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The Purple Gang was an actual group of criminals, also known as the Sugar House Gang, that operated out of Detroit in the early 20th century. Originally just a gang of juvenile delinquents engaged in relatively minor street crimes, the group graduated to bootlegging with the 1918 advent of prohibition, thanks to the city's proximity to Canada, where liquor was still legal. In the course of these operations, they also became involved in armed robbery, extortion, hijacking, kidnapping, and murder and gained a reputation for their blatantly high profile mode of operations and viciousness in dealing with enemies. Never a tightly organized mob syndicate, the Purple Gang was a loose confederation of predominantly Jewish criminals under the leadership of the Bernstein Brothers and mentored by more established crime bosses who used the gang for various racketeering operations. They were brought to trial in 1928 but acquitted. Members of the gang were later convicted of their roles in various gangland killings, and by 1935 the Purples no longer had any power in the city.
The 1959 movie The Purple Gang purged the story of its Jewishness, putting the gang leadership primarily into the hands of the psychotic William "Honeyboy" Willard, a fictional character played by Italian Robert Blake. Three brothers involved in the gang were renamed Olsen instead of Bernstein. The one major real-life character that made it into the movie was "Killer" Burke, a notorious machine gunner who took part in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, hired by the gang to carry out a mass killing of rivals. For some reason, Burke's real first name, Fred, was changed to Thomas for this story.
The movie begins with a prologue in which California Congressman James Roosevelt, son of President Franklin Roosevelt, states that the same "sickness" featured in the film still exists in contemporary society, and only an informed public can provide the cure. The Purple Gang is then narrated intermittently by Barry Sullivan as the gang's would-be nemesis on the Detroit police force. Newsreel footage from the 1930s was incorporated into the picture, but any attempt to capture the real look and feel of the Prohibition years can best be described as minimal.
Although the prologue condemns the type of crime depicted in the film, The Purple Gang tends toward sensationalism, finding in the real-life story -- and in Blake's jittery James Dean inspired performance -- the kind of thrills audiences of the late 1950s had come to expect from juvenile delinquent stories. But The Purple Gang makes no attempt to understand the young criminals or attribute their behavior to society's ills, for which it was criticized by reviewers of the time.
Director Frank McDonald, a former railroad worker who began his show business career acting on stage, made his name in movies grinding out Westerns, mostly at Republic Studios and many of them starring Gene Autry or Roy Rogers. Screenwriter Jack DeWitt was also known for Westerns, including Sitting Bull (1954) and A Man Called Horse (1970).
The original gang was notorious enough to make it into a hit rock and roll song, Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock," in the lyrics: "The whole rhythm section was the Purple Gang." A documentary about the gang was made in 2008 under the same title as The Purple Gang.
Director: Frank McDonald
Producer: Lindsley Parsons
Screenplay: Jack DeWitt
Cinematography: Ellis Carter
Art Direction: David Milton
Original Music: Paul Dunlap
Cast: Barry Sullivan (Police Lt. William Harley), Robert Blake (William "Honeyboy" Willard), Elaine Edwards (Gladys Harley), Marc Cavell (Hank Smith), Joe Turkel (Eddie Olsen).
by Rob Nixon