I’d love to send each and every one of you a gold box of decadent Godiva chocolates and a dozen long stemmed roses for Valentine’s Day. Not gonna, of course.
Since The Stiletto Gumshoe comes from the Second City (well, it was ‘second’ at one time) or the Windy City if you prefer, lets skip the hearts and flowers for this Valentine’s and consider a Valentine from just over 90 years ago…along with one from over 50 years ago while we’re at it.
You know, you can chow down on pretty darn good pizza at an Italian restaurant/bar where a corner table looks out right into the alley where John Dillinger was gunned down. In fact, if the pussycat-sized rats will let you pass, you can even take an après-dinner stroll between that eatery and the Biograph Theatre where the Public Enemy, his gal-pal Billie Frechette and the notorious “lady in red” took in Manhattan Melodrama almost ninety years ago.
Unfortunately, you can’t poke around the bullet-riddled brickwork of the North Clark Street garage where the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre occurred, that building torn down long ago and only a vacant lot now (photo below).
That bloody but botched assassination attempt was a symbolic climax to the violent prohibition era gangland warfare that turned Chicago into a battleground throughout much of the 1920’s, in which Al Capone and the Mafia tried to take out North Side bootlegger George ‘Bugs’ Moran once and for all. As it happened, Moran coincidentally escaped the bloodbath, but members of his gang, hangers-on and a garage mechanic were lined up against the wall by Capone gunmen dressed as Chicago cops and Tommy-gunned down. Capone was questioned but never charged with the crime, but always assumed to have ordered the killings, supposedly planned by Jack ‘Machine Gun’ McGurn.
For all of Hollywood’s fascination with gangsters, no one made a movie specifically about the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre until Roger Corman’s 1967 version with 20thCentury Fox. Working with an unfamiliar big-budget and full studio resources, B-Movie veteran Corman intended to shoot on location in Chicago with classically trained actors backed up by some AIP reliables, but studio execs immediately vetoed Orson Welles as Al Capone, putting Jason Robards (originally cast as Bugs Moran) in the role. Moreover, the movie was shot on the Fox studio backlot and sound stages, some street scenes looking pretty familiar from countless 1950’s/60’s/70’s era TV shows and movies. (The climactic massacre itself was shot at Desilu studios.) Ralph Meeker, Bruce Dern and Jack Nicholson all make appearances along with often-seen TV and B-movie actors, and while no one would claim that Robards looks remotely like Capone, he delivers an energetic performance. Screenwriter Howard Browne had done extensive research on the subject and already written Seven Against The Wall for CBS’ Playhouse 90 in 1958. Supposedly with the seven-week shoot nearing completion, director Corman fretted that the movie was missing something – specifically, a woman…any woman – and they quickly cobbled together some business for Moran gang gunsel George Segal’s gun moll, played by Jean Hale. Intrusive as the bit may be, it’s a surprisingly well done and entertaining sequence for something shoehorned in at the last minute.
I’ll leave it to true crime and gangster buffs to nit-pick the historical inaccuracies – and I’m sure there are many. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde this is not. Still, it’s a pretty entertaining flick, surely lurking online somewhere or likely to turn up on cable. Hopefully you’ll have more romantic things to do this Valentine’s weekend. But if not, what would go down better than Chicago bootleggers, mobsters and the most infamous gangland slaying in a kitschy 1960’s B-movie?