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  • Writer's pictureHenry Sapoznik

Did Humphrey Bogart portray Meyer Lansky in this comedy film noir?

80 years ago this month, Warner Brothers released “All Through the Night” a comedy-drama about reformed gangster “Gloves” Donahue who, upon learning the German baker of his favorite cheesecake has been murdered and, with the help of his colorful Runyonesque criminal cohort uncovers, attacks, and breaks up a secret Nazi spy cell in New York’s Yorkville neighborhood.

Comically contrived, the underlying premise (i.e., “gangsters vs. Nazis”) has a hidden Jewish provenance starting with the story pitched to Warner Brothers and co-credited to “Leonard Q. Ross,” the nom de goy of Leo Rosten.

The Chicago-born Rosten, best known today for The Joys of Yiddish, was already a savvy sociology wunderkind when he took the literary world by storm in 1936 in a series of 30 feuilleton for The New Yorker about the exploits of a malapropic Yiddish-speaking night school attendee in "The Education of H*Y*M*A*N*K*A*P*L*A*N." The series resulted in a best-selling book and, thereafter, a seemingly unbroken series of popular platforms for his curious, literate, and enlightening explorations.

Rosten came to Hollywood in 1939 on a two-year $100,000 grant from the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations to study and report on the sociology of Hollywood (an approach he had successfully taken with a book on Washington DC journalism.) Welcomed by the movie colony, Rosten quickly became part of the community he came to study soon minting his own bon mots (about WC Fields: “Any man who hates babies and dogs can’t be all bad.”) It didn't hurt that “Hollywood: The Movie Colony, the Movie Makers,” was well received so further enabled him to sell “All Through the Night,” his first movie story. (Rosten’s modest quotidian Hollywood output yielded two story/screenplays considered classic film noir: “The Dark Corner,” (1946) and “Lured” (1947) both starring Lucille Ball.)

The first news of “All Through the Night” appeared in the March 29, 1941, movie trade journal Boxoffice touted as a “comedy gangster tale” for James Cagney. It makes sense that Rosten coming off his white-hot Yiddishy celebrity with H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, conceived the story for tough guy Cagney whose own fluent and slangy mame loshn was learned as a boy on the streets of Yorkville -- the setting of “All Through the Night.” Only the year before, Cagney had again wowed movie audiences with his sassy Yiddish in the hit feature “The Fighting 69th” just as he had done in his second starring vehicle, “Taxi!” (1932) opposite Yiddish actor, Joe Barton.

But it was not to be.

Within a month, Cagney was replaced by George Raft with the addition of love interest Marlene Dietrich, trying to capitalize on their success in the recent “Manpower.” Raft, (who had an uncredited dance cameo appearance in “Taxi”) was notorious for turning down most scripts: he had already rejected the part of Mad Dog Earle, in “High Sierra” and Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon,” before also turning down this script en route to declining the part of Rick in “Casablanca,” giving four consecutive star-making roles to the backbenched Humphrey Bogart, catapulting his career.

The supporting cast of “All Through the Night” was the industrial strength Warner Brothers A stock company: William Demerest, Barton MacLaine, Jane Darwell, Edward Brophy, etc. with four of the stars (Bogart, Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, and Ludwig Stössel) soon reunited on the set of “Casablanca.” (Marlene Dietrich who had early bowed out was temporarily replaced by Olivia DeHaviland before the part went to Kaaren Verne, the soon-to-be wife of Peter Lorre, who met during filming.)

“All Through the Night” was bought by Warner Brothers while America was at peace and was in production when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Studio execs sped up the production to fulfill a previously unanticipated and unthinkable need: to lift the spirits of a recently sucker punched American people by showing American tough guy gangsters beating Nazis.

Despite its patriotic framing, not every reviewer liked what they saw. Russell Maloney in The New Yorker –for whom Rosten scribed his H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N stories — while he liked the basic premise, noted on January, 31, 1942:

"...Mr. Leo Rosten, the authority on Hollywood and its works, would find 'All Through the

Night' instructive, in a negative way, but I have since discovered that he was one of the

authors. Well, well!"

