The Godfather transformed Hollywood’s gangster tradition into a family affair with corporate aspirations. Was author Mario Puzo a genius for converting Italian American thieves and murderers into capitalists with family issues? That, essentially, is what made America accept cinema scumbags into its heart and sent film critics into ecstasy.
New evidence suggests that Puzo got his dream plot from the 1949 movie House of Strangers, starring Edward G. Robinson as head of an Italian American banking family and son Richard Conte as his anointed successor. (Conte was later cast as Don Barzini in The Godfather in 1972.) Other similarities with The Godfather abound. Viewers of both movies have observed these:
- Self-made, crooked Italian-American businessman (Don Vito Corleone)
- 4 sons, one a lawyer (adopted consigliere Tom Hagen)
- Older son (Sonny) feels passed over for favored younger son (Michael)
- One slow-witted son (Alfredo)
- The old man holds to archaic ways of doing business, frustrating his modern-thinking sons
- A non-Italian girlfriend who is not involved in the family business
Last October, there was even a screening of House of Strangers at Penn State with this comment: “Come watch the 1949 classic House of Strangers. This classic film influenced Francis Ford Coppola in the making of The Godfather.”
House of Strangers was based on a novel by Jewish author Jerome Weidman. Weidman was famous for his best-selling 1937 novel I Can Get It for You Wholesale, which caused quite a stir in the Jewish community for its raw depiction of New York’s garment industry. In fact, Weidman was lambasted by fellow Jews as “self-hating.” He was still defending himself in a 1978 NY Times interview, “I have to paint them (Jews), warts and all.” But the hurt was deep enough that Ernest Hemingway had to console him: ”Don’t let them get you down, kid, because I think you can write just a little better than anybody else that’s around.”
But Weidman did feel the pain, for he chose an Italian American banker as the dishonest protagonist in his 1941 novel I’ll Never Go There Anymore. A real banker at that time was Amadeo Giannini who founded Bank of America. Unlike Weidman’s character, Gino Maggio, Giannini was successful and honest. Even the name Maggio was probably snatched from Joltin’ Joe but later changed to Monetti in the movie. Still, where did Weidman get the idea for a crooked Italian American bank?
There was a local bank in Little Italy that went bust in 1932 – Banca Stabile – the same year depicted in House of Strangers. But that bank was a victim of the Depression, not fraud. Actually, I believe Weidman got his inspiration from a Jewish enterprise – the Bank of United States – which closed scandalously in 1931 with a sensational trial, just as in House of Strangers. Three bank officials went to Sing Sing, all ethnic Jews.
House of Strangers had all the elements Puzo needed, including heavy doses of Italian culture and fraternal violence. He was 29 years old when the movie was released. It is safe to say, as an Italophile he probably saw it at least once. Twentieth Century Fox knew the movie was anti-Italian. Its legal department observed, “With regard to the general overall unfavorable portrayal of the Italian-Americans – when they are not reprehensible they are unsympathetic – it is our thought that we have no way under the Code to correct this. In other words, no problem!
During the filming in 1948, Giannini got wind of the defamation and objected to the studio. That may account for the film’s very limited distribution. Giannini was spared the movie’s release, he died one month before.
House of Strangers tried to redeem Conte’s character in the end, but Mario Puzo and Francis Coppola saw no redemption, only bankable evil that would elevate street thugs to the upper reaches of society. -JLM