Cast & Crew
When a member of the Maddock gang is mortally wounded, he reveals to District Attorney Lucas and Inspector Sullivan that "Rocky" Thorpe's boys shot him. Because Lucas sent Rocky to prison five years before, they can't believe that he still controls his old gang, but after questioning three of Rocky's men, Sullivan knows that the gangster is responsible. Rocky has been keeping tabs on his gang by listening to a shortwave radio through which his men send veiled messages. As Sullivan and Lucas talk about Rocky's imminent release, he walks in on them and announces that he wants to talk busines. Lucas fears for his life, but is relieved to find that the gangster is really upstate policeman John Franklyn, a double for Rocky. To make his impersonation more realistic, John undergoes plastic surgery to have a permanent scar on his face like Rocky's, smokes cigars and becomes acquainted with Rocky's dog and girl friend Orchid. The night before Rocky's release, Sullivan and the warden take him from his cell and make a switch with John, telling Rocky that they are protecting him. Only the warden and Sullivan know about the special cell that holds Rocky. Upon "Rocky's" release, John appears in his place, and Rocky's three closest men, Dapper, Panatella and Tombstone meet him, not suspicious at all. Orchid thinks that Rocky doesn't seem the same, but grudgingly accepts the change as the passage of time. At a nightclub, John gets a note to go to one of the dressing rooms and finds that singer Connie Benson merely wants to ask him to let her kid brother Al out of his gang. Jealous, Orchid confronts them, but is dismissed by John. Later, Maddock sends John a skunk, and in retaliation, Dapper sends some of the boys to him, including Al. John is infuriated with Dapper, as is Orchid, who thinks that "Rocky" is in love with Connie. John then agrees to go alone to Maddock's to get Al back, and proposes that all of the gangs get together and band against law enforcement officers. Connie now thinks that "Rocky" is really kind underneath his harsh exterior and Orchid becomes even more jealous. Meanwhile, a prison guard who is secretly in Rocky's gang, notices one of Rocky's cigar butts in the warden's office and contacts Al to tell him that he thinks the freed Rocky is a phony. At the same time, Orchid tells Dapper that "Rocky" has changed so much that she is convinced that he is an imposter. She and Dapper plan to test him by seeing if he remembers an expensive piece of jewelry. That same night, Al shows the note about the real Rocky to Connie instead of Dapper and she realizes the kind Rocky she has come to know is really a brave policeman. When Dapper's jewelry ploy reveals that John is not the real Rocky, he draws a gun, but Al, who is driving their car, helps by swerving just as Dapper is about to shoot. Meanwhile, the real Rocky discovers what has happened and escapes, then calls Orchid. During the meeting with the rival mobs, Orchid calls and tells Tombstone about the fake Rocky and Tombstone draws a gun on him. The real Rocky then shows up and demands to kill John himself, but the gangs first want to know what John has revealed to the police. Just then Sullivan and his men arrive and crash through the garage in which they are meeting. A wounded Dapper arrives, and not realizing that the real Rocky stands before him, shoots and kills him. Now, with the gangs broken, John is free to marry Connie, with Al as a witness.
Albert J. Cohen
John Victor Mackay
Charles Francis Royal
According to various news items in Hollywood Reporter, as well as information in reviews, and the file on the film in MPAA/PCA Collection in the AMPAS Library, Republic purchased the rights to Herbert Asbury's book in 1936, intending to put it into production within the year. Because of censorship problems with the Hays Office over the gang elements of the novel, however, the story had to be toned down. In late June 1936. Endre Bohem was assigned to write a script for the film, however, the extent of his work reflected in the released film has not been determined. The idea of adapting the Asbury book was apparently abandoned in favor of a new "original" story by Sam Fuller "suggested by" the Asbury book, and a screenplay by Wellyn Totman, Fuller and Charles Francis Royal, with additional dialogue supplied by Jack Townley. This final script had little more than a thematic relationship to the original Asbury book. The title of the picture was The Racket Busters for a short time prior to production, but most references to the film from 1936 on used the title Gangs of New York. Republic produced a film entitled It Could Happen to You in mid-1937 that was known as Gangs of New York for a period in late 1936. Some news items from that time that refer to the title Gangs of New York, actually are referring to the 1937 film It Could Happen to You.
The script for the the 1938 Gangs of New York was initially rejected by the Hays Office because of the gang violence and the suggestion of a sexual liaison between Rocky and Orchid. Additional problems in the script noted by Joseph I. Breen of the Hays Office, in a memo to scenario editor Albert J. Cohen, included the mentioning of several specific cities, the extensive use of machine guns and the identification of the F.B.I. The Hays Office finally approved the script after most of the objectional material had been removed, and the completed picture was certified on April 25, 1938. At that time, two additional points were made by the office: the scene in which Rocky uses his own key to enter Orchid's apartment should be eliminated, and in the scene during which Dapper is killed by a policeman, only one shot should be used. The office also advised Republic that some censorship boards might object to the expression "punks," in reference to the gang members, and that New York state would most likely object to the title and the setting. Despite the Hays Office warnings, the New York state censorship board approved the picture without eliminations. Although reviews and copyright records refer to Alan Baxter's character name as Dancer, he is called Dapper in the story. Charles Bickford's character's surname is Franklin in reviews and copyright records, but in the film a newspaper headline spells the name Franklyn.
In 2002, Miramax Film Corp. released Gangs of New York, which was also based on Herbert Asbury's book. The 2002 film, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis and Cameron Diaz, was more closely based on Asbury's book and more historically accurate.