Posted by Richard Harland Smith on January 18, 2013
To my way of thinking there is no more cinematic an automatic weapon than the Thompson submachine gun. More than half of the association, for me, is the construction — that cylindrical magazine looks like a film canister and the distinctive rat-a-tat-tat of the of the Tommy gun’s report like the rattle of film threading its way through a projector — but it also has to do with the fact that gangster films, spawned as they were by Prohibition and allowing the Thompson its feature film debut, were one of the vehicles bridging the silent and sound eras.
To hear SCARFACE (1932) tell the tale, it’s Boris Karloff’s fault the Tommy gun ever fell into the hands of the Underworld. Of course, the weapon was long in use by the Chicago mob by the time Howard Hawks made the film for producer Howard Hughes. The notorious St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was already two years distant when SCARFACE went before the cameras in the summer of 1931 and the Thompson had appeared in earlier films — hell, Karloff himself got mowed down with one in his role as a murderous trustee in Hawks’ 1931 prison drama THE CRIMINAL CODE. SCARFACE wasn’t interested in facts, however, or in trivia, but was concerned primarily with rewriting history in order to tell it better. Previous gangster films — Josef von Sternberg’s UNDERWORLD (1927), Archie Mayo’s THE DOORWAY TO HELL (1930), and Mervyn LeRoy’s LITTLE CAESAR (1931) employed the Tommy gun by way of particularizing rise and fall stories of various individuals who discover their true talents in criminality. Conceived by Hawks and Hughes (by way of the source novel by Armitage Trail) as the ultimate gangster picture, SCARFACE was about the birth of an an idea, about a new brand of Manifest Destiny whose vehicle for change was the Tommy gun. Star Paul Muni takes it on the chin eighty years later for his presumed over-acting as Al Capone surrogate Tony Camonte but his outsized mannerisms work for the character, who never matured beyond the mental age of ten and whose wonder at discovering the Tommy gun, his awe, is infectiously childlike. Yes, he’s a sociopath, but you can’t help but feel happy for Tony when he gets his hand on what mobsters of the day called the Chicago typewriter. “Get outta my way, Johnny” he barks at his heyboys as he pulls back the bolt on a factory fresh Thompson. “I’m gonna spit!”
And therein lies the charm of automatic weapons. They’re fun! You don’t hear this, of course, when the subject of gun control comes up for debate. No, it all gets very serious. NRA drones and gun collectors gas on about the forefathers (I always want to ask those who namedrop “our forefathers” how many of them they can actually name) and the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and how if regular citizens don’t have access to automatic weapons then only criminals will have automatic weapons and nobody talks about how firing a submachine gun makes you feel like a God. Old Testament, of course — the God who wiped out the world because he felt disrespected and unloved.
SCARFACE so nailed the metaphor of Tommy gun as penis substitute that the Production Code would strongly discourage its use in films made after 1934, the year the Code went into effect. Oh, the Chopper still turned up in Hollywood product but most often in the hands of law enforcement. Warner Brothers went so far as to recast THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931) star James Cagney as one of the FBI’s “G”-MEN (1935) so he could rat-a-tat-tat with impunity. The Thompson would later turn up in World War II combat films in the hands of such Eddie Attaboys as Robert Taylor (BATAAN), Humphrey Bogart (SAHARA), Errol Flynn (OBJECTIVE BURMA!), with the weighty drum switched out for the more lightweight box magazine. As the US military’s adoption of the M3 “grease gun,” Tommy guns faded into obscurity, remembered as a talisman of Prohibition, like celluloid collars and spats. Invented in 1919 by John T. Thompson, a retired army general, veteran of the Spanish-American War, and former employee of the Remington Arms Company, the Tommy gun was conceived as a replacement for bolt action rifles, a “trench sweeper” with greater killing capacity. Though the gun tested well, no one wanted to buy it upon its debut in 1920 (only seven months into Prohibition) and by 1928 Thompson had been booted out from behind the chairman’s desk of his own Auto-Ordnance Company. By then, the Tommy gun had become the weapon of choice for members of Chicago’s Underworld. Gangster Charles Dean O’Bannon is credited with introducing the item to (as ballistics expert Calvin Godard would phrase it) “the lower elements” in 1924 but he was rubbed out before he could ever use it, his murder sparking a five year gang war. O’Bannon’s associate Charles McErlane put “the baby machinegun” into use in an unsuccessful bid to whack one Spike O’Donnell in September 1925 — the Tommy gun’s beta test — and Sheldon Gang thug Charles Kelly is believed to have been the weapon’s first victim that October. The “Beer Wars” culminated in the so-called St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on February 14, 1929, when enforcers in the employ of Al Capone lined up seven of rival George “Bugs” Moran’s employees in a North Clark Street garage and sprayed them with a fatal blast of Tommy gun fire. Repeal of the Volstead Act that had foisted Prohibition on the American public closed the book on the Beer Wars… but such colorful rural hoodlums as John Dillinger, Lester “Baby Face” Nelson, Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd (all dead by 1934), Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and George “Machine Gun” Kelly popularized the Tommy gun in the waning years of the Great Depression, as had Bonnie and Clyde before they fell in a hail of automatic, shotgun, and pistol fire in May 1933.
