THE GODFATHER THROUGH A DIFFERENT LENS
by Shaun Costello
In a recent trip to my local library, I came across a crisp, new paperback edition of The Godfather. I have seen the movies (I and II) an embarrassing number of times, but read the book just once, in 1969 when it was first published. So I took it home, curious to know if it still packed the original wallop that made it a blockbuster best seller. The opening pages contained two introductory pieces. The first was headlined A NOTE FROM ANTHONY PUZO, SON OF MARIO PUZO, and it was in caps, as I have written it here. It was two pages of unreadable gibberish, intended, I suppose, to give this volume some kind of familial, folksy varnish, an idea probably hatched in the eager mind of an underpaid, over-confident wannabe in a cubicle at Penguin Random House, where ideas like this one flourish until they flounder of their own mistaken value.
Next came an Introduction by Robert J. Thompson, who turns out to be (I’ll insert this verbatim) The Founding Director of the Center for Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, where he is also the Trustee Professor of Media and Popular Culture at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Well, that’s a dizzying title indeed. I wonder how it fits on his business card. It seems that this worthy academic has published five volumes, all about television, and is now busy finishing his sixth, a history of the medium. The introduction, entitled Introduction, was eleven pages of hyperbolic hipster speak, the pages numbered, as intros so often are, in Roman Numerals. Eleven glib and wittily urbane pages seemingly designed to place Mr. Thompson somewhere between being the lost Corleone son that Puzo left out of the book, and someone you might bump into para-gliding at Club Med, wearing an ill-fitting speedo. And certainly, someone to avoid, should you find yourself behind him on line at Starbucks.
Publishers mystify me. Can there be a book, other than Mein Kampf or The Bible, that has reaped higher revenues for its imprint, down through the years, than The Godfather? I’m guessing not. Yet, at a new projects meeting, in the conference room at Penguin Random House, as ideas were suggested around the table, some young literary Turk spoke up and said, “Maybe it’s time for another go-round with The Godfather”, which was probably received, in equal measure, with the appropriate grunts and moans. To which our young hero responded, “No wait, it might work. Provided we package it correctly. Let’s get someone who knew the author well, maybe a Puzo family member, to write a short introductory piece. And then a project narrative by a media writer. God knows, there’s no shortage of them. We include them as ‘extras’, like a director’s commentary track on a DVD. Packaging. That’s the ticket”.
Ideas like this are not necessarily suicidal, provided somebody rides heard over them, supervising quality control over who is chosen to write the ‘extras’, and what is written. But, more often than not, corporate auto pilot takes over, and important details are ignored. Hey, it’s The Godfather. They’re going to buy it no matter what. So, an intern was tasked with going through all those dust covered rolodexes in the storage room to come up with a willing Puzo family member. This process yielded Anthony Puzo, the author’s son, who gladly agreed to write a few pages about the pain his father went through in struggling to create his masterpiece. And a quick Google search revealed an unlimited number of media writers, with Robert J. Thompson’s name up there at the top of the list. An academic with a title a big as the Ritz. Thompson quickly agreed to deliver eleven pages on The Godfather’s impact on Pop culture over the 48 years of its existence. Hey, the guy’s a Trustee Professor. Whatever he writes will be just fine. Even if it’s eleven pages of self-indulgent clap trap, constructed to portray Thompson’s awareness of the impact of the Godfather on pop culture, rather than the impact itself, and as a result, exuding the coolness this academic feels is his due.
The packaging aside, let’s get to the book itself. It still works. It’s a well-constructed story, with colorful, memorable characters, a brisk pace, and a satisfying conclusion. The only real fault I could find with it is Puzo’s prose. While his descriptive narrative is fine, the dialogue is sometimes awkward and forced. Also, the male-female relationships seem a product of the era (the 1940’s), and the characters (depression era Italian Americans). That said, many of the conversations between the sexes are cringe-worthy. The addition of Francis Ford Coppola, as co-writer for the movie screen plays vastly improved the dialogue, and cleaned up much of the book’s murky areas.
This brings us to a question I have asked myself many times over the years. Could Mario Puzo have written The Godfather, had not Peter Maas written The Valachi Papers? Although published in 1968, Maas wrote most of his book between 1963 and 1965. Valachi’s startling revelations about organized crime in America, before Senator John McClellan’s Senate Subcommittee in 1963, proved to be an embarrassment to J. Edgar Hoover, who had insisted for over thirty years, that the Mafia did not exist in America. Between 1963 and 1965, because of his friendship with then Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Peter Maas was given unlimited access to interview Joe Valachi in his prison cell. These extensive interviews would eventually yield Maas’s book, The Valachi Papers. But Hoover was dead set against the publication of a book, the contents of which would make him out to be a fool. After Kennedy left office, in 1965, Hoover put pressure on Lyndon Johnson to lean on Kennedy’s replacement at Attorney General, Nicholas Katzenbach, to prevent the publication of Maas’s book.
