Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Two Oldest Gangster Films?

This summer ChiTownView is working on longer more professionaly produced original productions. In the interim we are uploading some older clips from stations we are closing or have been closed. Kind of like a summer vacation complete with reruns.

We are also posting public domain clips we've come across that strike our fancy. Last week I was researching the Italian Black Hand gangs of the early 20th century in preperation for an extended clip about the Taylor street area and it's pivitol place in Chicago crime history. In this poking around I came across a couple of films that are the first two “gangster” movies ever produced. While neither are Chicago related we do have a soft spot for New York where they are centered so we have uploaded these two gems.

The Black Hand, The 1st Gangster Film (1906)

The Black Hand were unaffiliated gangs of Italian criminals who preyed upon other newly arrived countrymen. They extorted money from successful immigrants by the use of kidnapping, murder and other forms of violence. They operated from New York to San Francisco in just about any city with a large Italian community.
Their heyday was between 1900-1920 when they shook down ordinary folks as well as the famous and the powerful. Opera great Enrico Caruso was victimized several times until he finally went to the police. In Chicago they went after “Big Jim” Colosimo the cities most connected mobster. His response was to import Johnny Torrio from New York who quickly ended that threat with an infamous triple murder. A story we told in a previous clip here's a link to it.
This film, from 1906, is the worlds first gangster and was lensed by Billy Bitzer who went on their to work with D.W. Griffith silent films most renowned director. For those who want to read more about the history of the New York Black Hands should check out this link. I found this film on and repost their extensive description here:
“"The Black Hand", True Story of a Recent Occurrence in the Italian Quarter of New York, is a short crime drama featuring cinematographer Billy Bitzer, a star of Silent Hall of Fame.

A gang by the name of Black Hand demands a big amount of money from a local businessman.  If the demands are not met it threatens his daughter. Then the gang kidnaps the girl anyway and sends one of its members to collect the ransom.

Directed by Wallace McCutcheon
Cinematography by Billy Bitzer
Starring Robert Vignola, Anthony O’Sullivan (gangsters)
Distributed by the Biograph Company
Release date March 29, 1906

The Musketeers of Pig Alley, Early D.W. Griffith / Gangster Film
We continue our exploration of early gangster films with this classic movie. It is referred to in many places as the first gangster film even by the Silent Hall of Fame. Which is odd since they have also brought back a 1906 film called The Black Hand which were extortion gangs that preyed on Italian immigrants in the late 19th & early 20th centuries. Below is the decription from where I downloaded from.

"The Musketeers of Pig Alley" is a short crime drama directed by D. W. Griffith. This film illustrates the work of actor Robert Harron and cinematographer Billy Bitzer, stars of Silent Hall of Fame.
"The Musketeers of Pig Alley" is the first gangster film in history. It has some excellent acting by a very strong cast and a lot of suspense. The film is also a predecessor of what would become known a quarter of a century later as "the film noir".
Lillian Gish plays The Little Lady, whose husband is a musician and has to leave town for work.  In his absence she has to rebuff the advances of a cocky character by the nickname of Snapper Kid (Elmer Booth), the gang leader of the Musketeers.
When her sick mother dies The Little Lady becomes grief-stricken. One day she is visited by a friend who takes her to a dance party to raise her spirits. The Little Lady is invited for a drink by some fellow, who puts a drug in her glass, but she is saved by Snapper Kid. As it turns out, the other guy is the rival gang's leader. The two bosses square off, but decide to settle the dispute outside.
Suspense builds up as the two rival gangs chase each other around Pig Alley. Will there be a winner, or will all perish or go to jail?

Directed by D.W. Griffith
Produced by the Biograph Company
Cinematography Billy Bitzer
Starring Elmer Booth, Lillian Gish, Robert Harron
Release date October 31, 1912

Copyright information for both films.
Creative Commons license: Public Domain Mark 1.0

You can see a slideshow of stills from this both these films and other interesting stuff on the website The Silent Hall of Fame is the only place actively working to bring back from oblivion the names and legacy of formerly illustrious silent movie stars, which have made a major contribution to the industry and the world but do not have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

They also fight for your right, the right of the public, to see silent masterpieces that have been kept in hidden vaults for far too long. Our website streams for free one such masterpiece that has not been seen in 85 years and is not available anywhere else.

Please visit their website to watch quality silent films absolutely free and to support the legacy of silent movie stars with your tax deductible contribution.

