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In 1937, amazingly enough, Variety declared The Last Gangster "a pic which may well be the last gangster film." That's laughable, of course, but when one considers the sheer volume of gangster and crime melodramas sweeping across movie screens in the 1930s, it seems plausible that some might have thought the genre had run its course - or at least hoped that it had. In fact, Variety went on to say that the movie "offers nothing, or negligibly little, that is new." On the other hand, the same review also said "the production is swell, the writing and direction slick. In the first-runs and in the nabes, Gangster can stand on its own merits and will win money."
And it did, with audiences eager to see Edward G. Robinson in the type of role they loved best. Here, he's an aging racketeer who wants a son who can follow in his crooked footsteps. Being of Slavic background, he travels to Europe to find a wife from his homeland. Everything goes to plan - the wife, the trip back to America, the birth of the son - until Robinson is convicted for tax evasion. While he's in Alcatraz, his naive wife learns the truth about him and runs away to start a new life with their son and newspaper reporter James Stewart, who is sympathetic to her situation. But once out of jail, Robinson starts to track them down.
Fast-moving and entertaining, The Last Gangster featured one of James Stewart's first significant leading roles at MGM, where he was still being groomed for stardom after making eleven films over two years. Stewart did very well as the humane reporter but looked ridiculous with a moustache. He learned a lesson - he wouldn't wear one again until Fools' Parade (1971).
Playing Robinson's wife was an Austrian actress named Rose Stradner. Variety noted her performance: "Rose Stradner, from Vienna stage, is making her film debut in the U.S. As an actress, her talents lie on the dramatic side. She's attractive enough to win attention, too." In truth, Stradner's career quickly faded. She appeared in a 1939 Columbia picture, Blind Alley, then married writer-producer (and future director) Joseph Mankiewicz. Except for a small role in The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), which Mankiewicz wrote and produced, she retired from the screen to raise the couple's two sons. Sadly, in 1958 she committed suicide by a drug overdose.
The Last Gangster is really Edward G. Robinson's movie, as he once again delivers a powerhouse portrayal of a hood with some human decency lurking inside. At this point Robinson had just re-signed with Warner Bros. in a deal that gave the star much more autonomy and power. The studio was offering him crime script after crime script, but Robinson turned them all down, wanting to move away from the genre. "The scripts were all bad," he later wrote, but "the truth is I was setting up my independence of action with Warner's. It seemed necessary to exercise the clauses in the new contract that gave me approval. I had to show that I meant it." Why, then, did Robinson accept an offer from MGM to play in a movie called The Last Gangster? Robinson admitted the irony, writing, "I, who had script approval, hoping never again to play a gangster, now agreed to play an aging one. I know now that the decision to accept the Metro offer was made out of bad temper, anxiety, and the ever-mounting costs of the remodeling of [my] house. Money was the overriding consideration, not art. And it's rather a relief to be able to admit that thirty-five years later."
Robinson described Metro as "politically the most schizophrenic of lots. The executives, almost to a man, were antiliberal; the writers and lesser executives were fellow members of mine in organizations to oppose the Nazis. Thus, the commissary divided itself into tables where political differences were minimized. The screams of rage as writer would confront director on the subject of Hitler's entry into the Rhineland made it quite impossible to have a bacon and tomato on whole wheat toast in peace. Eventually I resorted to having lunch in my dressing room; it is quite impossible to do justice to a role after you've spilled your guts out on the subject of the Sudetan Germans."
The Last Gangster was directed by Edward Ludwig, but also in the credits is the name of William Wellman. The master director co-wrote the story, and years later he recounted the colorful reason why - in short, he "had gotten in wrong with Louis B. Mayer." Wellman had recently come to MGM and directed a couple of movies there, and one day he and fellow director Woody Van Dyke found themselves called into Mayer's office. The studio chief announced that he wanted to use Wellman and Dyke "to shame these other directors to be able to make pictures as fast and as competently and for the amount of money that you two do." He added, "So I'm your general and you're my two sergeants." This rubbed Wellman the wrong way and he told Mayer, "if you think you're hiring me for a fink, you're nuts." Mayer was furious, and as Wellman recalled, he and Dyke "walked out of that office and then we were in the doghouse."
As revenge, Mayer didn't let Wellman direct. He simply paid him week after week without any assignment. Wellman was going crazy with frustration and finally he called up the No. 2 studio executive, Eddie Mannix, with an idea. Wellman would write scripts, and if Mannix liked them, he would buy them. If not, he wouldn't. Mannix agreed, and Wellman, teaming with young contract writer Bob Carson, promptly churned out The Last Gangster. They also wrote A Star is Born (1937), which Wellman ended up directing for David O. Selznick.
Producer: Lou L. Ostrow
Director: Edward Ludwig
Screenplay: Robert Carson (story), William A. Wellman (story), John Lee Mahin
Cinematography: William Daniels
Film Editing: Ben Lewis
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Edward Ward
Cast: Edward G. Robinson (Joe Krozac), James Stewart (Paul North, Sr.), Rose Stradner (Talya Krozac), Lionel Stander (Curly), Douglas Scott (Paul North, Jr.), John Carradine (Caspar).
BW-82m. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold