Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Singing Gangsters

          In Bugsy Malone, a British gangster-musical, we are faced with the classic gangster film setup: a mob boss known as Fat Sam is in danger of losing his entire empire to an upstart weapons salesman, Dandy Dan. Bugsy Malone, a boxing promoter and the movie’s title character, frequently finds himself embroiled with these gangs, particularly Fat Sam, either on behalf of his wannabe girlfriend, Blousey, or on behalf of his own tapped out piggybank. Clever and sly, Bugsy must balance his career with his desire to be with Blousey, a girl who dreams of nothing more than to go to Hollywood, to make it as a film actress. From this, it would seem that this is a pretty straightforward gangster film, a plotline seen in different variations throughout history. However, this is definitely is not the case. Through both the addition of the musical genre and manipulation of gangster genre conventions, Bugsy Malone works to convey a message very different than is common in the stereotypical gangster films, leading to a more positive, optimistic ending.

            There are several themes that are common to classic gangster films, those depression era films said to have set the standard of the genre, that run throughout Bugsy Malone. One of the most prominent themes that appear within both the early gangster films and this one is that of money and class. As is common to most films in this genre, it seems that this film is suggesting that a lack of money, life as a poor man or woman, leads easily into crime, a want of money leading to a desperation to acquire it, no matter what the cost.
            For this film in particular, this idea can be seen quite clearly in the fact that Bugsy Malone himself is almost always out of money. However, he doesn’t at first feel the desperation to rectify this; instead, he uses his cunning, his wit to steal, sneak out of places before paying, get services done for free. Though seemingly petty crimes compared to the violent explosiveness of the crimes committed directly by the gangs, Bugsy still breaks the law in doing this, his lack of money driving him to commit such acts.
             This can be seen as a steppingstone. He has already been pushed into the realm of crime, a toe instead of a whole foot, mirroring his need for cash. However, when he meets Blousey, things start to change. She wants him to take her to California, wants him to go to Hollywood with her, and for that, he needs cash, a great deal of it. He accepts Fat Sam’s job proposal and fully joins the world of the gangster, first driving Fat Sam to a meeting with Dandy Dan and then later, stealing a splurge gun from Dandy Dan. At first, he refuses to accept the job proposal. However, when the money offer is raised, he finds he is unable to decline, the allure of cash more convincing than morals or self-preservation.
            From that, this idea culminates in the musical number, “Down and Out.” Unable to take out all of the guards with only two men, Bugsy goes to enlist a group of struggling workers to help. He finds these men in a soup kitchen, relying on the goodwill of others to survive. Through his rousing, encouraging song, Bugsy manages to convince the men to help him and the gangsters he is working for, despite the danger of doing so, despite the possibility that they could all be “splurged.” This suggests that a lack of money can lead so easily into crime. These men felt they had no other choice. Like Bugsy himself, they saw helping a mob boss rob from another mob boss as a better choice than staying in the soup kitchen, sitting around in depression due to their lack of funding. At this point, they are desperate to do anything, to make money, to be useful, and through that, have no qualms helping Bugsy in his quest.
            Through all of this, Bugsy Malone is making a similar commentary regarding money, class, and its affects on society to that made in earlier, classic gangster films. Money corrupts. The lack of it can so simply drive people into the crime world, prompting them to find the quick, easier way to make the cash, a way that seems open to them and full of possibilities. Cash acts as the driving force in this film, the concept that draws characters into the world of the gangster, leaving them unable to escape. Because of this, the poor in the film are continually dragged into the dark underground of the gangster world, more susceptible to the allure of easy cash than they may be otherwise.