But where would the inspiration come from?

The story behind the story of New York gangsters vs. Yorkville Nazis may have its roots in the riot on April 20, 1938, when a group of some 100 Jewish World War veterans from Brooklyn, surreptitiously slipped in among 3,500 attendees of a Bund rally at Yorkville Casino to celebrate Hitler’s 49th birthday.

Though they had only intended to observe and report back to their American Legion post, after several incendiary speeches, Jewish veteran Jean Mathias stood and yelled out “Is this a German or an American meeting?” triggering a wild free for all sending the vastly outnumbered Mathias and several other Jewish American Legion members to the hospital (not only would the American Legion shortly condemn its own members for participation in the melee, but the only one convicted for violence was a Jewish war veteran ($25 fine) while the only Nazi charged (for brandishing a concealed dagger) was famously acquitted thanks to his Jewish lawyer.

In response, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointed special sessions judges including Nathan D. Perlman (below, left) an anti-crime zealot. Perlman, from his earlier leadership perch at the American Jewish Congress was also an early fierce opponent of Hitler and felt American Jewish responses to Nazism were altogether too tepid.

In what would have made a great B movie plot device, Perlman, who by day was a two fisted-crusading justice against New York gangland figures, was by night empowering other gangland figures into fielding an armed Jewish militia, by providing them both cover and vital data and all under the leadership of mobster Meyer Lansky. (below, right.)

In interviews Lansky later gave about his antifa experience, he told of being approached by Judge Perlman who, in exchange for legal and financial assistance (which Lansky demurred,) Lansky and his chosen criminal landslayt would, for the next year carry out serial violent attacks (short of killing) at Nazi events around New York City.

In Meyer Lansky Mogul of the Mob, he reminisced:

“We got there in the evening and found several hundred people dressed in their brown shirts. The stage was decorated with a swastika and pictures of Hitler. The speakers began ranting. There were only 15 of us but we went into action…most of the Nazis panicked and ran out. We chased them and beat them up and some of them, they were out of action for months. We wanted to teach them a lesson. We wanted to show them that Jews would not always sit back and accept insults.”

Another eyewitness to a Lansky attack on a Yorkville Bund meeting was uncovered by writer R.A. Rockaway in Strangers and Natives: The Evolution of the American Jew from 1921 to the Present by poet and Der Morgn Zhurnal journalist Judd L. Teller. In it, Teller describes a bloody Lansky raid where, while some confederates filtered in among the unwitting attendees, the majority waited outside for a signal to overwhelm the guards, storm the hall, and violently disrupt the meeting. As Teller noted: “like commandos, they were gone before the police arrived.”

Curiously, Teller’s description of Lansky’s savage pincer attack in Yorkville can be said to have a “Hollywood ending” in that it describes perfectly the penultimate fight scene in “All Through the Night.”

Could the literate, curious and very well-informed Leo Rosten have had knowledge about these guerilla events and the “Perlman-Lansky Pact” and if so, did his original James Cagney pitch accurately reflect its singular Jewish source? On these questions, Rosten’s voluminous papers at Brandeis University, are silent.

But even had the original pitch accurately reflected its Jewish source, Golden Age Hollywood was famously phobic in whitewashing the otherwise very public Jewish association with organized crime — as opposed to Irish or Italian — never allowing gangster characters to have overt Jewish sounding names. The Warners as inventors of the iconic Depression-era screen gangster, concretized the Italian screen archetypes by using two Jewish actors: Paul Muni (“Scarface,”) Edward G. Robinson (“Little Caesar”) who, together the Irish James Cagney, (“Public Enemy”) were also fluent Yiddish speakers.

There is something irresistibly appealing that somehow Humphrey Bogart – the fourth of the Warner’s iconic screen gangsters thanks to his 1936 “The Petrified Forest” a part originally intended for Edward G. Robinson – despite the Warner’s obsessive attempts, was the only of the four to portray and celebrate a Jewish gangster.

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