The slow bleed out of the Production Code with the waning sovereignty of the Hollywood studios led to a veritable Gold Rush in gangster tales during the 1950s. While James Cagney had to make do with a shotgun in WHITE HEAT (1949), Tommy guns enjoyed a hell of a comeback in BABY FACE NELSON (1958), THE BONNIE PARKER STORY (1958), MACHINE GUN KELLY (1958, pictured above), AL CAPONE (1959), THE PURPLE GANG (1959), PRETTY BOY FLOYD (1960), MA BARKER’S KILLER BROOD (1960), and on TV’s THE UNTOUCHABLES (1959-1963). (Of course, Tommy guns had been put back into the hands of law enforcement officers a lot earlier and one of the most badass wielders was James Whitmore in THEM!, whose takedown of a giant ant in the middle of the Mojave Desert is a thing of beauty.) Gangster tales enjoyed a resurgence with the success of BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967). I’ve said it here before, but Roger Corman’s THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE (1968) changed my life and among my earliest toys were plastic Thompsons, both box and drum style. I went through a mini-gangster phase in my pre-teens, fueled by the success of THE STING (1974) and by such made-for-TV films as MELVIN PURVIS, G-MAN (1974), THE STORY OF PRETTY BOY FLOYD (1974) and KANSAS CITY MASSACRE (1975) — all directed by Dan Curtis, who had already won me over with DARK SHADOWS and THE NIGHT STALKER– and Wayne Rogers post-M*A*S*H follow up series CITY OF ANGELS, which ran for 13 episodes in 1976. A year later, STAR WARS (1977) would change everything and American kids forgot in the fusillade of The Force and sundry cod-Campbellean mythologies the vicarious thrills of gangsterism as they traded their Tommy guns for lightsabers. Sure, I had a toy M16 as a kid, too, but it wasn’t the same. It took the compact Israeli Uzi to fire up the gun lust of the American armchair warmonger during the 1980s and it’s been a slippery slope ever since, with rap artists rhapsodizing about AK-47s and suburban families stockpiling military grade ordnance. I don’t think gun ownership has ever been as fetishistic as it is now, a time when collectors are hoarding semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles in preparation for an end-of-times their very paranoia seems to guarantee.
Because I tend to speak critically about gun ownership in America, I’m often branded as anti-gun. Really, I’m not. Though I favor gun control that borders on the Spartan, I understand the allure of firearms and I find them fascinating, albeit as machines more than guns. I’m primarily interested in their history (in real life and in art), with a focus on archaic armaments, such as the Navy Colt, the Lee-Enfield Mk 1, the snubnose .38 and the Thompson. I do not own a gun, nor do I suspect I ever will, but I think there is a place in society for private gun ownership. Sweeping gun control laws are on the table even as we speak but we’re going to bat this ball around for a long time before we see any substantive change in the dialogue. Americans are acquisitive. We collect. We hoard. Things fail to satisfy on their own merits and so we accumulate, we supersize, we change up. Extra cheese, double stuffed, more power. It’s in our nature to overdo everything but I think we can work on that. It would help if politicians and lobbyists stopped lining one another’s pockets long enough to take a long, hard look at what our nation needs and stop pandering to what it says it wants. Easier said than done, of course, but we need to be prepared to recognize progress on the atomic level and to celebrate it in increments rather than in leaps and bounds. Meanwhile, the Tommy gun is making another comeback, seen in such A-list contemporary features as PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009) and GANGSTER SQUAD (2013) and wielded by no less than former Smiths frontman Morrissey on the cover of his 2004 album You Are the Quarry. One of the reasons it’s still easy to love the Thompson is nobody shoots up a campus or federal building with a Chicago Typewriter. It lives only in our dreams.
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