Several months after Touhy's return to prison, 20th-Century Fox began production of Roger Touhy, Last of the Gangsters which was released in 1948 as Roger Touhy-Gangster.
The syndicate couldn't get the movie done quickly enough. Touhy's escape was a godsend. He had dug his own hole and through their enormous influence in the film industry, they were going to provide the celluloid coffin for him.
The film's producer would be Bryan Foy, and like some people associated with the film industry then, he was a man with a past. From a creative standpoint, he was a logical choice because he specialized in gritty realistic film noir, but he wasn't, as he so often said, "married to the higher concept of film as art." Foy would and did shoot whatever would turn a dollar from PT 109 to Women's Prison.
Foy's actual standing was somewhere in between important films and "B" films. In fact, by 1935 Foy had produced so many "B" films that he was known as the king of "B" pictures. He often joked that he made the same film 100 times using different locations and different actors. Still, almost every one of Foy's low-budget movies were box-office money makers.
Foy is still considered one of the most prolific film producers in Hollywood's history. He had helped to bring the industry into the sound age while he was at Warner Brothers, then nothing more then a collection of buildings and second-hand film equipment. Foy produced the first all talkie for Warners in 1928, Lights of New York and became popular for turning out program films.
A Chicagoan, Bryan Foy was the eldest son of vaudeville comedian Eddie Foy whose seven children became the traveling stage act "The Seven Little Foys." Bryan moved to Los Angeles in 1922 and grew up with the film industry, eventually becoming a film producer, sometimes producing as many as thirty films a year
Like anyone else who grew up in show business at the time, Foy learned early on that it was to his best advantage to rub shoulders with the hoods who dominated the industry and night clubs across the country. As a result, Foy's Beverly Hills houseguests would often include Chicago's political boss Ed Kelly or Allen Smiley, a shadowy L.A. figure whose fingers were in a dozen different pies. As an FBI informant working inside Hollywood reported to Washington, "Foy has a reputation within the industry for hiring ex-convicts or hoodlums who come out to Hollywood in search of work."
"Brynie," said a friend, "was always close to people who lived on the edge of right and wrong."
Interestingly, John Factor and Foy had been friends for years and Factor had once been a house- guest at Foy's estate. There he met a young actor named Ronald Reagan, whose films Foy produced at Warners. Over the years, Foy's younger brother Eddie Jr. was featured in three of Reagan's movies. "I soon learned," Reagan wrote, "that I could go in to Brynie and tell him that I had been laid off, but couldn't take it at the moment because of all my expenses. He would pick up the phone, call a couple of henchmen and actually get the picture going on four or five days notice-just to put me back on salary."
Foy left Warner Brothers after a dispute with Jack Warner. After his stint with Warner he was named president of Eagle-Lion Studios, a British- based film production company. One of Foy's first acts as boss was to hire Johnny Rosselli-Chicago's west coast contact-as a producer. This happened as Rosselli was released from Atlanta federal prison where he had served only two years of a six-year sentence.
Foy liked Rosselli. They were both tough talking, street smart and savvy. Foy thought Rosselli was a handsome man, always dapper, who appreciated fine restaurants and chic Hollywood parties and like Foy was a devoted and knowledgeable fan of the film business. Sure, Rosselli was a tough gangster. Foy knew that of course, but it was a side of his friend that he had never seen displayed.
Foy remained close to Rosselli throughout most of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Rosselli spent weekends at Foy's house and whenever he could, Foy put him on the books in one no-show position after another. "They were like the Rover boys," Foy's niece said. "They went everywhere together."
Despite Foy's financial success at Eagle-Lion studios, his brash confrontational style irritated the studio brass so when Foy's three-year contract expired in 1950 he was released. He bounced back to Warner Brothers but couldn't take Rosselli with him since the studio had barred him from the lot. But Foy and Rosselli stayed in close contact. In fact, Foy introduced Rosselli to one of his favorite contract players at Warner, Bill Campbell, who lived in the same neighborhood as Rosselli. In turn Bill Campbell introduced Rosselli to his young wife, actress Judy Campbell, who would later have affairs with Rosselli's boss, Sam Giancana, Frank Sinatra and President John F. Kennedy among many others.
When Foy's wife Vivian was suffering with cancer in 1949, Rosselli all but moved into the house. Foy's daughter, Madeline Foy O'Donnell recalled that, "Brynie happened to be out of the house for a while, and I guess the kids were somewhere else in the house, but Johnny was sitting with Vivian when she died. He closed her eyes."
Eventually Foy and Rosselli had a falling out when in 1954, Foy crossed one of Rosselli's brothers in a business deal. Rosselli confronted Foy but he refused to back down causing Rosselli to slug the producer, knocking him to the ground. It would be ten years before the two men would talk to each other again.
There was another mob connection to the film as well.
One of the law firms representing 20th-Century Fox was owned by Sidney Korshak, an alleged associate of the underworld. Korshak's brother was a partner with Tony Accardo in a casino run out of a storefront on Rush Street in Chicago. It was one of the most profitable casinos in the country. Korshak's firm had also represented George Browne, Willie Bioff, Paul Ricca, Tony Accardo and a slew of other Chicago- and L.A.- based hoods over the years.
