Feb 24, 2010

Gang War (1940)

I’ve now watched three "race" movies this month, and I’ve yet to find one that’s much good, but as with The Bronze Buckaroo (1939) and The Devil’s Daughter (1939), I found enough entertaining moments in Gang War (1940) to justify the hour running time.

This creaky crime flick stars the handsome, but wooden, Ralph Cooper as Killer Mead, a cocky gangster out to conquer the Harlem jukebox racket. He manages that feat with fistfights and blunt maneuvering--all documented with lengthy newspaper headline montages. He woos a showgirl, pushes his luck too far with the law, and suffers the standard fate of an overconfident forties movie gangster.

Though Cooper didn’t impress me, and I found his leading lady (Gladys Snyder) equally wooden, I appreciated the palpable energy of the lively supporting cast. As Killer’s main henchman, Reggie Fenderson in particular makes the most of his brief moments onscreen. His cheeky charisma made me think of young James Cagney chomping at the bit in a supporting role in Doorway to Hell (1930). I was also fascinated by Jess Lee Brooks as a police lieutenant who tries to steer Killer away from crime, though I’m pretty sure that is mostly because he sounded so much like James Earl Jones that I could hardly believe it wasn’t him.

I also enjoyed some of the settings. It was interesting to see the shots of 1940’s city streets (it looked like they were on location). However, the liveliest moments took place in a series of scenes in black nightclubs, where brief glimpses of floor shows and a few full-length numbers seemed calculated to fill time, but did so quite agreeably. The sight of all those African Americans dressed to the nines in a movie from that period was most welcome.


  1. Terrific series of posts, KC, for African-American History Month.

    I watched Gang War this morning. Seeing it really underscored for me the central fallacy (aside from its inherent immorality) of the "separate but equal" doctrine that was the law in the U.S. before Brown v. The Board of Education -- it was separate but it sure wasn't equal. Here's a feature-length movie that I'll bet had a budget smaller than a major studio's newsreel. Just a couple of generic sets and a script I could write this afternoon out of what I remember from Scarface and Little Caesar.

    I wonder if the wooden acting wasn't partly the result of the rushed production, just memorize your lines and get them out in a take or two. The old Dragnet television series had that same flat affect -- Jack Webb made the actors read the lines for the first time off cue cards as they filmed and the first time they got it right, they moved on to the next scene. Whereas William Wyler (in Jezebel) once filmed forty takes of Bette Davis walking down a flight of stairs. The money he spent on that one shot probably could have financed this entire movie.

    But still, worth seeing, both to give you a historical context and also for the night club scenes which are worth the price of admission alone.

  2. I agree that having much lower budgets affected practically every element of the race movies. The independent African American movie companies were always low on funds. Most of them could only release a few flicks before they could no longer afford to stay in operation.

    I think there is something to your theory about the wooden acting/fast production schedules. Though I enjoyed seeing Nina Mae McKinney in The Devil's Daughter, I was surprised to see how wooden she was compared to her first appearance in Hallelujah. I think it's interesting though, that some of those actors (such as Reggie Fenderson) were so charismatic that they managed to stand out even in these poor conditions.

    Thanks for the kind words about my African American History Month tribute. I had so much fun doing it.