Cast & Crew
During the late 1920s in Detroit, the Canadian boundary becomes a hub of activity for liquor smuggling. In the nearby slum of Hastings Street, juvenile delinquents run in gangs, the most violent of which is called The Purple Gang. When some boys attack an elderly couple, Lt. Bill Harley of the juvenile division is called in to investigate. He immediately questions the couple's grandson, William Joseph "Honeyboy" Willard, whom Bill jailed months earlier for robbery. Although Honeyboy feigns innocence, as soon as Bill leaves, he plans with his cohort, Hank Smith, to coalesce all of the small gangs under his tutelage. Meanwhile, Bill rounds up a group of boys in the police station, and when one tries to run, Bill slaps him. Visiting welfare worker Joan MacNamara, horrified, complains to the chief of police, who calls in Bill. There, Joan explains that the youths need therapy rather than punishment, and describes Honeyboy as sensitive, intelligent and suffering from claustrophobia. Bill replies that it is too late to reform these boys, all of whom were carrying cash, a sure sign that they are now aligned with mobsters. Soon after, Honeyboy demonstrates the strength of his new gang, called The Purple Gang, by holding up the most infamous rumrunners on the river, the Olsen brothers. The boys hijack the Olsens' freight and breaks bottle after bottle until the brothers, Eddie, Al and Tom, agree to pay them for "protection." Impressed by Honeyboy's audacity, Eddie invites him to survey their whole operation and then hires him to provide enforcement for their expanding liquor distribution business. An era of increased violence begins as the Olsens, aided by The Purple Gang, become involved in prostitution, gambling and theft. One day, Joan is on Hastings Street when gang member Joe Milford assaults her, and knowing she can identify them, Honeyboy coldly orders her execution. Bill, who is now an inspector in the homicide department, begins an investigation and soon arrests Joe. Although Joan's coworker, Dr. Riordan, argues that Joe is still underage, Bill points out that the already hardened criminal will be twenty-one by the time of his trial, and advocates sentencing him to life in jail. Despite this victory, however, the gang violence persists, until one day Honeyboy kills a corrupt policeman. Although Bill, urged on by his pregnant wife Gladys, was planning to retire, the chief appeals to his love of the city and offers him complete control over the case to bring down The Purple Gang. When Bill informs Gladys, she is heartbroken but still supportive. At the Olsens' office, New York mobster Killer Burke applies to work with them, and after Al Capone vouches for him, Honeyboy happily accepts Killer's gift of a machine gun. He uses the new weapon to massacre a group of St. Louis mobsters who are trying to take over Detroit, and when all the witnesses prove too frightened to identify any of The Purple Gang, Bill is forced to allow the crime to go unpunished. Bill tries to slow their progress with a series of nuisance search warrants, but the gang has informants in the legal system and so has forewarning of every raid. One day, Bill confronts the Olsens, vowing to stop at nothing to bring them down. Realizing they can neither bribe nor scare the policeman, Eddie decides to run his liquor smuggling business from out of the state. The arrogant Honeyboy announces that he will stay on and control the city with his gang, certain that he can use psychology to find Bill's "weak spot." To that end, he and his boys sneak into Gladys' room one night and terrorize her. Only weeks away from giving birth, the panicked Gladys struggles to get free, breaking through the glass door. When she dies three days later in the hospital, a devastated Bill yearns to seek revenge, but heeds the words of a nun who warns him not to place himself above the law of either man or God. Soon after, Honeyboy begins a racket extorting the city dry cleaners and dyers, uniquely vulnerable because they deal directly with consumers' possessions. When the gang charges huge premiums not to destroy their stock, the cleaners, led by Laurence Orlofsky, hire the Chicago Mafia to retaliate. Gang warfare breaks out, and as the underworld grows stronger, the public becomes more apathetic. In response, the governor creates what he calls "the one-man jury," allowing Judge Stone to grant any injunctions, arrests or searches he deems necessary. With the bureaucracy removed from the process, Bill is able to jail many of the gangsters. However, he recognizes the necessity of capturing the gang leaders, and so is pleased when he discovers that Hank has been arrested for loitering in Hastings Street. Knowing that Hank must have been visiting his mother, Bill appeals to the young man's desire to please his mother, urging him to provide information about either of the gangs. Hank agrees, but when he tries to pass information to Bill about the Mafia, Honeyboy catches him and, assuming he has betrayed The Purple Gang, has his best friend buried in cement. Bill has managed to intercept Hank's message and so is able to raid a flower shop that is actually a front for Mafia dope dealers. Although the shop manager is shot before he can give information, the past months' receipts reveal multiple deliveries to the same apartment, and Bill deduces that the Mafia leaders are stationed there. Honeyboy's informers notify him of the apartment address, and not knowing that Bill has posted undercover officers outside, he and three goons arrive there to kill the Mafia dons. As Honeyboy enters and shoots up the apartment, Bill's men surround the building and arrest the gang members. When Bill corners Honeyboy, the claustrophobic gangster tells Bill he killed Gladys, and the lawman barely contains himself from killing him. As an hysterical Honeyboy is led away, Bill muses that only an aware and active public can put an end to "rat-pack terrorism."
