Peter Bart: With Remakes All The Rage, Bugsy And His Gangster Friends Are Ready For Their Next Shot

Warren Beatty in 1991's "Bugsy" Everett

“Since studios keep making remakes, why don’t they at least remake them better?” Billy Wilder had a right to ask me that question 20 years ago, since the many remakes of his movies (Sabrina, The Apartment, etc.) never matched the originals.

The Wilder conundrum seems relevant today when the studios and streamers are announcing more and more remakes. Paramount says it’s developing Love Story, Flashdance and The Parallax View, among others. It is not remaking The Godfather, which went into production 50 years ago. But there are two projects in the works about the making of the movie, and there also is Francis Coppola’s refreshed Godfather III, made in 1990 and re-edited by Coppola now out under his preferred title Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone.

While I share Wilder’s skepticism about the remake business, a case could be made that the entire gangster genre deserves a revisit. An excellent new biography titled Bugsy Siegel by Michael Shnayerson reminds us that gangster movies were heavy on mythology but short on accuracy. The classic ones were produced during the 1930s depression when the financially strapped studios welcomed the intrusion of mob figures like Bugsy. They even accepted loans from them and greenlit some their movies (the “bad guys” looked good in them).

The brutal thug depicted in Shnayerson’s new book, “Bugsy” bears little similarity to the courtly and immaculate egotist portrayed by Warren Beatty in Barry Levinson’s 1991 Bugsy, widely available this week on home screens. By today’s standards, Levinson’s artfully shot (and pricey) film seems like a Beatty vanity project, co-starring then fiancée Annette Bening, who comes across more like a Vassar girl than the street-tough Virginia Hill.

Beatty’s Bugsy is drawn to Hollywood to become a movie star like his pal George Raft, but after some bad screen tests decides instead to invent Las Vegas by building The Flamingo. Shnayerson’s Bugsy is a hard-core mobster whose fortune was saved when the Jewish Mafia merged with their Italian brethren to create the very profitable Syndicate (otherwise called Murder Inc.). He was delighted when the likes of Ava Gardner, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable and, of course, Sinatra, showed up at the opening of his casino, but his guests understood that Bugsy would kill anyone who crossed him (he admitted to 12 murders, but the FBI estimated 30).

Mario Puzo’s cast of characters in The Godfather was vividly Italian and Catholic, while Bugsy’s cohorts initially were observant Jews who contributed faithfully to Israel. One of his most proficient killers was ultra-Orthodox (Shnayerson’s book is part of Yale’s series titled Jewish Lives).

Siegel and henchmen like Meyer Lansky and Longy Zwillman felt a kinship with Hollywood leaders like Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures and MGM’s Louis B. Mayer. Their relationship became strained when the studios discovered that their gangster friends were secretly organizing labor unions, demanding “protection money” from the studio heads.

When the Prohibition movement became law 100 years ago, the alcohol ban was going to clean up the nation’s morals and restore family life. Instead, it instantly created a whole new generation of gangsters as well as a lexicon of words like “bootlegging,” “speakeasies” and “rumrunning.” The cost of enforcement kept soaring even as tax revenues plummeted, thus tilting the nation into depression.

Bugsy Siegel George Raft
(L-R) Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and George Raft at a Hollywood courthouse in July 1944 Everett

Broke but opportunistic, Hollywood, led by Warner Bros, started cranking out movies designed to capture the danger and exotica of the era – hence Scarface, Dillinger and Public Enemy. A new type of folk hero began to emerge as well as a new class of stars, one being Raft, who had started as a chauffeur for mobsters and became a good friend of Siegel. Raft was soon hired by Warner Bros to instruct other actors how to speak “street” – stars like James Stewart had no “ear” for gangster talk.

A generation later, Marlon Brando also solicited the advice of mob figures in preparing his famous “audition” for The Godfather. Sidney Korshak, an esteemed Hollywood attorney and fixer who’d started his career as Al Capone’s attorney, often saw dailies of the movie to give his advice on tonality and character.

The basic structure of gangster epics was that the bad guys went down to defeat and the good guys won — this was the mandate of the censorship codes of the era. It’s unclear how Hollywood’s present corporate structure would deal with these good-vs-evil issues. In Martin Scorsese’s contemplative Netflix movie The Irishman, the bad guy ended up in a retirement home, more exhausted than defeated after three and a half hours. It is doubtful whether Bugsy Siegel would have found that ending very satisfying.

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