Friday, February 28, 2014

The Roaring 20's: Boardwalk Empire

One of the greatest things that comes from learning about history is the ability to connect the struggles and victories of the past to our own world in the present. However, it can be tough to really identify with historical figures, especially in our generation. We are constantly looking forward in today’s society, and it gets harder and harder to see how what happened in the past can help us in the present and beyond. Take Prohibition, for example. We briefly read about the event in American History Class, and only scratch the surface in detail about what it truly meant to be part of such a tumultuous and crime-ridden era. For today’s pop-culture-obsessed society, the easiest way to get people truly interested in history is through the dramatization of the event. This way, we not only learn historical fact, but the fictional and character aspects keep us engaged, and even able to form a relation to our own lives. There is a show that accurately portrays the start and end of Prohibition in America, while depicting fictionalized versions of real life historical figures. The show is called Boardwalk Empire, and it airs on HBO. 

The beginning of the pilot episode, “Boardwalk Empire,” takes place in Atlantic City, NJ, on January 16,1920. This would be the night before Prohibition is about to be put into effect.  The camera pans across the titular boardwalk, filled with people, stores, bright lights, nightclubs, and entertainers. There are images of people driving around in Ford Model T cars, all in a mad dash to find and buy all of the alcohol they can carry before midnight.  Men are dressed in fancy suits with hats, accompanied by women dressed in abundantly elegant dresses. The scene then changes to the inside of a dynamic nightclub, filled with lavish “flapper” showgirls dressed in loose fitting outfits with feathers and long pearl necklaces. A live, all white band plays atop on a balcony with painted black faces.  The painted black faces may come as a shock to the viewer, but they realistically represent the minstrel show, a very common performance in an era that consistently mocked African Americans.  The people inside the club are mainly men, who are drinking, smoking, and carousing with the flapper girls. Prohibition is about to go into effect, but Nucky Thompson, the protagonist of the show, is not going to allow this to affect the hard-partying nature of his city.

“Enoch Lewis "Nucky" Johnson was the Atlantic City political boss, treasurer, and racketeer who unofficially ran the Republican political machine that controlled Atlantic City and Atlantic County from the 1910s - 1930s” (“Boss Nucky Johnson” 1).  In Boardwalk Empire, he is played by Steve Buscemi, and is referred to as “Nucky Thompson,” letting the viewer know this is indeed a fictionalized version of the real Nucky. However, the character’s likeness and many of his actions come from factual history. “Johnson's trademark was a fresh red carnation in his lapel.  He also reportedly did business from a ninth-floor suite in the Ritz Carlton Hotel, handing out political jobs, favors, and goods to local residents in exchange for money and political support” (“Boss Nucky Johnson” 1).  Nucky controlled everything in Atlantic City, from nightclubs, to restaurants, to even law enforcement. He was also active in bootlegging, illegal gambling, and prostitution. As a result, Prohibition in Atlantic City was essentially unenforced by the local authorities, and was known as a haven for those seeking alcohol.  “This was also due to the fact that Atlantic City had prime beachfront location and docks that allowed rumrunners to bring their alcoholic beverages onto shore” (“Nucky’s Empire: The Prohibition Years” 1).  However, rumrunning was not the only means of obtaining alcohol.  Another huge venture included bootlegging operations that were hidden under the fronts of real businesses.

“Nucky” enters business with the character Mickey Doyle (played by actor Paul Sparks), based on the historical mobster William Michael Cusick, whose nickname was actually Mickey. “Mickey was the most famous of the beer bootleggers in the Delaware Valley. He owned ‘high powered beer’ breweries in Philadelphia, Camden, and South Jersey” (“Mickey Duffy 1888-1931” 1).  In the pilot episode, we are shown of Mickey’s distillery operation that is hidden beneath a funeral home, so it will not be discovered.  As a result, Nucky takes advantage of his location and bootlegging operations, and reaches out to the other criminal bosses in the big cities in order to gain their interest in joining him in the Prohibition racket.  These bosses are all fictionalized versions of real-life mobsters, including: Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), and his associate Charles “Lucky” Luciano (Vincent Piazza), who controlled New York City, as well as James Colosimo (Frank Crudele), otherwise known as “Big Jim,” and his associate Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci), who controlled Chicago at the time.

