Monday, January 14, 2013

The Gangster Squad: Who Were They? And Was The Movie Truly Accurate?

Gangster Squad (John O'Mara on bottom row/1st on left)
The film “Gangster Squad” came out recently, and being the 1940’s lover that I am, I went to see it. I have got to say, the director and producer did a great job giving the film that true Hollywoodland feel to the film. From the cars, the streets, the buildings with the old signs, the clothes, the actors demeanor and etiquette to the very music being played on screen—it was all on point!

However, upon leaving the theatre, never having heard of this “Gangster Squad” or the intricate details of Mickey Cohen’s reign of terror (or end of his reign), it left me asking questions. Since I just happen to be an investigative writer, who happens to love history, I took it upon myself to look into this story and found so many discrepancies.

Jack Whalen aka Jack O'Hara
Yes, Hollywood has to make movies to entertain, but to me it’s a sell out when you dilute or corrupt true events in history to make it more appealing to the viewer. If you do your research you will see that the events that take place in the movie either didn’t take place, or took place at a different time and in a different way.  Remember, this movie is said to take place in 1949. The entire movie is set for that one particular year, because John J. O’Mara’s wife is pregnant and towards the end of the movie she has her baby. So going by that timeline, most of the story in the movie is historically inaccurate based on the limited time frame of the movie.

Take for instance, the part of the movie where Mickey Cohen’s muscle Karl Lennox swarms into mafia boss Jack Dragna’s residence and murders him and his wife on the floor, that didn’t happen. The history of Dragna’s death does not even come close to the portrayal in the film.  In fact, Dragna died from a heart attack in his Los Angeles home on February 23, 1956.

Rondelli's on Ventura Blvd.
Another discrepancy was Jack Whalen’s death. In the movie you see Jerry Wooters’ love interest (played by Emma Stone) who is hiding from Mickey Cohen at Jack Whalen’s home, waiting to get out of town. In the movie, Cohen and two of his thugs show up at Whalen’s home and a fight ensues. Of course, Whalen takes down the two thugs and offers Cohen a shot at boxing one last time. Remember, Whalen was known for saying he was called "The Enforcer" because he was "so tough he didn't need a gun."  As the scene plays out, Cohen laughs and says “My boxing days are over,” while pulling out his pistol and shooting Whalen in the gut. He then throws him in the pool and shoots him two more times.

This is not how Jack Whalen died in real history. In fact, Whalen didn’t die for another 10 years! He met his end at Rondelli’s in Sherman Oaks (13359 Ventura Blvd.) when Cohen and some of his associates: Sam Frank LoCigno, George Piscitelle, Roger Leonard and Joe de Carlo, among others were present as a Whalen took a bullet in between the eyes.  Of course, although Cohen and his thugs were charged for the murder they were later acquitted.

As far as the actual Gangster Squad:

John J. O’Mara was a real person, and yes he headed the gangster squad, but it was even admitted by the writer of the screenplay that the many exciting shootouts in the movie didn’t actually take place in real life. Lieberman did admit that O’Mara did sleep with a Tommy Gun under his bed, though.

Jerry Wooters
As far as the rest of the squad- Jerry Wooters was married, so the idea he was sleeping with Cohen’s “etiquette teacher” is absurd. It was also said that according to Wooters’ military file, he was shot down over the ocean during WWII and he did float along on a raft until being rescued….how much of that is a fact we may never know for sure being that most military files are confidential and I find it highly unlikely that a journalist just happened to get the military to make an exception to open his file just for him. Maybe that story is true, maybe it isn’t, but I am not going to argue on that.

Conway Keeler, the member of the gangster squad who was the wire tapping genius, didn’t get murdered in his home as the movie portrays. In fact, he may be still alive, since I read he was interviewed by the screenwriter Paul Lieberman when he was researching to write the story. 

