Martin Scorsese Explains The Era Of Gangster And Musical Films In Hollywood

Previously in this series on understanding American filmmaking, we have discussed a few things. There were some essential discussions about the director’s struggle in the early days and how American filmmakers developed their priorities while storytelling and stopped focusing solely on the genre. We also learned much about the Western films that put Hollywood in the front seat. In Martin Scorsese’s “A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies”, we saw how western films changed their style of storytelling as time progressed. He also talked about how early American directors never called themselves artists; and would refuse to talk about their filmmaking styles.


Today, we will talk about the final two genres mentioned by Martin Scorsese that marked an era of change in Hollywood. The Gangster films and the Musicals. We have already discussed how filmmakers learned to bend genres, and we also have understood how westerns changed with time. Today’s genres will help you understand how the filmmakers started portraying the people of the streets in their films. The audience started adapting to this change slowly. As these films started depicting what was actually happening in real life, we saw a wave of realism in American Cinema.

The Era Of Gangster Films

Howard Hawks, who specialized in western and gangster films, once said, “There’s action only if there is danger.” The gangster films, as told by Martin Scorsese himself, allowed the filmmakers to dwell on violence and lawlessness even more than the western films. At the beginning of this genre, especially in movies like Raoul Walsh’s “Regeneration” (1915), the story focused on the deprived child, born and raised on the streets. In that period, gangsters were viewed as the victims of society. As Howard Hawks’ quote goes, they would attack the law only when threatened by it.


Later, during prohibition, urban areas witnessed a more significant escalation of violence. Martin Scorsese pointed out Howard Hawks’ “Scarface” (1932), where the director introduced a character named Tony Camonte, who is vicious and immature. Still, he saw the world as an ample, vast space for possibilities amidst the increasing violence. This is what war is all about; it is always a tool for mass destruction, yet for some, it is the most prominent business idea anyone can come up with. This disturbing message in the gangster films almost predicted the future of the world economy to some extent.

A Film That Inspired Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas”

As time passed, Raoul Walsh’s “Roaring Twenties” (1939) was released, and this film was marked as a notable gangster film of that period. This movie practically paved the way for future gangster films. It is the story of a war hero who became a bootlegger, and then finally, when the stock market crashed, the protagonist’s downfall started. This film influenced Martin Scorsese so much that he made a film in his student days named “It’s Not Just You, Murray.” Also, Raoul Walsh’s “Roaring Twenties” helped build the tradition for the later masterpieces of Martin Scorsese, “Goodfellas” and “Scarface”. “Roaring Twenties” ends with the note where the gangster becomes the tragic figure, and the climax establishes a pietà where the female protagonist in the film holds the male protagonist’s dead body. This sets up a stage for the gangsters to transform into tragic characters at the end of the film.


Gangster Movies After The Second World War

Right after the Second World War, gangsters became more influential in society as they became a part of the corporate world, in an attempt to legitimize their black money. Now, the gangsters work with more diligence and calculate risks before taking a grave step. In Byron Haskin’s “I Walk Alone” (1948), the change in the methods of the gangster business was visible. There was a gangster who came out of prison after decades only to find out how misfit he was with the technicalities of the structure. They now have a board of directors to run the business, and even the most influential gangster couldn’t go against them. This structure, these rules, suffocated the old, but there was no other way than to adapt, even for a gangster.

What Changed In The Gangster Genre?

The structure we discussed played a crucial role in the later stages of gangster movies. From the early 50s every gangster movie had this fundamental essence of working methodically. Even in the “Godfather”, we know how the younger son came from war only to embrace the fact that he was a Corleone. Serving the family’s name and keeping up with the traditions was as crucial as serving the nation. This is how organizations started to implode into the writings of American filmmaking. Individualism was long gone; in its place, a structure was introduced. Nobody could question a single person; a governing body monitored everything. Martin Scorsese concluded that everything was twisted, including American values, family, patriotism, and tradition. There were only active organizations; the gangster became the board’s chairman, and crime was a way of life. Nothing much has changed since then in this genre.


The Musical Films

While the gangster films portrayed the depressing realities of the world, parallel to this genre, a new style of filmmaking was born to lighten up our moods. Martin Scorsese called Musicals “the most escapist of all film genres”. Former dance instructor Busby Berkeley, in his “Gold Diggers of 1935” (1935), portrayed his vision of how a “movie musical” differs from a “staged musical”. He knew that in film, the audience would only see through one eye, i.e., the camera itself. So, he made the camera partake in the choreography that produced some of the unusual movements and angles.

The Similarities Between Musical And Gangster Films

Berkeley often collected the grim realities of American life caught in the clutches of depression. His imagery even stretched to the human tragedies of regular days, such as abuse, murder, and the killing of innocent lives. He choreographed almost everything that happened in the great parade of human existence. His time with Warner Brothers produced some of the backstage stories of the Broadway shows that were compared with the gangster films by Martin Scorsese. He included the fact that the musicals of Warner Brothers had this crazy Broadway producer, just like a maniac gangster in a gangster movie. Martin Scorsese added that in the fantasy world of Warner Brothers, any ambitious character ended up being a gangster or a show-biz performer.


How Vincent Minnelli Influenced The Musical Genre

Vincent Minnelli, in “Meet Me In St. Louis” (1944), introduced a new style of the musical. The set-up was now in the real world, and the actors did not need to be professional dancers or singers. The tunes played a role in character development and plot construction. He also incorporated any aspect of reality and transformed them into ballets. While talking about Minnelli, Martin Scorsese added that the world was a stage and anyone who could sing or dance belonged there.

Martin Scorsese’s Inspiration To Make A Musical

Traditional musicals started to show signs of postwar malaise. In Michael Curtiz’s “My Dream Is Yours” (1949), the genre dealt with the darker nature of humans. This film talked about how difficult it is to have a rather impossibly complex relationship between two creative people. Martin Scorsese said this film influenced him greatly in “New York, New York” (1977). He also added that he took the film’s distorted romance and made it his subject.



Martin Scorsese concluded by saying how the musical genre explored many possibilities with the likes of Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, and Bob Fosse. He added that it is never enough for American directors to only be storytellers; instead, a director needs to be an illusionist, even a smuggler, if they want to express their vision. If you have seen a musical or gangster film you want to talk about, write the name in the comment section so we can discuss it. That’s all for today.

See More: Martin Scorsese Shares A Piece Of Advice For Filmmakers: What Does It Take To Become A Director?

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Shovan Roy
Shovan Roy
Shovan Roy is a creative content writer. Formerly he used to write film reviews on an international film festival website named Beyond the Curve International Film Festival. He also interviewed global directors. He also interviewed one of the characters from the show 'Trailer Park Boys', Mr. Bernard Robichaud, platformed in Netflix. Shovan tends to write through the third person narrative and he loves to do psychoanalysis. He can't say that he has mastered it but that is some sort of hobby of his. Film is a platform where he loves to spend most of his time learning.

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