Valentines, Massacres and Cultural Transformations

Once upon a time, Valentine’s Day meant getting a large packet of cards and addressing envelopes to everyone in your class. Heart-shaped candies might be involved and eventually more heartfelt messages, too. That was, of course, before I knew love and true heartbreak, before I knew about Galentine’s Day and White Day. Time  can change the meaning of words and days.

This year, dressed up in my glamor girl of yesteryear best, I swung back further to a time of speakeasies, Prohibition and Tommy guns for a different type of Valentine’s Day sponsored by a local yesteryear dance group: Roaring Twenties Street Jam. Less than a century ago, in 1929, seven men, most of them members of the Irish-American North Side gang were shot down in an alley in Lincoln Park, Chicago. It became known as the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Yet the shock and horror of those days seem so long ago and far away, the deaths and the waves of grief do not wash over the public’s sentimental canvas to color us in a communal sadness. The actual event sparked outrage and made Al “Scarface” Capone public enemy number one.

In 1967, Roger Corman made a movie without poetry and with more money than he knew exactly what to do with (like making the snow more believable) and called it “The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.” Actors such as Tony, Oscar and Emmy award-winning Jason Robards as Al Capone and Golden Globe-winning George Segal as contract killer Peter Gusenberg didn’t help.

In his review, Roger Ebert wrote, “Corman made a dreadful mistake. He decided to take himself seriously. So he sat down and did a lot of research with his scriptwriter. Howard Browne and together they tried to make a movie that would be more or less factually accurate.”

Corman seems to be taking his police procedural lessons from Jack Webb’s TV series, the original “Dragnet” (1951-1959) and the revival (1967-1970). The series was famous for its beginning disclaimer “the story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” Jack Webb played Joe Friday with a wooden seriousness that would have attracted termites, but he was clear: “All we want are the facts, ma’am.”

While the acting might have been questionable, the LAPD feelings toward “Dragnet” was not. Upon Jack Webb’s death, then LAPD Chief Daryl Gates retired badge 714 (Friday’s badge number on the show), provided an honor guard for Webb’s funeral and the city lowered the flags to half-staff.

“Dragnet” was re-imagined in 1987 as a comedy for Dan Aykroyd as Friday, bringing back Harry Morgan as Gannon from the revival and adding Christopher Plummer, Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Ashley and Dabney Coleman to the cast. Ebert gave this movie three stars compared to the one and a half stars he gave to Corman’s film.

For the movie “The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre,” Ebert wrote ” The present film approaches documentary truth so closely that it very nearly attains the dramatic excitement of an Army training film.”

The lack of good actors and acting, however, has not prevented true crime story series from becoming a TV staple. The American documentary series “Forensic Files” lasted for 14 seasons (1996-2011) despite its often cheesy re-enactments. “The FBI Files” was another docudrama that proved real FBI agents such as host former head of the FBI’s New York City office James Kallstrom could be far from exciting (1998-2006) on the small screen despite their heroic investigations in real life.  Investigation Discovery’s “A Crime to Remember” is better produced and more atmospheric. One of my favorites features the deadpan delivery of former Colorado Springs police detective Joe Kenda in Investigation Discovery’s “Homicide Hunter” whose younger self is played by former deputy sheriff Carl Marino.

For fans of shows like these, Corman’s “The Valentine’s Day Massacre” is enjoyable both for Corman’s attention to facts and for his laughable inattention to the large, unmelting snowflakes visible on hair–something that Ebert pointedly noted. As a native of Illinois, Ebert knows more about real snow than I. Ebert further noted, “actor after actor is flashed on the screen for a meaningless bit of action, a Cronkite-like voice solemnly recites his statistics: name, age, alias, date of birth, position in the mob, crime specialty, destiny.” Just the facts.

Of course, the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre has been alluded to or portrayed in better films such as Brian De Palma’s 1987 “The Untouchables,” Howard Hawks 1932 “Scarface” (which served as the basis for the De Palma’s 1983 remake starring Al Pacino–one of Ebert’s Great Movies) and the classic Billy Wilder 1959 comedy “Some Like It Hot” (another one of Ebert’s Great Movies).

