Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Whiz! Bang! Buzzkill!

Fifty years later, looking back on the man who fought the mob and the comic book industry ... and won

By Jason Scavone

In March 1951, Frank Costello sat across from U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver and his special committee to investigate crime and, when asked what he ever did for his country, scoffed “Paid my tax.”
The moment is the climax of the Mob Museum’s best installment, a look at the Kefauver Hearings, which rolled into the old Las Vegas courtroom on November 15, 1950. Vegas, then in the warm, lovingly extortionate embrace of the mob, was a natural fit for Kefauver’s crusading.
The hearings concluded a month later, signaling the first inroads toward breaking the mob’s control of Vegas. (Thanks for ruining my potential career paths in leg-breaking, numbers-running or wheel-manning, Estes.) The triumph gave Kefauver enough steam to mount presidential bids in 1952 and 1956 (eventually joining the ticket as Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in ’56).
But 50 years ago on April 21, Kefauver, in between failed presidential bids, held another set of hearings. The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency had people actually testify, in front of members of Congress and everything, about the dangerous, morality-eroding qualities of comic books.
Because Estes Kefauver is history’s biggest buzzkill.
In 1953, Senator Robert Hendrickson convened the subcommittee of the Judiciary (on which Senator Pat McCarran of Nevada sat at the time) to investigate the growing problem of juvenile delinquency (lots of leather jackets; frequent orders to “scram”) along with Senators Thomas Hennings, William Langer and Kefauver. For three days in New York in 1954, the committee grilled a series of psychologists, publishers and cartoonists about the link between “crime and horror comics,” and the rising tide of juvenile crime. Like all the Luckies that were being shoplifted, or the way doo-wop groups terrorized street corners all over the neighborhood.
They were spurred on largely by The Seduction of the Innocent, a book published in 1954 by New York psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham, then 59 and a consulting psychiatrist at both Queens Hospital Center and the New York Police Department’s juvenile aid bureau.
Wertham wasn’t exactly a fan of comics. Or of, you know, tolerance. In Seduction, he accused Batman and Robin of being secretly gay partners and Wonder Woman of being a lesbian. He also thought there was a secret conspiracy in the publishing world to keep Seduction out of circulation, pointedly asking the subcommittee, “Will this book be distributed or will the sinister hand of these corrupters of children, of this comic book industry, will they prevent distribution?”
Not self-delusional enough for you?
“Stating that mine is not a minority report, Mr. Chairman, I would like to quote one more critic, Mr. Clifton Fadiman, who says that he senses the truth in my presentation as he sensed the truth in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Nothing like putting your hysterical fears that Wonder Woman might have a girlfriend up against a landmark text in the crusade against slavery. Maybe you can write that off as it being the times, but if you really want to get a sense of just how Fox News-on-cheap-PCP unhinged the climate was, consider the exchange when Wertham insisted that comics trained kids in how to rob banks and whatnot by eliminating the kinds of mistakes that normally brought down criminals.
Kefauver:  Would you liken this situation you talk about, showing the same thing over and over again until they finally believed it, to what we heard about during the last war of Hitler’s theory [of telling] the story over and over again?
Hendrickson: The “big lie” technique?
Wertham: Well, I hate to say that, Senator, but I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry. They get the children much younger. They teach them race hatred at the age of 4 before they can read.
In 1940. Steve Rogers clearly beat up Hitler on the cover of Captain America No. 1, so I’m pretty sure Wertham didn’t even bother to fact-check his material. But Batman and Robin are gay? Everything you oppose equals Hitler? Give Wertham credit: He was an Internet comments troll 40 years before there was an Internet.
With the focus of the hearings on crime and horror books—the bread and butter of EC Comics—the committee saw fit to bring in EC publisher William Gaines, who got in what might have been the greatest dig ever entered into the congressional record: “Some may not like them. That is a matter of personal taste. It would be just as difficult to explain the harmless thrill of a horror story to a Dr. Wertham as it would be to explain the sublimity of love to a frigid old maid.”
Then, for the second time in four years, Kefauver got Costello-ed.
Kefauver: Here is your May 22 issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’s head up, which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?
Gaines: Yes, sir; I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.
Kefauver: You have blood coming out of her mouth. 
Gaines: A little.
Just as with the mob, though, Kefauver’s committee got its way. By September 1954, the comic book industry voluntarily banded together to create the Comics Code Authority, which would self-regulate for decades until Marvel withdrew in 2001, DC in 2011 and finally, even Archie. (Archie Comics recently announced they’d be killing off Archie Andrews. Coincidence?)
The mega-blockbuster films of today more accurately reflect Code-era comics than they do darker material that started when the industry fractured in the ’80s—except for the rule that “females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.” No one could have foreseen Scarlett Johansson.

