The Godfather at Fifty

A cartoon style illustration of Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in The Godfather

Fifty years or so ago a young Italian American married couple went to a movie one Saturday night in Staten Island.  We went to see The Godfather.

We were the children of immigrants living on an island in New York harbor populated by tens of thousands just like us.  Our families had moved from Brooklyn when the Verrazzano bridge opened and my wife and I settled there upon my discharge from the Army.

I didn’t expect much from the film.  Brando was in it.  I liked his work but couldn’t imagine him playing an Italian gangster.  Pacino was unknown.  As was Francis Ford Coppola.  I expected another Italian mafia movie – which is the way were always portrayed on film.

Now growing up in Italian American Brooklyn one learned early about guys who showed up at Sunday 11 o’clock Mass in a fleet of Cadillacs and were greeted at the door by the local Monsignor.  We lived in the land of Giuseppe “Joe” Profaci.

A little background for those of you who don’t know, Profaci was born in 1897 in Palermo, and was a New York City La Cosa Nostra boss who was the founder of what is today known as the Colombo crime family. Established in 1928, this was the last of the Five Families to be organized. He was the family’s boss for over three decades.

Every kid in the neighborhood knew where Mr. Profaci lived; he was a favorite trick or treat stop on Halloween.

Profaci obtained most of his wealth through traditional illegal enterprises such as protection rackets, extortion and porn.  However, to protect himself from federal tax evasion charges, Profaci still maintained his original olive oil business, known as Mama Mia Importing Company.   As the demand for olive oil skyrocketed after World War II, his business thrived.  Profaci owned 20 other businesses that employed hundreds of workers in New York.

Profaci owned a large house in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, a home in Miami Beach, and an 328-acre  estate near Hightstown, New Jersey, which previously belonged to President Theodore Roosevelt. Profaci’s estate had its own airstrip and a chapel with an altar that replicated one in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Profaci was a devout Catholic who made generous cash donations to Catholic charities. A member of the Knights of Colombus, Profaci would invite priests to his estate to celebrate Mass.

In 1949, the Vatican received a petition from a group of New York Catholics to confer a knighthood on Profaci. However, when the Brooklyn District Attorney complained about the move, the Vatican demurred.

On Staten Island a “made man” lived next door to my mother-in-law. It was a quiet neighborhood.

So we went off to the movies one Saturday to see a flick we expected to be just another mafia film.  And we came out stunned with wonder, knowing we had seen a masterpiece; one of the greatest films ever made.

Looking back. it is surprising it was made at all.  Coppola was an unknown working with George Lucas looking to make a film.  Coppola had read Mario Puzo’sbook and was not impressed.  He thought it just a paper back novel good for beach reading but not a major film.  When they began to run out of money Lucas basically said “Look Francis we’ve got to make this film or close the doors”.  Paramount bought the film rights from Puzo for $19,00.  Nice.

None of the folks with money for the film wanted Brando; most want Laurence Olivier.  No one ever heard of Al Pacino.  The money men wanted Redford.  Coppola insisted and got what he wanted but he was on the verge of being fired as the Director until the dailies began to impress everyone who saw them.

The film revolutionized the portrayal of organized crime by conflating it with something all audiences can relate to: family. a family running counter to the “bleached American family” that was all over TV in the 60s and 70s.

The starkness of composer Nino Rota’s unforgettable trumpet solo signals a movement into a world where villains have values.  A place where a “primitive/sacred monster” could approve of gambling but think prostitution was infamia – a vile deed and morally wrong.

“Coppola’s epic crime saga would do for Italian gangsters what the great Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein – director of Battleship Potemkin – did for Russian revolutionaries: lend the story a gravitas and epic grandeur that belied the brutality of the power struggles involved.”  The film would set an immensely high bar for the gangster movies that followed.

The Godfather was a cultural marvel especially for those of us to Italians born.

The first lines – “I believe in America.” When I asked my old grandfather Francesco before he passed away why he came here.  His answer?  “For you!”

My cousin Loretta’s wedding – circa 1950 I am in the upper left quadrant between my mom and da.  My father is in a dark suit with what looks like a flower in his lapel.  I am seated between them looking up to the left at my dad.

