The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre: The Reddest Valentine, Courtesy of Roger Corman and Al Capone
They don’t negotiate. They eliminate.
“Make sure it’s a great big red valentine!”
Oh, isn’t that just the kind of romantic pledge you want to hear around this time? Because it’s that time of year, boys and girls! The flower shops are stocking up on long-stemmed red roses, the supermarket candy aisles are filled with chocolates in heart-shaped boxes, reservations have been made for intimate dinners at nice restaurants, and Zales and Kay and Jared Jewelers are flooding the airwaves with ads advising (warning?) men that the best proof of their affections on this lovingest of days is buying the woman in their lives expensive jewelry (I don’t want to start a fight here, but it occurs to me I’ve never seen a commercial around Valentine’s Day featuring women buying their men expensive jewelry; hmmm)…Ahhh, love is in the air! And come the evening, some couples will cap the day off cuddled together under an afghan with glasses of a nice wine, heads touching heads, and watch a sugary, gooey romance – you know, something like Sleepless in Seattle (1993) or The Notebook (2004) or When Harry Met Sally… (1989) or Love Actually (2003) or… Well, you get the picture.
But some of us, well, all that sugary goo kind of hangs in the throat. It’s like when TCM has a Shirley Temple festival; you sit there thinking, yeah, I get it, cute kid, but I want to see something blow up. So, for the crowd for whom Die Hard (1988) is their idea of a Christmas movie, and who prefer the acrid smell of cordite and the pulse-pounding sound of automatic weapons to the rich aroma of floral bouquets and the lilt of amorous poetry and gloppy love songs, I have a counteroffer. For them on this day, and at the request of Mr. Alphonse Capone who called on one of his minions with that lead-in quote, I offer you Roger Corman’s 1967 bullet-fest, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
The movie is based on one of the most notorious chapters in the rat-a-tat shoot ’em up gangster era of the 1920s-1930s. This was the era of Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger, and the rise of organized crime under the national Mob’s Founding Fathers – hoods like Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, and Al “Scarface” Capone.
By 1925, and then only 26, Capone had risen through the underworld ranks of Chicago in just six years to command the most powerful criminal organization in the city. How powerful? In preparation of the 1928 Republican primary, Frank Loesch, head of the Chicago Crime Commission, had to plead with Capone to guarantee a fair election because only Capone, with his near-total control of corrupt cops, corrupt politicians, and corrupt government officials had the power to do so.
Still, a persistent thorn in Capone’s side was the North Side Gang. By 1929, the war between Capone and the North Siders had run up a count of several hundred murders including two of the North Side Gang’s previous chiefs: Dion O’Bannion and Hymie Weiss. Wanting to finally resolve the ongoing feud, Capone decided to have the then current head of the North Siders – George “Bugs” Moran – assassinated. One of Capone’s underlings – “Machine Gun Jack” McGurn (real name, Vincenzo Antonio Gibaldi) — engineered the plot, intending to bait Moran into a garage in his home territory to receive a shipment of stolen Canadian booze. Seven of Moran’s associates showed up for the meet, but Moran was late. Two of Capone’s hitmen escorted by two bogus cops, thinking Moran was among those in the garage, murdered all seven in a hail of machine gun and shotgun fire.
It was a turning point in the public image of headline-caliber criminals. Outlaws like Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde and even Capone had been romanticized by the press, but the mass slaughter in that Chicago garage rubbed the public’s collective nose in the true brutal nature of the gangster demimonde and its inhabitants.
As it happens, the blood-red event happened to occur on – you guessed it! – St. Valentine’s Day thus Capone’s call for “a big red Valentine!”
The event had cropped up in gangster movies before, usually in movies about Capone like the fictionalized Scarface (1932), the loosely factual Al Capone (1959). It was even the basis of a classic comedy in Billy Wilder’s memorable hoot, Some Like It Hot (1959). But, there had never been a deep-dive, factual look at what happened that day…until The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, memorable, if for no other reason, as one of the few times King of the B’s Roger Corman directed a movie for a major studio.