But the hearings do give credence to those who insist that Vegas was better in the mob days. If the man who so clearly loathed fun was the same guy who wanted to get truth, justice and the American way into the casinos, maybe gun molls and the skim really were better than players club cards and progressive slots.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

When Senator Kefauver Inspired the Scripts

Studio Films That Went After the Mob

By J. HOBERMANFEB. 14, 2014

Barry Sullivan, right, swinging away in “The Miami Story” (1954), directed by Fred F. Sears, one of several films that took their cues from the Senate hearings into organized crime in the early 1950s. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
A sonorous introduction by a United States senator, location shots of a major American city taken over by “the syndicate,” didactic demonstrations of criminal power and an action-packed denouement in which the vaguely Latin vice lord is dispatched by a representative of the law: “The Miami Story” (1954), briskly directed by Fred F. Sears, a prolific specialist in juvenile delinquency scare films and sci-fi cheapsters — and a new manufactured-on-demand release from Sony Pictures — is a classic example of the Kefauver policier.
Not exactly films noir, mid-’50s B movies like “New York Confidential,” “The Phenix City Story” and “New Orleans Uncensored” were inspired by the hearings, held in 1950 and 1951 by the Senate’s Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, led by Estes Kefauver, the crusading Democrat from Tennessee. The initial hearings were convened in Miami with Kefauver accumulating ever more publicity as his committee traveled from city to city, offering an alternative to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s tale of Communist subversion. Where the F.B.I.’s director, J. Edgar Hoover, had long denied the existence of organized crime in America, the Kefauver hearings introduced Americans to the criminal cabal known as the Mafia.
The 1951 New York hearings were telecast in their entirety to sensational reviews: “The television viewer at home and the hundreds who crowded around sets in bars and radio stores saw yesterday probably the most remarkable, absorbing and instructive day of video ever presented on the screen,” Jack Gould wrote in The New York Times. “The opening session of the Senate Crime Investigating Committee was nothing less than a Hollywood thriller truly brought to life.” Hollywood had already taken notice. Even before the committee arrived in New York, Kefauver was invited to provide a prologue for a new Warner Bros. crime film, “The Enforcer.”
A semidocumentary treatment of the Brooklyn-based hired killers known as Murder Incorporated, “The Enforcer” (recently released on DVD by Olive Films) explained such key underworld terms as “hit,” “finger” and “contract.” Although this taut, violent and frequently hysterical movie is credited to Bretaigne Windust, it was salvaged by Raoul Walsh, then the dean of Warner action directors. In addition to starring Humphrey Bogart as a gat-packing district attorney, “The Enforcer” is well-stocked with studio-contract plug-uglies, as well as the young Zero Mostel, introduced screaming as an extremely nervous, ice-pick-wielding hit man. (The movie was one of five 1951 releases in which Mostel would appear before being blacklisted.)
Bogart, making his last picture for Warners, has no difficulty pushing any of these mugs around; the studio, however, excised Kefauver’s preface early in the movie’s run. (It has not been restored.) Perhaps the senator was concerned that his staid introduction, invoking “an assault upon society by one of the worst criminal elements in history” while stressing that these lawbreakers had been apprehended and eradicated “without denying them any of the rights that American citizens are guaranteed” was undercut by the movie’s excessive mayhem. In any case, Kefauver would not appear in a movie until 1952, when he provided the postscript for “The Captive City” (released on DVD by MGM several years ago).
“Hoodlum Empire” (1952), another recent Olive offering, was efficiently put through its paces by Joseph Kane, a house director for Republic Pictures, and is explicitly based on the New York hearings. Brian Donleavy is the tough, unflappable Kefauver figure, with Claire Trevor playing a version of Virginia Hill, the colorful gang moll the tabloids called “mistress to the mob,” and Luther Adler impersonating the hearings’ other star, Frank Costello, the dapper criminal given the sobriquet “prime minister of the underworld.”
The movie not only reconstructs the committee hearings, punctuated with repeated stock shots of the courthouse on Foley Square, but refers to them. It is only after watching his flunkies flub their lines on TV that the Adler character decides to stop ducking a subpoena, go before the cameras and testify in his own behalf.
Adler, a onetime Group Theater member who was mainly cast as heavies (including Hitler) after being listed as a subversive by the anti-Communist tip sheet Red Channels, plays a similar role in “The Miami Story.” Here, the sleek, heavy-lidded actor enlivens the movie as the gambling kingpin Tony Brill, who, as in “Hoodlum Empire,” is vain, self-deluded and saddled with a brassy, possibly treacherous moll (played by the Brooklyn-born ex-chorine Adele Jergens).
The villain runs what the photogenic Florida senator (and Kefauver committee member) George Smathers characterizes in the movie’s introduction as “the world’s most powerful crime operation.” Brill is slightly more modest in describing himself as “like maybe the president of a big corporation.” (The association between organized crime and legitimate business is not uncommon in Kefauver films, although the senator more often compared the racket to a totalitarian regime.)
It’s unclear whether Brill is good or bad for local tourism, but after he orders a hit on a pair of rival thugs getting off a Havana flight, a group of concerned citizens recruits the reformed Chicago hoodlum Mick Flagg (a hulking Barry Sullivan in a part once intended for the old school Warners gangster George Raft) to run Brill out of town.

Flagg’s job not only involves some two-fisted intimidation but also state-of-the-art surveillance in bugging Brill’s posh Biscayne Club casino with clunky television cameras. Sunshine returns to South Florida. The boosterism implied in Smathers’s introduction is burnished by having the out-of-town vigilante board at the swank San Souci hotel, the architect Morris Lapidus’s first Miami Beach commission, and making sure the signage gets plenty of semidocumentary screen time.