            In addition, ethnic themes common to the classic gangster film can also be seen in Bugsy Malone. Often times, the classic movies represented gangsters as either Italian or Irish. In doing so, they commented on the treatment of immigrants in American society. It was brought to attention that often, Americans shunned immigrants, thought them to be less than American, less than human sometimes. Because of this, immigrants were not granted the same opportunities as those whose families had been here longer periods of time. They were regulated to the docks or the janitorial staff, unable to make progress due to their ethnicity. As a result, many Italian and Irish families were left to suffer in squalor, quarantined to the poorer areas of town where crime was more frequent. This prompted many immigrants to move into the underworld of crime, finding opportunities for success and empowerment there that otherwise, they would never be able to find. As a result, a great many of the classic gangster films were built around immigrant families, showing that a lack of integration, of equal work opportunities, easily leads to a more crime-ridden society.
            This is similarly true in Bugsy Malone. The head of the central gang, Fat Sam, is Italian, even speaking phrases in the language such as, “Tutto coso sono buono.” He is struggling to maintain power, maintain his speakeasy and his control over the city. Few of the other characters have such well-defined ethnicity. Therefore, not only is this choice one that plays on the stereotypical conventions of the genre, it is also one that refers back to the classical era of the gangster film and the social connotations of an immigrant crime boss.

            Through all of this, the catastrophic effects of unbridled, unrestrained individualism, an idea also common to the classical era, manifests in a rather interesting way, interacting with the conventions of the musical genre in order to change the film’s overall meaning. In the early gangster films, this concept tends to be the central pillar. It is often suggested that individualism in this sense can only lead to disaster, to death and suffering and the ultimate collapse of everything one worked for. This is established through the main character, the gangster himself. The gangster is a symbol of this unrestrained individualistic attitude, the epitome of self-interest. He crushes those around him, steals and lies and murders in order to climb the ladder, in order to further his assets, build up his empire.
            From this, the classic gangster films tended to result in the gangster’s demise, usually very literally. All of his corruption comes back to bite him at the end. By pushing the boundaries of his career too far, the gangster is often captured by the police, his entire empire falling into disrepair as he wallows away in prison for the rest of eternity. More commonly though and even more significantly theme-wise, the gangster dies as a result of his greed, his clawing his way up the ladder towards “success” and power. He once again, becomes too out of control, pushes things too far, and is killed, usually by the police. Either way, the classic gangster films depict the rise of the gangster to be as a result of rampant individualism and the collapse of the gangster to be for the same reason, showing that this idea of self-interest will only lead to disaster.
            However, in Bugsy Malone, this idea is slightly altered. Individualism is a theme that runs throughout the film, the gangsters once again embodying this idea. Fat Sam is out for himself, desires to maintain his power, regardless of who gets in his way. The same can be said for Dandy Dan; he wants to steal power, crush Fat Sam and take his empire, his monopoly from him. Everything he does is for his own personal gain and as a result, he is willing to do anything. He takes men with him to meet with and “strike a deal” with Fat Sam, but instead, ends up shooting at the other men with splurge guns, taking two men out of the other gang. He “kills” who he needs to kill, manipulates who he needs to manipulate, in order to further gain power.
            However, his fall does not mirror that of the fall of classic gangsters. When he shows up at Fat Sam’s speakeasy at the end of the film, prepared to shoot the place and everyone within it to pieces, he finds himself in the middle of a splurge battle. Pies are flying everywhere, the bullets in this pushed gun war. As it happens earlier in the film, we are lead to think that every child who gets hit with one of these pies is dead, out of the world forever. Every person in the bar is hit at some point, even the piano player who is left to slump over the piano. From that, the audience is left with a massacre, the horror equal to that had real bullets been used.
            This is the downfall. All of these characters at one time or another acted purely out of their own self-interests. Because of that, everyone in the speakeasy has been splurged, something that has always been equated with being shot. Fat Sam, Dandy Dan, all of their men, they’re all “dead.” Their self-involvement and desire for power, their struggle to gain control resulting in the possible murder of all of these people, innocents and gangsters alike. As a result, this is the catastrophe at the end of the classic gangster film, the moment at which the gangster’s unrestrained individualism becomes his own undoing. Fat Sam and Dandy Dan have just “undone” themselves and almost every character we have met throughout the entire movie.
            Yet, it is gradually brought to the audience’s attention that the children are still standing. In opposition to the understanding of the splurge guns set up earlier in the film, everyone is covered in pie, but no one is “dead.” They look at each other, at the havoc they’ve created, and begin to sing the song, “You Give a Little Love.” In that, we see gangsters from both sides, sworn enemies, get up and hug each other. An alliance is formed; friendships are made. This moment changes the typical classical gangster response to individualism, manipulating it into something more positive.
          We have seen the affects of the individualism, have seen the suffering caused by it. It culminates in this final showdown, but a showdown that never has to fully happen. The full truth is understood, that self-interest leads to self-destruction, without anyone actually being killed, the simple suggestion enough to complete the message of the film. However, the final number adds even more to this message. It is not simply that individualism leads to destruction; it becomes more the idea of “Look what happened. Look what could’ve happened. Look what should’ve happened.” By forming these friendships at the end, the characters are acknowledging how insignificant, how pointless all of their fighting has been. There are more productive ways in which to exert their energy than to destroy those around them, giving the film its final line, “You give a little love and it all comes back to you. / You know you’re gonna be remembered for the things you say and do.” From this, the realization of the unimportance of what they are doing causes the characters to begin anew, a fresh start for them away from the world of crime, as is marked by Bugsy and Blousey’s departure for California.