Like something out of a novel, Roger Corman’s landing the directorial gig on The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was something of a closing of the circle. He’d graduated from Stanford with a degree in industrial engineering but quickly soured on the field only four days into his first job. His brother, Gene, was already working in the industry as an agent, and that was undoubtedly how Corman got interested in filmmaking. His first job in the business: was in the mailroom at Fox.
That job was in 1948. By the mid-1950s, Corman, learning his trade on the job, was pumping out movies for what would become American International Pictures, often on budgets of less than $100,000. By the late 1950s, after some low-budget successes like Not of This Earth and Attack of the Crab Monsters (both 1957), Corman was beginning to attract some serious critical attention as a filmmaker who managed to do a lot with a little, did it quickly, and managed it with a certain amount of style.
Take The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), which Corman managed to shoot in two days by grabbing up the same cast he’d just used in Bucket of Blood (1959 – catch this to see a young Jack Nicholson eating up the screen as a masochistic dental patient). And then there’s The Terror (1963) which Corman rushed in front of the camera to take advantage of the still-standing sets from his previous production, The Raven (1963). Star Boris Karloff would later recall Corman whirlwinding his cast through the shoot “…two steps ahead of the wreckers…” tearing down the sets. The shoot had been so rushed and chaotic (ultimately five different directors including a young Francis Ford Coppola and Montel Hellman would be brought in to fill in the gaps) that it wasn’t until Corman began to assemble the footage that he realized the movie made no sense. In his typically pragmatic fashion, he threw up a couple of flats and shot two of the supporting players – Corman faves Dick Miller and Jack Nicholson – in close-up (so as not to show there was no set left) to explain the plot with big blocks of exposition.
By the early 1960s, Corman was catching some serious critical attention, particularly from the Cahiers du Cinema crowd, as he upgraded to the films he’s probably best remembered for: his cycle of pictures (very loosely) based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Still working on tight budgets in the low six figures, Corman yet managed to give his Poes an impressive look by relying on some of his old tricks. For instance, one of the best of his Poes (as well as one of Corman’s favorites) – The Masque of the Red Death (1964) — was shot on the still-standing sets from Paramount’s upscale Becket (1964).
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Mike Elliott, who, back in the 1980s, had been Corman’s head of production after the filmmaker had set up his own production company, Concorde. According to Elliott:
“…if you go through the company’s files you find a lot of interesting stuff…you find out that Roger’s movies opened at Number One! X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), the (Edgar Allan) Poe movies…”
And by the mid-1960s, that reputation for getting that kind of bang for a minimally invested buck was attracting the attention of some of the big outfits.
Nearly all of the major motion picture studios were struggling by that time; attendance was at an all-time low and still sliding, the aging movie moguls who had guided the studios for decades had lost touch with the young audience and whoever wasn’t already dead, pushed out, or retired was on the verge of being shown the door. Corman was a filmmaker who’d become something of a cult figure with that same young ticket-buying audience, and just as important for film companies struggling to stay afloat, he knew how to make a lot of movie without a lot of money.
He signed contracts with Columbia and United Artists but nothing came of them: “Every idea I submitted was considered too strange, too weird,” he would recall, “Every idea they had seemed too ordinary to me. Ordinary pictures don’t make money.”
Corman managed to finally get a credit with the majors when David Picker, then a producer at United Artists, took over a script Corman had been working on with one of his regular screenwriters, R. Wright Campbell. Sort of a precursor to The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Secret Invasion (1964) concerned a group of convicted criminals drafted to carry out a covert operation in German-occupied Yugoslavia during WW II. Budget-wise, it was a huge step-up for Corman, shot for $600,000 – twice what he was used to working with at the time. Film historian Alun Evans would later point to the film as an example of the filmmaker’s ability to “…create something out of nothing.” Besides a punchy wartime adventure, Corman also created some healthy box office: $3 million.
