Bonnie and Clyde and American Pop Culture
Gangsters and Nostalgia
Back to the future with hoodlums
In 1967 the movie Bonnie and Clyde appeared, directed by Arthur Penn and starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. It contained a new level of violence and sexual content that was a step further into uncharted waters for mainstream 1960s American cinema, containing an attitude about the morals of bank robbing that had this movie reaching backwards to be a kind of continuation of the cinema called "Pre-Code" (1920s until July 1934) in which a more sympathetic and romanticized treatment of human motivation (and criminal behavior) was presented in American movies before the crack-down of the the "Hayes Code."
Bonnie and Clyde was hugely successful (earning $70 million in worldwide box office, which, adjusted for inflation, would be the equivalent of earning $521 million in 2017 dollars).
In 1967 the audience of Bonnie and Clyde contained an older generation of filmgoers who had been children or young people when the actual Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were robbing stores and gas stations, killing policemen (at least 9 were shot). Their exploits came to an end in 1934 with a police ambush that killed them. Besides the romantic ingredients of the fictionalized 1967 film-version of the duo's life, there is the nostalgia of the era being presented on screen for older filmgoers who could personally remember the era in which the story takes place (which at the time had it's own low-end pop-culture praise of of Bonnie and Clyde).
The success of the film accelerated a revival of interest in styles of the 1920s and 1930s era. The movie's box office lead to a whole slew of films imitating Bonnie and Clyde's setting and attitude, going on to influence much else of American pop imagery, and it shows up on the cover of this 1973 issue of The Shadow, which is in itself a "revived" pop culture hero from the same era as the tragic and murdering Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.
The dichotomy of love and hate for American gangsters in the American culture is lived out through the question they pose - are these gangsters Robin Hood figures bringing a smattering of justice against a corrupt society, or are they just murdering thugs?
"...we do not see the rational and routine aspects of the gangster's behavior, the practice of brutality – the quality of unmixed criminality – becomes the totality of his career. At the same time, we are always conscious that the whole meaning of this career is a drive for success: the typical gangster film presents a steady upward progress followed by a very precipitate fall..." Page 102, The Immediate Experience, Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture, by Robert Warshaw. Harvard Univ. Press 2002
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow movie presentation 1967
The Shadow #10, April-May 1975
Related: Jack Kirby's "The Last Gang in Chicago" featuring robotic gangsters reliving the rituals of 1920s Chicago crime culture.
Original Page May 2012 | Updated Aug 2017