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King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein

Not for nothing did they call Arnold Rothstein "the Brain." Born in January 1872 into more respectable means than could be claimed by most Prohibition era crime kingpins (his father was a respected Jewish businessman), Rothstein was a mathematical savant but a poor student who quit high school after two years to continue his education on the streets, in the pool halls and blind tigers of New York City. Rothstein continued his higher learning in, among other dens of iniquity, the prop room of Willie Hammerstein's Victoria Theatre on West 42nd Street, where there was a regular dice game every Monday (the one day out of seven that Broadway playhouses are traditionally dark). It was during these games of chance that Rothstein made his first illicit gains as a moneylender. By the time he was fifteen, Rothstein had earned five hundred dollars free and clear. By the time he was thirty, he was a millionaire, and a bootlegger and racketeer nonpareil. It was Rothstein's entrepreneurial spirit that allowed him to see the Volstead Act of 1920, which went into effect on his eighteenth birthday, as a business opportunity rather than a restriction. A mentor to the likes of Charles "Lucky" Luciano and John "Legs" Diamond, Rothstein created a business model for legitimizing criminality that would be corporatized following his 1928 assassination as Albert Anastasia and Louis "Lepke" Buchalter's "Murder, Inc."

Writer Damon Runyon once witnessed a failed attempt on Rothstein's life and later immortalized "the Moses of the Jewish mafia" as Nathan Detroit in a story expanded upon by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows for the 1950 Broadway musical Guys and Dolls. Rothstein was also the inspiration for William Powell's "Natural" Davis in Street of Chance (1930), for Spencer Tracy's Murray Golden in Now I'll Tell (1934, based on the memoirs of Rothstein's widow) and for Akim Tamiroff's Steve Kalkas in King of Gamblers (1937). F. Scott Fitzgerald used Rothstein as the model for bootlegger Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby. It was only after Rothstein had been dead for thirty years that Hollywood dared use his proper name, as a supporting character in The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960) and as the subject of King of the Roaring 20s: The Arnold Rothstein Story (1961).

Based on Leo Katcher's 1959 nonfiction book The Big Bankroll: The Life and Times of Arnold Rothstein, King of the Roaring 20s belongs to a glut of true crime films produced in the aftermath of Estes Kefauver's televised Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce. Shot under the working title The Big Bankroll, this Allied Artists release effectively capped the syndicate crime film cycle, which had been kicked off by The Mob (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954) and was inspired in part by the success of the Desilu TV series The Untouchables.

Cast as Rothstein was 29 year-old actor David Janssen. Born David Harold Meyer in Nebraska in 1931, Janssen (the surname came from his stepfather) was a graduate of the Universal Talent School, whose alumni includes the likes of Rock Hudson, Clint Eastwood, John Saxon, Hugh O'Brian, Piper Laurie and Mamie Van Doren. Dropped as a contract player by Universal in 1956 (Eastwood and Burt Reynolds had been dismissed the previous October), Janssen rebounded as the star of the CBS series Richard Diamond, Private Detective, which moved to NBC for its final season. As a free agent, Janssen worked steadily on screens big and small. Cheated out of a coveted costarring role alongside Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8 (1960), Janssen made back-to-back films throughout most of 1960: Hell to Eternity in February and March, Dondi in July and August, Ring of Fire in September and October and King of the Roaring 20s in November. Allied Artists copyrighted the property as King of the Roaring 20s: The Arnold Rothstein Story in January 1961 and released the film that June. After shooting a failed pilot (released theatrically as Belle Sommers in 1962), Janssen accepted with some reluctance the lead role of wrongly accused surgeon Richard Kimball in Quinn Martin's weekly series The Fugitive, which became a surprise hit for both ABC and the actor. David Janssen died of a heart attack on February 13, 1980, a few weeks shy of his 49th birthday.

Producer: Samuel Bischoff, David Diamond (producer)
Director: Joseph M. Newman
Screenplay: Jo Swerling (writer); Leo Katcher (book "The Big Bankroll")
Cinematography: Carl E. Guthrie
Art Direction: Dave Milton
Music: Franz Waxman
Film Editing: George White
Cast: David Janssen (Arnold Rothstein), Dianne Foster (Carolyn Green), Mickey Rooney (Johnny Burke), Jack Carson (Timothy W. 'Big Tim' O'Brien), Diana Dors (Madge), Dan O'Herlihy (Phil Butler), Mickey Shaughnessy (Jim Kelly), Keenan Wynn (Tom Fowler), Joseph Schildkraut (Abraham Rothstein), William Demarest (Henry Hecht).
BW-105m.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
The Big Bankroll: The Life and Times of Arnold Rothstein by Leo Katcher (Da Capo Press, 1994)
"The A-Z of Crime: Rothstein," Crime and Punishment: A Pictorial Encyclopedia of Aberrant Behavior, Volume 14 (The Symphonette Press, 1974)
Crime Movies: An Illustrated History by Carlos Clarens (WW Norton & Company, 1980)
The David Janssen Archive, www.davidjanssen.net VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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