The Golden Age of Hollywood

The role of women in gangster films...What do you think?


I'm an A-level film student and i'm writing an essay on the role of women in the gangster films 'The Roaring Twenties', 'Puplic Enemy' and 'Scarface'!

I just want people to tell me what they think about the women in these films (or any other) and how they are treated!

so come on, don't be shy!

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'm not sure really how to respond here but to say that the treatment of women being slapped around and kept on a leash by their gangster boyfriend is not how I think women should be treated. And yet I still enjoy the films. It is a sad fact that we still have bullies and gangsters, and the women who love them and who are willing to be abused by them. I suppose though that we have to view the gangster films as products of their times and not a commentary about how women should be treated or even promoting the abuse of women in general.

wow! thank you so much for writing what you think! I agree with your saying!
It would be nice if we could get some more members to reply to this. I don't know why but forum topics are often overlooked.

I know! Yes I really need more responces to get a wider view on what people think!
If you're writing a paper on women in classic gangster films, I can't imagine only focusing on gangster molls.

Specifically, take the role of Jimmy Cagney's mother in "White Heat". Cagney's character, Cody Jarrett, and Ma Jarrett have a complex relationship that in no way involves mistreatment of women. Further, Ma Jarrett's roll is essential to the development of the plot. It's a complex relationship that warrants examination in your paper.

I'm almost sure their are other mother / son relationships worth examining in this genre, but I cannot call them to mind as I write. Maybe some other members with a more thorough knowledge of these great films would know.
Hi there,
This is an area I would be interested in myself. I know all 3 films very well. The roles of women, well: (sorry I've forgotten some of the characters' names)
1. Roaring Twenties - redemptive figure for the female: keeps the man on the straight and narrow and almost means the redemption of the Cagney figure, but not quite. The struggle between good and evil is contained in the struggle between the two men over the girl. Of course, the other female character, the one who is sweet on Cagney, is basically a good woman who, like Cagney, could not escape her past. She is trapped and also aspires to be kind of girl the beautiful young female lead is (name forgotten). When she sings those songs, "I'm just wild about Harry" etc. this reminds us of the sexual side of the female characters and how this is COMMODIFIED in the world of the criminal - exploited and commodified. So, the Madonna and Whore figures are juxtaposed in both female characters in that film. Remember the "pieta" scene at the end of the picture where Cagney dies and the saloon owner who loves him suddenly is parodied as a figure of virtue in the tableaux - as Mary to Cagney's Christ.
2. The Public Enemy: isn't this the one where the mother figure is so important? Mother and the almost incestuous relationship Cagney and mother have. Mother is also corrupt and to be feared - but the scenes with her sitting on mother's knee when he has a headache are almost Freudian in their sexual overtones, and quite shocking for the period in film!! The Whore figure is the woman who plays the men off against each other - but Mother is Whore and this is where the confusion lies. The Virginia Mayo character has lost her femininity and is a cheap version of femininity - not at all alluring to Cagney. Mother is the compelling vision of the feminine in this film.
3. Scarface: The mother is the centre of the home and tries to protect Paul Muni, the central character. But she is also completely UNAWARE, thus vulnerable and an object of the audiences' pity. Again, the contrasting figure of the female as tempting, corrupt and capable of betrayal is represented by the younger woman in the film. We have to ask, "Is Scarface bad because the women in his life GIVE HIM PERMISSION TO BE BAD?" Is Hawks suggesting that women are responsible for how their men behave? I think all films throw up this conundrum.
Good luck!
I just realized I've got "Public Enemy" confused with "White Heat"!! Sorry. "Public Enemy" is a much older film and a morality tale about corruption. The women in the film are profoundly naive and kept in the dark by the gruesome male character/s. Violence and the world of crime inhabited by men are a continual source of anxiety and concern but, ultimately, POWERLESSNESS from the womens' point of view. I would explore that angle on this particular film. Ask yourself: !. Is the Director taking a moral stance with the female/s? 2. Is it being suggested that they are the MOTIVATION for crime, or just the beneficiaries of criminal activity, eg. nice clothes, and material benefits of this. 3. What price do the women PAY in these films for their implications in crime? 4. Are they totally disenfranchised, lacking any power at all? 5. Are the female characters used to show the violence and corruption of males in society? Good luck, and sorry for the confusion!!
WOW! thank you for this huge comment! It has helped alot!
Alice, also I realized when I watched scenes again last night from "The Roaring Twenties" that the film takes the form of a kind of "history" of the 20's, so you need to use the word "verisimilitude" (look it up) . The Priscilla Lane character is the virtuous one and she NEARLY tames Cagney - she provides the opportunity for him to become a "better" self. Interestingly, I noted that each time Lane comes on to sing in the nightclub she sings songs which start out as teasing, eg. "I'm just wild about Harry" and then (even though, ironically, her attire is more sleazy-looking) she sings songs which are more like love ballads. In other words, we can sense her growing refinement as she moves beyond the world of the sleazy nightclub. Cagney's chance at redemption occurs because he realizes there's more to life than opportunism and being a gangster. I think that last scene with Gladys George when he's drunk and talking about his love for the girl - his interest in her home and child - is important to deconstruct, and also the last speech with Bogart when he knows his fate. The line at the end of the film, "He used to be somebody" - look at that too. When did he CEASE to be "somebody"? Also, my earlier comments about Hawks and "Scarface" - Hawks was a Director interested in "love between men" (not homosexual, but bonding, love). Thus, the female character in the film is either THREATENING to that, or she is 'one of the boys' like, say, Angie D in "Rio Bravo". Something to think about...but it was an early Hawks film too.

