’t help chuckling. Great actors who didn’t mind chewing up the scenery. The molls were good too, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, etc.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. James Cagney as gangster can be chilling, especially in “White Heat”, which is one of my fave Cagney performances.

    Yup, I’d say these three are the trifecta of bad guys. Talented actors, all.

    Didn’t Edward G. Robinson once say (and I’m paraphrasing): “Some actors have talent, some have good looks, and I have menace.”

    Liked by 1 person

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