Hollywood Gangster Films of the 1930s and 1940s

Updated on March 7, 2018

Setting the Standard For Gangster Movies

The early gangster movies set the standard for all the great gangster movies that have followed. Several gangster related films were produced during the silent era of cinema. D.W. Griffith's The Musketeers of Pig Alley from 1912, is thought to be one of the first. The Regeneration in 1915, Underworld in 1927, and The Racket in in 1928 laid the groundwork and prepared the movie-going public for the classic era of gangster movies that started in the 1930s with the addition of sound. The fledgling genre was based in gritty reality using such events as bootlegging during prohibition, the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and real life personalities like Al Capone. The audiences loved to watch stories, ripped from the daily headlines, played out on the big screen.

Gangster Movies of the 1930's and 1940's
Gangster Movies of the 1930's and 1940's

Edward G. Robinson

Little Caesar - Gangster Movies of the 1930's and 1940's
Little Caesar - Gangster Movies of the 1930's and 1940's

Little Caesar 1930

Playing the egotistical Caesar Enrico Bandello, made Edward G. Robinson an overnight star. Loosely based on the life of Al Capone, Bandello (Little Caesar) rises from a petty country criminal to a big time crime boss in this dark and gritty film. The 'crime does not pay' ending, leaves Bandello a fallen man. Even though the violence and bloodshed was mostly off screen, the film was withdrawn from distribution by the Hays Production Code and not re-released until 1953.

Partial Cast of Characters

Caesar Enrico Bandello - Edward G. Robinson

Joe Massara - Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Glenda Ferrall - Olga Stassoff

Famous Quotes

Caesar Enrico Bandello: This is Rico speaking. Rico! R-I-C-O! Rico! Little Caesar, that's who! Listen, you crummy, flat-footed copper, I'll show you whether I've lost my nerve and my brains!

Little Arnie Lorch: Do yourself a favor, will you, Rico? Leave your gat home on the piano the next job you pull. Yeah, park it next to your milk bottle.

Public Enemy - Gangster Movies of the 1930's and 1940's
Public Enemy - Gangster Movies of the 1930's and 1940's

James Cagney

Public Enemy
Public Enemy

The Public Enemy 1931

James Cagney in his first staring role, plays Tom Powers, a cocky brutal and ruthless villain rising through the ranks of the Chicago crime world. Released right after Little Caesar, the film had violence that was more realistic, but still kept most of it off screen. The depiction of raw violence along with the films glamorous take on the life of gangsters, prompted the Production Code to withdraw this film also. The character of Tom Powers was based on Chicago gangster Earl 'Hymie' Weiss and Charles Dion 'Deanie' O'Banion who was Al Capone's arch rival.

Partial Cast of Characters

James Cagney - Tom Powers

Jean Harlow - Gwen Allen

Edward Woods - Matt Doyle

Joan Blondell- Mamie

Famous Quote

Tom Powers: Besides, your hands ain't so clean. You killed and liked it. You didn't get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.

Scarface: The Shame of the Nation
Scarface: The Shame of the Nation

Paul Muni

Scarface - Gangster Movies of the 1930's and 1940's
Scarface - Gangster Movies of the 1930's and 1940's

The X

Scarface: The Shame of the Nation 1932

Scarface was yet another movie that took events from real life and fashioned its characters after real personalities. Paul Muni's Tony Camonte, is again based on Al Capone. Likewise the film's Johnny Lovo and "Big Louis" Castillo represent real life gangsters Johnny Torrio and "Big Jim" Colosimo, respectively. The film was made in 1930 but was held back from distribution by producer Howard Hughes, to re-shoot scenes in order to satisfy the censers and mollify the Italian-American audience. The film uses actual events such as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and the shooting of Chicago gangster Dion O'Bannion. Director Howard Hawk's clever use of the "X" symbol before every death (over 30 in the film) helped to lighten up the otherwise grim and violent storyline.