(I have an Honours degree in film and am an ex-highschool teacher, btw!) I'm starting a PhD in 2012, so I probably shouldn't encourage plagiarism!
wow! thank you so much again! this has been so helpful!!!!!!!!!
Interesting discussion. One thing to bear in mind when looking at these three films is that the last two you mention are influenced a lot by being made before the introduction of the strict Production Code in 1934 so they are a bit different in their depiction of the women because basically the moviemakers could get away with a bit more in terms of overt violence to females and even sexual titillation.

If you don't mind I'll take them in chronological order because of this :

The Public Enemy (1931) - there is quite a lot of derogatory depictions of women in this movie as mere sex objects its true and also as punching bags (as in the famous scene where Cagney pushes the grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face). The movie does give some gloss to this but it is also IMO part of the morality tale that getting involved in crime turns men into monsters who not only treat women with disdain : Cagney's Tom Powers rejects Mae Clarke fairly quickly after meeting the delectable Gwen Allen played by Jean Harlow but kill at the drop of a hat. I think it can still be fairly shocking in the glamourisation of the gangster's life and the sordid details : its fairly obvious for example what happens overnight in the house Cagney hides away in even if it isn't depicted there is an almost a wink at the audience : "you don't regret last night, do you?" Not that I'm condoning it in any way but there is a sense that some of these women like the danger and the glamour of the life of a gangster's moll : the Harlow character says she prefers "men that take" describing Cagney. Also Cagney's character despite the horrible things he does is always in some way sympathetic as epitomised by the mother love angle : despite the straight brother,Tom is always mother's favourite (Beryl Mercer I think). The film though doesn't shy away from punishing its gangster lead with a devastating climax where he is delivered dead to the family home wrapped in blankets so despite the pre-code antics its still very much crime doesn't pay.

Scarface (1932) - same here with Tony Camonte's demise but the big relationship in this movie again a precode is the between the lines incestuous one between the gangster and his sister which continues right to the end even after Tony murders her boyfriend.

The Roaring Twenties (1939) - a movie made after the imposition of the code is much less frank in its depiction of violence and sex IMO certainly there is less violence directed towards women. Eddie Bartlett (Cagney) gets into bootlegging and gangsterism almost by accident, its one of his most sympathetic portrayals of a gangster - Humphrey Bogart is really the bad gangster here and even he gets some wiscracking quips. Not that Cagney is without blame and doesn't kill unneccesarilly, the life is certainly not depicted as glamourously and it costs him his love of the Priscilla Lane character who falls for straight laced lawyer Jeffrey Lynn. I don't think I ever believed the Priscilla Lane character would "tame" Cagney its made fairly clear that they belong in different worlds. Eddie Bartlett was her "dream" soldier and she grows out of him while he falls for her when she grows up and becomes an innocent unattainable goal. Once you are caught in the bootlegging racket it is hard for the Cagney character to give it up and it wouldnt be believable for me if he did certainly not in the way Lloyd (Jeffrey Lynn) does. Panama Smith (Gladys George) is much more suitable as a mate for Cagney maybe inevitable that she at the end sums up his life with "He used to be a big shot". Apparently Mark Hellinger who wrote the script for the movie based the characters on real people he knew maybe that is why it plays very realistically with its semi newsreel quality, there are newsreel like snippets throughout the movie. Panama Smith was modelled I believe on Texas Guinan a legendary hostess of the El Fay night club, among those who appeared there was a young girl called Ruby Keeler.
Yes, terribly interesting take on these films!! I had forgotten many of the characters' names, but the question really was about the female parts wasn't it? I do think the female roles are ambiguous because of their complicity, if you will, in the "benefits" of crime - material things. I don't think the Production Code imposition makes really very much difference to the messages being conveyed in the Raoul Walsh film. I think it actually heightens the complexity by avoiding rigid sexual stereotyping!! Incestuous relationship in "Scarface" - yes, certainly! (Remember, later in the noir "Sweet Smell of Success" too!) The mother figure is important in both this film and "The Public Enemy", though the film by Wellman is far more cheesy and less successful, even though a "morality" tale. Given that tag, we would expect to see some "moralizing" about the roles of women. I still think what I said holds true - Cagney in "Roaring Twenties' longed to be free of his criminal past and Lane was the express route to this. Panama Smith keeps saying how alike both characters are but Cagney doesn't seem to wear it!! He becomes much more the aggressor in pursuit of Lane - and here we see him as a character to be feared, despite Bogart being the more overtly violent criminal. Cagney's love is something to be feared, don't you think? Lane is afraid of his love - afraid of being another possession. And he effectively "martyrs" himself for love of Lane - note the pieta scene and "he used to be a big shot" (she still speaks gangster slang!) I don't think we can avoid the obvious religious/morality message at film's end.

Punching bag females in "Public Enemy" says more about the criminal mindset than anything explicit about women. The Harlow character is as hard as Cagney - his match perhaps? Well, we could discuss this for ages... Thanks for the opportunity.

Sometime soon I'd like to discuss Hawks and his depiction of love amongst men!!



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