Meet American Cinema’s First Gangster: The Snapper Kid

gangster-movies-pigalley1

He walks into the frame at the 1:45 minute mark, and by 1:56 he’s getting slapped across the face by Lillian Gish for trying to steal a kiss. Pugnacious, quick, and tough, yet also charming, the Snapper Kid is film’s first known gangster—and in 17 minutes he manages to establish a personality archetype that would be used by everyone from James Cagney to Joe Pesci for many decades to come.

The Kid swaggers into history via D. W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) as the “chief” of the Musketeers, one of two rival gangs who spend the last half of the film fighting over Pig Alley, a corrupt inner-city slum in New York City. Played by Elmer Booth, whose acting career was tragically cut short at the age of 32 in a car crash,1 the Snapper Kid “presents a prototype of one of the genre’s fixture gangland characters—the smart-aleck, violence-loving punk.”2 A “prototypical anti-hero,” Elmer Booth’s “swaggering, snappy dressing, bantam-sized Snapper Kid moves with the cocksure grace of a dancer—and is drawn to the world of violence like a moth to a flame.”3 This particular combination of charm, grace and explosive violence would be later epitomized in performances by James Cagney, starting with his breakout hit The Public Enemy (1931). As a major Cagney fan, I must admit I got chills watching Booth—his movement and energy really is very similar! Check out this brief clip from The Public Enemy below, then watch Musketeers of Pig Alley and tell me you don’t see a resemblance (sorry for the link, but I can’t find this clip anywhere else, and TCM/Wordpress won’t let me embed it): http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/245288/Public-Enemy-The-Movie-Clip-Five-Kegs-.html

Besides featuring Elmer Booth as the Snapper Kid, Musketeers also stars Lillian Gish in an early role as the wife of a poor musician played by Walter Miller, plus a tiny cameo by then-unknown Lionel Barrymore, who plays the musician’s friend. The somewhat disjointed plot follows a poor married couple (Gish and Miller) as they try to survive the gang violence inherit in their community, even going so far as to lend aid to the Snapper Kid when he tries to avoid the local cops. Here’s a extremely brief summary from Wikipedia:

The film is about a poor married couple living in New York City. The husband works as a musician and must often travel for work. When returning, his wallet is taken by a gangster. His wife goes to a ball where a man tries to drug her, but his attempt is stopped by the same man who robbed the husband. The two criminals become rivals, and a shootout ensues. The husband gets caught in the shootout and recognizes one of the men as the gangster who took his money. The husband sneaks his wallet back and the gangster goes to safety in the couple’s apartment. Policemen track the gangster down but the wife gives him a false alibi. (Source: this Wikipedia entry. For a longer, more detailed summary, try fellow blogger Aurora’s review of Mustketeers at her classic film blog, Once Upon A Screen)

As John McCarthy points out in his book Bullets Over Hollywood, “in its brief…running time, The Musketeers of Pig Alley established most of the basic ground rules of the American gangster film, from trading in sex…as well as violence to exploiting material ripped ‘straight from the day’s headlines,’ to casting…an empathetic [eye]…on its lead gangster.”4 Musketeers contains other elements as well: the “iconographic tradition” of the Gangster’s Ball (which later transformed into a speakeasy, a bar, a club, a casino, or what have you), “interpersonal violence” between the sexes (such as when Gish slaps the Kid when he gets fresh, or a rival gangster tries to slip her a mickey in her drink (implying she’d become a victim of white slavery)), and “the shootout,” or what the title cards call “the Gangsters’ Feudal War”: a long, extended sequence with a variety of interesting camera tricks which involves gangsters running, hiding, and shooting at one another and the cops, all of which can be found in gangster films today.5

While full of genre firsts, Musketeers is also disjointed, romanticized, and melodramatic—but when it came out it was hailed as a piece of sharp, realistic social commentary. Not only did it depict gangs and gangland violence in a relatively realistic manner, but it openly showcased widespread city corruption as well. In the final scene, titled “Links in the System,” a hand slides in from the right side of the frame and offers the Snapper Kid a fistful of money, probably a bribe—and an indication that nothing in the seedy, corrupt, poverty-stricken world of Pig Alley has really changed, in spite of the couple’s momentary kindness. The setting of Pig Alley in particular “struck an immediate and responsive chord with audiences, who turned it into one of Biographs,’ and Griffith’s, biggest box-office performers of the year.”6 This was due in no small part to its “ripped from the headlines” quality: not only was it released at a time of heightened gangland violence in New York, but it offered a naturalistic, “you-are-there” quality thanks to filming on location in the Bowery (one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods) and using real life Bowery residents as extras, including local toughs. Thanks to these elements, Musketeers “boasts an atmosphere of undeniable authenticity captured in stark black-and-white,”7 though frankly if you really want to get a strong sense of soul-crushing poverty, watch Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration (1915). Either way, Musketeers “drives home what would become a prominent message of the gangster film—that ‘poverty breeds crime,’”  a theme which is still explored in gangster films today.8

~*~

Wondering where you can see Musketeers of Pig Alley? You can watch it right here, right now at the video below:

 

 


 

Footnotes:

1.In a bizarre twist of fate, Booth died in a car driven by none other than Todd Browning, the pioneering director of classic horror films like Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932)

2. McCarthy, John. Bullets Over Hollywood: The American Gangster Picture from the Silents to “The Sopranos.” De Capo Press: Cambridge, MA. 2004. p. 15

3. Ibid. p. 16.

4. Ibid.

5. Rosow, Eugene. Born to Lose: The Gangster Film in America. 1978. Reposted by Wellington Film Society at http://www.filmsocietywellington.net.nz/db/screeningdetail.php?id=62

6. McCarthy, p. 18.

7. McCarthy, p. 19.

8. Ibid.

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About lupachi1927

My name's Megan. I'm a writer with an interest in history. While I might not be a real historian, I'm a very thorough researcher! :) This blog is my place to post about all the interesting historical tidbits I find that can't use in the novel I'm working on, which takes place in Chicago in 1927.
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4 Responses to Meet American Cinema’s First Gangster: The Snapper Kid

  1. He certainly has Cagney’s swagger, no doubt. Fascinating film. Thanks for sharing, Sarah.

    Like

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