“Arnold Rothstein (January 17, 1882 – November 5, 1928), nicknamed “The Brain,” was a New York businessman and gambler who became a legendary kingpin of the Jewish mafia. Rothstein was widely reputed to have been behind baseball's Black Sox Scandal, in which it was found that the 1919 World Series had been fixed” (“Arnold Rothstein –Biography” 1).  It was also said, “Rothstein transformed organized crime from a thuggish activity by hoodlums into a big business, run like a corporation, with himself at the top" (“Arnold Rothstein – Biography” 1).  In Boardwalk Empire, Michael Arnold Rothstein is accurately depicted by dressing elegantly, speaking in a very articulate manner, and clearly demonstrating an uncommonly high intellect. Rothstein saw Prohibition as a business opportunity, and a way to create an empire of enormous amount wealth.  Therefore, Rothstein and his protégée Lucky quickly accept Nucky’s offer to enter the liquor business. However, Chicago’s James Colosimo declines the same offer.

"Big Jim"
“James Colosimo, crime czar in Chicago from about 1902 until his death, was an owner of plush brothels, saloons, and nightclubs. Having immigrated from Italy in 1895, he rose from poverty through petty crime and pimping, eventually heading a chain of brothels” (“James Colosimo”1).  Since his business has become such a success, “Big Jim” recruits Johnny Torrio, who in turn recruits Al Capone (Stephen Graham) to help him out. Once these members are added to the Chicago crew, business only continues to grow.  This leads Colosimo to believe that there is enough more than enough money in brothels, and therefore does not want to pursue a career in the Prohibition business. 

Johnny Torrio is not too fond of this idea, and decides to take out Colosimo with the help of Al Capone and Frankie Yale (portrayed by Joseph Riccobene).  At this time, “Al Capone” is a very small figure in the Chicago operation.  “It was either Capone or Frankie Yale who allegedly assassinated Torrio’s boss, Big Jim Colosimo, in 1920, making way for Torrio’s rule” (“Jonny Torrio” 1). This incident gave “Al Capone” a name for himself as the wild, aggressive, and unpredictable mobster.  Stephen Graham does an outstanding job depicting Al Capone. He is short, violent, and speaks with a very thick Chicago accent. 

The murder of Big Jim in the final scene of the pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire ensures Chicago will be in the market for illegal alcohol, along with New York boss Arnold Rothstein and Nucky Thompson. These major mob bosses will continue their operation, increasing the criminal empires in their cities until the 1930’s, when Prohibition is discontinued. 

Boardwalk Empire does an excellent job in portraying Prohibition era. The costumes, props, and sets are unbelievably intricate and detailed, giving the audience the spitting image of what the period lifestyle entailed.  Boardwalk Empire even takes it a step further by accurately incorporating the lives of historical Mob bosses at the time that ran criminal empires, but in a fictionalized way that engages the viewer. If mafia related or historical shows entice you, I’d highly recommend giving Boardwalk Empire a chance. The fifth and final season will begin airing in September, so now is a good a time as any to start begin watching on HBO. The lurid and violent tales of old-school crime will get you hooked, and the unbelievable costumes and set decorations will keep you watching. History has never been so colorful, and so full of adrenaline.

Work Cited
"Arnold Rothstein - Biography." JewAge. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.

"Boss Nucky Johnson." The Atlantic City Express. Atlantic City Free Public Library, n.d.
            Web. 28 Feb. 2014.

"James Colosimo." Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
            Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 20 Feb. 2014. 

"Johnny Torrio." Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
            Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.

"Mickey Duffy (1888-1931)." Potable Power Delaware Valley Bootlegging During
            Prohibition. Temple University Libraries, n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.
"Nucky's Empire: The Prohibition Years." The Atlantic City Express. Atlantic City Free

            Public Library, n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.


  1. First off, I'm really digging the layout of your post, I think it adds another layer of context onto the show itself. That being said, I've only seen the first few episodes of the first season but does the remainder of the series play out semi-accordingly to historical events? Or does it use the Prohibition era as a loose framework for fictional events? I think you make a great point about the show's decadence in terms of creating a real sense of life during that era; political corruption, 'drug' use, blatant racism (black face). The whole sense of mise-en-scene definitely serves as an effective visualization for the culture that surrounded the fact that liquor was illegal, which is something we really didn't get to hear about when prohibition was discussed back in American history.

    Do you think that the show and characters' take on prohibition shares any comparisons to the illegality of softer substances today like marijuana, or even just critiquing the ridiculousness of drug policy in general? I feel like there are a lot of different levels to Boardwalk Empire, and given that it's an HBO program it has a ton of freedom to do just about anything. While I really enjoyed your post I feel like you could've provided more specific examples of the dramatization of historical figures; dialogue, exaggerated situations, etc. Nice job.

  2. From what I have learned, I think the "roaring 20's" was a fascinating period in history. That being said, Boardwalk Empire is one of my favorite shows and the fact that many of the depicted events are based off real people and real events makes the show even better. I also think that the props and sets used on the show are some of the best I have ever seen. The locations they use for shooting are on point and the costume design is flawless. Sometimes I find that the show can be a little slow, but when things pick up I agree that the show gets me hooked and it is hard to turn away.


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