Scarface, Tommy guns and Chicago’s gangster mystique in film
by Michael Phillips – Chicago Tribune
In a a few, bloody years — 1925 to 1932, from the rise of Al Capone to the release of the film borrowing Capone’s nickname for a title — Chicago cemented its image in the popular imagination. The Cubs come and go; Chicago’s gangster mystique remains steadfast.
Here are six stops on the timeline of those key years in the making of Chicago’s corrupt, violent popular image.
1925: Brooklyn-born Alphonse Capone, later nicknamed “Scarface” by a Tribune reporter, takes over the Chicago activities of New York racketeer Johnny Torrio. By 1927, Capone is the world’s most revered and famous gangster, coddled by Chicago mayor Big Bill Thompson until Thompson considers Capone a drag on Thompson’s political advancement. By 1928 Capone relocates to Florida and spends most of the ’30s behind bars.
1926: Ex-Tribune police reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins writes a comedy about a couple of Chicago killers. Originally titled “Play Ball,” the play is renamed “Chicago” and opens on Broadway. Cecil B. DeMille produces a silent film version in 1927; Ginger Rogers stars in a 1942 film adpatation, “Roxie Hart”; Bob Fosse directs and choreographs the 1975 stage musical; the movie version of the musical wins the Academy Award as best picture of 2002.
1927: Another Chicago crime reporter, Bartlett Cormack, writes “The Racket,” a play set in a police precinct on Chicago’s outskirts, about an honest cop beset by corrupt superiors and pliable politicians in league with local bootleggers. The character of underworld kingpin Nick Scarsi is a thinly disguised Capone stand-in. Edward G. Robinson plays the role on stage; when the touring production of “The Racket” is banned from Chicago, reportedly at Capone’s urging, it travels instead to LA and the movies discover Robinson, who stars in “Little Caesar” in 1930, after the medium learns to talk and spit lead at high volume.