The Annotated “Godfather”: 10 Times Art Imitates Life in Coppola’s Classics
The Godfather phenomenon provides a deeply historical look at what is sometimes called a “hyphenated American” family. It provides raw entertainment, too, in the form of gunplay and betrayals and intricate crime plots. At the same time, some surprisingly detailed historical content links the carnage and gives it meaning, making The Godfather not just a great work of fiction but a serious and sophisticated window on the past.
Young Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), like many second-generation immigrants as well as African-Americans, came back from military service in the Second World War to a country whose dominant Northern European Protestant culture still viewed him as an outsider. Mario Puzo’s novel and Francis Coppola’s films imply rather than spell out two divergent paths for Michael at this juncture: to use his college education and the G.I. Bill to make a mainstream life for himself and his all-American fiancée (Diane Keaton), or to remain physically, spiritually, and economically close to the purposefully-hermetic and in many ways alien lifestyle of New World Sicilians. Many people in similar positions find ways to strike healthy balances, but, happily for audiences, Michael chooses the way that leads to the most evocative and dramatic results.
Though plenty of Italian-Americans understandably resented The Godfather’s portrayal of them as criminals and regressives, many others felt the story was a tribute to the hardworking, religious, family-first environment in which they were brought up. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has spoken of his sense of déjà vu watching the first film’s dinner table scenes. The whole family seated together, the food so rustic its aroma almost comes through the screen, even the dim lighting that feels so true to the era: these, Scalia said with obvious feeling, were the sights and smells of his childhood.
Nearly half a century since the book and films, and longer still since the periods they depict, the good, bad, and ambivalent elements of The Godfather’s real history are fading from memory. Some of what was obvious to audiences in the 1970s no longer is, and much was never widely known. For those with a historical bent, then, an annotated viewing of The Godfather films can make an already great story greater. The following list only scratches the surface.
1. “Make Him An Offer He Can’t Refuse”: Johnny Fontane and Frank Sinatra
Rumors of mob connections shadowed Frank Sinatra throughout his career. In the early 1940s the crooner wanted out of his contract with band leader Tommy Dorsey, who was skimming a third of all Sinatra’s earnings. As the story goes, Sinatra’s literal godfather was Willie Moretti, a member of the Genovese family — one of the real-life “Five Families” of New York City crime — and Moretti bought Sinatra’s contract from Dorsey for a fraction of what Dorsey knew it was worth. The incident was widely publicized, which itself is an indication that it might be at least partly a media fabrication. In any case, the story is the inspiration for the “offer he couldn’t refuse” story that Michael tells Kay at the beginning of The Godfather. At the time Sinatra was a teen idol, hence the young ages of the screaming girls who watch Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) perform at Connie Corleone (Talia Shire)’s wedding.
Ten years later, Sinatra took his career to the next level with an Oscar-winning supporting role in the Pearl Harbor film From Here to Eternity. Not coincidentally, the first act of The Godfather concerns Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando)’s reluctant but effective attempts to get Fontane a part in a “big war picture” that could make him a top star. Whether Sinatra received similar help is an open question, but what is clear is that the next part of his long career was centered on Las Vegas. In the 1950s and 1960s, “when the mob ran Vegas” in the words of non-fiction writer Steve Fischer, Sinatra and his pals were the people to see on the Strip. Naturally, when Michael Corleone moves the family to Nevada at the end of The Godfather, he prevails upon Fontane to provide the entertainment at Corleone-owned casinos.
2. “Jack Dempsey’s joint”: Crooks and Crooked Fighters
Rough-and-tumble Sonny Corleone (James Caan) knows the place where Captain McClusky (Sterling Hayden) and The Turk (Al Lettieri) are going to meet Michael to make the peace. “They’ll pick you up in front of Jack Dempsey’s joint in an hour and a half,” he says. Why Jack Dempsey’s, a famous Broadway diner that operated from 1935 to 1974? Perhaps The Turk chose it because it was well-lit and conveniently-located in Midtown Manhattan. But perhaps Puzo and Coppola chose it because of its namesake: Jack Dempsey, a heavyweight boxing champion whose popularity peaked in the 1920s. Dempsey’s name sounds natural coming from Sonny, who shadowboxes when he can’t find something real to punch. But it also has an aura of illegitimacy that may not have been lost on audiences even as late as 1972; Dempsey, as it happens, was widely accused of cheating in a championship bout. In The Godfather, shortly after Sonny mentions Jack Dempsey’s joint, caporegime Peter Clemenza (Richard Castellano) says that his men are playing cards with The Turk’s negotiator and that “he’s happy, they’re letting him win.” The thematic echoes — fighting and cheating — in the Jack Dempsey allusion is subtle to the point of being arguably unintentional, but it’s exactly the kind of real-life detail that makes The Godfather feel authentic.
