Making of the Mob: Chicago – Whetting the appetite for “The Making of the Mob: Chicago”, AMC ran the now iconic “Goodfellas” movie featuring Robert DeNiro, Ray Liotta and host of other legendary gangster movie stars. It was a fitting warmup for the July 11 airing of “The Making of the Mob: Chicago.” This was the first installment of a series which tells the story of the rise of Italian gangster Al Capone under the mentoring of his patron, gangster Johnny Torrio.
Review and recap Making of the Mob: Chicago
The number of noted journalists and non-fiction writers who narrate the show are symptomatic of the attraction the era holds even today. Among the cadre of narrators are book writers Jonathan Eig, John Binder, Laurence Begreen, and journalist Rich Cohen. A niece of Al Capone also appears with commentary, and former “outfit” associate Frank Calabrese.
There was probably unintended irony in the statement by a narrator that “Chicago was one of the most corrupt and violent cities in America at the turn of the century.” It still is but for different reasons. History has a way of repeating itself though in different costume.
Mobster Johnny Torrio was the big deal in the Brooklyn neighborhood where Al Capone grew up with his large and struggling family. It was a time of major immigration from Europe, the Irish being first and earlier established than the Italians who came later. Neither were readily accepted, and both were often scorned. Large families grew up in crowded tenements and made money where they could.
Young Alphonse Capone, at age 14, made a few dollars running messages and errands for the local gangsters and hustlers. That activity brought him into contact with one of the more successful racketeers in the neighborhood. Johnny Torrio is described and depicted here as a sophisticated man who kept a low profile and behaved more like a businessman than a mobster.
This premiere episode has a good look to it, especially with regard to costuming, the insertion of still black and white photos and video clips of the city and the people who lived and struggled there. The filming is warm, enticing, sepia-toned, adding an almost romantic quality to it. While the show is structured in the way of documentary, it has vivid dramatic elements and makes use of acting talent.
Mob life is anything but romantic, yet mobsters like Torrio and Capone continue to fascinate because Americans are always interested in people who struggle against the status quo and the natural order of things. Italians were spurned, often suspect, discriminated against in terms of jobs and sometimes profiled as criminals and anarchists. The proceedings, public statements, and facts regarding the 1920 Sacco and Vanzetti case show the mindset of that historical era in sharp relief.
The story of Al Capone, especially in his early formative years, is a story of a man who intended to be a good family man, a good husband, and a good provider for his family. The premiere episode here makes a good case for that in pointing out little known facts. For example, who knew that Capone moved to Baltimore, Maryland to take a job with a legitimate construction company as a bookkeeper and an accountant. It shows to good effect also that, without a college education, he became a bookkeeper and an accountant, an occupation which eventually came in handy under his employment with Johnny Torrio.
Does anyone ever feel in danger of being murdered by an accountant? Usually not. But perhaps it was the business model offered by Torrio that attracted Capone. Most people become corrupt or criminal in incrementally, sometimes at the mercy of circumstances. Before Johnny Torrio moved to Chicago for better opportunities, he saw to it that Capone got a job working as a bartender for a killer named Frankie Yale. Strapped for money, Capone eventually acquiesced to trying to collect a $1500 gambling debt on behalf of Frankie Yale. Things didn’t go according to Capone’s plan. He didn’t collect the debt and shot the guy instead.
Uh-oh! Time to move to Baltimore, talking an honest job as a bookkeeper, his wife with a child on the way. The child comes, and when it’s time for his baptism, Capone thinks there is no better man for a Godfather than Johnny Torrio. Torrio comes from Chicago to be Godfather at the baptism, eventually enticing Capone to join him.
According to the narrative, Capone joins Torrio in his glittering Chicago luxury empire, a four story building called the Four Deuces. There is a tavern on the first floor, a gambling den on the second a brothel on the third, and Torrio’s office and base of operations at the top. Torrio’s empire brought in a monetary harvest of $55 million measured in today’s dollars, but some of those earnings had to be kicked up to strongman and top mob kingpin Big Jim Colosimo.
Colosimo was a crime lord of the highest rank. In addition to the usual mob activities of loan sharking, gambling, prostitution, and protection rackets, Big Jim Colosimo had diversified his activities to include labor racketeering. When the U.S. government passed the 18th Amendment – banning the production and consumption of alcohol – life for the city’s criminal gangs was transformed. A primary source of income became trafficking in illegal booze – the definition of ‘legal alcohol’ being any of it produced for human consumption.
Breweries, beer joints, saloons, taverns, restaurants, transporters – became illegal with the stroke of the president’s pen. Persons connected to those activities immediately became outlaws. There was no better gift the government could have given to the outlaws.
Against the wishes of Big Jim Colosimo, Torrio teamed with Capone to buy idled breweries. People who drank beer and whiskey for years weren’t suddenly going to change their habits. All the Prohibition amendment happened to do was to create wide profit margins for the bootleggers and “The Outfit.” Prices skyrocketed. A barrel of beer which cost $5.00 to brew could be sold for $40.00 or more. Within a few months of making the decision to go ahead with the bootlegging, Torrio and Capone bought six breweries and began producing thousands of bottles of beer per week.
Not that they were alone in the bootlegging business. There were many gangs operating in the Chicago of that era but the strongest groups were the Irish mobster who operated speakeasies and rackets on the classier North Side of Chicago. The Italian mobsters (The Outfit) initially stayed away from that turf, settling for the less prestigious and seedier South Side of Chicago. But with the expansion of Torrio’s criminal enterprise, it was inevitable that frictions between the rival mobsters would be exacerbated.
Meanwhile, Capone and Torrio knew that they couldn’t keep their operations secret from Big Jim Colosimo for long. And that crossing the long-time and powerful mob boss could have fatal consequences. Torrio took a big risk in striking first. Colosimo’s reach in Chicago was so far that Torrio had to bring in mob enforcer Frankie Yale from New York. The cold-blooded contract killer is depicted in the episode of shooting Colosimo to death in the lobby of one of his cafes.
In the next breath, the narrator says the crime was never solved – which is the story the newspaper picked up. Colosimo was killed in May of 1920, just a few months after the 18th Amendment became law. It didn’t take long for Prohibition to ignite the first of many long mob wars.
Characters and cast of Making of the Mob: Chicago include:
Frank Nitti – Owen Black (Street Legal, Netherwood, Perfect Creature)
Al Capone – Michael Kotsohilis (The End, Creatures of Creation, Gambler)
Johnny Torrio – Paolo Rotondo (The Ugly, Stickmen, Riverworld)