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HISTORY

The film interweaves two narratives, following the lives of Harlem musician “Dixie Dwyer,” a white coronet player of Irish descent, and “Sandman Williams,” an African-American tap dancer. While Dixie and Sandman’s stories are generally depicted separately, events often overlap, particularly at the Cotton Club. Musical numbers are intercut with the film’s action, blurring the distinction between performance and “real” occurrences in the movie. The picture also includes fictional representations of historical figures, such as actress Gloria Swanson and gangsters Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Dutch Schultz, and Owney Madden.
       On 12 Dec 1980, NYT announced that producer Robert Evans had acquired film rights to James Haskins’s The Cotton Club: A Pictorial and Social History of the Most Famous Symbol of the Jazz Era (New York, 1977). At that time, Evans was known for his success as head of production at Paramount Pictures, where he pulled the studio out of financial decline with blockbusters including Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972, see entry) and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974, see entry). After Chinatown, Evans negotiated a deal with Paramount in which he maintained his executive title while also developing side projects and financing them as an independent producer.
       Evans was first introduced to Haskins’s picture book in 1977, when literary agent George Weiser brought the story to his attention with plans to make a Broadway musical, according to a 4 Dec 1983 LAT article. Seeing the picture as an updated Gone With the Wind (1940, see entry), which could integrate African-American actors into Hollywood filmmaking and explore the history of race relations in ... More Less

The film interweaves two narratives, following the lives of Harlem musician “Dixie Dwyer,” a white coronet player of Irish descent, and “Sandman Williams,” an African-American tap dancer. While Dixie and Sandman’s stories are generally depicted separately, events often overlap, particularly at the Cotton Club. Musical numbers are intercut with the film’s action, blurring the distinction between performance and “real” occurrences in the movie. The picture also includes fictional representations of historical figures, such as actress Gloria Swanson and gangsters Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Dutch Schultz, and Owney Madden.
       On 12 Dec 1980, NYT announced that producer Robert Evans had acquired film rights to James Haskins’s The Cotton Club: A Pictorial and Social History of the Most Famous Symbol of the Jazz Era (New York, 1977). At that time, Evans was known for his success as head of production at Paramount Pictures, where he pulled the studio out of financial decline with blockbusters including Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972, see entry) and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974, see entry). After Chinatown, Evans negotiated a deal with Paramount in which he maintained his executive title while also developing side projects and financing them as an independent producer.
       Evans was first introduced to Haskins’s picture book in 1977, when literary agent George Weiser brought the story to his attention with plans to make a Broadway musical, according to a 4 Dec 1983 LAT article. Seeing the picture as an updated Gone With the Wind (1940, see entry), which could integrate African-American actors into Hollywood filmmaking and explore the history of race relations in the U.S., Evans believed The Cotton Club project was vital to promoting cultural diversity and spent $475,000 of his own money to acquire screen rights. Although Evans secured private financing for the picture as of 12 Dec 1980, Paramount was given the option to take over as producer, but the studio was awaiting returns from their recent Evans investment, Popeye (1980, see entry), which was set to open that day. In the meantime, Popeye director Robert Altman was hired to direct The Cotton Club.
       Five months later, a 12 Apr 1981 Boston Globe article announced Evans’s plans to break ties with Paramount and produce the film on his own, with an $18 million budget supplied by an unnamed Swiss investment group. Working independently, Evans hoped to retain ownership of the picture’s negative, which would give him control over its copyright, rentals, and television rights, but his plan did not appeal to investors, who wished to share in the profits. With the box-office failure of Popeye, as well as legal troubles resulting from a cocaine trafficking arrest, and the loss of millions of dollars in poor stock-market investments, Evans believed The Cotton Club was his best opportunity to resurrect his career, as noted in the 4 Dec 1983 LAT.
