I’ve been watching an old gangster film, the 1939 Warner Bros. picture “King of the Underworld”, with Humphrey Bogart and Kay Francis. What always catches my notice in these films (aside from the occasionally TSTL gangsters) is the language they use.
“All right, doc, don’t get sore.”
“Hey, fella, don’t tell ’em that a dame tripped me up.”
“Maybe he’s got a gat!”
“Say… whaddya mean?”
“You’d better scram!”
Of course, the movie gangsters (or rather, their writers, mostly) stole from the real gangsters. In his article on Huffington Post, Jeffrey Gusfield notes that the actor Edward G. Robinson sat at the back of the courtroom during part of Al Capone’s tax evasion trial and took notes.
Some of the phrases they used are still heard today, but most have gone by the wayside. Or, if they are used, it’s purposefully, to seem old. Phrases like “it’s the bee’s knees” or “the cat’s pajamas” originated in the 1920s (though I’m pretty sure a gangster wouldn’t be caught dead saying such silly things!) When’s the last time you heard someone called a “Mrs. Grundy”? Probably never, except maybe in an Archie comic book. (Mrs. Grundy = a priggish, prudish, person.) Of course, don’t call a gangster that–he’s liable to take you for a ride if you do.
It’s pretty tempting to write my gangsters this way, and to use lots of the 1920s and 1930s slang, but a few choice phrases can go a long way. However, I know I’m going to have to work in a “You ain’t sore, are ya?” into the dialogue somewhere. It’s just too classic not to use!
Check out some more 1920s slang here, and below is a clip from the film ‘The Roaring Twenties’, starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.