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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Wise Guys, Part 1 (originally published 9/99)

From the very beginning, the American film industry has crossed paths with organized crime in interesting ways. Before 1910, when the fledgling industry was still emerging, the companies who held the patents on motion picture camera equipment learned that other companies were competing with them by building their own cameras in direct violation of those patents. They filed suit, of course, but lawsuits take time. Meanwhile, the outlaw filmmakers continued to rake in box office receipts that the patent holders believed to be rightfully theirs. Impatient with the legal system, the patent owners cut through the red tape through the simple expedient of hiring gangsters to put a stop to the operations of their rivals by any means necessary.

Later, as the industry became a more settled and civilized enterprise, Hollywood continued to maintain a measure of contact with mobsters. The most successful gangsters, after all, thought of themselves, with some justification, as glamorous public figures. Some of them, relishing the media attention they were receiving, consciously sought out and attempted to hobnob with movie stars, whom they perceived as their peers in the public eye.

Given this history of intersection between the movie industry and the mob, and given the public's perennial fascination with organized crime, it is certainly not surprising that Hollywood has made hundreds of movies about gangsters over the years. In the main, such films have been dramatic stories loaded with action. Occasionally, however, Hollywood pokes a little fun at the gangster stereotype it has helped to create, as was the case in the recently released "Analyze This" and the currently playing "Mickey Blue Eyes." For a sampling of earlier comedies revolving around gangsters, look for these titles on home video.

"The Whole Town's Talking" (1935). Just five years after creating the definitive gangster portrayal in "Little Caesar" (1930), Edward G. Robinson was already parodying himself. In this comedy of errors, he plays both Killer Mannion, a vicious mob boss who has recently escaped from prison, and Arthur Ferguson, a mild mannered clerk who happens to look just like Mannion. Shortly after Mannion's escape, timid Arthur is arrested. When the mistake is discovered, Arthur is given an identity card to prevent the same fiasco from occurring again. In the meantime, however, the whole incident has made the papers. Mannion, reading about the mixup, reasons that all he has to do is pay a call on Arthur and confiscate the card in order to move about freely.

"Never a Dull Moment" (1968). Some thirty years later, Robinson was still willing to dust off his gangster image and subject it to a comedic treatment. This Walt Disney picture stars Dick Van Dyke as Jack Albany, an out of work actor who is mistaken for a hired gun by Robinson's character, a gangster named Leo Smooth. Despite his protestations that they have the wrong guy, Jack soon finds himself mixed up in a scheme to rob an art museum.

"Johnny Stecchino" (1991). It should be noted that Hollywood filmmakers aren't the only ones who poke fun at the gangster stereotype. Long before his triumph at the Academy Awards with "Life is Beautiful," Roberto Benigni was convulsing international audiences with his portrayal of a mild mannered bus driver who is mistaken for a notorious gangster. Dante, the bus driver (Benigni), is a dead ringer for Johnny Stecchino (also Benigni). When Johnny's wife, Maria, discovers this startling resemblance, she hatches a plot to use the hapless Dante to rid Johnny of the hit men who are after him. By pretending to be attracted to the mousy Dante, Maria is able to persuade him to escort her to various public functions, where he will be a sitting duck for the assassins who are after Johnny. Maria is hoping that they will bump off Dante in Johnny's place. Then, with the hit men satisfied that they've completed their assignment successfully, the heat will be off Johnny.

By now you're probably wondering if every gangster comedy is built around a mistaken identity plot. To be sure, the notion of an ordinary fellow being mistaken for a mobster is a favorite conceit, but it certainly isn't the only way to poke fun at the mob. Next week we'll take a look at some of the other variations on the gangster satire theme.

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