10 great Hollywood gangster films of the 1930s

As the James Cagney classic The Roaring Twenties arrives on 4K UHD and Blu-ray, we remember Hollywood’s great decade of street-smart hoodlums and censor-baiting violence.

7 March 2024

By Matthew Thrift

The Roaring Twenties (1939) © Criterion

In the 1930s, Will Hays had his hands full. He’d held his position as chairman of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America since 1922. The organisation had been established to improve Hollywood’s reputation in the eyes of the general public following a spate of high-profile scandals. At the height of the Depression, only one thing sold a newspaper better than tales of Movieland degeneracy, and that was gangsters.

The deeply conservative Hays had little time for either, especially when studio bosses caught on to the public’s appetite for tough-talking tales from the American underworld. Under pressure from Catholic groups who would soon unite under the banner ‘The National Legion of Decency,’ Hays instituted what would interchangeably become known as the ‘Production Code’ or the ‘Hays Code.’ “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it,” read its first principle. “The sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin,” it continued. When the code was first implemented – but hardly enforced – in 1930, the studios ran rings around it, with one in particular leading the charge.

Warner Brothers were synonymous with their ripped-from-the-headlines production style. They “could take a headline in a paper and make a picture faster than anyone in the business,” said director William ‘Wild Bill’ Wellman. With stories of Al Capone, John Dillinger and Charles ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd gulping down ink on printing presses across America, Warner Bros were soon eviscerating the boundaries of social decency with their violent tales of street-smart hoodlums and fallen women. Soon, every film-producing joint in town wanted in on the gangster game, and a host of stars were born in the likes of James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart.

Throughout the early 30s, studios would get their scripts approved by the censors, and then shoot what they pleased. Warner Brothers, in particular, were notorious for ignoring the guidance of the code. In 1934, Hays and his bulldog Joseph Breen tightened the noose, requiring all finished films to apply for a certificate of approval before they could be released. A golden age of cinematic immorality known as the ‘pre-code’ era was over, done in by the gangster movie and its licentious associates.

The genre persisted, even as filmmakers had to come up with creative methods to circumvent the censor’s keen eye for “vulgarity”. Here are 10 of the best American gangster films from the decade in which Hollywood took the Production Code for a ride – all the way to the bank.

The Doorway to Hell (1930)

Director: Archie Mayo

The Doorway to Hell (1930)

While Warner Brothers would become synonymous with the gangster film in the 1930s, it was Paramount who lit a fire under the genre with Josef von Sternberg’s hugely successful – and Oscar-winning – silent crime drama, Underworld (1927). Warners swiftly answered back with Lights of New York (1928), the first full talkie, but it would take a few more years for the screen hoodlum to reach his archetypal ideal.

The Doorway to Hell finds genre tropes still in embryo. James Cagney is present and correct, but he’s playing second fiddle to Lew Ayres’ “Napoleon of the underworld” Louie Ricarno, a beer racketeer “with a few murders on the side”. It’s an influential picture, not least on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III (1990). Coppola doesn’t just lift the bones of the story – a mob boss trying to go straight is drawn back into the fold when his kid brother is killed – but also wholesale set pieces. The later film’s helicopter attack finds its roots here, as a convention of mob bosses are muscled by the reveal of tommy-gun wielding thugs perched behind blinds on the room’s window ledges.

Little Caesar (1931)

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Little Caesar (1931)

With a rise and fall narrative that would typify the genre for years to come, Little Caesar is often cited as the film that saw the gangster movie ripen. For Warner Brothers, it was considered a risk. Like most studios, they were averse to trying out dark material just as the Depression was beginning to get its claws into the American population.

If the film can’t quite shake the limitations inherent to the early wave of talking pictures, it holds a vital, live-wire ace in its leading man. Born in Romania, Edward G. Robinson was a New York stage actor with a handful of screen performances under his belt. Initially given a small part in Little Caesar, he talked his way into the lead, stealing the star-making title role from under the nose – or rather the ears, which Jack Warner thought were too big – of Clark Gable. As the vain and ambitious Rico, Robinson was quickly dubbed the “First Gangster of Filmland,” while LeRoy’s direction makes a remorseless mockery of Production Code protocols.

City Streets (1931)

Director: Rouben Mamoulian

City Streets (1931)

It’s testament to the success of the burgeoning genre that even films which couldn’t be called gangster movies in the conventional sense chose to set their stories in its popular milieu. This second film by the great Georgian émigré filmmaker Rouben Mamoulian doesn’t want for bootleggers and amoral mob bosses, but it’s really a love story at heart.