       In an attempt to replicate the success of The Godfather, Evans hired writer Mario Puzo to adapt Haskins’s picture book. The deal was announced in a 17 Sep 1981 NYT article, which noted that production was delayed because Evans spent the past year working on an anti-drug television campaign to expunge his criminal record. During that time, The Cotton Club budget increased to approximately $20 million, and Robert Altman left the project. LAT explained that when Evans hired Puzo for $1 million, he was desperate to find greater sources of financing, and actress Melissa Prophet, who had a role in Evans’s 1979 film Players (see entry), introduced him to Saudi Arabian billionaire arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. Evans was negotiating a distribution deal with Paramount at that time, and Khashoggi agreed to supply an initial $2.5 million if the studio matched his investment as a co-financier. When Paramount complied, Khashoggi increased his commitment to $12 million and Paramount balked at the unexpected budget hike. The deal never came to fruition and Evans returned Khashoggi’s $2.5 million.
       On 4 Mar 1982, HR announced that Godfather star Al Pacino was cast in the role of “Dixie Dwyer,” but he was replaced by Sylvester Stallone two months later, according to an 11 May 1982 NYT column, which reported that Evans had taken over as director. The film would have marked Evans’s directorial debut. Stallone was guaranteed a $2 million salary as well as a twenty-five percent cut of any money the production saved if it was completed under budget. Several days after settling Stallone’s contract, Evans went to the 1981 Cannes Film Festival, hoping to secure financing from foreign theater chains, and obtained $8 million in guarantees from the Producers Sales Organization (PSO). However, the deal stipulated that Evans could not have access to the money until the film was completed, or was subsidized by a completion bond. Without evidence of immediate financial backing, Evans was unable to gain investor confidence and sought funding from brothers Ed and Fred Doumani, who were leading property and casino owners in Las Vegas, NV. Although the men were facing a corruption review by the Nevada Gaming Control Board, they agreed to finance the Cotton Club budget with a partner, businessman Victor L. Sayyah, in return for fifty-percent ownership of the film. Evans supplied collateral by mortgaging his Beverly Hills, CA, mansion, liquidating his savings, and selling his stock in Paramount parent company, Gulf + Western. Neither the Doumanis nor Sayyah are credited onscreen.
       In addition, millionaire entertainment promoter Roy Radin was brought in as an investor by Evans’s then-girl friend, Karen Greenberger (a.k.a. Elaine “Lanie” Jacobs), a cocaine dealer with ties to the Latin American drug trade, according to a 23 Jul 1991 LAT article. However, Radin was murdered while production was underway, and Greenberger was accused of hiring his killers “because she feared she was being cut out of a producer’s role – and profits – in the movie.” Greenberger and her accomplices were arrested after the assassins unknowingly confessed to the crime on a secretly-recorded tape: The men reported that Greenberger and Evans paid for the murder. In the ensuing case, which became known as “The Cotton Club Trial,” Evans invoked his Fifth Amendment Right against self-incrimination and refused to testify. Greenberger, who was found guilty of murder, maintained that Evans had nothing to do with Radin’s death.
       By 4 Jun 1982, Harrison Ford was cast to replace Sylvester Stallone, as announced in an HR news item published that day, but a 13 Sep 1982 HR brief stated that Evans was ready to start production in Feb 1983 with Richard Gere in the leading role. Catherine Denueve was under consideration to play “Vero Cicero,” and the filmmaker was in the process of casting 150 black actors. According to the 4 Dec 1983 LAT, Richard Pryor was Evans’s first choice for “Sandman Williams.”
       With financing secured, Evans hired Francis Ford Coppola to rewrite Puzo’s screenplay, which had already gone through approximately sixty drafts, according to the 12 Nov 1984 Globe and Mail. Evans and Coppola were notorious adversaries from their work on The Godfather, but Evans believed the filmmaker had a better chance at making the project a success, and soon asked Coppola to direct. As noted in the 4 Dec 1983 LAT, Coppola was motivated to take over The Cotton Club because he was at a standstill in his career after the commercial failure of One from the Heart (1982, see entry), which forced his company, Zoetrope Studios, into bankruptcy. Coppola agreed with Evans that The Cotton Club would be a blockbuster, and its success could resurrect their credibility.
