Saturday, April 9, 2011

Who's He? A Gangster?

I am feeling very sorry, indeed, for Big Butch, and very sorry for myself, too, and I am saying to myself that if I get out of this I will never associate with anyone but ministers of the gospel as long as I live. I can remember thinking that I am getting a better break than Butch at that, because I will not have to go to Sing Sing for the rest of my life, like him, and I also remember wondering what they will give John Ignatius Junior, who is still tearing off these squalls, with Big Butch saying, “There, there, Daddy’s itty woogelums.” Then I hear one of the coppers say to the fat sergeant:

“We better nail these guys. They may be in on this.”

Well, I can see it is good-by to Butch and John Ignatius Junior and me, as the fat sergeant steps up to Big Butch, but instead of putting the arm on Butch, the fat sergeant only points at John Ignatius Junior and asks very sympathetic:


Thus we see the beginning of the end to Damon Runyon’s “Butch Minds the Baby,” in which a retired safecracker agrees to go back with the gang on an easy safe job if he can bring his infant son along so he doesn’t catch grief with the missus.

Needless to say, these two – no, three – bad’uns get off, and we’re introduced to the perennial storyline of the bad guy trying to make good. We’ve seen it time and again, of course.

Runyon’s story, told in a broad Brooklyn way that required glossaries in England, was made twice into films, first in 1942 – and starring Shemp Howard, one of The Three Stooges, as a minor gangster – the second in 1979, starring – I think – the police chief from “Police Squad.”

1942 film

(starring Shemp Howard)

1979 fillum

The trio come off clean, of course, because no one, not even the hardened Brooklyn cops, would believe a thug would take his infant son along for a job.

Additionally, Runyon provides this wonderful payoff:

I do not see Big Butch for several days after I learn that Harry the Horse and Little Isadore and Spanish John get back to Brooklyn all right, except they are a little nicked up here and there from the slugs the coppers toss at them, while the coppers they clip are not damaged so very much. Furthermore, the chances are I will not see Big Butch for several years, if it is left to me, but he comes looking for me one night, and he seems to be ll pleasured up about something.

“Say,” Big Butch says to me, “you know I never give a copper credit for knowing any too much about anything, but I wish to say that this fat sergeant we run into the other night is a very, very smart duck. He is right about it being teeth that is ailing John Ignatius Junior, for what happens yesterday but John cuts his first tooth.”

What do I get out of this: You can do character pieces that are so subtle it’s only after you’ve read them a few times that you realize, hey, they are talking kinda Brooklyn-gangsterese. Runyon doesn’t beat us over the head with the vernacular or the dialect (or maybe he does and I’ve just watched too many gangster movies to notice). I appreciate that.

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