History of the World According to the Movies: Part 58 – Prohibition

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Of course, I couldn’t do a post about Prohibition without having a picture from the 1987 film The Untouchables with Kevin Costner as Elliot Ness and Sean Connery who does one of the worst Irish accents ever and still wins an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Still, while the Brian De Palma film does capture the popular image of Prohibition, it gets the whole story wrong when it came to Al Capone. Elliot Ness didn’t take down Al Capone nor ever met the guy. Nor was Frank J. Wilson a gun toting accountant. He was an IRS agent who spent his time in Chicago gathering information about Capone’s money because tax evasion was the only charge that stuck to him. Also, there were 12 Untouchables, not 4 and none of them died. Neither did Frank Nitti who was Al Capone’s No. 2.

Of course, we can’t talk about 1920s America without discussing Prohibition, which has been one of the default settings for many gangster films since the 1930s which made a fortune in Warner Brothers. From 1920 to 1933 alcohol was illegal in the United States under the 18th Amendment, which was in place thanks to the advocacy of Temperance organizations (though you have to admit, alcoholism was a big problem for much of US history which hurt a lot of families which explains why many people in the movement were also feminists). Still, this didn’t mean that alcohol’s ban was going to stop people from drinking because it wasn’t. Rather it was the reason that people kept on drinking that led to gin being made in bathtubs or by moonshiners, smuggled by organized crime syndicates as well as the likes of men like Al Capone, and served only in hole-in-the-wall bars known as speakeasies that could be highly prone to raids by stolid, humorless cops, or an ambush by Prohibition agents. Still, while Prohibition seemed like a good idea at the time, it actually did more harm than good such as leading to the rise of organized crime and violence in cities, alcoholism among women, people getting seriously ill or possibly dying from drink which you didn’t know what was in it, moon shining, and others. Nevertheless, movies set in this time tend to get a few things wrong, which I shall list accordingly.

Gangsters:

Only Italian led organized crime syndicates got involved in Prohibition. (Actually practically a lot of ethnic groups had their own organized crime syndicate involved during Prohibition, not just the Italians. You had Irish guys like Bugs Moran, Jews like Meyer Lansky, black guys like Bumpy Johnson, and others. Yet, when people think of the mafia, they think of The Godfather for some reason. Oh, and not all Italian gangsters were Sicilian either. For example, Al Capone was Neapolitan.)

Gangster Peter Gusenberg was born in 1898. (He was born in 1888.)

Tommy guns were popular and reliable weapons for gangsters. (What Prohibition Era gangster wouldn’t be without his trusted tommy gun blowing everything around him to bits and killing everyone in sight nicknamed the “Chicago Typewriter”? Actually tommy guns weren’t as popular in Prohibition Era gangland as movies led you to believe since they were subject to frequent jams, which is one of the many problems it had. Nevertheless, its place as one of the first fully automatic weapons and association with gangsters during Prohibition was the inspiration for one of America’s first federal gun control laws, which required to register them.)

Al Capone:

Al Capone saw Enrico Caruso perform at the Chicago opera house while Elliot Ness was investigating him. (Elliot Ness started to investigate Capone in 1929. Enrico Caruso died in 1921, before Capone was just a relative unknown gangster working for Chicago Outfit head Johnny Torrio. Capone would become head of the Chicago Outfit in 1925.)

The jury in Al Capone’s trial was switched to the jury next door after the discovery that the first one had been bribed. (Something like this really happened but not in the way it’s depicted in The Untouchables. In real life, the jury was switched much earlier in the trial according to TTI, “the pool of jurors both sides could select or veto was switched; switching it when they did in the film, even if it had been allowed, would have meant that the new jury was handicapped by having missed the presentation of key evidence.” And no, it wouldn’t be switched with a jury in a divorce case in the next courtroom since divorces are covered by state law and Al Capone was charged with federal tax evasion, cases which wouldn’t be held in the same courthouse.)

Al Capone’s lawyer attempted to enter a plea without his client’s consent. (He never did this because this is a good way to have a mistrial, an overturned conviction, and an attorney disbarment. Al Capone’s lawyer wouldn’t have attempted this because such action would’ve not only cause him to lose his case {which happened anyway} but also to lose his job. For a lawyer to enter a plea without his or her client’s consent falls under Legal Stupidity 101, even in the 1920s.)