For over two years, Maas negotiated with Washington to get some version of his manuscript published. He finally succeeded in getting approval to publish a heavily censored version, and The Valachi papers was finally published in June of 1968. Much of Valachi’s elaborate testimony before Congress in 1963, was revealed and expanded in Maas’s book, and America became aware of the details surrounding the enormous criminal enterprise that J. Edgar Hoover had repeatedly insisted was non-existent.
The details, and the history of La Cosa Nostra both shocked and fascinated the world. Joe (Joe Cargo – shortened to Joe Cago) Valachi was born in 1904, in East Harlem to an impoverished Italian American family. He ran with a gang of thieves, committing small burglaries until finally being inducted, in a formal ceremony, into The Genovese crime family. The book revealed his involvement in The Castellammarese War in the early 1930’s. This war pitted the two most powerful crime bosses of that era against each other. Joe (The Boss) Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano would battle for supremacy in New York’s criminal underworld. These were two old time gangsters, called by the younger soldiers “Mustache Petes”. They would compete in deadly combat for the title of Capo di tutti capi (Boss of all bosses). After the death of both gangsters, an organization was formed by this criminal society’s rising star, Charles Lucky Luciano, who would consolidate New York’s criminal gangs into the Five New York Families, overseen by an organization known as The Commission, that would resolve disputes between the Families peacefully. This organization would become known, among its members as La Cosa Nostra or This Thing of Ours. Details were revealed in Maas’s book, like the oath of Omerta, or silence, adhered to by members under penalty of death. The sacred ceremony of admission to La Cosa Nostra. The structure of the society, imitating the hierarchical fundamentals of the Roman Legions. Details about the characters, the language, and the structure of this criminal society were now public knowledge, due to Valachi’s testimony, and Maas’s book.
A year later, in March of 1969, The Godfather was published to rave reviews, and quickly became the best selling novel in the history of publishing. And what was contained on the pages of The Godfather? The oath of Omerta, The Five Families. The Commission, the language of this criminal society; all originally revealed a year earlier in The Valachi Papers. Could this be coincidence?
I knew Peter Maas pretty well when I lived in The Hamptons. Many of us played tennis on Peter’s har-tru court, at his house in Bridgehampton. So, one day I asked him. Did Mario Puzo ever call him up to thank him? He took the high road, which was typical of Peter. He told me that he knew Mario, and liked him. The Valachi Papers, while not yielding the fortune Puzo had made with The Godfather, had also been a best seller, making Maas quite a bit of money. He was sanguine.
My conclusion, from all that is written above, is that The Godfather could never have been the iconic literary conflagration it became, without the publication of The Valachi Papers, a year earlier. Peter Maas had supplied Mario Puzo with the historical events, the characterizations, the language, the structure of La Cosa Nostra, and the every-day experience of ‘life in the mob’, without which, The Godfather could never have been written.
© 2018 Shaun Costello
The ten best American films I can think of that
were produced by Hollywood’s studio system.
A moment here, to talk about criteria. My selection process was based on those films, whose existence depended on the creative conveyor belt of Hollywood’s film factories, that began with the Silents of the Twenties, and peaked with the well organized, and marvelous output of the Thirties and Forties. The major studios were run by hard nosed businessmen with names like Mayer, and Zanuck, and Warner, and Cohn; whose methods for getting a product to market varied little from their cousins back East, in New York’s Garment Center. Everyone who worked in movies back then was under contract; writers, directors, producers, scenic artists, technicians, and of course, movie stars. The production schedules were tight, and the objective was to get the maximum amount of product to the marketplace, with the minimum amount of time and cost. Scratch a Movie Mogul, and find a Garmento? Sure, why not – the system worked. And, every so often, the right elements fell into place, usually by happenstance, and resulted in memorable motion pictures. The appropriate writer for the script, the right actor for the part, a crew that knew its business, a savvy producer to crack a whip, and the right director, with the vision and stamina to see the project through. And the result was the everlasting language of movies, woven forever into the fabric of the American syllabus. Those lines that live forever: “Of all the gin joints, in all the world”………. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”……….. “Take ‘em to Missouri, Matt”………. “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli’s”………… “I’m on toppa the world, Ma”………. “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”………… “Badges? We don’ need no stinkin’ badges”……….“I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody”. American films, produced through the Hollywood Studio System.