 

The wedding.  Ah!  The wedding.  I had been to weddings like this.  The music, while new, so familiar.  Wearing their best.  Old aunts and uncles.  Tarantellas. Risque songs sung in Italian. The scene was shot in a home on Todt Hill in Staten Island.

The baptism scene was held at The Church of St. Joachim and St. Anne at the old Mt. Loreto Orphanage which I would pass everyday on my way to work.  The church later burned down and a portion of the land is now a cemetery where an aunt and cousins are buried.  The characters and their actions and the places are all understandable to me.

I guess I consider it one of the greatest films ever made because I know these people.

Today anything worth watching is streaming on television and the theaters are filled with Marvel and Disney.

“Leave the gun.  Take the cannoli.”

.

About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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12 Responses to The Godfather at Fifty

  1. vcroman101 says:

    Wow, for me this was so much a shared experience. Not only was I living next door to the “made man,” my HS band music teacher who had a major impact on me happened to be in the film, the clarinet player in the wedding scene. As for the neighbor next door, I didn’t know about him at first. My Uncle who was a plainclothes NYPD officer had told my parents about him. I learned sometime later when mom showed me a dated picture of him posted in the local Staten Island paper. He was a member of the Gambino family, different from the Colombo family, but they were the largest of the NY families. It eventually went to Paul Castellano (later Gotti) who also lived on Staten Island. His right-hand man Bilotti, his daughter went to my HS. She was in my graduating class. As attractive as she was, I heard she could not get a date for the prom, because everyone was afraid to ask her. Before I knew about our neighbor, one time we were next door on their patio probably for coffee and cake, and during a discussion about the drug problem, I said that the mafia was responsible. The wife responded, “They do good things too.” Mom was flabbergasted but she was comforted that it showed them how they could keep their mouth shut by never having told me. Years later during my college years, while I was gigging as a musician, one time I lifted a heavy bulky amp into the trunk of my car and my neighbor said how I reminded him of a teamster! He was always kind to us. He was usually home during the day but his job involved labor unions, assigning construction work to people. His favorite beverage was Schmidt’s beer, an exceptionally good local brew. He also smoked Parliaments constantly. He suffered emphysema as a result, with all the signs and symptoms. barrel-chested, gravely voice. I never forgot when he paid his respects and went to my grandma’s funeral in Brooklyn. Fond memories and interesting times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • toritto says:

      Hi Victor! I figured you would relate to this one. Here’s to old G!
      Much love to you and Darlene from Florida.
      PS – to all of you who waste your time reading me, the commenter is my brother-in-law.

      Liked by 1 person

      • vcroman101 says:

        Frank, I could write a book about our street. It would be mostly a true-to-life comedy full of NY stereotypes fit for a Seinfeld episode. Love to you from the southwest.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Such an interesting point of view compared to my small-town Midwest childhood:)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. toritto says:

    Tp VCRoman – so what are you waiting for?

    🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating. The only movie my over-worked dad stayed awake watching until the end. You couldn’t look away.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. beetleypete says:

    Great tribute to a wonderful film that was as good as the book, for once. I liked all of the trilogy, even the usually-derided Part 3. But my favourite was Godfather 2. I loved the ‘retro’ backstory.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Don Ostertag says:

    A fine review and personal backstory of a great film and great trilogy, Toritto.
    . The first time I saw it I had come off a series of working 18 hours of rock show. I actually fell sleep watching the movie. Made up for it quickly and have watched it at least once a year since. So over 50 times. Godfather II even more.
    While I didn’t have anything to do with the making of the film I got first hand stories from some of the hands that did. Their accounts can be found in my blog post https://donostertag.wordpress.com/2013/09/06/tales-from-the-godfather/.
    The accounts are interesting and funny,

    Like

  7. The Godfather is my favourite film, ever.

    Like

  8. Jennie says:

    This is a brilliant film, yet I like the book better. I can only imagine you and your young wife going to the movies and not expecting much, and then being blown away. Your family stories are the best, Frank. Really!

    Like

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