Partial Cast of Characters

Paul Muni - Antonio 'Tony' Camonte

Anne Dvorak - Francesca 'Cesca' Camonte

George Raft - Guino Rinoldo

Famous Quotes

Tony Camonte: Listen, Little Boy, in this business there's only one law you gotta follow to keep out of trouble: Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it.

Tony Camonte: I don't know nothin'. I don't see nothin'. I don't hear nothin'. When I do I don't tell the cops. Understand?

Lady Killer
Lady Killer

James Cagney

Lady Killer - Gangster Movies of the 1930's and 1940's
Lady Killer - Gangster Movies of the 1930's and 1940's

Lady Killer 1933

Lady Killer took a much lighter tone than the gangster movies that preceded it.  James Cagney, at the top of his game played the part of gangster turned Hollywood star, Dan Quigley, mostly for laughs.  Not quite able to escape his past, Quigley's gangster pals show up and threaten to reveal his true nature.

Partial Cast of Characters

James Cagney  -  Dan Quigley

Mae Clarke  -  Myra Gale

Margaret Lindsay  -  Lois Underwood

Famous Quotes

Myra Gale: [preparing to pour a drink for Dan] How much?

Dan Quigley: Oh, about two ounces,one for each kidney.

Myra Gale: [handing him the drink] Here. Oh, uh, chaser?

Dan Quigley: Always have been.
[they laugh]

The Roaring Twenties
The Roaring Twenties

James Cagney

The Roaring Twenties - Gangster Movies of the 1930s and 1940's
The Roaring Twenties - Gangster Movies of the 1930s and 1940's

The Roaring Twenties 1939

World War II veterans James Cagney as Eddie Bartlett and Humphrey Bogart as George Hally partner up in the bootlegging business. Bogart's brutal George played against Cagney's coldblooded yet reasonable Eddie, makes for an interesting clash of personalities. The movie comes to a bloody end when Eddie, ruined by the Depression confronts the still prosperous George.

Partial Cast of Characters

James Cagney - Eddie Bartlett

Priscilla Lane - Jean Sherman

Humphrey Bogart - George Hally

Gladys George - Panama Smith

Famous Quotes

George Hally: I always say, when you got a job to do, get somebody else to do it.

Eddie Bartlett: I trust my friends.
[Walks off]

George Halley: That guys a sucker. I don't trust any of my friends.

Panama Smith: The feeling's mutual, George. They don't trust you either.

White Heat
White Heat

James Cagney

White Heat - Gangster Movies of the 1930s and 1940's
White Heat - Gangster Movies of the 1930s and 1940's

White Heat 1949

In White Heat, James Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a character Inspired by real life gangster Arthur 'Doc'. Cody is a vicious and brutal psychotic killer with an unhealthy affection for his mother, who was based on the infamous Ma Barker. A famous scene has Cody sitting in his mother's lap as she soothes his migraine and listens to his troubles. The movie ends with the classic line: 'Made it, Ma - top of the world!'

Partial Cast of Characters

James Cagney - Arthur 'Cody' Jarrett

Virginia Mayo - Verna Jarrett

Edmond O'Brien - Vic Pardo

Margaret Wycherly - Ma Jarrett

Famous Quotes

Cody Jarrett: Made it, Ma! Top of the world!

Verna Jarrett: I'd look good in a mink coat, honey.

Cody Jarrett: You'd look good in a shower curtain.


Submit a Comment
  • profile image


    8 years ago

    These movies are 120 percent Gangster

  • profile image

    Jason Grossman 

    8 years ago

    We have a new play called Doubles Crossed which is an homage to the classic gangster films of the 30's-40's. www.doublescrossed.com

  • profile image


    9 years ago

    Excellent. Truly enjoyable. :)

  • lafenty profile imageAUTHOR


    10 years ago from California

    Thanks for reading, zzron.

  • zzron profile image


    10 years ago from Houston, TX.


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