Adapted from a tale by Dashiell Hammett, City Streets casts Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sidney as its young lovers on the make. He’s a naive fairground showman; she’s the ambitious daughter of a booze racketeer, who soon takes the rap for a murder orchestrated by her callous old man.

Heaving with symbolism – shots of caged birds recur throughout – it stands alongside the earlier Applause (1929) as one of Mamoulian’s most expressionistic pictures. Were it not for the happy ending, City Streets could almost be a proto-noir à la Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937). With dialogue at a minimum, the sequence following the murder – in which Sidney has to dispose of her dad’s gun – is pure cinema.

The Public Enemy (1931)

Director: William A. Wellman

The Public Enemy (1931)

“I’ll make the roughest, toughest, goddamn one of them all!” screamed director William A. Wellman when Darryl Zanuck wondered whether it was a good idea to make another gangster film so soon after Little Caesar. The production chief quickly got on board. The Public Enemy was a film like no other, and it seemed to have an effect on people. Chris Yogerst’s 2023 studio biography The Warner Brothers tells of Zanuck’s reaction when director Michael Curtiz questioned the film’s brutal ending: “[he] hauled off, knocked the cigar right down [Curtiz’s] throat,” recalled Wellman.

It was the film that made James Cagney a star, but one that had feminist groups – and Will Hays – up in arms at its antihero’s grapefruit-wielding antics. Nearly a hundred years later, The Public Enemy still roars with vitality – all thanks to Cagney and Wellman’s feral energy. Drawing a link between a life of crime and a climate of social disenfranchisement, it’s the picture that firmly established the genre template. Ripping the gangster from the headlines, The Public Enemy casts him squarely into the realms of myth.

Scarface (1932)

Directors: Howard Hawks, Richard Rosson

Scarface (1932)

“Screw the Hays Office, make it as realistic, and grisly as possible,” said producer Howard Hughes to director Howard Hawks as work began on what would become “one of the most highly censored films in Hollywood history”. With its hail of bullets and incestuous fluster, no film gave Will Hays conniptions quite like Scarface. Loosely based on the life of Al Capone, Hawks’ masterpiece underwent a series of cuts and re-shoots ahead of its release. A prologue insisted that “this picture is an indictment of gang rule in America,” while a mandated title change led to Scarface, Shame of a Nation.

If the added scenes – such as a newspaperman expressing outrage at the gangland goings-on – stick out like a sore thumb, it’s because Hawks revels in the saturnalian exhilaration of his characters’ amorality. An irrepressible study in perverted innocence, there’s little perspective here outside that of the mobsters’ antics, and their childlike glee towards the violence they unleash. It may end in tragedy, but not for nothing does the critic Robin Wood group Scarface alongside Hawks’ comedies in his seminal study on the filmmaker.

The Little Giant (1933)

Director: Roy Del Ruth

The Little Giant (1933)

“It’s all over boys, we’re washed up,” notes Edward G. Robinson’s mobster Bugs Ahearn when Prohibition is repealed after 12 years. Selling off his breweries and Tommy guns, and paying off his girl, Bugs sets his mind to bigger things: “I’m gonna mingle with the upper classes. I’m gonna be a gentleman.”

And so begins the comedy of manners in this delightful class satire from director Roy Del Ruth. Heading out west, the reformed gangster settles in among the California leisure set. Determined to get himself “some culture,” he’s soon buying art by the foot, trying his hand at polo, and ordering his food in French.

It’s a quick-witted fish-out-of-water tale, with a doozy of an ending in which the mob descend on high society to settle their differences “the Chicago way.” Cue a polo match in which the bullets fly. But it’s also a sharp meta-text for the aspirations of Robinson himself, who by 1933 was already desperate to escape the Little Caesar typecasting that would doggedly pursue him through the decade.

‘G’ Men (1935)

Director: William Keighley

‘G’ Men (1935)

In the summer of 1934, the bank robber John Dillinger’s love for actor Myrna Loy had drawn him out to see her new gangster picture, Manhattan Melodrama. The film was literally the death of him. Leaving Chicago’s Biograph Theater, he was shot and killed. Cut to October, and the same FBI task force that wiped out Dillinger took down Pretty Boy Floyd. These government agents – or ‘G’ Men – became national heroes. For Hollywood, it was a no-brainer: why risk the wrath of Joseph Breen and his newly enforced Production Code with more gangster films, when they could make movies about the lawmen on their tail?