       Coppola’s script was nearly finished by early Aug 1983 and principal photography was scheduled to begin in New York City on 22 Aug 1983, as stated in a 2 Aug 1983 HR brief. Although Coppola promised the screenplay would be ready in time for production, Evans hired Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Kennedy to guarantee a completed script. According to the Globe and Mail, Kennedy spent eight days writing a “rehearsal script” that was used by the cast in the three weeks leading up to the start of production. After filming began at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, NY, Kennedy and Coppola created twelve additional drafts, and the actors were encouraged to submit notes, leaving the shooting script a work-in-progress.
       Along with spontaneous changes in the narrative, the production was marred by abrupt firings of crew members, including unit production manager David Golden, executive producer Dyson Lovell, music consultant Jerry Wexler, and arranger Ralph Burns. In addition, Coppola walked off set the week of 3 Oct 1983, causing filming to stop for several days. A 14 Oct 1983 DV column explained that Coppola objected to his contract, which stipulated that he be paid $3 million upfront with an additional $1 million if the film was finished on time and within its $18-$20 million budget. Evans retained the option to deduct Coppola’s wages if the film’s cost exceeded $20 million. Seven weeks into production, the budget already reached $28 million, and Coppola refused to continue until he was guaranteed more money upfront. The 4 Dec 1983 LAT reported a different reason, claiming that Coppola was not paid in full because he did not finish the script. Evans agreed to Coppola’s terms so filming could resume.
       Although principal photography was completed in 1983, the first-unit crew and cast returned to New York City mid-Mar 1984 for additional location shooting, as stated in a 28 Feb 1984 DV article.
       The film’s soaring budget resulted in several lawsuits and conflicts between Evans, Coppola, and their investors. When the cost exceeded $20 million, the Doumani brothers convinced distributor Orion Pictures Corporation to advance the production an additional $15 million, on condition that Evans step down as producer, according to a 23 Jun 1984 Screen International article. Although Evans objected to being replaced by Ed Doumani, he agreed to the deal because he believed Victor L. Sayyah was supportive of the pact. In addition, the Doumanis hired a noted gangster, Joseph Cusumano, to intimidate Evans into giving up his share of the partnership. Cusumano is credited onscreen as line producer. When Evans discovered that Sayyah was not behind the Doumani arrangement, he filed a restraining order against Ed Doumani to prevent him from taking over the picture.
       On 10 Jun 1984, a NYT brief announced that Sayyah filed a lawsuit against the Doumani brothers, their attorney, David Hurwitz, Orion Pictures Corporation, Robert Evans, and PSO, alleging fraud, conspiracy, and breach of contract. Sayyah claimed it would be impossible for him to recoup his $5 million investment because the film’s budget escalated from $20 to $58 million during production, making it unlikely that the picture would make a profit. Sayyah also contended that Orion’s $15 million loan was unnecessary, and may have been orchestrated to increase the budget so he would be edged out of a return on his investment. Complaints were also made against the Doumanis, who allegedly pushed Evans into a state of vexation on purpose, so he would lose control of the project. The Globe and Mail estimated the budget could have been as high as $67 million, but the filmmakers were not able to confirm an exact figure.
       Ten days after Sayyah filed his lawsuit, the 20 Jun 1984 LAT reported a court ruling that restored Evans’s authority. However, line producer Barrie M. Osborne was granted full control over post-production. According to the LAT, Osborne was a close confidante of Coppola, and the ruling was a greater victory for Coppola than for Evans, who was effectively denied participation in the final cut. The court also forbade the warring parties to file additional lawsuits about the film without approval from the judge.
       Despite generally positive reviews, the picture did not fare well at the box-office, grossing $2.9 million its opening weekend on 808 screens. As stated in a 19 Dec 1984 HR brief, Orion experienced unusually high levels of trading on Wall Street after the film’s release. The transactions reflected a common anxiety that the studio would suffer financially from The Cotton Club. Orion tried to reassure traders with a press statement, claiming its investment in the movie was “fixed and limited.”