I struggled with this, and many of you will find fault with my choices but, for better or worse, here they are:
Red River 1948
As American as it gets. Hawks’ memorable tapestry of the blazing of the Chisholm Trail. The cattle were in Texas, but the Rail Head was in Abilene Kansas. And driving a huge and ornery herd of cattle, for the very first time, across the Red River, over mountain ranges, through hostile Indian territory, risking misadventure with nature and bands of rustlers, was no easy business.
Hawks, probably Hollywood’s best dialogue director, made John Wayne almost believable. Lots of crusty, spicy cowpoke dialogue, that might be corny in the hands of another director, but Hawks pulls it off.
It’s dawn on the range, and the men and the cattle are ready. Hawks’ camera does a slow, minute-long, 360 pan across the faces of cowboy after cowboy, beginning and ending on Wayne, who looks to Montgomery Clift and finally say’s, “Take ‘em to Missouri, Matt”. Clift raises his hat and whoops the first of many, and the next cowboy does the same, and in quick cuts now, face after face, whoop after whoop, until, finally driven by the drama of the moment, the music swells, and the herd begins to move. It’s one of the great moments in movie history and, if you haven’t experienced it – shame on you.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre 1948
Greed and paranoia in the Mexican Mountains. Huston’s masterpiece, and an Oscar for his Dad. Huston wrote the part for his father, Walter, to play. What gold does to men’s lives. Howard (Houston) foretells of the possibilities of sudden wealth turning men against each other, but Dobbs (Bogart) say’s not him. He’d take only what he needed, and not a bit more. And of course, it’s Dobbs who turns rotten.
Absolutely perfect from beginning to end, and as good as movies get
The Best Years of Our Lives 1946
The War over, three men meet on the transport plane taking them home to Boone City. A middle-aged Army Sargeant (Fredric March), a decorated Flyboy (Dana Andrews), and a Sailor with hooks for hands (Harold Russell – a real-life vet amputee, who gives a startlingly believable performance). This film was shot in the time which it depicts, and the language, which might seem corny and dated now, is how people spoke back then. The right cast, particularly March and Myrna Loy, the right story, and a savvy director turn this into one of the real champs. Best moment: Dana Andrews in the bomber shell.
On the Waterfront 1954
So, you have to ask yourself, “Were there really commies in Hollywood, after WWII, and what message were they sending?” Here, Director Elia Kazan, ever embittered by the McCarthy-driven witch hunt that victimized him, certainly serves up a leftist theme, but who cares. Scorching drama, delivered by Brando’s ex pug, Malden’s stalwart Priest, and Cobb’s gangster brother, all delivering Budd Schulberg’s crisp, believable dialogue make this one memorable. Also great ensemble work by Kazan’s bit players, some of whom were ex prize fighters and looked it. Overlooked often, is Leonard Bernstein’s simple and haunting score, and Boris Kaufman’s all-to-real, black and white cinematography. If you’ve seen it, see it again. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for?
Citizen Kane 1941
The one and only. Movies would never be the same again. The story goes, that it was Nelson Rockefeller (Just who did you think the ‘R” in RKO was, anyway?), who heard the Mercury Theater of the Air’s now-infamous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, and called the Studio to suggest bringing this young radio guy, Welles, out to Hollywood for a look. So, Welles’ Mercury Theater of the Air troupe moved out to Los Angeles, and the rest is history.
“Rosebud” – what was it, anyway. From the opening Newsreel, to the screening room scene, to a life revealed, every moment dazzles. Innovations, one after the other – from Greg Toland’s mesmerizing lens, to the rapid fire editing, to Welles’ brilliant direction, to the debut of all those newbie’s from radio – it was all so new and fresh. The screenplay, by Welles and Herman Mankiewicz, has two camps; critic Pauline Kael whose expository essay “Raising Kane”, suggests Manky to be the prime mover, with Welles making additions here and there. Peter Bogdanovich, whose response to Kael was his own essay, “Kane Mutiny”, published in Esquire, refuted Kael’s claims. Years later, it was revealed that Bogdanovich’s piece was actually penned by Welles. Who cares, really? The film’s the thing, and there’s just nothing like it.