The film script about Touhy's escape was written in less than thirty days. It was written while Touhy was still at large, so the writers centered the plot of the film on the escape and not its aftermath. Foy said that the script was still being written when Touhy was recaptured. Fox purchased the concept and ordered it rewritten by Crane Wilbur and Jerry Cady, both veteran Hollywood writers and directors.
Afterward, Fox sent the executive producer, Lee Marcus, and the director, Robert Florey to Chicago in January of 1943 just a few days after the capture to photograph actual locations for the scenes.
Years later, when questioned about the rush to get the film made, Fox executives associated with the film said they wanted to capitalize on the headlines. Fox wanted the picture rushed through production before the public forgot about Touhy.
Robert Florey recalls, “The shooting at 1254-56 Leland Avenue had taken place just a few days before and the place was a mess. For a week at Joliet the warden allowed us to shoot many scenes and places inside and in the courtyard using trustees as doubles and producing the escape scene in long shots. The Mayor and the Chief of Police helped him in every way and he was allowed to interview Touhy and the others.”
The film was completed in a remarkable thirty-three days back on the sound stages.
For the most part, the script refrained from using any real names except for the syndicate's enemies, Roger Touhy and Basil Banghart, and yet Fox was threatened by a lawsuit from Jake the Barber.
Then, to Hollywood's surprise, Roger Touhy sued Fox Studios and its distributors on the grounds that the film defamed him. Suit or no suit, the film previewed at Stateville prison on July 12, 1943. Over one thousand state officials watched in the prison's main yard.
Jacob Arvey, Cook County Chairman and a "close personal friend" of Jake the Barber and Tubbo Gilbert, had a front row seat. Roger Touhy, who refused to attend, sat in his darkened cell where he could hear the echo from the film's dialogue which he believed ridiculed him.
No one had ever seen anything like this film before. It was the pioneer of the quasi-documentary technique that two years later would become the trademark of semi-factual exposes. The mise-en- scene of the film was groundbreaking. The escape scene was shot entirely in long-shot. This technique made the film look more like a newsreel than the feature films that people were used to. Finally, the film concludes with an on-camera speech by Statesville Warden Joseph Ragan.
Illinois state officials loved every second of the film. On the other hand, when the FBI saw it, they hated it. In fact, J. Edgar Hoover objected to the film before he saw it. Upon seeing it, Hoover objected to several scenes in which local police were given credit for FBI work. He was also generally displeased with being mentioned in the film at all. Hoover wanted the public to forget Touhy. The Hamm trial was still an ugly stench. In fact, when Hoover allowed the official story of the FBI-The FBI Story and later The FBI Nobody Knows-to be written, there was no mention of the Hamm case or Roger Touhy. Despite the fact that the FBI took credit for the capture, the agency demanded that a disclaimer be included to alert the public that the portrayal of agents in a movie did not constitute an endorsement of the film and should not be construed as a seal of approval. At that point, Fox considered shelving the picture. More than a year later they finally released it. By that time the escape was all but forgotten. Even after waiting a year to release the film, the studio did so with caution. The producer's press book came complete with a statement that read, "We wouldn't be justified in making a picture about Touhy except that he is representative of the era and happily, a passing of it."
Foy said that his inspiration for the film was not the sudden flush of money that came out of cash- strapped Fox, but rather that "it was the dragnet for him [Touhy]; it was the most expensive in the history of the city and when the FBI made it a nationwide manhunt it became the most expansive manhunt in history for an escaped prisoner, and with nothing but bad news coming from the war front in those days it [the escape] was like a return to the old days of a decade before."
The Hays Office (Hollywood's self-censorship organization) demanded and received a cut in the film. They wanted one entire reel cut on the grounds of extreme violence. They felt it was "bad for the general public," said Florey.
Preston Foster, fresh off of a string of profitable films, portrayed Roger Touhy not as a hero or a villain, but as a cardboard character who lacked any appeal in any manner. Preston's version of Touhy is as a petty, mean, calculating little man. The film portrayed him as a "two-bit ugly little punk robbed of any sympathy," as one reviewer put it.
When the film flopped at theaters under the title Roger Touhy-Gangster!, it was renamed Roger Touhy, Last of the Gangsters, which was actually the first title Foy had given to the film before production started. But the film failed at the box office for more than just its title. It failed for the same reason Touhy's escape from Statesville failed: it failed to rally the people to his cause.
The film attempted to define Roger Touhy as an astrology buff who began the day of his prison break by reading a Scorpio horoscope, "A new door opens for you, the future is assured."
"I won't let them forget me," he says, assuring one and all of his Napoleonic complex.
On August 4, 1943, Roger Touhy managed to get a temporary restriction on showing the film which, he argued, portrayed him "as a vicious violator and gangster." But on August 7, 1943 Fox Studios managed to have the ban lifted. Oddly enough Touhy never made a public mention of the film or his troubles with Hollywood nor did he note it in his autobiography The Stolen Years.
In 1948, Touhy won an out of court settlement with Fox and its distributors. Touhy accepted a settlement of $10,000 for defamation of character and an agreement by Fox to destroy the film. Within a week, Touhy's lawyers had his $10,000 and Fox started to redistribute the film overseas.