       End credits include: “Special thanks to Belwin-Mills Publishing Corp. for their assistance on research and clearance of recreated music,” and, “The producers wish to thank: David Hurwitz and the law firm Gordon, Hurwitz, Butowsky, Weitzen, Shalov & Wein; New York City Film Commission; Bob & Marcia Michaels of Longwood Travel, Boston, Mass.; Studio 54; Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, Dan Morganstern, Director; New York Jazz Repertory Company; Albert G. Ruben & Company, Inc.; Film Finances, Ltd.” In addition, end credits list: “Commercial consideration from: Weapons Specialists; Shirts by Ike Behar; Camera Mart; MultiTrack Magnetics; Bermans and Nathans, Ltd.” The picture was: “Filmed at Astoria Studios in New York.”
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SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Boston Globe
12 Apr 1981.
---
Daily Variety
14 Oct 1983.
---
Daily Variety
28 Feb 1984.
---
Globe and Mail
12 Nov 1984.
---
Hollywood Reporter
24 Mar 1981.
---
Hollywood Reporter
4 Mar 1982.
---
Hollywood Reporter
4 Jun 1982.
---
Hollywood Reporter
13 Sep 1982.
---
Hollywood Reporter
2 Aug 1983.
---
Hollywood Reporter
10 Dec 1984
p. 3, 19.
Hollywood Reporter
19 Dec 1984.
---
Los Angeles Times
12 Dec 1980.
---
Los Angeles Times
4 Dec 1983
p. 1, 31-32, 34-36.
Los Angeles Times
20 Jun 1984
Section G, p. 1.
Los Angeles Times
14 Dec 1984
p. 1, 30.
Los Angeles Times
23 Jul 1991.
---
New York Times
12 Dec 1980
Section C, p. 14.
New York Times
17 Sep 1981
Section C, p. 27.
New York Times
11 May 1982
Section C, p. 13.
New York Times
10 Jun 1984.
---
New York Times
14 Dec 1984
p. 4.
Screen International
23 Jun 1984
p. 6, 54.
Variety
12 Dec 1984
p. 16, 140.
CAST
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
Co-starring:
Featuring:
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PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
An Orion Pictures release
Robert Evans presents
From Zoetrope Studios
Produced in association with PSO Producers Sales Organization
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Unit prod mgr
Unit prod mgr
Unit prod mgr
1st asst dir
2d asst dir
2d asst dir
Dir, Montage & 2d unit
1st asst dir, Montage & 2d unit
Prod mgr, Spec eff unit
1st asst dir, Spec eff unit
2d asst dir, Spec eff unit
Addl 2d asst dir
DGA trainee
PRODUCERS
Co-prod
Co-prod
Line prod
Line prod
Assoc prod
Asst to the prod
Exec prod
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Dir of photog, Montage and 2d unit
Cam op
B cam op
1st asst cam
2d asst cam
Still photog
Key grip
Dolly grip
Best boy
Gaffer
Best boy
Key grip, Spec eff unit
Gaffer, Spec eff unit
Title des and photog
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
Art dir
Art dir
Asst to prod des
FILM EDITORS
Asst film ed
Asst film ed
Asst film ed
Electronic Cinema Editing System in cooperation wi
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Set dec
Prop master
Asst prop master
Head set dresser
Key carpenter
Scenic supv
Key const grip
Prop master, Spec eff unit
COSTUMES
Cost des
Asst cost des
Asst cost des
Asst cost des
Asst cost des
Asst cost des
Key ward man
Key ward woman
MUSIC
Mus consultant
Orig mus comp and cond by
Mus re-creations by
Cornet solos by
Mus supv
Mus prod coord
Asst mus ed
Mus rec engineer
Mus contractor
Sideline mus contractor
Addl orch
Assoc mus supv
Arr and orch
Mus clearances by
Mus digitally rec and mixed at
Mus digitally rec and mixed at
SOUND
Boomman
Sd mixer
Supv sd ed
ADR ed
Sd ed
Sd ed
Sd ed
Asst sd ed
Asst sd ed
Asst sd ed
Asst sd ed
Asst sd ed
Asst sd ed
Supv re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Dial coach
