UAlbany News Podcast

Gangster Movies and Their Muses, with Frankie Bailey

Episode Summary

Frankie Bailey is a professor in the School of Criminal Justice and a crime novelist. Her research focuses on crime history, mass media and pop culture. She is the author of the Lizzie Stuart and Hannah McCabe mystery series. Bailey is working on a reference book that maps the cultural and historical significance of nine of the most renown gangster movies (including The Grandfather (1998), White Heat (1949), Scarface (1990), American Gangster (2007) and Good Fellas (1990), among others) as well as the television series The Sopranos. The book explores the impact of the Motion Picture Production Code or the "Hays Code" of the 1930s, the emergence of the "G-Man" as a protagonist, and the role of fashion in the genre.

Episode Notes

Frankie Bailey is a professor in the School of Criminal Justice and a crime novelist. Her research focuses on crime history, mass media and pop culture. She is the author of the Lizzie Stuart and Hannah McCabe mystery series.

Bailey is working on a reference book that maps the cultural and historical significance of nine of the most renown gangster movies (including The Grandfather (1998), White Heat (1949), Scarface (1990), American Gangster (2007) and Good Fellas (1990), among others) as well as the television series The Sopranos.

The book explores the impact of the Motion Picture Production Code or the "Hays Code" of the 1930s, the emergence of the "G-Man" as a protagonist, and the role of fashion in the genre.

Her other current writing projects include a non-fiction book about four hundred years of dress and appearance in American crime and justice and a historical thriller set in 1939.

Article mentioned: Inside the Debate Between Netflix and Big Theater Chains Over ‘The Irishman’ (The New York Times).

The UAlbany News Podcast is hosted and produced by Sarah O'Carroll, a Communications Specialist at the University at Albany, State University of New York, with production assistance by Patrick Dodson and Scott Freedman.

Have a comment or question about one of our episodes? You can email us at, and you can find us on Twitter @UAlbanyNews.

Episode Transcription

Welcome to the UAlbany News podcast. I'm your host, Sarah O'Carroll. I have with me, Frankie Bailey, a professor in the School of Criminal Justice and a mystery writer. She studies crime and justice, and American culture with a focus on crime history, mass media and pop culture. I have Bailey here with me to discuss her upcoming writing projects, and the long standing American obsession with gangster movies ... Frankie, thanks for being here.

Frankie Bailey:              Thank you for inviting me.

Sarah O'Carroll:            The gangster book that you have coming up, can you share a little bit about some of the themes it'll be looking at, and why you got started on it?

Frankie Bailey:              Yeah. It's a reference book, and I was invited to do it by my academic publisher. They're doing a series of reference books about movies. And so, this is gangsters in movies. I'm going to be looking at nine gangster movies and the Sopranos, because the Sopranos is so important, even though it was a television show.

Sarah O'Carroll:            And how did you decide on those nine, and can you share which ones they are?

Frankie Bailey:              Yeah that was tough, because there is so many gangster movies going back to shortly after World War I, in fact. So I'm looking at the gangster movies that have some real life tie-in, are really important in terms of how they're rated by viewers, by critics and others.

Frankie Bailey:              So for example, I have White Heat, I have Scarface, the original and the remake. I have of course, the Godfather, American Gangster because that's important in terms of understanding what was going on with ethnic, in this case, African-American gangsters. I'm looking at Goodfellas, one of my personal favorites and several of the others.

Frankie Bailey:              The Sopranos because of the television show, and because the television show is so influenced by other gangster movies. So I'm looking at movies that are references to other movies, but also movies that have tie-ins with the outlaws, and the urban gangsters of the '20s, '30s and after. Bonnie and Clyde, of course, an important movie.

Sarah O'Carroll:            Mm-hmm (affirmative), and can you speak to the themes that you've been able to pick up on? Even some more of the surprising ones, because of course gangster films, it seems like part of our obsession, is because they tell us a little bit about the culture that we're in right now.