I tried to look into old newspaper archives to see what I could dig up on Max Kennard, the iconic Texan who joins the gangster squad and came up on nothing. I was actually disappointed about that, being he was my favorite character in the movie. The other two characters, Officer Ramirez and Officer Harris seem to be added characters to the cast that probably didn’t exist as I cannot find any information on them as well. 

The Shootout at the Park Plaza Hotel

In the near final scenes of the movie, O’Mara attempts to serve an arrest warrant for the murder of Jack Whalen (which in fact doesn’t happen until 1959) at the Park Plaza Hotel. The gangster squad and Cohen’s thugs shoot it out on the street in front of the hotel and in the lobby of the building. 

Mickey Cohen
I have looked into this, and cannot find any proof that this happened. In fact, there was mention of a shoot out at the Hotel Roosevelt in 1947 after Bugsy Siegel’s murder. It was said that Cohen showed up at the lobby of the hotel and demanded that Siegel’s assassins come down and face him. He allegedly fired many rounds into the lobby, however no one came down to face him. 

In the movie, the scene at the Park Plaza hotel is supposedly set in 1949. It’s obvious that if O’Mara had served a warrant, it wasn’t for the homicide of Jack Whalen, being that Whalen didn’t die for another 10 years. I know that Cohen was arrested in August 1949 for “disturbing the peace” in Los Angeles where he paid the $100 bail out of his own pocket to be released, but there is no mention of him shooting or causing a ruckus during his capture. Cohen was arrested again in Chicago at the Ambassador Hotel in August of 1950, alongside Johnny Stompanato aka “Johnny Stomp,” and later arrested and sent to prison for a short four years after being convicted for tax evasion through the Kefauver Commission U.S. Senate Committee that indicted him.

Once Cohen was released he became a celebrity and owned many “legitimate” businesses in the L.A. area. Unfortunately, Cohen couldn’t seem to keep his hands clean and when Jack Whalen died, he was thrust into the spotlight again as a notorious criminal. Although he was acquitted on murder charges, he later faced more tax evasion charges and was convicted on those charges in 1961, when he eventually was sent to Alcatraz. It was then that another inmate attempted to end Cohen’s life with a lead pipe to the head. Cohen survived the attack. 

Cohen arrested for the murder of Whalen
So you see, the movie was great as far as giving you that total 1940’s Film Noir feel. However, accuracy-wise it was lacking. If you are going to make a film about TRUE EVENTS, why not tell the truth? Isn’t it owed to your audience to teach them the real story, and not fill their minds with misleading information? I don’t know, I just don’t get it. I am a truth seeker and I research my stories and tell the history of whatever I find, regardless of whether it is “entertaining” or not. Sometimes I find out information about someone or something that is hard for me to believe or changes how I look at them. Perhaps, I find something that is disturbing about someone I have looked up to, however, it doesn’t mean that just because I don’t want to hear it, that it didn’t happen.  With the same token, we cannot fill our minds with fictionalized or romanticized tales of  history and think we can also preserve the past accurately. You can’t “have your cake and eat it, too.”  Either tell the story right, or don’t tell it at all.

--(Copyright 2013- J'aime Rubio,  Dreaming Casually)


  1. Any movie dealing with the 1940's and I'm there. I saw this movie as well and wish they had given us the truth about the Gangster Squad. We can take it.

    1. Thanks Sherry. I am the same way. I love anything classic 1940s style but like you said, we could have handled the true account. I don't know why Hollywood today thinks they need to "embellish" history or make it politically correct to appease the modern audience. It was what it was...take it or leave it.- thanks again for stopping by. :-)

  2. WOW....thank you so much for this article. I just saw the movie and decided to do alittle research for my self and noticed that things werent quite adding up. I owe it to us the audience to be truthful in a story based on real events. I'm actually student screenwriter myself and will creating a screenplay on the Lanier boycott of 1948 in Jackson, my grandfathers request so again, thank you so much for the article. It really motivates me to get the facts right in my own screen play and not cheat or mislead the viewers....god bless


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