Supv mix eng
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff
Prod mgr, Spec eff unit
Spec eff coord, Spec eff unit
DANCE
Dance
Dance
Principal choreog
Tap choreog
Tap improvography
Choreog
Choreog
Choreog
Choreog
MAKEUP
Key hairstylist
Hairstylist
Hairstylist
Hairstylist
Key makeup
Makeup
Makeup
Makeup
Key prosthetic make-up
PRODUCTION MISC
Prod consultant
Casting
Casting, Mus & dance
Casting, Mus & dance
LA casting
LA casting
Post prod supv
Prod consultant
Exec prod supv
Asst to the prod
Prod accountant
Film finances representative
Continuity
Loc mgr
Loc mgr
Visual consultant
Playback op
Teamster captain
Teamster
Teamster
Unit pub
Chief eng, Electric Cinema dept
Eng, Electric Cinema dept
Systems librarian, Electric Cinema dept
Loc mgr, Spec eff unit
Prod P.A.
Prod P.A.
Prod P.A.
Secy to Francis Coppola
Casting asst
San Francisco office coord
NY liason
SF liason
Extra casting
Extra casting asst
Extra casting asst
Rehearsal pianist
Research consultant
Research consultant
Research consultant
Asst to Robert Evans
Asst to Robert Evans
Asst to Robert Evans
Asst to Richard Gere
Asst to Dyson Lovell
Spec consultant
Assoc consultant
Post prod facilities provided by
Post prod facilities provided by
Post prod facilities provided by
STAND INS
Stunt coord
Stunt coord, Spec eff unit
COLOR PERSONNEL
Col by
SOURCES
LITERARY
Suggested by James Haskins' pictorial history, The Cotton Club (New York, 1977).
SONGS
“Creole Love Call,”sung by Pricilla Baskerville
“Bandana Babies,” lead vocal Ethel Beatty
“Minnie The Moocher,” “Lady With The Fan,” and “Jitterbug,” sung by Larry Marshall
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SONGS
“Creole Love Call,”sung by Pricilla Baskerville
“Bandana Babies,” lead vocal Ethel Beatty
“Minnie The Moocher,” “Lady With The Fan,” and “Jitterbug,” sung by Larry Marshall
“Barbecue Bess,” sung by Sydney Goldsmith. The following songs courtesy of Mills Music Inc.: “How Come You Do Me Like You Do?” words and music by Gene Austin and Roy Bergere, 1924
“Nobody’s Sweetheart,” words and music by Gus Kahan, Ernie Erdman, Billy Meyers and Elmer Schoebel, 1924
“Drop Me Off In Harlem,” words by Nick Kenny, music by Duke Ellington, 1933
“Girl Of My Dreams,” words and music by Sunny Clapp, 1927
“Creole Rhapsody,” music by Duke Ellington, 1931
“Ain’t Misbehavin’,” words by Andy Razaf, music by “Fats” Waller and Harry Brooks, 1929
“Smoke Rings,” words by Ned Washington, music by H. Eugen Gifford, 1933
“That’s My Desire,” words by Carroll Loveday, music by Helmy Kresa, 1931
“I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me,” words and music by Jimmy McHugh & Clarence Gaskill, 1926
“East St. Louis Toodle-O,” music by Duke Ellington and Bub Miley, 1927
“Cotton Club Stomp,” words by Mitchell Parish and Irving Mills, music by Duke Ellington, 1930
“Dinah,” words by Sam M. Lewis and Joe Young, music by Harry Akst, 1925
“Creole Love Call,” words and music by Duke Ellington, 1928
“Bandana Babies,” words by Dorothy Fields, music by Jimmy McHugh, 1928
“The Mooche,” music by Duke Ellington and Irving Mills, 1928
“Singin’ The Blues,” words and Sam Lewis and Joe Young, music by Con Conrad and J. Russel Robinson, 1920
“When My Sugar Walks Down The Street,” words and music by Gene Austin, Jimmy McHugh and Irving Mills, 1924
“The Sheik Of Araby,” words by Harry B. Smith and Francis Wheeler, music by Ted Snyder, 1921
“Cuban Holiday,” words by Mitchell Parish, music by Frank Warshauer and Sylvester Sprigato, 1931
“Hot And Bothered,” by Duke Ellington, 1928
“Ill Wind,” words by Ted Koehler, music by Harold Arlen, 1924, courtesy Arko Music Corporation/Mills Music Inc.
