Coppola’s Focus on Family in The Godfather (W9)

The cover art for the film directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Family is a bond stronger than all others, and often times we forget that without family we would not be the person we are today. While watching the Godfather series, I was fascinated by the way that Coppola, the director, incorporated this theme into his movies. By doing this, he flipped the script of the typical mobster movie which was all about how the rise to power required one to be ruthless, trust no one, and have no morality. The Godfather was different; something stuck out to me about the characters and the way that they interacted with one another and their family members. One of the scenes in the movie that really demonstrates this is when Don Vito Corleone is giving advice to Johnny Fontane:

Corleone asks, “Do you spend time with your family?”
Fontane replies, “Sure I do.”
Corleone responds, “Good, because a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”
Don Vito Corleone talks to Johnny Fontane about his family

This line in the movie is very crucial in setting the tone for the family aspect of the film. Not only does the Don say that it is important to spend time with your family, but he basically says that without doing so, you are not living life correctly, and not handling your responsibilities as a husband, father, brother, and son. The huge family dinners and lunches, as well as the time that they spend together are how the Corleone family perfectly exemplify this idea. This family bond is what makes the Corleones one of the more successful crime families of the time. “Vito’s business may not be a legitimate one, but the film associates him with family and business equally” (Sidea)

A quote from Don Vito Corleone

In her article, “Operatic Style and Structure in Coppola’s Godfather Trilogy, Marcia Citron says, “The Corleones may be a criminal family, but their ties to relatives are strong, and Coppola’s style plays up the closeness of the family unit.” (Citron 436) In Citron’s article, she summarizes a passage from a voice over commentary of the films done by Coppola himself. “This focus on family, influenced by Coppola’s views of his own family and their literal roles in the saga, makes the trilogy different from the typical gangster film” (Citron 436). This is a huge factor to the family aspect of the film in my opinion because it changes the way that you view the family. For me, I saw it as a new perspective into the life of the director, and shows me that family really is a very important aspect to him not only in the movies, but also in real life. Coppola is also demonstrated how close his own family was by the fact that he cast several of his own family members in the series.

There is one scene where Don Corleone is speaking to Michael about how he wanted something more for him. He wanted him to be something other than an Italian mobster. “…I never wanted this for you. I work my whole life, I don’t apologize, to take care of my family…But I always thought that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone, something” (Don Corleone talking to Michael). This moment shows that although Don Corleone is a part of this terrible business of a crime family, he is aware of the fact that it is a terrible business and does not wish the terrible life upon his son. He wishes that he could have been someone of importance who is not bound to the life of a mobster.

In an article written by David Sutton and Peter Wogan, they show that the Corleone family takes the views and values that they hold toward family, and translate them toward the business world. “The Godfather suggests that ‘family values’ should carry over into the ‘rational’ world of business decisions” (Sutton & Wogan 159). While many Americans at the time disagreed with this notion, due to the fact that work is supposed to be rational and efficient and family life is a more emotional environment, Coppola challenged this way of thinking with the Godfather as he made the business and family thrive while cohabitating the same space and time. Obviously, the “family business” was run strictly by males, as it would have been improper for a woman to be involved in business matters; however, this does not stop the women from making an impact.

One such example of women making an impact on the family business is when Connie, the daughter of Don Corleone, gets married to Carlo Rizzi. Tom Hagen, the family lawyer, says, “No Sicilian can refuse a request on his daughter’s wedding day.” This is important because it affects the way that Don Corleone does business. There are several requests made to him that he would rather refuse, but because it is the day of his daughter’s wedding, he cannot. While this may seem like it has little impact, it shows how important the family is to Don Corleone and how he will do anything to make sure that his daughter and her guests enjoy the day of celebration. “From the opening of Godfather I, the Corleone’s loyalty to their own is infused with an ethnic Italian tone. No other section in the trilogy celebrates the Family as much as the famous wedding scene” (Poon 191).

Another great point that Poon makes in her article is that Coppola shows the ethnic values of a Sicilian Family. “The Godfather affectionately creates an ethnic ethos in which the Family sticks together…” (Poon 191). This also goes to show the traditional values that the family holds, and how those ethnicities deteriorate throughout the series. “The film suggests that the authentic ways embodied by Don Corleone will become corrupted as the family grows away from its ‘ethnic roots’” (Sutton and Wogan 160). This is shown in the film when Michael takes over for Don Corleone and goes away from the traditional family values. After Michael takes over, you no longer see the family getting together for dinners; the scenes seem darker when they are in the home. It also shows when the family moves from New York to Las Vegas, away from the comfortable and inviting home they once lived in, to now living in a guarded compound that seems to be very uninviting.

Michael Corleone

It seems to me that Coppola shows, through Vito Corleone, that when the family is the center, the business and everything else will fall into place. Conversely, Michael Corleone’s obsession with being in charge and trying to do the right thing for the business forces the family to take a back seat to his business and his pride. The second and third films of the series show how without the family at the center of everything, Michael’s whole world falls down around him. First, his wife leaves him, then everyone he seems to care about either dies or turns their backs on him.