“It’s the daddy of all FBI pictures,” says the instructor about to show William Keighley’s 1935 film ‘G’ Men to a roomful of new recruits in a prologue filmed especially for the film’s 1949 re-release, which coincided with the 25th anniversary of the agency. The film was Warner Brothers’ bid for atonement after half a decade of gangster glam, and an opportunity for James Cagney – here playing a mob-lawyer-turned-fed – to shed his hoodlum image. J. Edgar Hoover denied his approval publicly, but – perhaps unsurprisingly – was allegedly a fan of a film that characterised his agents as “a dreaded underworld whisper” armed, not with guns, but with “truth, drive, and vitality”.

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Director: Michael Curtiz

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

To see the effects the Production Code had on the gangster film in the years after 1934, one only need turn to this big-budget beauty from Warner Brothers stalwart Michael Curtiz. James Cagney returned to the studio having settled a contract dispute to play Rocky Sullivan, a career criminal not long out of the can, who arrives back in his childhood neighbourhood intent on picking up where he left off. Pat O’Brien plays his best pal, a reformed hoodlum turned priest, while Humphrey Bogart – in a terrific early role – is the weaselly lawyer for whom Cagney took the rap.

It’s a film about atonement, and one of the few pictures that was allowed to let its antihero find spiritual redemption. A morality play whose social messaging follows the edicts of the Code to the letter, the film’s resolution hinges on the influence Cagney’s gangster lifestyle has on a group of wayward slum kids. But it’s also a piercingly moving examination of brotherhood, loyalty and friendship, exquisitely mounted by Curtiz – one of the great studio filmmakers of his, or any, era. His orchestration of the climactic sequence still astounds, and as O’Brien leads the kids on a heavenly ascent in the final shot, the film transcends sentimentality to shake hands with the divine.

Thugs with Dirty Mugs (1939)

Director: Tex Avery

Thugs with Dirty Mugs (1939)

It’s a dog’s life for hoodlums and coppers alike in this 8-minute lampoon of the gangster movie from iconoclastic animator Tex Avery; a testament to how deeply the tropes of the genre were embedded in the public consciousness by the end of the 1930s.

“Say folks, I kinda sound like Eddie Robinson, huh?” says Killer Diller, a bulldog who’s the spit of the gangland icon. Killer and his gang are knocking off banks by the dozen, turning them into fruit machines that spill their cash straight out the door. “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m gonna pin this on ya,” snarls Flat-Foot Flanigan, chief of police, from the shadows, before the cut reveals he’s blindfolded, playing a game of pin the tail on the donkey.

Avery’s formal shenanigans – and incredible eye for dynamic compositions – come thick and fast, as characters reach across the boundaries of the split-screen, and chastise audience members attempting to leave the theatre. But even cartoons can’t escape the imperatives of the Code. This one ends with Killer locked up, writing “I’ve been a naughty boy” over and over on the blackboard that lines his cell.

The Roaring Twenties (1939)

Director: Raoul Walsh

The Roaring Twenties (1939)
© Criterion

Raoul Walsh had skin in the gangster game, delivering one of the earliest feature-length examples of the genre with Regeneration, all the way back in 1915. So it’s fitting that he would be called upon to write its elegy with The Roaring Twenties, an epic chronicle of the Prohibition era that reunited James Cagney with Humphrey Bogart a year after Angels with Dirty Faces, and the film that brought the golden age of the gangster movie to a close.

If it’s easy to see why Curtiz-disciple Steven Spielberg was such a fan of the earlier film, it’s even easier to catch the influence of Walsh’s barrelling dynamism on Martin Scorsese here. Spanning 16 years from the trenches of the First World War to the end of its titular decade, it’s a tragedy that eviscerates the postwar promise of the American Dream. Profoundly influential, the film boasts one of the great endings of the 1930s cycle, as Cagney’s war-hero-turned-bootlegger collapses on the steps of a church, cradled by Gladys George in an iconic pietà – once again lifted by Coppola for the end of The Godfather Part III. For the Hollywood gangster, infamy always has a price, spelled out by George in her immortal final line: “This is Eddie Bartlett. He used to be a big shot.”

The Roaring Twenties is out on 4K UHD and Blu-ray from Criterion UK on 11 March.