Forrest T. Butler
Jack De Witt
Lloyd L. Garnell
A. Harrington Gibbs
Lindsley Parsons Jr.
Lindsley Parsons Jr.
The Purple Gang
The 1959 movie The Purple Gang purged the story of its Jewishness, putting the gang leadership primarily into the hands of the psychotic William "Honeyboy" Willard, a fictional character played by Italian Robert Blake. Three brothers involved in the gang were renamed Olsen instead of Bernstein. The one major real-life character that made it into the movie was "Killer" Burke, a notorious machine gunner who took part in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, hired by the gang to carry out a mass killing of rivals. For some reason, Burke's real first name, Fred, was changed to Thomas for this story.
The movie begins with a prologue in which California Congressman James Roosevelt, son of President Franklin Roosevelt, states that the same "sickness" featured in the film still exists in contemporary society, and only an informed public can provide the cure. The Purple Gang is then narrated intermittently by Barry Sullivan as the gang's would-be nemesis on the Detroit police force. Newsreel footage from the 1930s was incorporated into the picture, but any attempt to capture the real look and feel of the Prohibition years can best be described as minimal.
Although the prologue condemns the type of crime depicted in the film, The Purple Gang tends toward sensationalism, finding in the real-life story -- and in Blake's jittery James Dean inspired performance -- the kind of thrills audiences of the late 1950s had come to expect from juvenile delinquent stories. But The Purple Gang makes no attempt to understand the young criminals or attribute their behavior to society's ills, for which it was criticized by reviewers of the time.
Director Frank McDonald, a former railroad worker who began his show business career acting on stage, made his name in movies grinding out Westerns, mostly at Republic Studios and many of them starring Gene Autry or Roy Rogers. Screenwriter Jack DeWitt was also known for Westerns, including Sitting Bull (1954) and A Man Called Horse (1970).
The original gang was notorious enough to make it into a hit rock and roll song, Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock," in the lyrics: "The whole rhythm section was the Purple Gang." A documentary about the gang was made in 2008 under the same title as The Purple Gang.
Director: Frank McDonald
Producer: Lindsley Parsons
Screenplay: Jack DeWitt
Cinematography: Ellis Carter
Art Direction: David Milton
Original Music: Paul Dunlap
Cast: Barry Sullivan (Police Lt. William Harley), Robert Blake (William "Honeyboy" Willard), Elaine Edwards (Gladys Harley), Marc Cavell (Hank Smith), Joe Turkel (Eddie Olsen).
by Rob Nixon
The Purple Gang
The Purple Gang begins with a prologue in which California Congressman James Roosevelt states that the same "sickness" featured in the film still exists in contemporary society, and only an informed public can provide the cure. Then a written statement appears: "This picture is based on information from official files which revealed the shocking story of the wave of juvenile delinquency which spawned Detroit's Purple Gang. Incredible as it May seem, this youthful rat-pack of terrorists dominated the city's underworld for more than a decade during the prohibition era." Voice-over narration, by Barry Sullivan as "Bill Harley," is interspersed throughout the film. Newsreel footage of the 1930s appears intermittently.
The Purple Gang was inspired by the real gang of the same name, which controlled the Detroit underworld from approximately 1927-1932. The mainly young and Jewish hoodlums began with hijacking, extortion and protection rackets, and soon moved into gambling, prostitution and alcohol running. As shown in the film, they fought brutally with warring gangs and, through intimidation and corruption, remained invulnerable to the police. Elvis Presley's hit rock and roll song "Jailhouse Rock" alluded to the gang's notoriety in the line "The whole rhythm section was the Purple Gang." Fred "Killer" Burke, portrayed in The Purple Gang by Paul Dubov, was a real-life hired gunman with the Detroit underworld.
Although October 1959 Hollywood Reporter new items add Ray Kellogg and Jim Healy to the cast, their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. In addition, modern sources list John Damler, Don Haggerty and Harold Miller in the cast; Haggerty was not discernable in the print viewed. Like many of the critics, the New York Times reviewer noted that the screenplay disdained psychological intervention for juvenile deliquents, and called the film "socially irresponsible."