“Ultimately, The Godfather is not a gangster film: Although the trilogy features violence, conspiracy, and organized crime, its portrayal of the Corleone Family departs radically from any gangster film previously released in cinema and maintains its individuality from anything released in its wake.” (Poon 187–188) This piece of Poon’s article is in my opinion exactly what Coppola wanted to portray in his film series. He wanted to go beyond the aspect of crime and violence, and show why it is that the crime families of the day were the way that they were. He wanted to show that the families were the most important reason that the Corleone’s were so successful, and that without the family, there would have been no rhyme or reason to their violent actions. The reason that the Corleone family committed so many criminal acts, and acts of violence, was because they wanted to give their family the best life possible.

When comparing The Godfather to other films of its kind that were released in the same era, I cannot help but notice that the movie has a different feel to it. While there is still violence and crime and all the other things that typical mobsters did in the 1950s, it seems as if that is not the main focus of the films. In films such as Scarface, and Goodfellas, the story seemed to be focused around a single mobster, and his willingness to do whatever it took to get to the top, regardless of how ruthless or immoral he must be. In The Godfather, however, it seems to be focused more on why they do what they do, and the reasoning behind their crimes. To me it seems apparent that the reasoning behind why the characters in The Godfather are criminals is because they want to provide the best life for their families about which they care so deeply. The Godfather also shows that family comes first through all things. “Take care of home before impressing the streets” (Don Vito Corleone).

This is a stark contrast to other films of the time that were focused only on the individual and how he promoted himself through being ruthless. For example, in both Scarface and Goodfellas, the main characters are seen abusing their wives either emotionally, or physically. Scarface shows the main character beating and berating his wife in a public restaurant and having incestualized feelings toward his sister. “Instead of emphasizing the purity of the familial bond as in The Godfather, Scarface reinforces the stereotype that the Italian American criminal is not only emotionally unstable but also plagued by latent sexual insecurities” (Poon 191). In Goodfellas, the main character is seen to cheat on his wife on many occasions, and the men that he hangs around give him credit and admire him for “getting some on the side”.

This quote drives home a very important point made in the film. Although friendship is important, nothing trumps family.

In The Godfather, not only does Don Corleone take care of his family, but he also takes care of his “Family”. While the family is people who are actually blood relatives of Don Corleone, his “Family” is made up of people who are very close friends and under his protection. “Friendship is everything. Friendship is more than talent. It is more than the government. It is almost the equal of family” (Don Corleone). The scene with Johnny Fontane is a perfect example of that sentiment. While Johnny is not family, he is treated as a godson by the Godfather, meaning that he takes care of him and looks out for his best interests even though he is not blood related.

This quote by Andre Maurois basically points out the message that Coppola was trying to get across in his rendition of The Godfather

I truly believe that Francis Ford Coppola’s work in The Godfather impacted the mobster genre, because many films and television shows have references or quotes of the movie included in them. One show in particular that comes to mind is Sopranos, where they mention The Godfather series almost innumerable times. There are also a great number of movies that were made after The Godfather that incorporate these same family values, leading me to believe that Coppola’s work with Godfather I really changed the way that the mobster genre was viewed and how mobster films will be made from now on.


Acknowledgements

I would like to take a moment to thank all of the people who helped me to make this essay what it is today. I would like to thank my Professor, Mr. Harris, and my TA Habibeh, who worked with me throughout the entire process of this work. I would also like to thank my workshop partners, Ashley, Ryan, and Christina, who helped me with editing the content of my essay. Lastly, I would like to say thank you to Randy, who helped me with my grammatical editing last minute. Again, this piece would not be what it is today without the help of all of these wonderful people.


Authors Note

The path that I took in creating this essay was quite unconventional to be honest. This topic was not my original first choice to write about, as I had other ideas on my mind. However, I am so glad that my TA liked my idea with this topic and pushed me to try to make a paper out of it. Although begrudgingly at first, I slowly became engulfed in writing this paper. It slowly consumed me until it was constantly on my mind, thinking about things that I could add to it or things that I should change. While it may not have been my first choice of topic, I am so glad that I accepted the challenge to write about this movie and uncover some things that the director put into the film that reflected his own views on family. I always find it interesting when I can find that personal aspect that a director throws into a film, and I was so happy to find one in not only one of my favorite films, but one that is also an all time classic.


Bibliography

Citron, Marcia J.. “Operatic Style and Structure in Coppola’s “Godfather Trilogy””. The Musical Quarterly 87.3 (2004): 423–467. Click here for link

Maurois, Andre. Quote by Andre Maurois. Digital image. Site2quotes. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.

Michael Corleone. Digital image. Imgfave. N.p., n.d. Web.

Never go against the family. Digital image. www.troll.me. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.

Poon, Pheobe. “The Corleone Chronicles: Revisiting The Godfather Films as Trilogy.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 33.4 (2006): 187–95. Web. 29 Oct. 2015. Click here for link

Sidea, Andrew. “The Godfather: Morality, in All Its Contradictions.”Precious Bodily Fluids. N.p., 02 Oct. 2010. Web. 30 Oct. 2015. Click here for link

Sutton, David, and Peter Wogan. “The Gun, the Pen, and the Cannoli: Orality and Writing in The Godfather, Part I.” Anthropology Humanism28.2 (2003): 155–67.

The Godfather Cover Photo. 1972. IMDB. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.

The Godfather. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, and Diane Keaton. Paramount Pictures, 1972. URL.

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