3. “I wished to live there as a Jew in the twilight of my life”: Hyman Roth and Meyer Lansky
The Russian-born Jewish mob kingpin Meyer Lansky was alive and well when his on-screen doppelganger, Hyman Roth, was killed in The Godfather Part II. There is an oft-repeated story that after seeing the film Lansky called Lee Strasberg, who played Roth, and said “You could have made me more sympathetic.” Like a lot about Lansky’s life, whether that call is fact or legend will probably always be a mystery. Criminal charges never stuck to Lansky, but accusations of financial malfeasance on a scale “bigger than U.S. Steel” were serious and numerous enough that Israel, his adopted country, did extradite him to the United States to stand trial. Lansky operated in Florida and in Cuba before and during the regime of Presidenté Fulgencio Batista.
4. “I’ve loved baseball ever since…”: The 1919 World Series
It must be the most famous World Series in history. Not only does it get a mention in the Best Picture-winning Godfather Part II, it also provides a motivation for Kevin Costner’s eccentric farmer in Field of Dreams. The Chicago White Sox threw the best-of-nine series against the Cincinnati Reds, except for star slugger “Shoeless” Joe Jackson who, even after he was banned from baseball for his knowledge of the con, maintained that he played to win. Shoeless Joe is a conversation for another movie; at issue in The Godfather Part II is Roth’s claim that his love of baseball started when Arnold Rothstein fixed the 1919 World Series. Rothstein, a New York-based Jewish gangster whose fortunes rose with Prohibition, is indeed the man thought to be behind the fix. He rigged a horse race, too, and built a bootlegging empire whose payroll included a young Lansky. Rothstein was murdered in 1928, a fate he shares with the fictional Roth, who in turn is modeled on his real protégé.
5. “The goddamn Justice Department and the F.B.I. ninety miles away”: The Havana Conference
In The Godfather Part II, the mafia summit in Havana takes place in the late 1950s, just before the Cuban Revolution, when Roth is an old man. In reality, the so-called “Havana Conference” happened in 1946 when Lansky was in his mid-40s. For that infamous event the double-towered Hotel Nacional played host to powerful underworld types like Sinatra benefactor Willie Moretti. Moe Dalitz, one of the inspirations for Vegas boss Moe Greene (Alex Rocco) in The Godfather, was on hand as well. The heads of the Five Families were present at the event and are thought to have discussed the drug trade, much as they do in a less-tropical clime in the first part of The Godfather. In the movie timeline, Michael had wiped out Greene and the family bosses years earlier, but the altered chronology allows Coppola to use the fall of the Batista government to good dramatic effect.
6. “That’s why they call him Superman”: Havana’s Sex Clubs
When people think of Havana in the 1950s, the image is usually glamorous: big chrome cars, Carmen Miranda shows (Miranda was Brazilian, but she performed in Cuba and once went shopping there with Lansky), and the folksy Latin music later memorialized by Buena Vista Social Club. But to historian David Halberstam, Cuba in the ‘50s “was an ugly and decadent place, a playland for rich Americans who wanted to escape the puritanical atmosphere of their home country.” The “Superman” scene in The Godfather Part II, in which Senator Geary (G.D. Spradlin), Fredo Corleone (John Cazale), and others watch a Cuban man with a prodigious piece prance around on stage, sounds too bizarre to be true, but apparently it was all too real. Halberstam claims that “Superman” “did not particularly like his job, but he made $25 a night for it. . . more money than he could make working in the cane fields for United Fruit.”
