Bowling’s Cinema Verite

They say that life imitates art. One of the more colorful cases of this maxim has a bowling angle.

The original Scarface was one of the movie hits of 1932. Starring Paul Muni as a thinly-disguised version of Al Capone, it chronicles the rise and fall of a brutal bootlegger in Prohibition-era Chicago. Onetime city-beat reporter Ben Hecht wrote the screenplay, so the film carries the stamp of authenticity.

About halfway through the story, Muni decides to eliminate rival mobster Boris Karloff. Karloff learns of the plot and disappears. But he can’t stay put. One night he goes bowling.

Muni is at the theater when word comes that Karloff has been spotted. So our scarfaced hero and some henchmen head for the bowling alley. And they don’t take their bowling equipment with them.

Boris Karloff goes bowling

Out on the lanes, Karloff is happily spilling pins. Muni and crew enter unseen. “Now watch this one,” Karloff tells the guy next to him.

Into his delivery goes Karloff. Just as he reaches the foul line gunshots ring out, and he crumples to the floor. The camera, however, follows the ball down the lane. The ball hits the pocket. Pins scatter—all except the 10-pin, which spins crazily in circles a few times before finally toppling over.

Film critics loved the bowling scene. They praised director Howard Hawks and his use of the slowly-toppling pin as a symbol of Karloff dying off-screen. In fact, the whole idea of killing a character in a bowling alley was brilliantly original. That had never been done.

Gangland applauded the film, too. Members of the Capone mob were tickled to see their exploits portrayed on the giant screen in glorious black-and-white. One of those mobsters was Machine Gun Jack McGurn.

Machine Gun Jack McGurn

A trusted Capone lieutenant, McGurn was reputedly the lead gunman in the notorious St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Yet he didn’t fit the public image of a gangster. McGurn dressed in conservatively-cut charcoal gray suits, and charmed those he met with his gracious manners. He could discuss history and literature insightfully. Disdaining the wicked city where he made his livelihood, he owned a bungalow in sedate, suburban Oak Park.

McGurn was also a sportsman. As a golfer he was good enough to qualify for the 1933 Western Open and play the first six holes in one-under-par, until some spoilsport cops turned up to arrest him. In winter he was a regular 200-shooter at Avenue Recreation on Chicago’s Northwest Side.

On St. Valentine’s evening in 1936, McGurn decided to roll a few lines. Along with two friends he journeyed into the city, arriving at Avenue about midnight. McGurn and his pals removed their outer clothing and prepared to bowl. Suddenly, three men rushed in, brandishing pistols and announcing a stickup.

Reports of what happened next are confused. Most of the patrons dove for cover. So did McGurn’s companions. The intruders ran up to where McGurn was standing and shot him three times before he could draw his own gun. Machine Gun Jack died on Alley Two with a house ball in his hands.

Within hours the papers were on the streets with extra editions. McGurn’s death was bigger news that FDR, Hitler, or the turmoil in Spain. One homey touch was the unsigned Valentine left on his body—

“You’ve lost your job,

You’ve lost your dough,

Your car and your fine houses.

But things could be worse, you know—

You haven’t lost your trousers.”

Machine Gun Jack goes bowling

The murder was never solved, credited to the usual “Person or Persons Unknown.” What’s unmistakable is the eerie echo of Karloff’s death in Scarface. Someone had seen the movie, been impressed by the staging, and decided to copy it.

A few observers claim that bowling’s image problem dates from the McGurn slaying. By extension that puts the blame on screenwriter Hecht and director Hawks. Certainly their Scarface scenes put bowling in a sinister light.

But they might have done worse. They might have given us Dreamer.

First published in BOWLERS JOURNAL INTERNATIONAL in November 1993.

For this story and 89 more, buy a copy of my book THE BOWLING CHRONICLES.  Available on Amazon.

2 Responses to “Bowling’s Cinema Verite”

  1. Marc Rettus Says:

    The police reputedly let McGurn finish the round of golf.

    • J.R. Schmidt Says:

      The police did let McGurn finish playing, but he messed up the rest of his round. I suspect that a little thing like an arrest wouldn’t have bothered Jack.

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