Frankie Bailey:              Well, the gangster movies actually, I'm looking at from the '20s and '30s on, and those are the classic movies, some of which I'm not looking at because I only have 10 to choose from. But for example, Scarface, Public Enemy, White Heat, all come during that period of the '20s and '30s when the production code is in place. And I'm looking at the impact of the Hollywood production code on the movies and how they're presented. The production code when it was put into place, after the gangster movies are there from the beginning of movies. But when the production code is put in place, it controls what the producers and directors are able to show, or present in the movies.

Frankie Bailey:              The production code in effect says, crime must not pay. So when the gangster rises, he has to fall, and I'm looking at that rise and fall. I'm looking at the point when the G-men begin to appear in the movies, and the focus on the G-men as protagonists, as in White Heat. So, that's influencing the themes of what's happening.

Frankie Bailey:              And then, once the production code is replaced by the rating system, then things begin to change in terms of what they are able to present. But it's always the gangster as the man with the gun, the gangster engaging in certain types of crimes. And when the G-man, the government man appears as a character, he's pursuing the gangster. And I'm looking at the gangster presenting certain types of, or engaging in certain types of crimes. Robberies, heists and so on.

Sarah O'Carroll:            And what do you think the role of fashion has to play in how we've glamorized gangsters? What can you tell us about how fashion interacts with the different tropes that we see in gangster films?

Frankie Bailey:              Well yeah, as I was mentioning, I'm doing another book looking at dress appearance and demeanor, and looking at American dress from the colonial period to the present. So when I get to the gangsters, they like other men, are wearing business suits. The business suit has become the official or unofficial uniform of men, middle class, upper class men involved in work behavior. And the gangsters are dressing like middle-class men, and they do that of the period when they began to become important in movies, to the present. But they're doing it in a way that reflects the fact that they are outsiders who are not really a part of that middle-class, organizational dress and they're dressing in a way that reflects the fact that they are outsiders trying to dress like other men of business.

Frankie Bailey:              So the business suits they're wearing has stripes, they have larger lapels, they're wearing shoes and other clothing that mark them as not quite a part of the mainstream. So I'm looking at that, and when I began to write about that in the book and writing about dress and appearance, I'm talking about how that reflects it and how people looking at them, identify them as being outsiders but how it reflects the fact that they are also mobile. They are trying to work their way up the ladder in terms of looking at what's going on.

Sarah O'Carroll:            A lot of gangster movies of course, seem very masculine in a very particular kind of masculinity. We're seeing the genre change with the times, and seeing more female protagonists. Do you think that might also infiltrate into gangster movies, or are there differences that you're noticing right now?

Frankie Bailey:              Well, even in the '20s and '30s, but particularly in the '30s we see some female, real life females engage in the kind of real life activities that are going on with gangsters. So Bonnie Parker for example, with Bonnie and Clyde. So she with Clyde Barrow, and Bonnie and Clyde. We got the Barrow gang, as they're known as. Bonnie, she is a girlfriend, she is a partner, but she's also very much a part of this twosome that the FBI, and others are pursuing.

Frankie Bailey:              And so she is engaging with the media. She composes ballads, the Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde, that she sent out to the media and they publish this. And she's reading about, and Clyde, they're reading about what the media is saying about them, and the FBI is pursuing not just Clyde, but Bonnie and Clyde, and they die together. And we got Ma Barker, and she's leading the Barker gang.

Frankie Bailey:              So it's not a new occurrence that have these women involved, but it is true that prior to World War II, most of the women who were involved are girlfriends and wives, and they are supporting their men. And then we get into the postwar period, and the women aren't there as much as perhaps they were during the outlaw days. And they reappear again in the movies, when we're seeing the movies portraying these women as being a part of this, or leading the gangs. In movies like Set It Off, for example when we have four women, four African American women who are holding up banks, and the movies about them. So yeah, at the point when the movies begin to offer female protagonists, we begin to see more of that. But in real life, not as much perhaps as in the '20s, in the '30s and '40s, and in the period when the movies began to appear.

