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Remembering The Godfather on its 50th Anniversary

It was a hot summer day in New York City in 1971. A thirty one year old bearded and bespectacled director named Francis was filming a love scene between two actors whose names and faces were unremarkable to the thousands of New Yorkers passing by outside. Pacino and Keaton would go onto fame and success, but today they were wrapped up in the sheets of the St. Regis hotel room, surrounded by sweating crewmembers.

Meanwhile, several blocks away, New York mobster turned politician of the people, Joe Colombo was preparing to speak at a massive rally of the Italian American Civil Rights League. The Godfather was sixty-six days into filming, its production in New York City made possible by the support of the popular and influential Colombo. Al Ruddy, the film producer, was invited to attend the rally and join Joe Colombo on stage.

The night before the rally, Ruddy received a call from an FBI agent who never identified himself. “Under no circumstance are you to be standing next to Joe Colombo tomorrow at Columbus circle. Do you understand?” the agent said. Ruddy said he did.

The following afternoon, thousands of people packed out Columbus Circle in New York, eager to hear Colombo and enjoy the post-speech concerts from distinguished musical guests. A photographer stopped Colombo as he made his way towards the stage and crouched to take a photo. Instead of a camera, the photographer whipped out his pistol and shot Joe Colombo three times.

Immediately there was chaos. People were screaming and running, and officers rushed in to arrest the shooter. Just before they laid their hands on the man, two more shots rang out in the circle, and the shooter of Joe Colombo himself, lay dead on the hot asphalt. Law enforcement never found the second shooter.

That night Francis Ford Coppola watched the news from the St. Regis hotel. During the newscast, footage from the shooting was cut together with documentary footage of the filming of The Godfather. The real-life story and the fictional story were not so dissimilar.

But the story was unfinished; Joe Colombo was alive. He was rushed to the hospital in a coma. “Two cops at every entrance,” wrote Howard Blum in the Village Voice. “No one says it, but many must suspect another attempt on Colombo’s life: an attack on the hospital to finish him off. Just like in The Godfather.” His coma lasted seven years, and he died in 1978 of a cardiac arrest. Colombo never saw The Godfather.

Millions of others would, though.

On this, the 50th anniversary, Paramount Studios is rereleasing, in stunning 4K restoration and for a limited theatrical run, The Godfather. When Paramount released the film in 1972, it opened in only five theaters in New York City. Coppola fled to Europe, and the rest of the cast and crew tried their best to ignore their itching desire to know what people thought, a desire suppressed due to the legitimate fear the movie would bomb. The first premieres attended by the production team were strange experiences. When Michael closed the door on Kay in the film's final frame and the house lights came on, the audience was quiet. No applause. No murmur of conversation. Audience members stood up and slowly made their way toward the exits.

What happened next felt like a movie. Coppola received a call from a friend whose apartment overlooked one of the five theaters in New York City in which The Godfather was showing. Speaking excitedly over the long-distance call, he told Coppola there was a line out the front door, down the street, and wrapped into the next block. For every show. New York theaters started playing the film every three hours, from 9 am to 3 am, and every show sold out.

It was more than a hit. The Godfather captured the cultural zeitgeist. “I believe in America,”

spoken over a black screen by the honest undertaker, Bonasera, said it all. And it was part of Coppola’s genius to choose that line, a line that, in the book, is spoken in a conversation several chapters deep. Everyone was talking about it and talking like it. “BADA BING!” was shouted at ball games, parties, and work meetings. And, of course, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” became one of the most famous lines ever uttered in a film.

Like all great art, The Godfather carried so much weight and was such a sprawling work of intricate complexity that grappling with its meaning was evident in the first published reviews. Was it about family? Roger Ebert said in his review, “We tend to identify with Don Corleone’s family not because we dig gang wars, but because we have been with them from the beginning, watching them wait for battle while sitting at the kitchen table and eating chow mein out of paper cartons.” Was the movie a treatise on American capitalism? Was it about the transfer of power? Tribalism? The powerful film critic Pauline Kael wrote, “In The Godfather we see organized crime as an obscene symbolic extension of free enterprise and government policy, an extension of the worst in America—its feudal ruthlessness… It’s our nightmare of the American system.” Were the Corleones to be admired or detested? If they’re villains, why do we love them like heroes? The New York Times film review stated, “The film is about an empire run from a dark, suburban Tudor palace where people, in siege, eat out of cardboard containers while babies cry and get underfoot. It is also more than a little disturbing to realize that characters, who are so moving one minute, are likely, in the next scene, to be blowing out the brains of a competitor over a white tablecloth. It's nothing personal, just their way of doing business as usual.”

“It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business,” Michael says coldly to his eldest brother about the planned murder of two men. But when the vendettas climax in the shooting of Sonny, all things business become personal.

It’s the middle of the night, and his wife is crying upstairs when the great Don finds out his eldest son was murdered. His hair is disheveled, and his weak body is wrapped in a bathrobe.

His bulldog face, so proud and impassive, commanding respect with only a look, breaks into a wrinkled broken-hearted expression.

He struggles to control the emotion in his wheezing voice and says softly, “I want no inquiries made. I want no acts of vengeance. I want you to arrange a meeting with the heads of the five families,” he says. Then, his voice cracks, “This war stops now.”

It’s not the only emotional expression made by the aging ruler of New York City’s underworld. As his youngest son, Michael, who so fought his destiny as heir to his father’s kingdom that he enlisted in the Marines and left, begins to receive the mantle of Don, the audience sees the Godfather grapple with his failure to make the family respectable. Like all parents, he wanted to give his children the world. And what if he couldn’t? Would the sins of his past strangle his children’s future? To remember The Godfather is to remember this and more. It wasn’t three shots to the chest that killed mob boss Joe Colombo. Nor was it five shots in a small vegetable market that killed Don Vito Corleone. It was the failure of their broken hearts.

Author: Caleb McKnight


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