            This idea of renewal relates further to the musical elements of Bugsy Malone. Though considered a musical by the typical definition, this film is very different than the majority of musicals that are seen. Usually, the audience of a musical film watches as the characters on screen sing and dance, breaking randomly into numbers that help to push the plot along, deliver exposition, or further convey the thoughts or emotions of the characters. Though the purpose of the numbers remains similar in Bugsy Malone, the execution is quite different.
            The main difference, separation between this film and other musicals is the fact that all of the child actors have adult singing voices, this used to further develop the themes of the film. By establishing a connection between the child characters and adults through this, it seems to be suggested that age is not necessarily a factor in the story being told. It is something that stretches across all age, gender, and ethnic gaps, something that is seen to be universal. Children can just as easily be placed in the same situations as adults, be faced with the same choices as adults.
             From this, the film seems to suggest that it is never too late to make a fresh start, is never too late to change how you are influencing, affecting the world. The use of children makes this particularly clear in that children are always seen as less set in their ways than adults. They then to be symbols of renewal, youth, hope for the future. They have time to grow, haven’t necessarily had the solidifying life experiences that adults have. However, the entire film is a blend of the adult and the child world. These children are adults in this universe; they have jobs; they make their own decisions; they are responsible for their own lives. Because of this, the film’s final message transcends age restrictions, signifying that adults as well as children should be able to change their lives, achieve their dreams and become a positive force on society.

            Therefore, throughout Bugsy Malone, the gangster and the musical genres are mixed, creating an amalgamation of themes and ideas, all culminating in the film’s final message. The classical gangster film’s themes of class, race, and individualism carry throughout, acting as both as a play on the stereotypical conventions of the genre and as an actual commentary on society. Through the final fight at the end, the audience is called upon to think of what could have been. Had these not been “splurge-guns,” had these been actual guns, the rampant individualism of the characters would have resulted in a massacre, a fact that refers back to the classic idea of the catastrophic furthering of oneself. However, the musical genre itself adds the positive message to the film, the idea of renewal. A happy ending to a film in a genre that almost always ends poorly, the musical aspects suggests that there is no better time to change than the present, no better time to become a better person, for following along the path of individualism will result in a massacre. As a result, Bugsy Malone combines the two genres in order to convey a heavy message in a lighter, more hopeful way, building upon conventions and themes of both in order to establish that, child or adult, it is never too late to change.


  1. Clarify: Amalgarnation?

    You go into great detail with all of your points and you bring up a lot of ideas.
    The pictures add nicely to the post.

    Right now, I think at least for a film as light as this, the post is a little too heavy and I don't think the pictures are enough or give us solid enough examples.

    Shorten it down to the key points. Add more pictures. And most importantly have fun! :P

  2. Clarify: This is pretty clear.

    Value: Well-written, as usual. This is also a very lengthy post. You use relevant specifics to illustrate your points and you demonstrate a good understanding of the two genres.

    Concern: It's a bit long. The introduction is too long, or even unnecessary. *Effects

    Suggest: Unnecessarily wordy-- make each word count. You have good points, but your writing weighs them down.