The year before Corman’s movie was released was the beginning of a new era for school shootings. While Wikipedia lists a number of incidents at schools involving guns, none of the early shootings were as deadly or infamous as the 1 August 1966 shooting where 17 people died and 31 were injured in Austin, Texas: the University of Texas massacre.

After killing his wife and mother, 25-year-old engineering student and former US Marine, Charles Whitman bluffed and shot his way to the observation deck at the University of Texas-Austin for what would be the deadliest college campus shooting in the US until the Virginia Tech in 2007. Whitman was not the first US mass shooting perpetrator; that designation belongs to another former serviceman–Howard Unruh who in 1949 killed 13 people and wounded three during his Walk of Death.

Whitman has been the subject of songs and movies. Former Disney star Kurt Russell portrayed him in a 1975 TV movie, “The Deadly Tower.” Whitman is discussed at length in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 “Full Metal Jacket.” More recently Keith Maitland used rotoscopic animation for his documentary on the witnesses and survivors in the 2016 “Tower.” Matt Zoller Seltz wrote: “Like other semi-recent nonfiction films that used animation, including ‘Waltz with Bashir’ and ‘Chicago 10,’ ‘Tower’ is explanatory journalism and history, but also personally expressive, and the two impulses never cancel each other out.”

Corman could not have known that during his production of “The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre,” that, as Seltz wrote: “The UT-Austin shootings are now seen as a harbinger of shooting sprees to come.” Watching “The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre” today, in an era where mass shootings have become too common place, the movie has a sense of quaint naiveté that dates it. In 1929, Tommy guns weren’t easily purchased and seven people was a massacre. Today, teens can easily purchase semi-automatics and murder more easily. No mob muscle required.

On Valentine’s weekend, the Saturday re-enactment I saw was played for laughs. No one dancing at the speakeasy to the live band was afraid of anything more than what the post-“massacre” whipped cream pie fight’s effect on their clothing. Yet a pall had already been cast on the event from the other coast on Wednesday. At Stoneman Douglas High School, 17 people were allegedly killed by one man, 19-year-old Nikolas Jacob Cruz, using a semi-automatic rifle (AR-15) in Parkland, Florida.

For the students of Stoneman Douglas, Valentine’s Day will never been the same, perhaps a sentiment shared by former students of Northern Illinois University who in 2008 survived the shooting rampage by 27-year-old former student Steven Kazmierczak. Shooting into an Cole Hall, an auditorium, during an oceanography class of over 100 students, Kazmierczak killed five and injured 21 before committing suicide on 14 February 2008 in DeKalb, Illinois. All of the fatalities and all of the injured were from Illinois.  Kazmierczak was, at the time, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Roger Ebert’s alma mater and one of the sites of Ebertfest.

Looking at the list of school mass shootings, Valentine’s Day, a day that celebrates love and is perhaps dreaded by the broken-hearted, doesn’t seem to be a day of particular significance for mass murders. Yet that day will remain forever transformed in the hearts and minds of students at Stoneman Douglas and perhaps in the very soul of Parkland, Florida. Just as the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre shocked the public and focused attention on Capone and the ruthless mobs in Chicago, this new massacre has sparked public attention and mobilized a movement: The National School Walkout on 14 March 2018 (#Enough) and the 24 March March for Our Lives.

Stoneman Douglas High was named for a female journalist (Marjory Stoneman Douglas, 1890-1998) and someone remembered her words on walkout day: “Be a nuisance where it counts. Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action. Be depressed, discouraged and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics–but never give up.”

No doubt, the Stoneman Douglas High shooting will be the topic of some TV police procedural series. “A Crime to Remember” looked at the Austin shooting (Season 2, Episode 4, “The 28th Floor”).  In a hundred years, long after I am dead, I hope that the students from and those lifting their voices now for Stoneman Douglas High will also get their own documentary and the results of their activism will be better than I could have ever imagined and somehow both Saint Valentine’s Day and the nation will be transformed for the better.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s