Hail, Hail, the Gangs in Hollywood

By Stu Kobak

     The variety of movies featuring youth gangs has crossed each generation since filmdom’s nascent days. Parallels between films as varied as Rumble Fish, Blackboard Jungle and even West Side Story, make up diverse and radically different pieces to the puzzle of an approach that Hollywood has taken on examining the phenomenon of these street rebels. The question of youth alienation goes on, but the answers are not simple. When we make it through the darkness of youthful uncertainty, for most, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

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The first rumble in Rumble Fish is choreographed in exciting fashion by Francis Ford Coppola and clearly harks back along a 25 year old trail that leads directly to Jerome Robbins' staging of the dance fights in West Side Story. It is interesting to see the cross pollination of film genres as filmmaker Coppola dips into the musical realm to find stylistic inspiration.
      Every youth gang depicted in the movies didn't constantly   have fighting on its mind . Even the Our Gang comedies qualify in the broadest sense as Hollywood street gangs, but it is innocent mischief that is the center of their universe. Are these the kids that would grow menacingly into the violent youth gangs of Hollywood depiction? The harmless innocence portrayed in these kid comedies isn't likely to putrefy into a barrel of rotten teen apples peopling filmdom's future JD flicks.
      deadend.jpg (17783 bytes) The kid gang even became a mini-genre. Inspired by the "Dead End Kids" who first appeared in the film Dead End which starred Joel McCrea, Sylvia Sidney, and Humphrey Bogart . Bogart is a the kid from Hell's Kitchen who took the crooked road to mad dog gangster. As Baby Face Martin, Bogart is looked on by the kids as a role model, their path out of the ghetto in the impressions of his footsteps. The gang again appeared in director Michael Curtiz's peak into social enlightenment, Angels with Dirty Faces, this time emulating the rapid fire delivery of most wanted criminal James Cagney. From these two initial screen appearances, the boys merged into "The Bowery Boys," starring in a series of close to fifty insipid films.
     The role model almost always is featured prominently as the sub-text in the gang film. Rumble Fish's Mickey Rourke as "The Motorcycle Boy" is the pied piper to Coppola's disenchanted delinquents of the Spokane streets. In West Side Story it is the past reputation of former Jet ringleader Richard Beymer that provides inspiration to the younger Jets led by an admiring Russ Tamblyn. Whether Bogart in Dead End or Cagney in "Angels", the lure of the dark side looms significantly in the lives of the street gang kids.
     Once Upon a Time in America presents the youth gang and moves on in time to the same characters after their guns have grown and they have developed into big time mobsters. Of films that focus on the nature of gangs, it is one of the few that give the viewer a chance to compare the youthful gang members with their mature incarnations. Once Upon a Time in America also differs from other typical street gang films in that these kids do not emulate or look up to any particular figures of influence in their childhood. Perhaps this is because as since the film follows them to manhood, as youths, they are actually anticipating the vision of their own manhood Try and parallel the kids of Leone's vision to those of many of the films that influenced him. Would the kids who idealized Bogart have matured into Leone's hitmen and psychos?
     Romper Stomper paints one of the most horrifying gang canvases ever painted in blood red strokes on a movie canvas. The Australian film is a vision fueled by hate and fear. The future of these kids is all too clear. They will surely become the motorcycle madmen of George Miller's dark apocalyptic road movies, Mad Max and The Road Warrior.
     Youth gangs often band together because of their ethnocentric nature. Romper Stomper pits the Aussie gang against immigrant Vietnamese youths. Do the gangs form as a measure of protection against a hostile environment? In Year of the Dragon, Chinese youth gangs rule the streets in ruthless fashion, often working at the bidding of their elders, waiting for the moment that they will be accepted into the underworld fraternity. Blood In, Blood Out, Taylor Hackford’s epic view on the street gangs of Los Angeles, details the Hispanic youth experience.
     blackboardjungle.jpg (184237 bytes)Blackboard Jungle uses a familiar tactic to portray the alienation and violence of ghetto kids. School is the setting that initiates the fireworks of that film. Stand and Deliver, which starred Edward James Olmos as an inspirational teacher, covered the same ground in an updated setting and is based on the life of Jaime Escalante. It is interesting to see Sidney Poitier transformed from the young tough of Blackboard Jungle to the role of teacher in To Sir with Love. Did his participation in the former film inspire his starring in the latter?
     Recent years have seen a proliferation of black youth pictures, as young filmmakers are getting their chance to express themselves. Looking at the frustrations and seductiveness of the ghetto, the Hughes Brothers, John Singleton, Matty Rich and other novice black directors have made their mark on the industry with frightening and vital visits to the darkness that plagues minorities. Menace II Society,   Boyz on the Hood, Straight Out of Brooklyn, and South Central are all films that succeed in looking at the plight of youths in the ghetto and the limited escape routes that are open to them. The fascination of youth gangs is a magnet to young directors. Allison Anders has joined the foray into alienation with a female take on girls in leather jackets, Mi Loca Vida.
     What all these films do have in common is the sense of alienation that pervades them. Change the period setting and often the ethnic background can be interchangeable. What is certain is that the streets are fertile ground for volatile film entertainment.
      Quite a few gang titles have been released on DVD. West Side Story presented in anamorphic widescreen is a terrific transfer on DVD. The movie hasn't looked as good since it's theatrical road show appearances. Menace II Society is available in a handsome widescreen transfer from Disney. It's very sharp with great depth of color. Boyz on the Hood is transferred anamorphic widescreen on a first class DVD from Columbia. Stand and Deliver is part of Warner's budget line and is unfortunately available only pan & scan on DVD. Clockers is a contemporary look at street gangs and drug pushing from director Spike Lee. Available in an anamorphic widescreen transfer from Universal, it's high contrast style and grainy look don't make for great video.



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