HISTORY OF THE GODFATHER: 50 YEARS AGO
In March of 1972, fifty years ago, the Francis Ford Coppola film, The Godfather premiered. Based on a screenplay by Coppola and the author of the original novel, Mario Puzo (who together won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay), it had been optioned by Paramount executive Peter Bart when Puzo had written only a twenty-page outline of the novel. In less than four weeks of national distribution, Paramount Pictures touted,
“It was the twelfth highest-grossing film, domestically, of all time. No motion picture had grossed so much in such a short period of time.”
It became a critical success and a commercial blockbuster, the highest-grossing film of 1972. Adjusted for inflation, it is still among the top 25 highest-grossing films in American history.
The Godfather: Aged Well
The movie has aged well, perhaps because it was not set in the present but the decade immediately after World War II. Like the Borgia family in 15th-century Rome that it was based on, it used classic themes and motifs that are as timeless as Greek plays and as tragic as Shakespeare.
The Godfather: What’s In A Name
While the heads of crime families were not called “Godfather” until Mario Puzo made it up, the world of organized crime, especially in New York, was very much alive, especially during the novel’s writing. In New York City in the ‘60s, there were six Italian crime families, and Puzo had a rich vein to mine in telling his narrative; Puzo had in mind mob bosses Joe Profaci and Vito Genovese when he wrote the character of Vito Corleone.
During the Spring of 1972, when the film came out, I was taking a class at Berkeley on the history and sociology of immigrants. I wrote a 50-page thesis on Italian immigrants because my grandparents came from Sicily. Half the paper discussed the presence of the Mafia and how organized crime often made its roots in recent immigrants; the Irish in the 19th century and the Italians in the early 20th century. Since then, as each ethnic group has gained stronger acceptance, organized crime is taken over my more recent immigrant groups.
First-generation immigrants, who came to America and became naturalized citizens, may not have spoken English well. Instead, they spoke their birth language at home. Second-generation Americans, those born in the U.S., did not want to be known by hyphenated names like “Italian-Americans.” Instead, they want to be just Americans, like everyone else at school. My mother, a second-generation American, was proud of saying:
“The only Italian words I know are “fork” and “spoon” and all the swear words.”
I learned none at home; I studied Italian at university.
Third-generation Americans, like Coppola and me too, are very interested in learning their roots and origins, taking pride in where they came from. They are not ashamed of their immigrant lineage. The Godfather shows Michael Corleone hiding in Sicily, protected by an old family friend, where Michael and his bodyguards wear a traditional Sicilian hat called a “coppola.” The Godfather: Part II shows Vito Corleone growing up in Sicily, with his original last name Andolini before an immigration officer at Ellis Island unwittingly changed it to the name of the town he was from, i.e., Corleone, Sicily.
The Godfather: the Novel
I read the novel when it came out in 1969. My mother had read it and loved it. It described Italian emphasis on the virtues of family life, Italian food and culture, the joy of marriage, and defending your family to the death.
The Godfather: the Violence?
There is no denying that the movie includes violence. But it was not so in the original screenplay; the studio asked Coppola for more graphic scenes of violence and threatened him with a “violence coach” to beef it up. Most involved mob killings, and some found it repellent. But these are distributed strategically throughout the film and prove to be significant turning points in the story. Coppola saw the movie as a way of making an allegory of American capitalism.
The Godfather: in Culture
As Godfather aficionado Tom Hank’s character Joe Fox says in the 1998 movie You’ve Got Mail:
- “The Godfather” is the I Ching. “The Godfather” is the sum of all wisdom. “The Godfather” is the answer to any question. What should I pack for my summer vacation? “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” What day of the week is it? “Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Wednesday.”
- “It’s not personal, it’s business.”
- “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
- “Going to the mattresses.”
Trivia: a young George Lucas, who had worked with Coppola before on Finian’s Rainbow, served as co-editor on this film, put together the photo montage for the “Mattress Sequence” with actual crime scene photos. Coppola’s father, Carmine Coppola, plays the piano music for the scene. Lucas later paid tribute to The Godfather by reusing the garroting scene of Luca Brasi as the inspiration for Princess Leia strangling Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.
The Godfather: Music
The sonorous sounds of Italian composer Nino Rota’s score, resonate now as indications of moody drama. The mournful horns as the movie opens portend the gravitas of the character we’re about to meet, Don Vito Corleone, the Godfather. The drums are ominous, the violin foreshadows sadness, the accordion reminds us that this is Italian, and the clarinet and flute suggest the intimate family we’re about to meet. While the Academy withdrew its Oscar nomination upon learning that Rota had reused music from a previous score for the film Fortunella, he did win the Golden Globe, Grammy, and BAFTA for Best Original Score. He did win the Oscar for The Godfather: Part II.