Sarah O'Carroll:            Mm-hmm (affirmative), and as you are speaking to a lot of these movies do have historical figures that sort of inspired the characters, or the storyline. Are there any that jump out at you as being particularly interesting from the academic side, or as a crime novelist?

Frankie Bailey:              Well as a crime novelist I don't really write about gangsters, I write about your individual offenders. But with the gangsters, what happens is that by the time we get into the '20s and '30s with writers like Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler and others writing for the Black Mass Magazine, they introduce the gangsters in the pages of that magazine. And they're writing about the gangsters, and about the activities that they're engaged in.

Frankie Bailey:              And so many readers of that magazine, and readers of newspapers are reading about the activities of the gangsters in real life. And they're reading about them in fiction, and Black Mass, and Raymond Chandler and the others are looking at those gangsters. And so, Dashiell Hammett is a Pinkerton detective, and he's writing about the Pinkerton detectives and pursuit of those gangsters, and Raymond Chandler writing about them as well.

Frankie Bailey:              And so the authors, the writers writing about them are looking at what's going on with them in real life, and they're writing about them in fiction. And when we get into the '30s and '40s, we got the real life writers writing about the real life gangsters, and also looking, drawing on those real life gangsters in terms of creating fictional characters.

Frankie Bailey:              So yeah, there's a lot of that going on, and that continues into the '40s and '50s, up to the time when we get the Godfather, and the gangsters, and the ideas, the organized crime in Godfather. And that becomes a part of what we're seeing in the movies, that are being created based on those stories about the Godfather, and other criminals that are a part of organized crime.

Sarah O'Carroll:            And you also study mass media and pop culture. And I was just reading about the sort of business wars between Netflix and different movie theater companies who are trying to show the Irishman. And so the argument of how many days can you show it in the movie theaters before it can go to these streaming services, which of course Netflix is dominating. Do you think that the ways in which we're consuming media, that if we are going more towards streaming, then that might change the genre itself? Because often these movies seem to be for the big screen, and that's a big part of the experience.

Frankie Bailey:              A lot of people right now do have big screens in their houses. I mean, they're getting bigger and bigger. But yeah, I think in terms of how audiences are engaging with movies, it's very different from in the past, and during the depression, everyone, even people who could barely afford to go out for entertainment, found that they could go to movies and get in a movie palace and see everything on the big screen.

Frankie Bailey:              And this becomes so important for gangster movies in the late 1920s, when the speakeasy's come into play. And now people can go and not only see the gangsters, and read the solid captions, but actually hear the cars screeching around corners, and hear the tommy-guns, and hear the jargon, and the fast pace of the language of the gangsters. And so, movies are really important then, and people are going and paying that 25 cents and being able to see the feature, and all of the things that the cartoons, and everything else that was shown prior to the feature, and watching movies more than once while they're sitting in a movie theater.

Frankie Bailey:              And it was really important, and then when movies come to radio, it's really important. And finally when the movies are there, and they're able to watch movies, fund the '20s and '30s, and hear James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. It's a very different experience than sitting at home, watching movies on television or going to movie theaters later.

Frankie Bailey:              And so now when we have the streaming, and the other things going on with that, and individuals can sit at home and watch the movies and stream, it's a different experience even to watching on television. It completely changes the experience, because you can stop, and start and engage in different ways, and get a different experience than watching an old movie, a classic movie on television. TCM, it's a different experience. So yeah, I think it's not like being able to engage, and watch with other people and see the movies in that way. And it does change the experience, and people have a different experience. And it's even different than TCM, because now you're choosing, and you're choosing how and when you're going to engage and the device you're going to use.

