Happy Birthday, Dear Al Capone

AL CAPONE would have turned 100 this week, a milestone few people outside of his adopted home of Chicago have noted.

In a country that feeds with such frenzy on its popular past, this is strange. Over the past fifteen years, mainstream American culture has been greedily recreating the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and now even the ’80s. There are signs that our popular historical vision has begun to re-include World War II, if only for the breadth of its spectacle and the opportunity to make easy moral pronouncements. But the Jazz Age, prohibition and the Great Depression have disappeared, it seems, from our screens, large and small.

Capone ruled Chicago in the ’20s and ’30s, buddying up with police and politicians, sweeping his competetion under the rug (and the river) with dramatic daylight raids and cold-blooded operations like the St Valentine’s Day Massacre–another day celebrated only in Chicago. His success was as much due to organization as to muscle and will, and the police and FBI were never able to get him on any charges of substance. It took the Treasury Department working with the IRS (then a mere fledgling organization) to nail him on tax evasion charges and send him up the river.

In prison, it was said, Capone’s spirit and then his health gave way. The American public, partly disgusted and partly fascinated with the gangster, found the ending of his story unsatisfying. Unlike the spectacular bloodbath of Bonnie and Clyde, Capone’s demise was ordinary, even dull. Others rose from within his organization to take over, but none were strong enough to keep Chicago whole, and soon skirmishes between the rival gangs gradually escalated into warfare. Turf was lost, the kingdom divvied up.

Our real memory in America is visual, and Capone and his compadres were well represented during their time. Actors such as Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart rose to their now iconic stardom by playing these same hoods–young men with nothing to lose in an unfair society where money meant everything. But when the noir thriller replaced the straight gangster flick in the late ’40s and early ’50s, Capone and his kind were relegated to the small screen–most notoriously to the TV series The Untouchables. The ’60s did little with the mob, and nothing serious; a Star Trek episode returned to ’20s Chicago to spoof the customs, as did any number of cartoons.

The full return of the Mafia to the American imagination came in 1972, with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Besides being a massive hit and award winner, it spawned any number of imitators, so that the basic structure of the family and its operations once again became part of the popular, shared heritage, and the godfather, the don, the capo di tutti capi (spelling, please), became again a figure of fear and veneration.

Al Capone is the obvious model for Don Corleone, and it’s no mistake that the two contemporary actors who play the heads of their families–Brando in The Godfather, DeNiro as Capone in the film The Untouchables–are not only capable of great menace, but great wisdom. Both actors also have that quality so necesary to appeal to American audiences: that of the talented outsider, the individual working against the machine, willing to face it with guile, violence and, those failing, to deny its right to use them through sheer refusal, even at the risk of destruction. It’s the same quality that drew Americans to Capone and Dillinger, the same quality that had us cheering Cagney as he fired away at the coppers.

So it’s no mystery that corporate Hollywood and conservative America aren’t celebrating the gangster right now. But some people are.

Just as Al Capone is the model for Don Corleone, so are Don Corleone and his family the obvious model for a whole generation of gangsta rappers, each with his own posse of bad-ass lieutenants. From the late Tupac and the late Biggie Smalls to Master P to Snoop Doggy Dogg’s pose as The Doggfather, the attitudes and the rhetoric are clever riffs on that old Sicilian tune, and this structure is only a reflection of how things are working on the streets.

Prohibition and the War on Drugs aren’t that far apart in some places, and the way to get ahead is sometimes illegal and dangerous. You need to trust the people watching your back as if they were family, and they need to know you’ll do the same for them. At the heart of this hard-boiled ethic is Al Capone, utterly forgotten yet in some strange way still holding sway over neighborhoods, whole cities. Like Capone’s and Dillinger’s crews, these new families and their wild successes and bloody, seemingly unnecessary turf wars have shocked and captivated the rest of America, so much so that their language and fashion and music (and goods) have become a part of even the most remote country towns. Al would be proud. Happy Birthday.

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