With that kind of return on investment, no surprise that Fox, too, would be interested in bringing their mailroom alum back on the lot, this time for a seat in the director’s chair. Corman was just coming off the biker flick The Wild Angels (1966) which had brought in $15.5 million on a budget of $360,000 when Fox chief Richard Zanuck asked Corman to pitch him some ideas. The one that clicked for the exec was The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Howard Browne was a prolific writer and editor of sci fi and crime stories before he moved to Hollywood in the mid-1950s and began churning out TV scripts for everything from light-hearted Western Maverick to grim medical drama Ben Casey. One of his TV works was for one of the most acclaimed drama anthologies of the 1950s, Playhouse 90, an episode entitled “Seven Against the Wall,” based on his own book about what had happened in that Chicago garage.
Browne was intrigued by the dynamics of the criminal underworld. In an interview around the time of the movie’s release, Browne explained his attraction, saying that big-time hoods like Capone were:
“…complex human beings, shrewd, cunning men whose qualities of leadership, had it been directed into honest channels, might have contributed to this country’s history rather than leaving a scar.”
Corman had been harboring an ambition of making a movie about the country’s underworld, recognizing that it had “played a significant role in the development of American culture.” But Corman also wanted to do it in a deglamorizing, deromanticizing fashion. He began to think about that infamous Chicago slaughter believing it had “…changed the whole public face of gangsterism – public outcry broke Capone’s stranglehold on society.”
That was the movie Dick Zanuck signed Corman on to make and, to make it, gave him a budget of $2.5 million — the largest Roger Corman had ever had.
The casting was very typical of a Corman project. There were several Corman regulars (Dick Miller, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Leo Gordon, Harold J. Stone) a couple of young, rising stars (George Segal, David Canary, Clint Ritchie), and a host of Familiar Faces from Hollywood’s great pool of solid supporting actors (Frank Silvera, Joseph Campanella, Richard Bakalyan, Paul Richards, Kurt Kreuger, Joe Turkel), and, in another Corman signature, a few actors on the downside of their careers (Ralph Meeker, John Agar). The net effect was there was hardly a face in the film audiences didn’t recognize.
(FYI: On a documentary about Corman, the director pointed out how shrewd Nicholson was as a struggling young actor trying to make a living buck. Corman had offered him a noticeable supporting role, but Nicholson saw there was a small part of just a few lines, but the role’s two scenes would be shot weeks apart, and Nicholson would have to be paid for all that time. He took the smaller part.)
Playing Capone, and giving the project at least a modicum of prestige, was Jason Robards who’d first made a name for himself on stage in the 1950s as one of the foremost performance interpreters of the works of Eugene O’Neill. It was a miscasting move nearly every critic of the time pointed to. Capone, at the time of the massacre, was a burly (he’d once been a whorehouse bouncer) 29-year-old, while Robards was a lanky, gray-topped 45-year-old. Corman’s first choice had been Orson Welles (not sure that would’ve been better; Welles, by then, had the bulk, but could he come off as a thug? And Capone was no Don Corleone – he was a thug), but Fox didn’t think Welles could be controlled. Robards was originally intended to play Bugs Moran, the studio suggested Corman bump him over to the Capone part, and not looking for a fight, Corman agreed and cast Ralph Meeker as Moran.
The Corman/Browne approach to the material was as what today would be described as a docudrama (the word didn’t exist back then). It was a straightforward account of the events leading up to and including the massacre, with Familiar Voice Paul Frees supplying a voiceover narration providing historical context and biographical background. With just a few exceptions, the movie is a reasonably accurate depiction of who did what to whom and why.
Corman initially wanted to shoot the film on location in Chicago but there were too many modern-day accouterments on the streets to pull it off. Instead, the film was shot on Fox’s back lot, with Corman – as Corman always did – finding sets leftover from more expensive productions to give Massacre a bigger look than what his budget would otherwise have allowed.