When found guilty Al Capone became violently angry over the verdict and punched his attorney. (Capone actually accepted his verdict calmly while meekly proclaiming to the press that he was innocent. He may have often been violent and unpleasant with his competitors and those inside his organization, he was very protective of his public image as a genial, “misunderstood benefactor” of Chicago and took great pains while in public {and dealing with the press} to remain refined, polite, and well mannered. He would’ve never made a public outburst in front of a courtroom, especially in front of the press. Yes, he was prone to temper tantrums but he knew how to behave himself in public.)

Al Capone’s wife was a Chicago single mom named Maureen Flannery with a daughter. (Her name was Mae Josephine Coughlin. She was an Irish American girl from Capone’s native Brooklyn who gave birth to his son before they were married.)

Al Capone last saw Frank Nitti in 1946. (Nitti had killed himself in 1943 so such reunion would’ve been impossible.)

Al Capone beat one of his associates to death with a baseball in front of British journalists at a party. (Yes, Capone is said to have personally attacked people with a baseball bat on at least three occasions but only when he was on the job. He would’ve never acted like that in front of the press or at a public party since he didn’t want people to think he was a violent sociopath.)

Al Capone was born in Italy but raised in a Brooklyn slum. (He was born in Brooklyn in 1899.)

Al Capone was indicted for tax evasion three months after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. (He was indicted and convicted of tax evasion in 1931.)

Al Capone killed Joe Aiello on a train in 1929. (Aiello was killed in a drive by shooting in 1930.)

Al Capone’s scar was caused from broken glass from a window. (It was actually a knife wound he received during an knife fight  he had between Frank Gallucio over a remark he made at the latter’s sister Lena at the Harvard Inn on Coney Island in 1917. Despite having the nickname of “Scarface” Capone was actually his scars which he would come to great lengths to hide in photographs and claim they were war wounds {though he never actually served in the military}.)

Al Capone was faithful to his wife. (Remember he died from syphilis so where did he contract that from? Then again, his son Albert Francis Capone was born with congenital syphilis due to this and that was a month before he married the boy’s mother. Still, it’s been proposed that his ruthless and raging personality was caused by him suffering third stage syphilis though which he probably contracted by the time he was 20 and possibly from his wife. Still, it’s a tough call.)

Al Capone moved to Chicago because he wanted to get in the liquor business there. (That and the fact he left Brooklyn because he was being investigated for murder.)

Frank Nitti:

Frank Nitti was killed by Elliot Ness after taunting him about murdering his partner. (Nitti actually killed himself in 1943 mostly because he had been indicted for extorting the Hollywood film industry and didn’t want to go to prison. It was also rumored he was suffering from terminal cancer. Also, he was a much smarter man that he’s depicted in The Untouchables because he took the reins of Capone’s organization and diversified the Chicago Outfit’s interest after Prohibition ended.)

Frank Nitti was one of Al Capone’s bodyguards. (He was Capone’s second-in-command as well as main enforcer. At least Road to Perdition gets his role right.)

Dutch Schultz:

Dutch Schultz had an unrequited love for a policeman’s wife during Prohibition. (This probably never happened. Also, he was married, sort of though not technically {it’s kind of complicated but he at least had romantic relations with at least two women, possibly having children with one of them}. Still, there’s a movie about his love for a policeman’s wife called Portrait of a Mobster with Vic Morrow.)

Dutch Schultz worked for Legs Diamond and his gang when he started up as a racketeer. (His first boss was named Joe Noe who initially hired him to tend a speakeasy but would make him his partner when Shultz earned a reputation for brutality and having a nasty temper. Also, before Noe hired him, Schultz was just a feeder and pressman for various trucking companies as well as a small time crook who’d already served prison time. Diamond was one of his competitors he had a gang war with.)

