The City Gone Wild is a terse crime drama, with gangsters, gangs, and gunfights, in which a criminal lawyer turns prosecutor to avenge the death of a friend. As she did in The Street of Forgotten Men, Louise Brooks plays a moll, this time the deliciously named Snuggles Joy, the “gunman’s honey.”
The “gangster film” (as we know it today) more-or-less began with Paramount’s Underworld (1927). Though there were earlier crime films, the Joseph von Sternberg directed Underworld set the tone for many of the genre films which followed, namely Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932).
With the surprising success of Underworld, Paramount quickly put another gangster film into production, namely The City Gone Wild. The film was a vehicle for leading man Thomas Meighan, who in 1927 saw his star starting to fade. To boost his career, Paramount paired Meighan with a topical story “ripped from the headlines,” a first rate director, and popular supporting actors. Also assigned to The City Gone Wild were individuals who worked on Underworld, namely writer Charles Furthman, cinematographer Bert Glennon, and tough-guy actor Fred Kohler.
The two films, not surprisingly, were sometimes compared. Intoning the slang of the time, Variety wrote, “The gang stuff is a la Underworld — machine guns and plenty tough. The two main yeggs each have a moll carrying their gat in the pocketbook. Very authentic in these little details ….” But not all were convinced. In what was a minority opinion, Don King of Film Mercury stated, “Thomas Meighan is just as colorless as usual; Louise Brooks makes an ordinary heroine and the rest of the cast struggle through their roles as well as possible.”
Many critics focused on the acting and actors. The noted critic Ward M. Marsh of the Cleveland Plain Dealer stated, ” . . . pitting her against crookdom’s love of Louise Brooks brings out the worst in all of us. On the credit side is Miss Brooks and also Fred Kohler in a role paralleling his Mulligan in Underworld. They do excellent work.” The San Antonio Express echoed Marsh, “Although Meighan is featured in the cast, he has his co-stars, Louise Brooks, one of Paramount’s niftiest, and Fred Kohler, remembered for his great crook work in Rough Riders and Underworld.”
Critics noticed Brooks’ hard-boiled character, and the edge she brought to the role. Radie Harris of the New York Morning Telegraph wrote, “Louise Brooks is in the cast and that is something to grow ecstatic about. Christened with the preposterous name of Snuggles Joy, she is the most entrancing crook that ever pulled a Holt. No wonder the city went wild.”
“Another distinct ornament of the cast is Louise Brooks, who lends considerable vividness to her portrait of a lady of the underworld. In fact, she gives so good an interpretation of the part that Marietta Millner, supposedly the feminine lead, actually relapses into only secondary importance,” wrote Gordon Hillman of the Boston Daily Advertiser.
Brooks was so good that she out shown Millner, who had appeared earlier in the year with Meighan in the Cruze directed film We’re All Gamblers. “Louise Brooks, who plays the crook’s girl, is better looking, more attractive and a better actress than Marietta Millner, the district attorney’s jeune fille, and in real life Tommy probably would have preferred her to Marietta,” wrote Stanley Orne in the Portland Oregonian. “Louise Brooks, the pert flapper, completely shadows the more important role allotted to Marietta Millner, and the ‘girl of Gunner Gallagher’ brief as her part is, is a far more intriguing character than the society girl of Miss Millner,” added Leona Pollack of the Omaha World Herald.
“With the outbreak of city gang wars between Gunner Gallagher and Lefty Schroeder, criminal lawyer John Phelan, feared in the underworld, brings temporary peace, while district attorney Franklin Ames investigates. Nada Winthrop, daughter of a powerful capitalist, is sought by both men. Though Nada loves John, she disapproves of his criminal practice; and when he frees Gunner Gallagher on bail, she announces her engagement to Ames. When Ames discovers that her father is the secret brain of the underworld activities and Winthrop has him killed, John takes the district attorneyship to avenge his friend. Snuggles, Gunner’s girl, threatens to inform on Winthrop unless John releases Gunner, and he concedes; John is about to resign when Snuggles, rejected by her man, confesses.”
The film was shot between June 22 and July 7, 1927 at Paramount’s studio in Hollywood, with location shooting at Griffith Park in Los Angeles.
Under its American title, The City Gone Wild, documented screenings of the film took place in Australia, Canada, China, Dutch Guiana (Surinam), Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa, Sweden , and the British Isles (England, Isle of Man, Northern Ireland, and Scotland). The film was occasionally shown in the United States and once in Scotland under the title A City Gone Wild. The film was also advertised under the title The City Gone Mad in Argentina. Elsewhere, this motion picture was known to have been shown under other-language titles including La ciudad del mal (Argentina); Der Verbrecherkönig von Chicago (Austria); La cité maudite (Belgium); A cidade bulicosa (Brazil); Mesto uplynulý divoký (Czechoslovakia); Storstadens svøbe! (Denmark); Het Kwaad eener Wereldstad (Dutch East Indies); La cité maudite (France); La Ville Maudite (France); 狂乱街 (Japan); Die Gottin der Sunde (Latvia); La onda del crimen (Mexico); Boeven en Burgers (The Netherlands); Het Kwaad Eener Wereldstad (The Netherlands); Piraci Wielkiego Miasta (Poland); A Cidade Ruidosa (Portugal); and La ciudad lel mal (Spain).
The film is presumed lost. According to Kevin Brownlow, the film was largely extant as recently as 1971. In his 1990 book, Behind the Mask of Innocence, Brownlow wrote, “David Shepard, then with the American Film Institute’s archive program, had a list of 35mm nitrate prints held in a vault Paramount had forgotten it had. He asked me which title I would select, out of all of them, to look at right away. I said The City Gone Wild. He called Paramount to bring it out of the vaults for our collection that afternoon. The projectionist went to pick it up. ‘O, there was some powder on that,’ said the vault keeper ‘We threw it away.’ The film had been unspooled into a tank of water (recommended procedure for decomposing nitrate). Shepard complained officially to Paramount, who promised it would not happen again. He tried to rescue it, even from its watery grave, but a salvage company had carted it off by the time he got there.” This account was confirmed in a conversation with David Shepard in June 2016. Shepard recalled that Paramount would, at the time, discard any film which showed any degree of decomposition.
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— “The City Gone Wild a Slow-Moving Film of Municipal Corruption” (New York Times, December 6, 1927).