One interesting line item in the film’s budget was (and this should be no surprise considering the material)…ammunition. It’s clear looking at the film that Corman lavished special attention on some of the shoot-’em-up scenes, especially the titular massacre, and a drive-by attempted attack on Capone by a column of cars at the Hawthorne Hotel. According to IMDB, $9,000 (almost $80,000 today) was spent on 10,000 blanks and 20,000 squibs. Reports IMDB, this was “More squib charges…than in the three-hour war epic, The Longest Day (1962).”
For the final massacre, Corman showed the actors playing the seven victims photos from the real massacre so they would fall into the same final positions as the real victims.
One money-saver was on the music score; it’s barely there. The only music is the opening title theme (which is repeated at the movie’s close) by veteran film composer Lionel Newman. Newman artfully follows the Corman philosophy of doing a lot with a little: listen closely, and there’s nothing more there than a frantic honkytonk piano and some percussion. Other than source music and a few funereal notes on the movie’s closing shot of Al Capone’s tombstone, that’s it.
Also typical of Corman was the brisk shooting pace, wrapping in just seven weeks. Minimal score, no A-list actors, and a fast shoot on the studio lot, Corman was able to bring the film in $400,000 under budget and four days early.
The question is, how did Corman do in his step up to the big leagues? Well, that’s an interesting question because the answer requires some parsing.
At the time, the general critical reception seemed to be, more or less, one of disappointment; that, given the chance to finally step up to the big leagues, Corman didn’t make the grade.
Roger Ebert, for one, really blasted the film for everything from its fake snow to having all “…the dramatic excitement of an Army training film.”
And as for the box office, well, there’s some debate about that. The Fox accountants said the movie needed to earn $4,550,000 in rentals to break even (rentals usually being about half of a film’s gross), but Massacre came up short at $4,165,000. But Corman claims that’s not quite accurate, that about $1,000,000 of the budget was studio overhead, not production costs, and that the movie actually did earn a profit.
In any case, Corman’s experience with big studio moviemaking put him off it for good and he went back to being an independent, ultimately starting his own production company.
So, how is the movie?
Ok, it doesn’t have the brooding Gothic air of grand tragedy of The Godfather (1972), nor the visual rock ’n’ roll of Goodfellas (1990) or even the over-the-top panache of one of Guy Ritchie’s semi-comic crime escapades. And maybe Robards pushes a little too hard to make up for resembling the real Capon not at all. But, it’s exactly what Corman intended it to be: a straight-faced, unfussy accounting. If you look at The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre less as a failed attempt at an A-caliber feature than as a hell of a B, well then, the scale begins to tip in a different way.
If it’s too brisk and unnuanced, it moves like an express train, the characters are, if nothing else, wonderfully colorful, and the action sequences are still impressive today (I’ve never forgot the shot of smoke slowly curling down out of a shotgun barrel at the close of the massacre). It says something about how perception of the movie has improved over the years, with many considering it among Corman’s best, that The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre presently holds an 89% positive critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. For myself, I find it one of those fun movies easy to watch again and again.
Back in 2009, Roger Corman received the Governors’ Award from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences for his “…ingenuity, boundless energy and a deep love of movies.” The following year, at the Fantastic Fest in Austin, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award for “…(making) sure audiences have a blast at the cinema every time.”
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre may not be art, but it does brim with Corman’s deep love of movies and his consistent intent to make sure everybody looking up at the screen had a blast…in this case, a .45 caliber blast. So this year, if you’re looking for some anti-Hallmark kryptonite, trade the box of chocolates for Slim Jims and a beer, and switch out Cupid and his lame little bow and arrow for Capone, Moran, and a lot of guys chewing up the urban scenery tommy gun style to deliver a great, big, bloody red Valentine!
February 17, 2023 at 11:05 pm
Great article. Corman was a force of nature. So many actors and directors learned at the Corman boot camp. Will check out “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre!”