Trivia: “Don” is not his name; it is an honorific, meaning roughly “Lord” in Italy, Spain, and Portugal. From the Latin Dominus or “master of a household,” the title reaches back to the ancient Roman Republic and was used during the medieval period up to today for church nobles and traditional university professors.
The Godfather: Cinematography
Cinematographer Gordon Willis, who is aptly called “The Prince of Darkness,” opens the first scene with just the eyes and face of Bonasera, who is asking Don Corleone a favor on the day of his daughter’s wedding.
By the way, Bonasera is the Sicilian dialect of “buona sera,” which means “good evening,” a fitting name for a dark undertaker.
The camerawork as it pulls away from his face as he speaks and ultimately rests two minutes later behind Don Corleone’s head and shoulder in his den, as he gestures to give the man wine is one of the earliest uses of computer-controlled zoom pulls.
After the scene, The Godfather says to his counselor, Tom Hagen, somewhat ironically, as we’ll see:
“Give this job to Clemenza. I want reliable people, people who aren’t going to be carried away. I mean, we’re not murderers, in spite of what this undertaker thinks…”
Vito Corleone has set the moral tone of his family: it’s not murder if you’re defending the family.
The Sacred and the Profane
There is a scene in the third act where Michael Corleone stands as Godfather to his sister Connie’s son (played by 3-week-old Sophia Coppola). During the baptismal scene, as Michael says “I do” to the elements of the Roman Ritual of the Catholic Church, the camera punctuates each line as his hitmen eliminate the heads of the other rival crime families. As J.S. Bach’s organ music overshadows each scene, it goes from beatific to brutal, from religious to revolting.
The Godfather: the Characters
The characters in the movie are writ large and boldly drawn to evoke respect, admiration, love, or hate. They are complex and profound.
As “Don” Vito Corleone, he gave a consummate performance, which earned him an Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actor. He defined the role and established a persona that he later self-parodied in the film The Freshman. He used a dental appliance to look like a bulldog and applied heavy makeup. A true “method actor,” he preferred the first cold open un-rehearsed as “the take,” so he used cue cards generously, as he did in his next movie Superman.
As Michael Corleone epitomized the businessman crime boss. The producers didn’t want this otherwise unknown actor with only one film to his name, but Coppola fought for him in the role. Growing up in the Bronx, the actor’s father’s parents are from San Fratello, Sicily, and his mother’s parents are from Corleone, Sicily. He would make a career of playing men of authority and power and win an Oscar for Scent of a Woman.
As Santino “Sonny” Corleone was given the same nickname as Al Capone’s son. It may surprise you that he’s a Bronx-born son of Jewish immigrants from Germany and not Italian. He is big, burly, virile, and hot-tempered. The now-famous phrase “bada-bing,” popularized even more in The Sopranos, was improvised by him after he heard it from an acquaintance.
As the Consiglieri (counselor), Tom Hagan, an adopted German-Irish son who followed Sonny home when they were kids. He’s now the family attorney and advisor to the “Don.”
You may remember Duval as Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird.
As Clemenza, one of the “caporegimes” or heads of regimes, sub-families, working for the Don. He’s shrewd and teaches Michael how to fire an unmarked pistol. Like an uncle, when they “go to the mattresses,” he teaches Michael how to make spaghetti sauce:
“Ya shove in all your sausage and your meatballs, ya add a little wine…”
The actor ad-libbed the famous line:
“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”
Castellano‘s uncle, Paul Castellano, was a Mafia captain.
As Sal Tessio, another capo, the “smart one” who crosses the family but is not too bold to ask for mercy.
“Can you get me off the hook, Tom? For old times’ sake?”
He would go on to star on TV in Barney Miller and Fish.
As Sollazzo, “The Turk” had a relative who was an actual Mafioso. Brando had dinner at his relative’s house and watched him as he decided how to play the Don.
Although mobsters were initially opposed to the making of the film, after it was released, they took great pride in it for its positive portrayal of the Corleone family.
As Connie Corleone, the Don’s only daughter, who marries Carlo — who is Italian but not Sicilian. Talia Shire is Coppola’s sister, and he initially thought that she was “too pretty” to play the part and didn’t want to be accused of nepotism — though most of the rest of his family have small parts in the movie.