“Stormy Weather,” words by Ted Koehler, music by Harold Arlen, 1933, courtesy Arko Music Corporation/Mills Music Inc.
“Pardon Me Pretty Baby (Don’t I Look Familiar To You?),” words by Ray Klages and Jack Meskill, music by Vincent Rose, 1931
“Diga Diga Doo,” words by Dorothy Fields, music Jimmy McHugh, 1928
“Pyramid,” words by Irving Mills and Irving Gordon, music by Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol, 1938
“Black Beauty,” music by Duke Ellington, 1928
“Trickeration,” words and music by Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen, 1931
“Minnie The Moocher,” words and music by Cab Calloway and Irving Mills, 1931
“Doin’ The New Lowdown,” words by Dorothy Fields, music by Jimmy McHugh, 1928
“Lady With The Fan,” words and music by Cab Calloway, Jeanne Burns and Al Brockman, 1933
“Jitterbug,” words and music by Ed Swayze, Cab Calloway and Irving Mills, 1934
“Copper Colored Gal,” words by Benny Davis, music by J. Fred Coots, 1936
“Truckin’” words by Ted Koehler, music by Rube Bloom, 1935, courtesy Sergeant Music Company/Mills Music Inc.
“Daybreak Express,” music by Duke Ellington, 1934
“Wall Street Wail,” music by Duke Ellington, 1930
“Slippery Horn,” music by Duke Ellington, 1933
“High Life,” music by Duke Ellington, 1929
“Cotton Club Stomp,” words by John Hodge and Harry Carney, music by Duke Ellington, 1929
“Mood Indigo,” words and music by Duke Ellington, Irving Mills and Albany Bigard, 1931. Courtesy Shapiro, Bernstein and Co.,Inc.: “Back Home Again In Indiana,” words by Ballard MacDonald, music by James F. Hanley, 1917, courtesy Herald Square Music Co./Shapiro, Bernstein and Co., Inc. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Music: “Am I Blue?,” words and music by Grant Clarke and Harry Akst, 1929
“Crazy Rhythm,” words by Irving Caesar, music by Joseph Meyer and Roger Wolfe Kahn, 1928 “Oh, You Beautiful Doll,” words by A. Seymour Brown, music by Nat D. Ayer, 1911, courtesy Herald Square Music Co./Warner Bros. Music
“Ring Dem Bells,” by Duke Ellington and Irving Mills, 1930, courtesy Warner Bros. Music/Tempo Music Inc. Courtesy CBS Feist Catalogue, Inc./Two Dees Music: “Breakin’ In A Pair Of Shoes,” words by Dave Franklin and Ned Washington, music by Sam Stept, 1936. Courtesy Bourne Co.: “Them There Eyes,” words and music by Maceo Pinkard, William Tracey and Doris Tauber, 1913. Courtesy MCA Music (A Division of MCA, Inc.): “I Want A Big Butter And Egg Man,” by Louis Armstrong and Percy Venable, 1926
“It Must Be Love,” words by J. Mayo Williams, music by Aletho Robinson, 1936.
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DETAILS
Release Date:
14 December 1984
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles and New York openings: 14 December 1984
Production Date:
began 22 August 1983
Physical Properties:
Sound
Dolby Stereo ® in Selected Theatres
Color
Lenses
Lenses and Panaflex camera by Panavision®
Prints
Prints by DeLuxe®
Duration(in mins):
125
MPAA Rating:
R
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
27330
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In 1928 Harlem, New York City, gangster Arthur “Dutch” Schultz goes to a jazz club with his teenage mistress, singer Vera Cicero. There, Dutch is targeted for assassination, but cornet trumpet player Michael “Dixie” Dwyer comes to his rescue, and the young man is rewarded with employment in Dutch’s gang. While Dixie is reluctant to join the Mafia, his brother, Vincent “Vinnie” Dwyer, wants nothing more than to sign on with Dutch’s empire, which exploits Harlem’s African-American community. Many blacks in the neighborhood are trying to escape racism and poverty by seeking careers in show business, but the top nightclubs are controlled by white mobsters. Among Harlem’s hopefuls are black tap dancers Delbert “Sandman” Williams, and his brother, Clay, who are delighted to be hired at the Cotton Club, even though the establishment prohibits African-American patrons. Sandman is friends with musician Dixie Dwyer, but their racial disparity prevents them from circulating in the same crowds, and Sandman is unaware when Dixie goes to a party hosted by the Cotton Club proprietor, Owney Madden. At the event, Dixie accompanies Vera Cicero’s performance while Madden and his partner, Frenchy Demange, broker a truce among their fellow Harlem gangsters. However, Dutch Schultz stabs a rival to death, and Frenchy orders Dixie to drive Schultz home. Sometime later, the Williams brothers prepare for their first performance at the Cotton Club. There, Dutch Schultz hires Dixie to be Vera’s platonic escort, explaining that he must keep the girl under close watch. Grudgingly agreeing to the job, Dixie meets movie star Gloria Swanson, who takes a liking to the musician boy and offers him an ... +


In 1928 Harlem, New York City, gangster Arthur “Dutch” Schultz goes to a jazz club with his teenage mistress, singer Vera Cicero. There, Dutch is targeted for assassination, but cornet trumpet player Michael “Dixie” Dwyer comes to his rescue, and the young man is rewarded with employment in Dutch’s gang. While Dixie is reluctant to join the Mafia, his brother, Vincent “Vinnie” Dwyer, wants nothing more than to sign on with Dutch’s empire, which exploits Harlem’s African-American community. Many blacks in the neighborhood are trying to escape racism and poverty by seeking careers in show business, but the top nightclubs are controlled by white mobsters. Among Harlem’s hopefuls are black tap dancers Delbert “Sandman” Williams, and his brother, Clay, who are delighted to be hired at the Cotton Club, even though the establishment prohibits African-American patrons. Sandman is friends with musician Dixie Dwyer, but their racial disparity prevents them from circulating in the same crowds, and Sandman is unaware when Dixie goes to a party hosted by the Cotton Club proprietor, Owney Madden. At the event, Dixie accompanies Vera Cicero’s performance while Madden and his partner, Frenchy Demange, broker a truce among their fellow Harlem gangsters. However, Dutch Schultz stabs a rival to death, and Frenchy orders Dixie to drive Schultz home. Sometime later, the Williams brothers prepare for their first performance at the Cotton Club. There, Dutch Schultz hires Dixie to be Vera’s platonic escort, explaining that he must keep the girl under close watch. Grudgingly agreeing to the job, Dixie meets movie star Gloria Swanson, who takes a liking to the musician boy and offers him an acting career in Hollywood, California. However, Dixie keeps his promise to Dutch and watches Vera the next day as his boss meets “Abbadabba” Berman, who devised a mathematical formula for manipulating Harlem’s “numbers racket.” Dutch is quick to monopolize on the scheme and becomes the most powerful gangster in Harlem. In response, Owney Madden plans to expand his empire into California and reminds Dixie of Gloria Swanson’s