The Wizard of Oz 1939
Well, because! Because of the wonderful things he does. I wanted to include a musical, and no other Hollywood Musical matches Dorothy’s magical tornado-assisted journey from Kansas to Oz, and back again. Nothing even comes close. It’s as fresh and appealing to children today, as it was when it first opened seventy years ago. Seventy years – hard to imagine. Garland, and Bolger, and Lahr, and Haley, and Frank Morgan’s Wizard, and Magaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witchiness, and Billie Burke’s Glinda. And all those Munchkins, who live Somewhere, Over the Rainbow. It’s just all so perfect, and it made the world a better place.
I’ll bet I surprised you with this one. Altman’s scathingly hilarious take on Country Music, and the shrine it lives in. The word got out, Robert Altman was on location shooting some kind of musical, and he was letting the cast members write their own songs. Well, that’s about all it took for actors from Altman’s older films to start showing up on the set. And Altman wrote them in, playing themselves, and they improvised their scenes with other cast members. Julie Christie and Elliot Gould were among them. It was a chaotically joyful atmosphere.
OK, during a political campaign in the city of Nashville, the story drifts lazily through the lives of several of its citizens – some musicians, some wannabe’s, and some just plain folks. The vignettes are so absorbing, and the music so great, that it doesn’t seem to matter that the movie seems to have no central theme – but it does. Incredible performances by an insane Barbara Harris, and far too many actors to name. Just about the time when you begin wondering what this thing is all about (we’re now almost two hours into it with no apparent story in sight), all of the characters converge at the site of a political rally. And then it happens – someone we’ve known all along, unexpectedly pulls out a gun and starts shooting. And cast members start falling. And in the midst of chaos, the craziest member in the cast, Barbara Harris, a wannabe lounge singer with no voice, picks up the microphone and begins to sing, somehow calming the terrified onlookers. Nashville Is an eyeful and an earful, but most of all, it’s joyfully entertaining.
“I’m mad as hell, and I ‘m not going to take it any more”. So say’s Howard Beale, former Mandarin of television, and currently the madman of the airwaves. Lumet’s crafty direction, pretty much letting his cast do their thing, comes in second here, to what may be the greatest screenplay ever written. Paddy Chayevsky’s brilliantly prophetic script foresaw the future of television. In painting a picture of a television network gone mad, he basically created Fox News, long before Rupert Murdoch ever wrote the check. A sexy cast, including William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, and Ned Beatty in a scene you’ll never forget.
The Godfather 1972
Francis Ford Coppola
The Godfather Part Two
Francis Ford Coppola
Ok, I know I’m cheating here, but I’m going to combine them as one movie. I didn’t want the Godfather Saga taking up twenty percent of the list. Find forgiveness in your heart. Vito Corleone’s clan seems to take up more than its share of space in the American psyche. Part Two may be an even better movie than its predecessor. From Clemenza’s “Leave the gun, Take the cannoli’s”, to Hyman Roth’s “Michael, we’re bigger than US Steel”, it’s a marvelous narrative of two generations of a Mafia crime family. Really, picture perfect in every way. Coppola’s all-seeing eye seems everywhere, in every detail, no matter how small. He brought the A-Team to this one, from Gordon Willis’ dark images to Nino Rota’s music. Splendid!
You must remember this. Hollywood’s greatest accident, and maybe the all-time most perfect script. Just a production number on Jack Warner’s long list of propaganda projects for Washington, but somehow, everything fell into place. Bogart and Bergman, who seldom spoke to each other off-camera, and never struck up a friendship, came off as perhaps the most romantic couple in the history of movies. Warner’s stock company filled out the cast perfectly, and that song – As Time Goes By. Assigned to write the screenplay, totally by happenstance, were those happy go lucky Epstein twins, Julius and Philip, who would pen perfection, much to their own surprise. From top to bottom, no one had any idea that this little propaganda vehicle would wind up to be one of Hollywood’s greatest classics.
But there was a problem. The edited film made no sense. Jack Warner hated it, and said it was unfixable. Editor Owen Marks sat there with Director Michael Curtiz trying every trick he could think of. It was the ending. Bogart sends Bergman off with Henreid to the waiting plane. Major Strasser shows up and is shot by Claude Raines, much to Bogey’s surprise. But it doesn’t seem to make any sense. Warner drags the Epstein boys off their tennis court and orders them into the editing room. When they see the ending they’re stunned. “What have you done to our script?”, they ask Curtiz and Marks. Julius Epstein tells Marks to reverse the order of two close-up reaction takes during the end of the scene. Voila, a classic is born. And the Epsteins return to their tennis game. The Fundamental things apply, as time goes by.
© 2011 Shaun Costello