Silent Hall of Fame has started an online campaign to begin raising funds for the nomination of our first star for the Hollywood Walk of Fame. All contributions are tax deductible. Here is the web page:
Please spread the word about the campaign and Silent Hall of Fame and help your favorite silent star receive belated recognition and glory.

Silent Hall of Fame, a nonprofit organization
Preserving the legacy of silent movie stars

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Chicago In 1933; Century Of Progress Expo, A Man Makes Music w/ Hand Farts & More

Chicago in 1933 was a happening place. We have covered the splash made by burlesque dancer Sally Rand at the Century of Progress World's Fair. In today's post we take a closer look at the fair as well as some other notable or odd events that took place during that year.

Chicago's 1893 Columbia Exposition set a high standard for world's fairs. Forty years later in 1933 Chicago threw another party this time celebrating the city's centennial. The Century of Progress was another spectacular with exhibits from all over the world.Among the exhibits shown in this clip are the Skyride, Golden Pavilion of Jehol and the dinosaurs of the Sinclair Exhibit.

Farmer Plays "Yankee Doodle Dandy" With Hand Farts 

Cecil H. Dill is the name of this uniquely talented individual. Hailing from Traverse City, Mi. Here he travels to the windy city to demonstrate his ability to render popular melodies by pressing his hands together. Dill also modestly tells how he discovered his unusual skill.

Throngs Greet Italian Fascist Air Armada

This clip combines two Universal newsreels that track the progress and arrival of an Italian armada of 24 Savoia Marchetti S. 55 seaplanes as it flies from Italy to Chicago. The flight was a goodwill mission / publicity stunt and part of the 1933 Century of Progress Worlds Fair. It was a historic flight commanded by General Italo Balbo who was the number two man in  Mussolini's Fascist government.

To see more looks at Chicago in 1933 check out ChiTownView on YouTube.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

My Encounter With Sheila Mack The Bali Suitcase Murder Victim

On the front page of the Sun Times I saw the picture of a battered & bloodstained suitcase that contained the body of Shelia Mack. It was someone I’d met and done some work for not long ago. She was apparently murdered and stuffed in the bag by her daughter and daughter’s boyfriend. It was a tragic end for two people who on the surface lived the kind of life that most people would kill to have. But not one I was really surprised to hear about despite the briefness of our encounter.

They lived in a gorgeous old mansion on the north side of Oak Park IL. Just around the corner from a Frank Lloyd Wright designed home. It was a house originally built for a bank president and among its unique features was a vault in the basement. When I met her Shelia was in the process of cleaning out her house and moving into the city. Her husband had passed away, the house needed a lot of repair work, and she felt that her and her daughter needed a change of scene.

Johnny Mack had been a music arranger / producer / composer with a large collection of old classical records and books. These are two areas that I have some background in which is why I was called in to help by a friend of a friend who had been hired to do the house sale(s). Shelia also had some furniture she wanted to sell on eBay which is another thing that I do. It was while I was photographing these elaborately carved wooden swings and gathering background on them that I had my brief encounters these two people.

My impression was that this was at one time a home a family shared many years ago. Though still reflecting intelligence and good taste it was now just a house filled with tension that two people lived in. Shelia was distraught and fearful over the direction her daughter Heather’s life had taken, her boyfriend / accomplice in particular. I met though never conversed with Heather but she seemed like an adolescent antisocial misfit who radiated hostility. I was one myself once so I know the signs. Shelia was in a hurry to sell the house and complete the move and get her daughter out of town.

A good plan but in the end she didn’t move far enough away. After a couple of visits to the house my work was done and not long afterwards I heard that Sheila had sold the house and was living in Chicago. The boyfriend issue was just a symptom of a deeper problem that haunted these two people. Just a few weeks after Heather was caught partying with new boyfriend Tommy and friends at a luxury hotel on Sheila’s credit card the pair left on a luxury vacation. Even though friends warned not to take her with.

But the trouble just followed them to the St. Regis on the island paradise of Bali. Two days after mother and daughter arrived Tommy turned up. Apparently a fight erupted over who was going to pay for the additional hotel room. It was a fight that ended in murder. They stuffed the body into a suitcase then left it with a taxi driver. Ditched the driver and then checked into another hotel where they partied on the dead woman’s credit card.

For more on the gory details of this crime follow this link.