proposition. When Owney offers to pay Dixie to move to Hollywood and oversee his Western business interests, Dixie agrees, even though he has fallen in love with Vera Cicero and does not wish to leave. In Hollywood, Dixie is cast as a gangster in the movie Mob Boss, and bases his character on Dutch Schultz. Meanwhile, back in Harlem, Dixie’s friend, Sandman Williams, has romantic troubles of his own after falling in love with a mulatto singer named Lila Rose Oliver. Sandman begs for Lila’s hand in marriage, but she is reticent about aligning herself with a black man because she can pass as “white,” and the misrepresentation of her race offers great advantages to her career. Although Sandman finds fault in Lila’s logic, he follows her example by prioritizing ambition over love when it comes to his brother, Clay. When Sandman agrees to take on a solo act at the Cotton Club, Clay is devastated by the betrayal and the two become estranged. However, the brothers later reconcile and perform together at a black nightclub. By 1929, the U.S. economy is ravaged by the Great Depression, but Dutch Schultz continues to thrive and he fulfills Vera Cicero’s dream by buying her a nightclub. By 1930, “Vera’s Club” is a success and features the talent of Lila Rose Oliver, who performs as a “white” singer. Dixie returns to Harlem after the release of Mob Boss, visits the club, and accompanies Vera on cornet, provoking Dutch Schultz’s jealousy. Meanwhile, Dixie’s brother, Vinnie, arrives at Vera’s Club to demand higher wages from Dutch Schultz, but the gangster refuses and Vinnie vows revenge. Outraged by the boy’s audacity, the gangster orders his men to murder Vinnie’s best friend and Vinnie retaliates, hiring assassins to kill Dutch’s closest associate. When a child is caught in the crossfire, Vinnie is forced into hiding. Desperate for money, Vinnie kidnaps Owney Madden’s partner, Frenchy Demange, and insists that Dixie deliver the $50,000 ransom for Frenchy’s release. Dixie warns his brother that his life is in danger and urges him to turn himself over to police, but Vinnie insists he is not accountable for the child’s death. Shortly after Dixie and Frenchy leave, Vinnie is murdered by a rival mobster. Back at the Cotton Club, Owney Madden meets gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano, who plans to kill Dutch Schultz and distribute his assets among the city’s leading mobsters. That night, the Cotton Club allows black patrons inside for the first time, and Lila Rose Oliver arrives with a white suitor. Backstage, an African-American gangster named “Bumpy” Rhodes exacts revenge on the Cotton Club’s racist manager and shoves his head in a toilet bowl. Dutch Schultz’s wife confronts her adulterous husband, and Vera Cicero steps aside with Dixie. The young man declares his love for Vera and begs her to leave Dutch Schultz, but she fears losing her club and returns to the gangster’s table. Just then, Cotton Club emcee Irving Stark summons Dixie to the stage. Referring to the title of Dixie’s new movie, Stark calls the cornet player “Mob Boss” and announces that he is the first white musician to perform with the Cotton Club’s black band. As Dixie plays trumpet, Vera finally rebukes Dutch Schultz and admits her love for Dixie, prompting the gangster’s rage. When Dixie comes to Vera’s rescue, Dutch Schultz pulls a gun, but Dixie kicks it out of his hand, and Dutch Schultz’s henchmen guide their irate boss to a nearby restaurant. There, Dutch Schultz and his men are shot dead in a mass execution, orchestrated by Lucky Luciano. At the Cotton Club, Sandman Williams finishes his tap dance routine with a declaration of love for Lila Rose Oliver. Lucky Luciano receives word that Dutch Schultz is dead and playfully labels Dixie the new “Mob Boss,” but the young man plans to return to Hollywood. Owney Madden, who is in line to succeed Dutch Schultz, announces his retirement from organized crime, putting Lucky Luciano in control of Harlem. Dixie asks Vera to leave town with him, but she refuses and bids her lover a tearful farewell. The next day, Sandman and Lila get married, and Dixie is surprised to find Vera waiting for him at the train station, ready to embark upon a new life. +

Legend
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Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.