7. “Feliz Año Nuevo”: The Fall of Batista
A lot happens at the crack of midnight on New Year’s Eve, but not a lot of it is of great historical significance. The fall of Batista was an exception. On the evening of December 31, 1958, as Fidel Castro’s rebels were marshaling in the hills, Batista announced his intention to leave the country. The American ambassador, under pressure from Washington, had demanded that the unpopular and corrupt leader step down in a last-ditch effort to prevent Castro’s impending takeover. At 3:00 in the morning on January 1 Batista flew out of Cuba, never to return. Castro did not enter the city until January 8, so the chaos in the film immediately following the breakup of the New Year’s party is perhaps an exaggeration, but the timing of the former president’s exit is not dramatic license.
8. “My client has answered every question asked by this committee”: The Kefauver Hearings
Serious fans of The Dukes of Hazzard may recognize the line “they keep showing my hands and not my face on TV” from the full version of Waylon Jennings’s theme song. The trope of filming criminals’ hands instead of their faces goes back at least as far as the Kefauver hearings, one of the biggest television events of the 1950s. Estes Kefauver was a liberal, anti-segregation Senator from Tennessee (he served simultaneously with Al Gore, Sr.) who chaired a kind of congressional roadshow in which he would enter a city and interview the local mafia bosses. The televised hearings brought Kefauver a lot of fame, but they focused even more attention on the gangsters, especially when a lieutenant of “Lucky” Luciano named Frank Costello refused to let the cameras show his face. Instead they showed Costello’s hands, which made him seem all the more guilty to the 70% of the New York television audience that tuned in for his testimony: Costello’s hands fidgeted and sweated as he tried to deflect questions about his racketeering career. By hiding his face Costello also drew attention to his distinctive voice, which Brando is said to have modeled Vito Corleone’s on after watching tapes of the Kefauver hearings. In The Godfather Part II Michael faces a Kefauver-like committee with more cool confidence than Costello could muster.
9. “It’s dangerous to be an honest man”: The Short Papacy of John Paul I
In August 1978, Catholic faithful and the world learned the sad news that Pope Paul VI had died. He had been Pope for almost 15 years and had presided over the sweeping reforms of the Second Vatican Council. In September 1978, the Vatican announced once again that the Pope had died: Paul VI’s successor, John Paul I, had held the position for just 33 days. Conspiracy theorists held that the Pope had made enemies, and in The Godfather Part III Michael says of the Pope that it is “dangerous to be an honest man.” John Paul I’s assassination in the film is part of a complicated business deal involving the sale of stocks in a real estate conglomerate. This idea is based on a speculative book by British crime writer David Yallop, who complicates the story even further by alluding to Freemason involvement — the tell-tale calling card of a crackpot. There is no evidence that John Paul I’s death was anything other than natural (Popes tend to be old), but the timing of his short reign twenty-some years after the events of The Godfather Part II was convenient for Coppola’s third Godfather film, made almost two decades after the second.
10. “Where are you going now?” “Corleone.”: Travels in the Old Country
There’s quite a lot of trans-Atlantic travel in The Godfather trilogy. Vito enters Ellis Island as a boy and makes a return trip to Sicily as a young man (Robert de Niro plays the youthful don.) Michael hides out in the old country until the heat from the McClusky killing passes, and later spends much of Part III in Italy. In Part II the brother of Michael Gazzo’s Frank Pentangeli comes to America for just one day to show his face at Pentangeli’s testimony. The popular image of early 20th-century European immigrants is of families arriving by boat with all their hopes, dreams, and luggage in tow, making a clean break with the past. That may have been the norm, but plenty of immigrants made the journey multiple times. As far as mafia leaders were concerned, ancestral homelands could represent exile or sanctuary. The U.S. government released “Lucky” Luciano, head of one of the Five Families, from prison in the late 1940s as a reward for his covert services during the war. A condition of his release was that he return to Sicily, the land of his birth. (Incidentally, several mafia leaders were anti-fascist despite Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s appeal, and many would have echoed Clemenza’s sentiments in The Godfather about stopping Hitler at Munich; Luciano may have aided the U.S. war effort purely for personal gain, but his friend Lansky broke up meetings of American Nazis out of solidarity with European Jews.) Luciano did not stay in Sicily for long. He crossed the Atlantic again and based himself in Cuba, but soon returned to Sicily where he eventually died in an airport, apparently of a heart attack. An airport was the scene of Roth’s death, but Lansky died quietly in Florida at the age of 80 after spending two years in Israel. Michael’s return to Sicily for his own lonely death at the end of the Godfather Part III thus mirrors some of the life circumstances and travel patterns of real-world mafiosi.
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