We see her again in a couple of years as Adrianne in Rocky.
As Luca Brasi, the Don’s enforcer, he was so anxious about delivering his lines in front of Marlon Brando that he flubbed them on the first take. Coppola decided to keep the take as the final.
“Don Corleone, I am honored and grateful that you have invited me to your daughter… ‘s wedding… on the day of your daughter’s wedding.”
Montana was a former professional wrestler who had once boasted of being a Mafia bodyguard and arsonist.
As Johnny Fontaine, a famous singer who asks his Godfather for a favor: a part in an upcoming war movie that will revitalize his career. When he starts to cry that he doesn’t know what to do, Marlon Brando ad-libbed a slap across his face and tells him
“You can act like a man!”
and Martino didn’t know whether to “laugh or cry.” But it worked.
Coppola originally wanted Vic Damone for the role, but the producers chose Al Martino, who took advantage of his connection to crime boss Russell Bufalino to keep the part. For years people have sworn that this character was not referring to Frank Sinatra and his mob connections. Even Frank Sinatra vulgarly threatened the author Mario Puzo in a restaurant.
But my mother said
“Frank got the part in From Here to Eternity which gained him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. That character was about Frank Sinatra.”
You don’t argue with your Sicilian mother.
What’s endearing about this movie is, you know all these characters, from the old man at the wedding whose dentures slip while he’s singing, to the hot-headed Italian male, to the overconfident young punk who is too quick to shoot his mount off.
The Godfather: My Favorite Scene
In the film’s second act, we see the aged Don Vito having an intimate discussion on his patio alone with his son, Michael. In the scene, written by the legendary screenwriter Robert Towne, the old Don is lamenting that his only college-educated, decorated Marine war-hero son would not become what he had hoped…
“I work my whole life, I don’t apologize, to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool dancing on the strings held by all of those “big shots.” I don’t apologize, that’s my life. But I thought that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone, something…”
This is Sicilian for a “big shot” or literally a “.90 Caliber gun.”
Michael then kindly assures his father in an almost off-hand, matter-of-fact pragmatic way that,
“We’ll get there Pop, we’ll get there…”
We cannot help but think back to one of the first scenes in the movie when Michael brings his date Kay (Diane Keaton) to his sister Connie’s wedding; he describes who Luca Brasi is to his father and how cruel and bloody his family’s business is.
“That’s my family Kay, that’s not me.”
But at this point in the film, he’s in it. The heir-apparent, his older brother Sonny, has been killed by a rival family, his older brother Freddo is too weak, and the old Don’s health is slipping after a failed attempt to assassinate him.
The Godfather: the Ending
The film closes after the passing of Vito with Michael Corleone, having eliminated the heads of the rival Five Families, being recognized by his capos as the new Don as they kiss his hand. His bodyguard closes the office door. His wife Kay is left outside the room and outside the family business. Michael has already told her, in response to her question about the accusation Connie made that he killed her husband, Carlo,
“Don’t ask me about my business, Kay. Don’t ask me about my business.”
As the door closes on the same den the movie had opened with, Michael has set a new moral tone; the business is more important than family. We see that play out in the sequel.
At almost three hours in length, the film never lags. And it only tells half the story. Two years later, the rest of the story is told in the sequel The Godfather: Part II, which was planned before the filming ended for the original movie. It is both a prequel and a sequel, telling the story of young Vito in Italy. His father is killed, and he emigrates to New York in America, as many Italian immigrants did, including my grandparents. With Robert Di Nero replacing Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone, the young man, it recounts how he “made his bones” and became the head of his own family, a member of the Sicilian-American Black Hand, and the Godfather. It concludes with Michael trying to take the family business legitimate after his father’s death in the first film.
Like The Godfather, it also won an Academy Award for Best Picture, the first time this happened for a sequel. Of all the movies I’ve seen in my life, and I’ve seen hundreds — some many times like this one — The Godfather ranks at the top in terms of story, music, cinematography, characterization, and performances. It is an unforgettably engrossing film.
You’ll like it if: you enjoy deeply textured, well-rounded characters, dramatic action, passion, and tragedy.
You won’t like it if: you don’t care for graphic scenes of murder and Italian swear words.
P.S. If you’re ever in San Francisco, stop by Cafe Zoetrope in North Beach; the cuisine and wine “will kick your tongue out.” And if you are ever in the northern California wine country, stop by Coppola Winery near Geyserville. It has a mini-museum of his movies and terrific food. “Try the veal. It’s the best in the city.”
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian