Surviving in America: A Godfather’s Rendition

Nice Listening While Reading — Performed By Andy William/Columbia Records

Introduction

The Godfather (1972) film follows the story of the Corleone family in New York City throughout the 1940s and 1950s.[1] The Corleone family is a crime family and the film depicts the unlikely transformation of the youngest son, Michael, from a sweet college educated Marine veteran to the head of a large criminal syndicate.[2] The lives of Don Vito Corleone, the patriarch of the crime family, and his syndicate are interrupted by the arrival of a challenger seeking to introduce drugs into the New York market.[3] Virgil Sollozzo, otherwise known as The Turk, seeks the protection and collaboration of the “families” of New York so that his business operations may run smoothly.[4] When Don Vito Corleone refuses The Turk’s overtures, claiming that the drug business was unlike the other harmless vices his organization engaged in, he is marked for assassination by The Turk and is nearly killed in an attempt.[5] Michael is forced into his father’s world, a world he had great disdain for at the outset of the film, a world his father never wanted for him, to protect his family.[6] The brutal murder of his hot headed eldest brother Sonny, the weakness of his elder brother Fredo and the death of the ailing Don Vito, forces Michael to take control of the “family business”.[7]

Baptismal Scene — Michael’s Rise to Power

The climactic scene depicts Michael becoming Godfather to his nephew and undergoing a baptism.[8] As Michael is being baptized and accepting to renounce Satan and his ways, his associates are shown gunning down and killing every last one of his enemies.[9] This baptism scene is the one that will be dissected and interpreted in this analysis paper. Raymond Williams’ concept of documentary culturalism will be used to examine this scene.[10] “Documentary culture is all the cultural products created by any given social structure…”.[11] All the contrasting elements within this scene, Michael’s family and his crime “family” and the accepting of Christ in the baptism and the committing of murder in the same breath will be considered.[12] The cultural influences that force Michael to become the man he is and the parallels with Italian American life will be addressed as well.[13] Finally, William’s concept of a commodity on its own and how it is actually appreciated by consumers shall be investigated.[14]

Means of Production

In April 1969 The Godfather novel written by Mario Puzo was released (Philips, 88).[15] This book was written by Puzo after two prior attempts at writing a “…literary…” piece had gone unnoticed.[16] Puzo was desperate and had written The Godfather to become a bestseller in order to pay off his $10,000 gambling debt.[17] Puzo would later say that “ ‘it was time to grow up and sell out…’ “.[18] The author’s drive to succeed financially and even commoditize the mafia story will be mirrored by choices faced by the characters in the film he would help write.[19] Indeed, Puzo accepted a $12,500 advance for the rights of the film from Paramount’s productions chief Roberts Evans.[20] Not everyone at Paramount thought this project would be a success and Paramount distribution chief referencing the failure of the mobster film The Brotherhood (1968) starring Kirk Douglas.[21] The problem Evans maintained was that The Brotherhood was not Italian enough[22] and in order for the film to succeed Evans argued “ ‘It must be ethnic to the core…’ ” and that “ ‘[Y]ou must smell the spaghetti.’ ”.[23] It is interesting to note the production team’s striving for authenticity and it can be considered a reversal of a structure of feeling that Williams presents.[24] Rather the producers sought to isolate various parts of American culture, i.e. Italian American culture and the mob culture and depict that on film.[25] As it will be demonstrated however the depiction would very much be a commentary on American way of life.

Francis Ford Coppola was suggested by Paramount executive Peter Bart to direct the film.[26] Coppola’s lead was sought out on the film because the studio foresaw the opposition of the Cosa Nostra and the Italian American community and figured an Italian American director would afford some legitimacy.[27] Additionally, given Coppola’s flop on the film The Rain People the studio thought they could pay him less.[28] Coppola signed the deal for “… $125,000 and 6 percent of the gross rentals.”.[29] Coppola agreed to make the film on the condition that the film was less gangster genre rehash and more “… a family chronicle”.[30] Coppola and Puzo rewrote the script together.[31]

Life imitating art is an old adage but one that was apparent in the run up to the making of the film. Al Ruddy’s, the producer of the film, car was shot up after Evans received a phone call instructing him to not make a film about the “ ‘family’ ”.[32] Following this incident Ruddy held a meeting with the Italian-American Civil Rights League, which interestingly enough was supported by Mafioso boss Joseph Colombo, promising not to use the word Mafia and to respectfully depict the Italian-American community.[33] As will be seen in the analysis, The Godfather, as a cultural product was very much informed by the existing American culture as much as it would later on influence it. The study of all these cultural products will lead to a better understanding of the whole, as is put forward by William’s documentary culture thesis (Klassen, 52–53).[34]

Analysis

As the organ music is playing and infant Michael Rizzi is being baptized the Priest asks Michael Corleone “Do you renounce Satan” to which Michael answers “I do renounce him.” and then the Priest asks “And all his works?”, to which Michael answers “I do renounce them.”.[35] As Michael is renouncing Satan the murder of his enemies are spliced on to the screen.[36] Finally, the priest asks if Michael will be baptized to which he accepts.[37] This climatic scene depicts Michael’s rise to absolute power and the accomplishment of what his father had never achieved.[38] Indeed, the final scene of the film depicts Kay, his wife, watching as Don Vito’s old associates accept Michael as “Don Corleone” and symbolically kiss his ring finger.[39] Michael’s baptism and his actions thereafter are of great importance in understanding both the character and the film.

Francoise Cuttaz in Baptism: Divine Birth makes notes that “The first and fundamental effect of Baptism, we have said, is our incorporation with Christ”.[40] Cuttaz notes the transformational effect of being baptized and maintains “That this death to sin and to the agents of sin (the world, the flesh, the devil) to which the baptized person pledges himself by the immersion, may be realized….” and that “…Christ, on His part and by the same signs, promises to give him the assistance he needs. Since, by Baptism, the Christian and Christ become morally one…” .[41] The baptismal scene does not merely depict the rise of a Mafia kingpin but the breaking of vows and the committance of sacrilege. The bible states “You shall not murder”.[42] Michael had murdered the Turk and his Police Captain bodyguard in order to avenge the attempt on his father’s life.[43] Thus committing a few more murders, in order to protect his empire, did not bother him.[44] In fact, one can assess the murdered mafia rivals as having had it coming for the sins they’ve committed. The greater sin, in my opinion, is the sacrilege of this Catholic rite of baptism. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold guiltless anyone who takes His name in vain.”.[45] Michael shows no qualms with taking the Lord’s name in vain and committing sacrilege of the Catholic faith.[46] This particular scene depicts the simultaneous moral downfall and the acquiring of absolute power and thus the viewer watches in awe as Michael ascends to the throne and cements his position atop a criminal enterprise.[47]

Michael taking the reigns from a regretful father— Godfather, 1972 Image Still

Michael’s ascendance to the top Corleone family enterprise is not wholly as sinister as it seems. Phoebe Poon notes that a sickly Don Vito tells his son that he never wanted this life for him.[48] Don Vito regrettingly tells his son that when his time came he desired to see his son calling the tune as a Senator or a Governor.[49] Poon notes that Don Vito expressly states that he got into his life of crime to provide for his family and maintain his “…dignity…”.[50] Puzo’s novel is something more than a mere story but rather it is a critique of American capitalism .[51] Unfairly disadvantaged Italian immigrants turned to socialism for some assistance.[52] Santopietro states that Puzo is quick to remind everyone that socialism at the turn of the century was prevalent and that he focused more on the ties of “…family and the human urge for revenge…”.[53] The failures of the American dream are presented underneath the layer of these themes for those who can discern them.[54] Using the lenses of documentary culture concept one can see how the experiences of Italian immigrants formed the rise of the mafia subculture but equally important informed how the novelist Mario Puzo depicted them.[55] Michael’s allegiance to his family and his “Family” are passed down from his father Vito.[56] Vito is conflicted that he has burdened his son with an “…unfinished legacy.”.[57] With the baptismal scene we witness a Michael who is untroubled by what comes next.[58] The actual splicing of the scene between the baptism and the murder of his enemies is the struggle of two worlds and Michael accepts the latter as this is what he determines will save both his families; the one he was born to and the one he had adopted.[59]

Consumption and Reception

Upon the release of The Godfather the movie was massive success at the box-office bringing in $ 1 million per day.[60] Marlon Brando, playing Vito Corleone, would go on to win Best Actor at the Academy Awards the following year.[61] By end of the 1972 release year the film had netted a staggering $ 150 million.[62] Already in September of 1972 the President of Paramount had revealed that “ ‘Everyone owning a piece of The Godfather is a millionaire already.’ ”.[63] The film was such a success that it had been analyzed a mere 30 months after its release to have garnered $330 million from 132 million viewers.[64] Not at any time before had a popular culture item drawn in viewers in these types of numbers as The Godfather did.[65]

Equally if not more important is the effect the film, as a popular culture item, had on popular culture. Following its release the vocabulary of actual Mafioso changed emulating the fictional characters in the film![66] Puzo’s novel altered the jargon of the police services and the audience with the discovery of the word “ ‘godfather’ ” coming into the mainstream.[67] The ritual of kissing of the hand of the godfather, seen in the final scene of the film when Don Vito’s old compatriots accept Michael as their new leader, is adopted by the American mafia.[68] In fact one mobster, “‘Sammy the Bull ‘ “ Gravano admits to having only killed one person prior to release of the film and then as a result of viewing the film is influenced to kill nineteen people![69]

Puzo with his novel and films was attempting to draw a comparison “…between Michael Corleone and the United States.” (Santopietro, 75).[70] As Michael goes off course in the “…headlong pursuit of money and unquestioned power….” then so too did “…the United States has just as decisively lost its way in pursuit of corporate profits….”.[71] This can be understood as, Santopietro explains, using Stuart Hill’s reading concept, Puzo’s dominant reading of the film.[72]/[73] The viewers of the film finds an element of heroism in the Corleones.[74] The audience aware of the corrupt nature of business and government institutions and approved the “…use of force to solve problems.”.[75] Coppola agrees with this sentiment stating that whoever is the patron of the artists is the one who controls the world, as it is the artists who control the media narrative and reporting.[76] Thus the audience “…understood that the Corleones represented the triumph of capitalism in all its glory and dishonor.” and that “Money equaled power, and big business/big money, criminal or not, held the keys to the kingdom.”.[77] Thus it would seem the audience is agreement with Puzo and Coppola about the dominant reading of The Godfather.[78]

Hence one can review the baptismal scene again and see that is as American as anything else. That Michael, despite his sacrilegious act, is influenced by American culture to ever strive for more and bound by filial duty to his father and family commits blasphemy and murder. Raymond Williams concept of documentary culture and Stuart Hill’s reading concept have been used to illustrate all components of American culture that has given rise to the character of Michael Corleone and the forces that drive him to commit sacrilege.[79] From the desire for producers to authentically depict Italian-American family and mafia[80], to the actions of Michael in his quest for power[81] and the subsequent effect of the film on the mafia subculture and the larger American audience[82], all these elements have been taken to make sense of the baptismal scene and the Godfather film as what this author considers one of the greatest American popular culture items ever produced.

Endnotes

[1]. The Godfather, DVD, directed by Francis Ford Coppola (Paramount Pictures, 1972)

[2]. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972.

[3]. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972.

[4]. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972.

[5]. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972.

[6]. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972.

[7]. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972.

[8]. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972.

[9]. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972.

[10]. Chris Klassen, Religion & Popular Culture: A Cultural Studies Approach (Oxford, Oxford University Press Canada, 2014), 52–53.

[11]. Klassen, 52.

[12]. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972.

[13]. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972.

[14]. Klassen, 53.

[15]. Gene D. Phillips, Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola, (The University Press of Kentucky, 2004), 88.

[16]. Phillips, 88.

[17]. Phillips, 88.

[18]. Mario Puzo, The Godfather Papers (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Crest, 1973, pp. 34–36, quoted in Gene D. Phillips, Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola, (The University Press of Kentucky, 2004), 87.

[19]. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972.

[20]. Phillips, 87–88.

[21]. Phillips, 88.

[22]. Phillips, 88.

[23]. Evans, Kid Stays in the Picture, p.225, quoted in Gene D. Phillips, Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola, (The University Press of Kentucky, 2004), 88.

[24]. Klassen, 52.

[25]. Phillips, 88.

[26]. Peter Cowie, Coppola (André Deutsch Limited, 1989), 61.

[27]. Cowie, 61.

[28]. Cowie, 61.

[29]. Cowie, 61.

[30]. Phillips, 90

[31]. Cowie, 62.

[32]. Phillips, 93.

[33]. Phillips, 93.

[34]. Klassen, 52–53.

[35]. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972

[36]. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972

[37]. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972

[38]. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972

[39]. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972

[40]. Francoise Cuttaz, Baptism: Divine Birth, (Staten Island, NY., Fathers and Brothers of the Society of St. Paul, 1962), 18.

[41]. Cuttaz, 161.

[42]. Exodus 20:13, Modern English Version, found on BibleGateway.com

[43]. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972

[44]. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972

[45]. Exodus 20:7, Modern English Version, found on BibleGateway.com

[46]. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972

[47]. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972

[48]. Phoebe Poon, “The Corleone Chronicles: Revisiting The Godfather Films as Trilogy,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 33 (2006): 190.

[49]. Poon, 190.

[50]. Poon, 190.

[51]. Tom Santopietro, The Godfather Effect: Changing Hollywood, America and Me (Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2012), 71.

[52]. Santopietro, 71

[53]. Santopietro, 71–72.

[54]. Santopietro, 72.

[55]. Santopietro, 71–72.

[56]. Poon, 190.

[57]. Poon, 190.

[58]. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972

[59]. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972

[60]. Cowie, 76–77

[61]. Cowie, 77.

[62]. Cowie, 77.

[63]. Cowie, 77.

[64]. Cowie, 77.

[65]. Cowie, 77.

[66]. Santopietro, 74.

[67]. Santopietro, 73–74.

[68]. Santopietro, 74.

[69]. Santopietro, 74.

[70]. Santopietro, 75.

[71]. Santopietro, 75

[72]. Santopietro, 75.

[73]. Klassen, 54.

[74]. Santopietro, 79.

[75]. Santopietro, 79.

[76]. Santopietro, 80.

[77]. Santopietro, 80.

[78]. Santopietro, 80.

[79]. Klassen, 52–54.

[80]. Phillips, 88.

[81]. The Godfather, Coppola, 1972

[82]. Santopietro, 73–74

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The Godfather. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola Performed by Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, etc

Youtube/The Godfather: Baptism Scene. July 17, 2012.

Accessed September 29, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfbYp9oaIT8.

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