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197 7 War in the Roaring Twenties, 1932–1939 “And it’s chuck him out, the brute! But it’s savior of his country when the guns begin to shoot.” —Rudyard Kipling, quoted in Samuel Taylor Moore, America and the World War, 1937 He was a big shot—once. —Kansas (Texas Guinan) in The Roaring Twenties, 1939 Although Civil War and western histories would dominate American historical production by the end of the 1930s, the popular film biographies of bootleggers Terry Druggan, Franky Lake, and Al Capone had served as a source for Hollywood’s future lives of Jesse James and George Armstrong Custer. Prompted to rework the prestige and historical iconography of Abraham Lincoln and Cimarron, ironically, Scarface and The Public Enemy ’s twentieth-century controversies paved the way for safer nineteenthcentury blockbusters. Howard Hughes’s and Darryl Zanuck’s willingness to treat Al Capone and other gangsters with the same historical tools used to film Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Hamilton certainly inflamed the censorship of the gangster cycle, but equally disturbing to contemporaries were these and other films’ references to the Great War, foreign conflict, and the troublesome lives of returning veterans, soon known as “forgotten men.” Not all veterans chose the violent and disruptive path of Nails Morton , but the relationship between war and crime was a popular historical 198 Veterans of Different Wars explanation for the postwar era, and one that was increasingly censored in the 1930s. From 1932 to 1939, Hollywood’s depictions of the Great War, the impoverishment of the war hero, and national decline revealed frustrating barriers between the American cinema’s struggle for historical prestige and the antagonism of censors and critics. Postwar Fugitives and Forgotten Men Robert Elliot Burns began his autobiography with the war: “Discharged from the army, after the World War, a broken man, I committed petty crime in Georgia, was caught, convicted, sentenced to ten years on the Georgia chain gang.”1 Like many returning veterans in 1919, Burns had expected life in America to be as he had left it in 1917, but it was not. His former job had paid $50 per week, but a noncombatant had taken it. Try as he might, Burns could not find another that paid him even $20 per week. Employers were unsympathetic, and he grew despondent. His brother Vincent wrote that being at the front for over a year had permanently marked Robert Burns. “He was not wounded externally but he was mentally wounded—a casualty . . . a typical shell-shock case.”2 Although the government made some effort to help returning soldiers readjust, pensions were minuscule, full disability pensions were far from adequate and hard to get, and the educational programs and job networks that would be instituted after the Second World War did not exist. Vincent Burns felt that the government and the public had abandoned its veterans: “His country has rewarded him with indifference in his need, with flagrant neglect, with outright injustice.”3 In the circumstances, it was understandable that Robert Burns would turn to crime. Nails Morton and allegedly Al Capone had turned bootlegging into a successful livelihood, but Burns’s postwar fate was different. His attempt at petty theft in Georgia netted him a lengthy jail sentence to be served in a chain gang. With no money, no lawyer, and no possibility of an appeal, with little hope and an understandable bitterness toward the American judicial system, Burns escaped, changed his name, and eventually became a successful Chicago businessman before authorities recognized him and forced him to return to Georgia. Now, favorable press and a moneyed lawyer promised him a new trial, but Georgia officials incarcerated him again. Ignored by his wealthy friends and trapped in a repressive judicial system, he escaped a second time and published his harrowing autobiography, I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang. Warner Brothers quickly sought the rights to Burns’s story and, betting on War in the Roaring Twenties 199 his need for quick cash and anonymity, paid him $12,500.4 The film was part of Zanuck’s program to make stimulating and high-profile pictures based on contemporary events, but it also fit with his historical productions that focused on the lives of important or unusual Americans. In spite of the fact that Burns and his postwar experiences marked the deviant and declining course of twentieth-century America, Burns truly believed that he was an old-fashioned, upstanding, middle-class American...


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