Sarah O'Carroll:            It also seems that part of the streaming experience, is that most of the time it's just you or another person, a couple other people versus a whole room. And I imagine that, that difference also changes how you experience it, because it's not a whole room that gasps in horror, or laughs over something together.

Frankie Bailey:              And TCM, actually has availability for fans of TCM, so they can be a part of the movie club and choose to sometimes go and see a movie on the big screen, when TCM is hosting or sponsoring the movies across the country. Or you can go to the conferences they're doing, or watch at the same time people across the country are also watching, and take part in the discussion. But often you don't have that ability, unless you're a part of that. And so, you may miss some of the details about who made the movie, and why, and the actors and the other things going on with the movie. So that makes for a very different experience.

Sarah O'Carroll:            You recently started a class on gangsters and movies at the School of Criminal Justice. Have you learned anything from in a different way of looking at this, also being immersed in it for this book? But then I think teaching you sometimes perhaps get comments from students, or questions that might lead you down different paths. So has there been any revelations from that?

Frankie Bailey:              I guess my revelation, is that many of my students have never seen these movies. They don't know who James Cagney is, or Humphrey Bogart or any of the older, classic gangster movies. So when I mention Scarface they assume I'm mentioning the Al Pacino remake, and don't know the original 1930s movie. So it means that I have to actually start at the beginning and go through the process of telling them about the original movies, and showing clips before we get to the modern movies and begin to talk about those. Not to say that I expect them to really know about this, because it's movie history for them and that's why we're doing the reference book. But it does mean it makes it harder to teach, and just assume I'm going to be able to walk in, and start to talk about the movies from the '30s and have them know about it.

Sarah O'Carroll:            What are some things that you view as the most important takeaways that you hope that they leave with them after the end of a course on gangsters?

Frankie Bailey:              I hope that they understand the influence of these movies in terms of real life crime, and how real life crime in turn, has influenced the movies. So it's a back and forth kind of cycle between the movies, and real life crime, and real life crime and the movies. So, understanding how Dillinger for example, the real life Dillinger, and the real life Capone, and the real life Bonnie and Clyde were presented in the movies and understand also how those movies influenced the real life criminals. And also the FBI, because J. Edgar Hoover was really very interested in how his agency was presented in the media. And so we see him taking part writing books, and influencing how the media presents the G-men and the criminals they were pursuing.

Sarah O'Carroll:            Nine or 10, including the Sopranos, is not a huge number of things to choose from. Were there a couple on the second runner up kind of place, that you wish you had time to talk about?

Frankie Bailey:              Scarface the original, I'm talking about that when I talk about the remake. But, I would have liked more time to talk about Public Enemy, to talk about Donnie Brasco, to talk about a number of movies made in the '40s and '50s that didn't make the cut, but that I would have liked to talk about. There's a whole list, I mean there are hundreds of classic movies that I could have talked about.

Sarah O'Carroll:            And would you like to share anything about the other projects you have going on right now outside of this book, but perhaps your other two crime series?

Frankie Bailey:              Yeah, I'm writing a book about my 1939 historical thriller that's in progress, and I'm writing a book about [Lizzy Stewart 00:18:36], my series character, one of my series character. She's a crime historian and I'm writing a sitz book in that series. And as one of my back-burner books in my series, I'm writing about police procedural books about that book, and as you can probably tell, I've got so much going on that I have to remember what it is I'm working on.

Sarah O'Carroll:            It is a crazy time, but these all seem like really good things, just competing for time.

Frankie Bailey:             They are, and they're competing for time, and I have to remind myself what it is I'm working on.

Sarah O'Carroll:            Well Frankie, thank you for taking some time out of a hectic time to speak with me.

Frankie Bailey:              Thank you for having me on.

Thank you for listening to the UAlbany News podcast. I'm your host Sarah O'Caroll, and that was Frankie Bailey from the School of Criminal Justice. You can let us know what you thought of the episode or who we should speak to next by emailing us. We're at, or you can find us on Twitter @UAlbanyNews.