Dutch Schultz was shot by his friend Bo Wetzel by mistake, despite betraying him and already had a hit on him. (Actually he was done in by the Mafia Commission {the New York organized crime syndicate}, when he asked them for permission to kill U. S. Attorney Thomas Dewey {who was after him for two tax evasion. Also, he’s the same guy from “Dewey Defeats Truman”} in an attempt to avert his conviction. The Commission unanimously refused {for good reason} but he made an outburst and attempted to kill Dewey anyway. The Commission would later order Schultz’s murder just to save Dewey’s life. He was shot in the men’s room {either peeing or washing his hands} at his Newark, New Jersey headquarters by two hitmen from Murder Inc. Nevertheless, Schultz’s fatal flaw was his own selfish idiocy.)

Law Enforcement:

There were four members of the Untouchables and two of them died. (The Untouchables did exist and were led by Elliot Ness but they consisted of just 12 people and they all survived Prohibition. Oh, and they mostly raided stills and breweries. Also, the Treasury Department didn’t have a single casualty from Prohibition either.)

The Untouchables worked for the Treasury Department. (They were Prohibition agents who weren’t under Treasury Department jurisdiction.)

Law enforcement agents during Prohibition were always clean cut guys who usually didn’t drink. (There was a lot of corrupt law enforcement during Prohibition, since such corruption led many organized crime syndicates prosper and many agents did drink. Elliot Ness was an alcoholic.)

Frank J. Wilson:

Frank J. Wilson was an Untouchable as well as a gun toting accountant. (He wasn’t nor was he a gun toting accountant. He was an IRS agent who took down Al Capone, and he did it without a gun but by gathering information about his finances that revealed millions of dollars the crime boss made during Prohibition. This guy was totally screwed in The Untouchables but he actually ended up having a better life than Ness. He was also an investigator in the Lindbergh kidnapping case and would head the Secret Service before taking a long and comfortable retirement until his death in 1970.)

Elliot Ness:

There was a rooftop chase during Al Capone’s trial when Elliot Ness to the stand. (No there wasn’t but it’s in The Untouchables.)

Elliot Ness took down Al Capone. (The IRS did for Capone was put in prison for tax evasion, specifically by Franklin J. Wilson, though Ness did try to root out corruption in Chicago’s law enforcement while applying pressure to Al Capone’s organization but his raids in illegal breweries were intended as diversions. And no, Capone wasn’t taken down with Ness giving a big gun to a geeky looking accountant on Ness’ team because Ness had absolutely nothing to do with it. Capone wasn’t taken down by guns; he was taken down by some Treasury Department agent investigating the crime lord’s finances for three years, like tracking down his accountants and bookkeepers, that sort of thing. And Al Capone knew this and hired five guys to murder him for it but ended up canceling the hit after urgings from former mentor Johnny Torrio. Seems to me, Al Capone was more scared of some guy from the Treasury Department disguised as a tourist gathering dirt on his finances than the “great” Elliot Ness. It’s pretty funny thinking about it.)

Elliot Ness’ resolve to get Al Capone was only strengthened when Capone and Nitti threatened his loving wife and daughter. (For one, when Ness was assigned to Capone he was a young bachelor still living with his parents though he’d get married later on but his first marriage was a failure. Second, since Ness was a law enforcement officer, to threaten him or any members of his family would’ve been unthinkable for any gangster in the Chicago Outfit. Third, Al Capone wasn’t really scared of him as he was of IRS agent Frank J. Wilson who wanted to know more about his finances though he did underestimate the IRS.)

Elliot Ness once smashed a crate of pretty green parasols from Canada as well as participated on a horseback raid in Montana as well as a shootout in a station. (Ness never did these things. I’m sure anyone writing the screenplay to Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, just made these things up.)

Elliot Ness was a clean cut law enforcement officer who didn’t drink or fool around. (He used political/family connections to get his Chicago assignment as a Prohibition agent. Also, he was an inveterate philanderer and an alcoholic like Jimmy McNulty, but more of a hypocrite. Not to mention, he was divorced twice by the 1940s, which really said something and the rest of his life was plagued by business failures.)

Miscellaneous:

Al Capone and Elliot Ness met face to face. (They never did.)

Prohibition just consisted of G-Men vs. gangsters. (Actually there were other people involved in Prohibition like moonshiners in the Appalachians, rum runners, speakeasy workers, and such. It wasn’t all gangsters and law enforcement.)

Bootleg alcoholic drinks were safe to drink. (This isn’t always the case and a lot of people died from bad booze during this time.)

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